• Wed, Aug 29 2012

Shelved Dolls: Little Edie Beale – What Went Wrong?

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.”

 

Additional Reading:

Grey Gardens (documentary)

“A Return to Grey Gardens”

The Bouviers: Portrait of an American Family by John Davis

“The Secret of Grey Gardens”

Movie reviews of Grey Gardens, Shooting Down Pictures

Little Edie Beale Tumblr

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  • Lindsey

    “And so Edie stayed their” *there

    • Jennifer Wright

      Ugh. Sorry.

    • Chantel

      Really now? Yes, that’s an obvious grammar mistake but to point it out with no other comment is kind of a jerk move! ha ha.
      Loving your articles Jennifer!

  • DebMoore

    Just wanted to let you know that I LOVE these Shelved Dolls series. All of them have been great (even the last one, which was not my favorite due to the “Doll”) I often read them twice. They have also casued me to research more “Interesting Women in History”. Thank you so much for writing this series!

  • KennyCherie

    I always look forward to the “Shelved Dolls”. Anticipating who will be next!
    Like I’m sure you have heard already, these would make for a great book.
    Another job well done! Really enjoyed it.

    • Jennifer Wright

      Working on the whole “book” thing! Fingers crossed someone who… makes books happen… also enjoys them.

  • Netochka

    Do Ninon De Lenclos :)

    • Jennifer Wright

      Want to hear my favorite story about Ninon? OKAY! Here we go:

      A group of young dandies were discussing Ninon’s considerable charms. While most spoke highly of her, one was less than impressed. “She’s old,” he said. (He said it in French.) “I don’t think she could tempt me.” Some debate ensued and he went off to meet with Leclos.

      After an hour with her, he begged to become her lover. She said that he could, but he would have to wait two months. Two months passed and, afterwards, as they lay together, he asked why they had to wait. She replied that the day way her 70th birthday, and she wanted to prove to herself that she was still capable of entertaining a lover.

    • Netochka

      Haha gorgeous! She’s a shelved doll if ever there was one.

      “Love with passion, but only for a few minutes” – Ninon

  • endn

    awesome as always! I’ve tried to google the story of big edie telling joe kennedy the story of how she got her nickname, and I can’t find it, I am super curious! anyone have the dish?

    • jjj

      I believe Big Edie was referring to how ‘Little’ Edie got Her nickname….”Body Beautiful Beale” and perhaps that offended Joe? How embarrassing for your own mother to go around…at parties, etc. and tell people (especially romantic interests) that you walked around naked at a public pool! I know my own mother loooovved to tell all kinds of stories about me when I brought a date home! Embarrassing Indeed.

  • Cate

    YES YES YES! I haven’t even read this yet, but I was hoping you’d do Little Edie eventually. I love the Beales

  • francie

    I believe that little edie had alopecia. it’s an auto immune disease where your body attacks your hair causing patches or complete hair loss. she looks like her alopecia progressed to being total body/head hair loss, she doesn’t have eye lashes or brows. I don’t believe she set her head on fire… sounds like a tale. People back then just had no idea what happened to her hair.

    • M.

      You’re right, Francie. Big Edie even accused her daughter of pulling her hair out, but when the follicle has died, how can you let it sit in you head like that? It was all blamed on her.
      The rumor of her hair being set on fire started with her cousin John H. Davis. He wrote a book about the Bouvier family and embellished it with tall-tales to sell more books. It’s also where the bathing suit story came from, but I’d like to think that one is true!
      Also, I run the Little Edie Tumblr, so thank you for featuring me!

  • Jenniwren

    Such a fascinating story. Which is strange because Edie’s life seems basically to have been an example of nothing much happening over a prolonged period of time. But she DID live in extraordinary times. It’s all about that crash, isn’t it? It’s as though neither of them could really come to grips with a world where they weren’t entirely secure and at the top of the tree (possibly more so with Big Edie- the refusal to answer that letter, the refusal to move out of the house, referring to her divorce as a “fake Mexican divorce”- this is a woman desperately denying her changing straits in life) and so carved out this little unchanging world for themselves.

  • Wray Serna

    so good!

  • Julimonster

    And I casually pass by the Gloss, peek to see if there is a new “Shelved Dolls” and eagerly sit down, cross my legs and settle in for the story…. What about Peaches and Daddy?

  • Emily

    I love the Shelved Dolls series on the gloss, such fascinating stories :) Thank you Jennifer Wright!

  • MR

    I liked in the film when Jackie-O came to see her (Drew Barrymore), and she was her usual koo-koo self. Old money, when the money runs out.

    • MR

      Don’t get me wrong. I felt sorry for her, her mother was to blame.

  • Amy

    Jen, you’re amazing and I love Shelved Dolls!

    I really relate to Little Edie – it’s so easy to lose your nerve and stumble and then not be able to get back up. Some people just don’t understand that – they simply can’t imagine sitting by as your life rolls past, but it can happen. It’s like falling off a carousel as it spins and never being able to find the right moment to jump back on. It must have been hard.

    • ThatGirl

      I really think Little Edie wasn’t stable because her mother wasn’t quite there either so she learns what she’s taught. Still, I love them because they were so real and down to earth. They seemed so sweet and content with their lives and each other. How many people even though we love our Mothers and Daughters can live with them exclusively and even when upset with each other never disrespected each other? I see it as a beautiful Mother/Daughter relationship.

    • Luxia

      I don’t believe they were content at all. All that bickering and talking about the past. All I saw between those two woman was pain, tragedy, mental illness and denial. Still an interesting story though…

    • Luxia

      Instead of reinventing themselves and moving forward with life. They were scared of change and clung on to what they had…that sadly deteriorated as the years flew by, along woth their mental states. Sad…VERY sad.

  • Chantel

    Jennifer you are such an interesting writer. I love how you word things and speak as though we are having a conversation with me. I like how you emphasize certain points in a very real, casual way “let’s think about this for a moment, she set her hair on fire” I am currently watching ‘Grey Gardens’ for my first time after coming across & researching it years ago. I look forward to reading more of your work : )

  • mike

    i get what you are saying but

    her and her mother lived into their 80′s

    she lived 20 year longer then jackie

    jko was a stressed out chain smoker dead at 64

    Edith Bouvier Bealeshe lived longer then her brothers

    the point is that we many be living insane stressfull lives without the obvious cat shit

  • samkatz

    The story in the musical about Joe Kennedy is completely fiction. There was never any relationship with Joe Kennedy.