When I saw these images in the New York Times my mind immediately drew parallels to Dickens’s Great Expectations— from the once-grand mansion in decay to the fascinating & eccentric characters Miss Havisham and Estella– it’s all so eerie in a beautiful, maddening sort of way–
A 1975 documentary captured the eccentric lives of Edith Bouvier Beale, known as Big Edie, and her daughter, Little Edie, in Grey Gardens, the filthy, dilapidated mansion they occupied in East Hampton.
After Big Edie died in 1979, Little Edie sold the house to Sally Quinn and Benjamin C. Bradlee, who undertook a massive renovation. These photographs, which have never been seen by the public before, were taken by a photographer hired by Ms. Quinn at the time she and her husband purchased the house, in order to capture the extent of the decay.
An Interview with filmmaker Albert Maysles from WWD–
In a career that’s spanned nearly five decades, Albert Maysles (and his brother David, who died in 1987) has taken on everyone from Bible salesmen to The Beatles to Christo and Jean-Claude. But it’s the Maysles’ documentary “Grey Gardens” that’s endured above all else. It’s been the basis of a Broadway musical and inspired as many fashion designers as Halston and Schiaparelli combined. On Saturday, a bio-film on Jackie Onassis’ quirky cousins (and the infamous documentary they appeared in) comes to HBO. WWD spoke to the 82-year-old Maysles.
WWD: So here we are with yet another chapter in the “Grey Gardens” saga. Are you surprised it’s gone on this long?
Albert Maysles: Yeah, I think anyone would be. The musical, the HBO film, there have been a couple of books already. My two daughters just finished a book on it.
WWD: What did you think of the HBO film?
A.M.: I thought it was good. I’m not an expert on fiction. I make documentaries and a good deal of the film takes place before that. But the stuff that was contemporary with the filming was accurate.
WWD: There’s a hilarious moment in the HBO movie where you and your brother are putting on flea repellent.
A.M.: We sprayed ourselves against the fleas, and we put on anklets to protect us from them. All of which worked well because we never got flea bites. But they were so bad that when I was filming Edie on the porch, she was wearing a very short skirt and I noticed that her legs were totally covered in bites.
WWD: Do you think things might have been different for the Beales if antidepressants and antianxiety drugs had really been on the market back then?
A.M.: I don’t think they needed that. I get alarmed every time I see in the press that they’re mad or crazy. There have been accusations of exploitation [on our part]. If you look up the obituary for Mrs. Beale, it says the two women were the ‘targets’ of our film. I think that was unfair to them and to us. We didn’t want to do any damage to them. We really liked them and dealt with them in a very respectful fashion. Some of the press don’t understand that it’s a good thing for people to open their hearts and minds to a camera person. And it’s also important to recognize that when somebody opens their heart to a camera, it’s a sign of good health.
WWD: Have you seen reality shows? You think those people are all healthy?
A.M.: Well, that’s not real. So much of that is staged. What is it, “The Osbournes”? I sat and watched some of that and it was disgusting. The overuse of profanity is just revolting. It’s time that we put into the media people and events that illuminate our own experience through theirs. When you see “Grey Gardens” there’s something to be learned from that. In spite of managing to live on very little income, they’re survivors and there’s love there between the two of them, and a lot of talent. I’ve spoken to people who know good voices and they say Edith could very well have been a professional singer. And the fashion world has been so excited by Edie’s fashionable dresses.
WWD: But 40-something cats in a house and a couple dozen raccoons? Painting your nails green is eccentric. This is…
A.M: It’s eccentric.
WWD: No more than that?
A.M.: They didn’t cut their grass either. That’s kind of crazy, in view of the fact that their neighbors were doing that.
WWD: Look, one of the things the new movie suggests is that you can’t exploit someone who wants to be exploited. And they wanted to make the movie. But that doesn’t make them not crazy.
A.M.: Mmmm. Hmmm. Well, my first profession was in psychology.
WWD: Yes. You were a psychology professor at Boston University.
A.M.: Right. And I worked at a mental hospital. So I know a little. I wouldn’t call them crazy. Walter Goodman wrote an article in The New York Times, a critique of the film. He was trying to protect them from the camera, so to speak, by saying, “Why are they showing all this flabby flesh?” Obviously he had a problem with age. Not their problem. His. And Edie wrote a wonderful letter to answer the piece but it wasn’t published. So I called the editor and asked them why not. And they said, “She’s schizophrenic.” That’s crazy. That’s crazy. She was very much in touch with the real world. So was her mother. Maybe more so than most people. She was on to the shenanigans of the Republican Party way before the rest of us.
Really? No comments? I find the story of these two to be incredibly fascinating. I can’t take my eyes off them, especially Lil’ Edie.
Thanks for posting these images, a great article and interesting interview. Albert Maysles comments regarding reality shows is spot on.
I also find this story fascinating and was eager to see the HBO version followed by the Maysles documentary.
For me these two women somehow represent a rosetta stone to what ails society, if we can figure them out we can figure a little bit of ourselves out too. The fact that they are marginalized by “mainstream” society and called “schizophrenic” is telling. They are poor, but they seem happy, eccentric is fun, fun is happy and happy leads to a long life. I think they would have been very interesting to meet, that is if you could get past the smell and the fleas.
I have lived through the decline of a great family. It’s an odd event. Things begin piling up …. bills go unpaid …. little things begin to break around the house and there’s no one to call to fix them. There’s a loss of control and an inability to deal with the reality of your life so you control what you can and make more and more compromises until suddenly you make a choice to deal with your newly defined reality or ignore it and hold on to what you value.
In the case of the Beales, what seemed to matter to them was eachother and their house. We as outsiders see sqaulor and decay but they were holding on to something beautiful. To say they are mad or schizophrenic is dismissive.
I really appreciate that you included Albert Maysles’ firm statement that they were not crazy. They had a different set of survival skills than most people and coped in a way that does not make sense to the average person.
I have long loved this documentary and been fascinated by these women. The movie was a fantastic glimpse into what brought them to their Satis House existence.
I am so glad to read that the house has been restored and is once again full of life and happiness.
Nice to hear the opinion of someone who can see past the obvious and appreciate that we are all different and live in our own worlds.
wow.. great post. thanks so much for all the pics i’ve never even seen before! you have a great blog. thanks again..
The pics are a great help to the doc I still have yet to return to netflix after several viewings. I couldn’t finish it the first time but it drew me back – – why, I don’t know.
I was thinking of being little Edie for Halloween, but my boyfriend declared it too obscure.
i would love to see the house now its been renavated, has anyone a direction to lead me, that i may see it in its new awakening ?
The house looks like this now: http://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewbain/3160427229/
And some interesting stories about Grey Gardens here: http://themarblefaun.com/
I so knew a similar family. The mother had been a debutante early in the century. I read her diarys. She refered to a big white house with columns. Sometimes I think she was making referenc as well to Opium…not sure….she refered to her “friend”.However she and her daughter lived in a ramshackle house. Everywhere though , hanging on the walls were beautiful,beautiful gowns. The mother had also modeled. Then something trajic happened and no one knew what it was. The Husband/ father was gone and these two lived alone. The mother, very gentle wouldn’t kill any thing, such as a huge spider during one visit. The daughter was always experimenting…one time with morse code. Someone told her she might get in trouble. At one point some old man wandered into the scene and the daughter kept track of him by tying a rope around him. I recall she was on the cover of Redbook once. It sounds so crazy but it was absolutely spellbinding. When they passed relatives decended and the house and stripped it bare and sold everything at an auction…how sad.
BOOO Maylse’s for removing the video. I thought you better than this.
The Edie’s would be appalled.