Grey Gardens (1975)
Directed by David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer
In Harlan County, USA, we were reminded of the recent history of the ongoing war between Labor and Capitalism. It’s easy to forget how close we are to profound historical movements and that these conflicts never ended; they merely changed shape. The Gilded Age, one of the most horrific periods for Labor, was not as far back as we like to think, and in The Maysles’ Grey Gardens, a woman born during that period is prominently featured. History doesn’t have a stopping point; one moment flows into the next and carries humanity forward, and with it comes many of the unacknowledged problems of those eras, mixing with the issues of contemporary periods. Cultural detritus lodges itself into the culture’s psyche and leads to horrors. The story of the Beales is a horror story like that, neglect and the decay of beautiful things.
Edith Bouvier Beale (Big Edie) lived in her East Hampton home, Grey Gardens, with her daughter & namesake, Edith Beale (Little Edie). Their money was limited, trickling out just enough to keep them alive, despite being directly related to wealthy families, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Big Edie’s husband, Phelan Beale, was thirteen years her senior when they married. Big Edie was twenty-two when they wed. They purchased Grey Gardens in 1923, and in 1946 they officially divorced. Unfortunately, he’d been absent for much longer. By 1971, the house was collapsing and infested with rats, raccoons, and fleas. A story in the National Enquirer garnered mass attention and led to the Beale’s wealthy relatives being guilted into funding minimal repairs to bring the estate up to code. This also caught the interest of the Maysles and associates, so they got permission to film and document a year in the lives of the Edies.
Big & Little Edie present themselves as larger than life, but they are incredibly frail, frightened women. The world was not kind to them, likely far worse than the details provided in the documentary. Little Edie, in particular, feels haunted by regret, rolling over choices made and not in her mind constantly. She forces an ebullient persona forward for the cameras, but the Maysles hang around long enough for the audience to see that partially fall away. These women speak with the Transatlantic accent we associate with much more grandiose & lavish scenes, not a decaying house near the beach. This reminds them of the social class they once belonged to, the same community that has now excised them and would rather not be seen as associated with such “broken women.” Let that be a reminder of how the wealthy treat their own when they fall out of favor, the hallmark of a hyper-individualist culture. It is social Darwinism carried to its ultimate conclusion, human beings as a form of disposable fashion. If they do this to their kin, imagine what they would be willing to do to you.
This could be an exploitative documentary, but the Maysles handle the Edies with much sensitivity and care. They don’t shy away from what we might label as the grotesque nature of these women’s lives, but that’s less about mocking their subjects than highlighting what happens when people are abandoned. Big Edie is bedridden most of the film, finding it physically difficult to move much around the house at her age. Most of her scenes are about her holding court from her bed in a room she shares with her daughter. Big Edie is a dominant force in Little Edie’s life despite the younger being fifty-four years of age when the documentary was shot. She’s not much more than the little girl she was when she first lived in Grey Gardens.
Little Edie is the most fascinating person in the film. She enjoys the attention, and it is clear that she was conditioned to see male approval throughout her life. Of course, Little Edie develops a crush on Albert Maysles because that is what she does. There’s also a flirtation with a local young man that comes around to do household repairs from time to time. Little Edie doesn’t genuinely believe these flirtations are serious, but she behaves outwardly as if they are. If the man returns her flirtations or tries to get closer, we see her real personality come out, finding reasons why the former subject of her attention is distasteful to her now. Flirtation is a game she was taught as a young girl, and it’s one of the few tools she was given in her male-dominated society that gave Little Edie any chance at maintaining her lifestyle.
There’s a clear conflict in how Little Edie feels about being back home with her mother. Even in front of Big Edie, she outwardly expresses that she wants to be free. Little Edie incessantly talks about how much more at home she would be in a tiny New York City apartment than here. I think there is a lot of truth in what Little Edie is saying; she yearns for more because she tasted independence once upon a time. Because Little Edie had been taught that her value lay in her appearance, she was profoundly traumatized by a diagnosis of alopecia in her late 30s. She had lived in NYC at the Barbizon Hotel for Women, working as a model/dancer/actress. I can imagine how devastating that diagnosis must have been and how it played a role in Little Edie retreating to Grey Gardens, feeling valueless. It doesn’t help that her mother clings to her child in a deeply toxic way, pinballing between disgust at her adult daughter for not making more of her life & yet saying she won’t let Little Edie leave lest she is alone in the world.
Little Edie constantly brings up a suitor she brought home decades earlier and how her mother allegedly ran the man out in less than fifteen minutes. We eventually learn that Little Edie is exceptionally prone to hyperbole but that all her reminiscences & regret come out with some truth. In one moment, she remarks, “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. You know what I mean? It’s awfully difficult.” That sums up Little Edie so beautifully. The past is very much alive in her mind; she ruminates over it constantly. Things that happened when she was a teenager or in her twenties are as vivid to Little Edie as what happened this morning over breakfast. Nostalgia rears its poisonous head, lulling her into remembering her days as a dancer when men flirted back with her and when the future felt like a piece of ripe fruit ready to have Little Edie sink her teeth in. But now, all that has rotted on the vine, leaving a sour taste in her mouth.
I don’t think it’s funny to see Little Edie dance for the Maysles or yammer about something from her past. I also don’t pity her. I believe Little Edie was a lovely person and that there is some beauty in the tragedy of her life. What happened to her isn’t ultimately unique to her life. So many women have experienced this sort of existence. They are born into social circles where their dreams & hopes are second to what is expected of them. You can feel that Little Edie rebelled and pushed back, that her mental health was broken by the yoke she was forced to bear. It’s harder to fight back now when her mind has become so unhealthy & her thoughts so scattered. I didn’t feel embarrassed for Little Edie even when she did things that might be classified as “cringe” in today’s context. She was a performer at heart, and you can see her passion for it.
Grey Gardens is also a reminder for us of the brokenness of the wealthy. We like to imagine people in high society are our moral superiors too. The thing is, they just have more money & power, and many times that leads to a dearth of morals. You don’t become this obscenely wealthy and not crush many workers in the process. Family values matter as much to the rich as they can exploit their relations. If someone is mentally unstable and therefore a potential liability, they will be stuffed in the closet & mothballed. There are countless stories of mentally ill or cognitively delayed children in wealthy families being dropped in an asylum and all but forgotten. Little Edie could play the game a little longer than most, but eventually, her mind broke because of how horrible the whole thing was. May she find peace in whatever comes next, and I like to imagine she’s hoofing it with a sparkler in hand in the beyond.