Shelved Dolls: Little Edie Beale – What Went Wrong?

Of course, Little Edie was still party of society, as was Joe Kennedy. She was a debutante. And she was supposedly from a very good family.

And, at this point, no one knew about their financial troubles. But, oh, there were financial troubles.  Just look at this letter Little Edie’s father wrote her mother, Big Edie, in 1934, two years prior to Little Edie’s debutante party:

It reads in full:

Dear Edith:-

This is a difficult letter to write, but nevertheless it must be done, so here goes:-

Since our marriage I have endeavored to provide you with every luxury, and in this up to the date hereof I think I may say that I have been successful. I will not enumerate the generous gifts that I have made to you, because, after all, this is water over the dam, and I will confine myself to the immediate present.

Since the great crash in 1929, we have seen many of our friends and acquaintances suffer. Fortunately, this suffering did not come to me until now. My law business has been largely builded on that of an “Exchange Specialist”, and my income was almost entirely derived from this source.

The Stock Exchange legislation on the part of Congress has so reduced the volume of business that Stock Exchange houses are either merging or retiring from business. Few, if any, are earning their expenses. A number of annual retainers that I enjoyed have been canceled, and I have been notified that others will be canceled on the first of the year. I am truly in a desperate situation, so much so that Miss Maguire, one of the girls in this office is being let out on next Saturday. Major Morris goes on the 1st of October. In addition thereto, Mr. Vincent who has been with me for twenty years has got to go, for the simple reason that I cannot afford to keep him. Even Miss Mahoney, the telephone operator, who likewise has been with me for several years must go through necessity. My three office boys I am reducing to one. There may be other changes as well, and in the same manner I am forced to retrench in every possible way, which means that I cannot return the boys to Westminster School, and I am so writing the Headmaster. To keep them there costs me about $4,000.00 per annum. I can borrow on my insurance sufficient funds to keep little Edie at Miss Porter’s School for the next year.

I can well understand your bitterness when you read this letter. You have not been extravagant and you doubtless feel that if I had curtailed expenditures, I would not be in my present unenviable position, but as we say in the law, regardless of what may have been, I am at this time faced by a condition and not a theory.

I am not giving up, although at times there is a great temptation to take the easiest way out. It will not be the first time that I have met with a major catastrophe. When the war broke out in 1914, all of my German business was destroyed and I found myself facing a situation similar to the present, although then I was not as burdensome as I was unmarried.

I do not intend to ask you to do anything that I would not ask my mother and sister to do. I must arrange for them to occupy less expensive quarters, even though it may mean a boarding house. I am glad you have the house in East Hampton, because it is in tip-top repair and may be occupied comfortably the year round. The boys can go to the school in South Hampton. It is possible that when I get the expenses of maintaining my office out to the bone, and I then am able to give eighteen hours a day to my business, free from financial worries that keep me awake at night, I will stage a quick comeback wherefore, your abnegation of remaining in East Hampton may be short-lived.

I do not intend to live in luxury when I am asking you to make a sacrifice. I am going to Washington this afternoon. On my return I will move to more modest and cheaper quarters, such as procuring a room at some bachelor hotel for $80.00 per month.

I do hope that you will appreciate that the contents of this letter should not be broadcasted. You are at liberty, however, to show the same to your mother and father.

I hate like the devil to deprive little Buddy of the pleasure he gets in going horse-back riding. Will you ask the boy to give up his riding until next season. The bill from the riding school came this morning. It is $53.00. In some instances the charge for his rides were $8.00 per day, and in no one day was it less than $3.00. Do not tell the children anything that will alarm them in regard to my financial condition. They are so young that their minds receive an exaggerated and inflamed impression which may have evil effects of a permanent nature. Offer some excuse to the kids about your remaining in East Hampton and attending school in South Hampton. Make a game of it so that they will like the idea. Even with little Edie, you should not confide in her, otherwise she may think we are headed for the poorhouse to-morrow, and it will destroy all happiness of her year at Farmington.

There is nothing more to write just at this moment, because I must leave in the next five minutes to get the airplane to Washington. I do hope that the machine crashes, because it would be a pleasant exit for a very tired man -

Your husband,


Edie’s mother responded to this heartfelt letter where in her husband hoped for his own death by… doing nothing.

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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.