But look, this story is not as sad as it could be. The documentary Grey Gardens at least made the plight of Grey Gardens, by that time in a state of horrible decay, visible (though Gail Sheehy wrote that “the house as seen in the documentary was actually tidier than when I’d visited it”) – so it had its benefits, even if Edie and her mother were barely paid for being in it ($5,000 was promised to each of them). At the time, documentaries weren’t considered potential moneymakers, so the Beale’s agreed to be recorded mostly because, rather like that other turbaned lady, Norma Desmond, they were ready for their close-up.
And they certainly captured something in the national consciousness. Maybe it was just the era that accounted for the wild popularity of Grey Gardens. The documentary came out in 1975, at an age when people simultaneously wanted to free themselves from society’s rules while simultaneously embracing a simpler time (Happy Days became a hit show right around the same time). In that way, the Beales seemed to capture both the longing for the past – with its Kennedys and debutante balls – and the future, wherein everyone was free to make up their own rules. Little and Big Edie said that it was a window into “something precious called life.”
Big Edie passed away a few years later, in 1980, and Little Edie was finally free. She went to New York to become a cabaret performer, during which time she performed classics like “as time goes by.” She had to have an eye operation shortly before one of her first performances so she tapped danced wearing an eye patch. I like this image of her – free at last, doing what she wanted to do, impediments be damned. Despite the fact that her fans loved her Little Edie was never really to win acclaim from the critics (I think this is my polite way of saying that 60 is not necessarily the best age at which to be a tap dancer) and she retired to Bal Harbour, in Florida.
She swam every day until her death in 2002.
Her tombstone reads. “I CAME FROM GOD. I BELONG TO GOD. IN THE END – I SHALL RETURN TO GOD.”