edie beale grey gardens

Edie Beale. Edie “Body Beautiful” Beale. Did you know that, before she became known for being the eccentric you probably saw in the documentary Grey Gardens, she was considered the ultimate East Hampton beauty? She was. You know, now. Was she a top player in the social scene? Baby, when she was young she was the social scene. Edie was supposedly proposed to by Joe Kennedy Jr. and  J. Paul Getty and was known to date Howard Hughes before he started urinating into milk bottles.

And then she ended up in a house that looked like something out of Hoarders, lurching around with a filthy turban on her head amidst the raccoons who took up residence there. With her mother.

How does that happen? 

I think some people idolize Edie Beale because they interpret her transformation as a voluntary rejection from the social scene. As though it became 1965 and Edie said “to hell with everything.” Someone once told me that Edie Beale was a hero because she didn’t buy into the trappings of society. While I would happily attribute a lot of agency to Edie if it seemed remotely realistic, this is the sort of sentiment that leaves me with a sneaking suspicion that those people are so envious of wealth that the only way they can deal with it is to rearrange their feeling to resemble pity. Suffice to say, I don’t think Edie woke up one morning and said “I’m really tired of dancing with Joe Kennedy, so I’m going to live in a crumbling mansion in soiled clothes. I love raccoon shit! I’m real!”

I actually think this is kind of insulting to people… everywhere. I think it’s especially insulting to people who were not great Hamptons socialites to assume that it’s somehow kitschy or fun or “real” to live someplace that is condemned. I think this is actually a really sad story, and there is a true element of instability to Edie, and it bothers me when people read it as cool or fun or something aspirational.

So. Now that we’ve covered that aspect, and we’ve decided that you should stay rich and beautiful forever, because I, at least, won’t judge you for it, let’s talk about the rumor as to how she got the nickname Body Beautiful Beale.

The rumor is the one day, Edie was out swimming. She in the local pool, and it was a hot day in the middle of summer in Southampton, at a time when the pool would have been filled with young people. This would have been around the time she was a debutante, so she looked like this:

I find that this is the kind of picture I look at and think “no juice cleanse in the world would make me look quite like that.”

She was pretty modest about, at least when she was young. Of herself, she wrote in her diary that “”I can’t really tell you if I am pretty or what kind of girl I am but … I have long hair, blonde, getting darker, deep blue eyes, a pug nose and a rather decided mouth. I am by no means fat, but I have a good body and big feet.” However, Joe Davis, a cousin of the Beales, wrote that “she was the family beauty, surpassing even the dark charm of Jacqueline [Bouvier, later Kennedy, later Onassis]”.

So, other people could tell her what kind of girl she was.

In any event, she was rumored to have dove into the pool – and her swimsuit slipped right off.  Some girls would have been mortified, but Edie Beale got out of the pool, stark naked, walked up to the most handsome boy there and asked him if he had a towel.

Strong move.

She was sort of fabulously unconventional that way.

While she’d been away at boarding school early on, her mother pulled her out, mostly because – it is thought – her mother was just lonely, though supposedly Edie had respiratory troubles. Little Edie spent her 11th an 12th year going to the movie houses of South Hampton with her mother every day (unsurprisingly, she dreamed of being an actress).

She was constantly with her mother, and once wrote in her diary that:

“There are lots of 11-year-old children who think they know the meaning of love, when they honestly haven’t any idea,” she writes. “I have two great loves in my life. First, I love my mother, which will always go on, never be forgotten or forsaken. Most children think that mother love is a thing taken for granted, isn’t it? Second, my buzzing love for a boy, no mere crush, but a true, steady love.” When she eventually did go away to boarding school she signed her letters to her mother “With ladles and ladles of kisses, loves & hugs—your ever precious, ever loving and ever darling and kissable Edes.”

This is how I sign my letters to my mother: “love.” If I signed my letters they way Little Edie did, my mother would think I had gotten into drugs. How do you sign your letters to your mother? Do you go for ladles and kisses? Does anyone else think this is odd? Does it not seem odder because old school WASPs (like Jackie Kennedy) don’t seem like they would be naturally overly effusive?

I have no idea who that boy Edie is thinking of in her diary was, but I suspect Joe Kennedy took his place.

Really, is it any wonder that Joe Kennedy fell in love with her? Though supposedly, Edie preferred Jack. She later told Gail Sheehy she went after Jack first, but:

“Jack never liked society girls, he only dated showgirls. I tried to show him I’d broken with society. I was a dancer. But Jack never gave me a tumble. Then I met Joe Jr. at a Princeton dance, and oh my! Joe was the most wonderful person in the world. There will never be another man like him.”

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,

Phelan

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

Two years later, on New Year’s day in 1936, Edie had her debutante ball at the Pierre. It cost her father, Phelan, $10,000. He spent the night, unsurprisingly, not talking to his wife. Edie, meanwhile, barely seemed to notice that the party was occurring. She was out drinking at a bar around the corner. She said:

“So, came the debut and guess where I was. Came the time I was supposed to be in the Pierre Ballroom on the seating line for the goddamn debut – guess where I was? Sitting in the Stork Club with Francis Hodge! Fran Hodge turns to me and said, ‘Hey, Edith, I think it’s time you got dressed for the party, don’t you?’ “

There was an adaptation of Edie’s story on HBO, in which Drew Barrymore plays her, that shows her running away from the ball in a panic (perhaps this is in part where the notion that she was trapped in some sort of gilded cage she wanted to escape comes from) but it sounds more like she just wasn’t paying that much attention.

But her mother was. At the ball, Big Edie claimed:

“I looked younger than any of the debutantes. Listen, you know – everybody came up and shook hands and they thought I was the debutante. Don’t you love that?”

Well, it was actually supposed to be your daughter’s night, so, no, I don’t suppose everyone just loves that. This is, perhaps, the first incident that indicates that one ought to be wary of Edie’s mother. Little Edie maybe should not have sent her ladles full of warm embraces or whatever she was doing. It gets worse, though.

There is a rumor, you see, that the relationship between Edie and Joe Kennedy ended when Big Edie told him precisely how she came by her nickname. This story is recounted in the theatrical adaptation of Grey Gardens, and it may be apocryphal, but it is certain the Joe was said to have ended the relationship very abruptly. There’s some debate over whether or not they were ever technically engaged – no engagement notices were ever sent out, but supposedly Joe’s father had given his consent to Edie.

Edie was so furious that she tore his face out of all of their pictures. Though I guess she felt less angry about him later. He died, in any event. In World War II, when he was an aviator. He was awarded the naval cross for bravery posthumously. It read:

For extraordinary heroism and courage in aerial flight as pilot of a United States Liberator bomber on August 12, 1944. Well knowing the extreme dangers involved and totally unconcerned for his own safety, Kennedy unhesitatingly volunteered to conduct an exceptionally hazardous and special operational mission.
Intrepid and daring in his tactics and with unwavering confidence in the vital importance of his task, he willingly risked his life in the supreme measure of service and, by his great personal valor and fortitude in carrying out a perilous undertaking, sustained and enhanced the finest traditions of the United States Naval Service

Which does not make him less of a schmuck if he broke up with Edie because she was really cool with being naked, but might make him less of a schmuck overall. Much later, at the Kennedy inauguration, Edie took the opportunity to remind Joe’s father that if Joe hadn’t died “I probably would have married him, and he would have become President instead of Jack and I would have become First Lady instead of Jackie!” I have no idea how Joe’s father responded to this. Probably with some discomfort.

I suppose her mother may have really screwed that up. Or maybe it was Edie’s own instability – no one knows for sure. It’s easy to say that Edie’s mother was a spiteful, self centered, vain woman, but she didn’t kill 650 people, so that’s something. Take what you can get.

Edie moved away after that, or tried to. She went off to live at the Barbizon Hotel For Women in New York. She was planning to become an actress, and she was certainly beautiful enough to, though when she moved there, her hair quickly began falling out. No one knows quite why, though it’s attributed to a stress related illness, and it may have been that, more than any hair loss, that damaged her prospects as a model or actress. She was up for auditions, but supposedly, she never quite made it to any of them.

She did do some modeling though. She later said:

“I modeled for Bach¬rach while I was waiting for the summer to audition. Someone squealed to my father. Do you know, he marched up Madison Avenue and saw my picture and put his fist right through Mr. Bachrach’s window!”

Meanwhile, Edie’s father divorced her mother, and cut off the remainder of the money. He ran off with a younger woman, and begged Big Edie to sell Grey Gardens, since there was no money left, but she refused.

And that was the end of it all for Edie. Her mother called her back to Grey Gardens when she was in her 30s. She said she needed someone to take care of her.

Edie said:

She started high-pressuring me to come home back in March of 1952 and she kept it up until the end of July. And July 29 I checked out, got on the train, came back, and was never able to get back….Mother took pictures. I was carrying a red umbrella. I didn’t know I’d never be able to get away again. I didn’t know that. I really wouldn’t have returned. Well, I guess I would have….

I think that my mother is always correct, and if she had wanted to keep her home, who was I to tell her that she shouldn’t keep her home and she could go to blazes about keeping her home? I didn’t even think of ever doing or saying a thing like that to my mother. That never occurred to me! Even though I didn’t want to, really…. She made me leave the Barbizon. I didn’t want to leave. I was getting my big chance! I was getting my audition! 1952- I was gonna get it! I was just getting up, what you call, a little nerve when she said I had to come home.”


And apparently, after she moved back home, one day, Edie climbed up a tree, and set the remnants of her hair on fire. Joe Davis said he begged her not to do it, but she took out a lighter and – oh God, I cannot imagine the mental state you would have to be in to set fire to your own head.

Right, let’s dwell on that for a second – she climbed up a tree and set her head on fire. She set her head on fire.

That is why she was wearing all the turbans, not because she had a kitschy fashion sense. Think about this the next time an article in Vogue encourages you to adopt Edie Beale’s whimsical style of dressing. I mean, she did have a kitschy fashion sense, but she was not just making a cool statement wherein she woke up one morning and decided to wear a lot of turbans. Those were intended to cover her attempt at self immolation.

And afterwards, she locked herself up in Grey Gardens with only her mother for company and watched it crumble around her.

The name of the house, now, I think is associated with the sort of graying old old age, or perhaps the fading of something once bright and lovely (a sort of candle being snuffed). However, the actual name for the estate came from its former owner, Anita Hill, the author of Forty Years of Gardening. She wrote that the estate was “truly a gray garden. The soft gray of the dunes, cement walls and sea mists gave us our color scheme as well as our name.” She allowed only pale flowers on the ground, which added to its ghostly quality.

And so Edie stayed there, for a long time. The rooms became filthy. Animals began defecating behind antiques. Big Edie began to take in dozens of cats and raccoons as pets. They stopped going out and began having groceries – like canned liver pate – delivered, whcih they fed to the animals as well as themselves.

Little Edie seemed to revert to an almost infantile state. She later told Gail Sheehy while walking on the beach near Grey Gardens:

“Mother never allows me to show myself on the beach after summer, but `this fall I had to come out…Shall I tell you what I’ve done for twenty years? Fed cats. Mother wouldn’t let me go around with American men, they were too rich and fast. She was afraid I’d get married. Nothing has happened in twenty years, so I haven’t changed in any way.”

I know that we all grew up watching One True Thing but, I will say, be really careful about moving home to take care of your mother. Especially if your mother is going to live for a few decades.

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