'Grey Gardens': A Haunting Story

Robert Long | October 22, 1998

Cats everywhere. At first, you don't notice them. Then there's a quick shot of a kitty on a windowsill, then another one pacing the kitchen floor, then a pair staring straight into the camera.

But one of the images that stays with the viewer of "Grey Gardens" is that of a black cat slinking behind an oil painting of a younger Edith Bouvier Beale - the picture leans against a wall in the bedroom Ms. Beale, 76 years old at the time the film was made, shared with her daughter, also named Edith Bouvier Beale.

"The cat's going to the bathroom right in back of my portrait," she complains. And indeed it is.

Eccentric Women

"Grey Gardens," made by Albert and David Maysles in 1974, and released the following year, was one of the most talked-about documentary films of its time.

It portrayed the complex relationship between two eccentric women - Ms. Beale and her 56-year-old daughter, called "Little Edie" - and managed to make a star of sorts out of Little Edie, a frustrated songstress who had a brief career as a chanteuse following the film's release.

The Beales' ready-made claim to fame was their relationship to Jackie Onassis - Big Edie was her aunt, and Little Edie was her cousin.

The Maysles brothers, who had made classic documentaries such as "Gimme Shelter," heard about the Beales when Lee Radziwill called them, wondering if they might make a documentary about her life.

At the panel discussion following the screening of "Grey Gardens" at Guild Hall last Thursday, Albert Maysles (David Maysles has since died) said that Ms. Radziwill "put together a list of some 40 things that she wanted in the film. Item number 34 was the story of her eccentric aunt and cousin. When Lee saw the footage she felt upstaged and lost interest in the project."

And Big and Little Edie are a hard act to follow. It's hard to decide whether the pair are pathetic - a number of viewers characterized them that way, as they left the film - or if they are simply unusual.

Lived In Squalor

Big Edie was married several times; Little Edie never found a mate. Little Edie, 56 when the film was shot, wore inside-out skirts and a never-ending succession of head scarves (Mr. Maysles confided that no one knew if she actually had any hair, but that alopecia was suspected).

She sings and dances in the film, in incredibly awkward style, a Shirley Temple gone wrong.

Because the Beales lived in squalor - there are shots of cats relieving themselves on newspapers laid across Big Edie's bed, and of the two women dining on pate‚ straight from the tin - Big Edie has a fork, and Little Edie uses a plastic knife - the filmmakers were accused of voyeurism, and it was suggested that they were making fun of their subjects.

A Test Of Sorts

Mr. Maysles objected strenuously to these suggestions. "It's not voyeuristic. It's impressionistic, certainly," he said. "If these women are being truthful and want to bare their souls" - both Edies speak freely about their personal lives - "then why not. What sort of cosmetics [should we have used] to make the film more appropriate?"

"We had no preordained structure," Mr. Maysles said. "We simply filmed these two women talking. In a way, it's a test of one's ability to accept unconventionality."

Shared Their Lives

Lois Wright, who appeared briefly in the film as a guest at a small birthday party for Big Edie, was another member of the panel. She lived with the Beales for over a year. "I loved Big and Little Edie but the fleas began to bother me," she said, alluding to the plenitude of cats on the premises.

"Albert and David used to wear flea collars around their ankles" while they were filming, Ms. Wright said.

Grey Gardens, which is now owned by Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn, was amazingly filthy when the Edies lived there, but they seemed completely unperturbed by the mess, and nothing swayed them from their course: They lived precisely as they wanted to, and were honest and brave enough to share their lives with us.