Souvenir Hunters Flock to Grey Gardens

Fans from as far as California for epic sale
“They just kept lining up,” Susan Wexler of Behind the Hedgerows said of visitors to the estate sale she organized at Grey Gardens last weekend. Frenzied shoppers bought up everything for sale in the house, she said, with items dating to the Beale era sold out by Friday at 3 p.m. Durell Godfrey Photos

The Marble Faun had his heart set on a pair of parrots.

Never mind that the porcelain figurines did not date to Big and Little Edie Beale’s era at Grey Gardens. They reminded Jerry Torre of “the better days of Grey Gardens,” of what it had been before he met Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale, as a teenager in the early 1970s at what was by then a dilapidated and overgrown mansion. Mr. Torre, a sculptor, asked Dyanna Nesbitt, a friend in East Hampton, if she would look out for the figurines and buy them for him at the Grey Gardens estate sale last weekend

People begin to line up by 8 a.m. Friday morning to be among the first admitted to the sale at the house made famous by Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis’s eccentric aunt and cousin, known as Big and Little Edie. An estate sale is always a popular affair in East Hampton, but this one had a special cachet, with the Grey Gardens name recalling the landmark 1975 Maysles brothers documentary that introduced the world to the Edies, by then living in squalor among a host of cats and raccoons.

Mr. Torre, whom Mrs. Beale nicknamed the Marble Faun, appeared in the “Grey Gardens” documentary and gained his own small degree of fame as the film’s popularity endured and the Beales’ story eventually spawned an HBO feature film, a Broadway musical, and more than a handful of fashion-runway shows. He was 15 or 16 at the time the documentary was made, a kid working on the nearby Getty estate who took it upon himself to lend a hand around Grey Gardens. Mrs. Beale “became like a second mother to me,” he said. “They were dear people. . . . It was the most interesting time in my life.” 

His own book about the time, “The Marble Faun of Grey Gardens,” written with Tony Maietta, is set to be published in January by Querelle Press. In 2012, a documentary of the same name was released, detailing Mr. Torre’s life after Grey Gardens. 

Ben Bradlee, the late executive editor of The Washington Post, and his wife, the journalist Sally Quinn, bought Grey Gardens in 1979 for a reported $220,000 and brought it back to its original glory. It recently sold for a reported $18 million. The house had originally been built as a summer place by Martha Bagg Philips, the daughter of John Sherman Bagg, who ran the Detroit Free Press. Susan Wexler of Behind the Hedge­rows was called in to oversee the estate sale in advance of the closing. “It took three weeks to put together” she said of the three-day sale, and by the end of Friday, there was barely anything left.

Drawn by the lore of the estate and the intrigue surrounding the Edies, people came from as far away as California, Texas, Chicago, Florida, Maine, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., hoping to purchase a piece of the legend or simply to peer inside the house. 

“There were people there from 4 o’clock in the morning,” Ms. Wexler said. “I had a night watchman because I was concerned people would camp out.”

“I had a couple of previews and I had to stop it because they wanted to buy everything,” Ms. Wexler said.

Though the Beales were long gone from Grey Gardens — Mrs. Beale died in 1977, her daughter in 2002 — items dating to their era remained in the house on East Hampton’s West End Road and were included in the sale. By 3 p.m. on Friday, everything dating to their time had been sold, Ms. Wexler said. “One of the guards caught somebody trying to pry up a piece of flagstone.”

“People were pulling bark off the tree in the front yard,” said Ms. Nesbitt, who was number 19 in line on Friday morning, and did, indeed secure the two parrot figurines for Mr. Torre. 

“There was a curio cabinet that had all these little ceramic and glass figures” dating to the Beales’ time, Ms. Wexler said. “These guys from California heard about it and they were second in line and they made a beeline for it.” They bought the cabinet and its entire contents.

By Sunday at 4 p.m., Ms. Wexler estimated that some 2,000 people had traipsed through Grey Gardens. “There was nothing left,” she said. “They just kept lining up.” 

She and her team had taken care to research the history of Grey Gardens and the provenance of the items within it, and had set informative placards throughout the house. “Most people were really nice,” she said. “They were so happy to see the house and learn about the lore and the history. . . . It was a real privilege to be able to do this.” 

“For people who were Grey Gardens fanatics and had never had an opportunity to see the house,” Ms. Nesbitt said, “this was it.” They bought up whatever they could get their hands on. She got herself a painted serving tray for $35. 

“I got a phone call from a lady who got home and unwrapped her packages and said, ‘I’m missing my can opener,’ ” Ms. Wexler said. “She bought it for 50 cents. It was not even original. She said, ‘I don’t care.’ ” It was mailed to the customer. 

“I don’t think I would have been comfortable with the onslaught of all those people in Mrs. Beale’s house,” Mr. Torre said Tuesday, but he is happy to have gotten a memento through his friend.

Ms. Wexler has handled other high-profile estate sales, among them one at the late Peter Matthiessen’s Sagaponack house, but this one was something special, she said.

“There’s never going to be another thing like it.”