Albert and David Maysles: “Grey Gardens”

Watching the 1975 documentary film Grey Gardens is like slowing down to watch an accident in the next lane over. You know you shouldn’t, but you simply can’t help yourself. And if you’re really a rubbernecker like me (and apparently like tens of thousands of other Americans), you line up to watch the 2009 HBO Jessica Lange/Drew Barrymore biopic, which provides the backstory to the original film. Clearly, the 1975 documentary filmmakers Albert and David Mayzles were on to something.

What is it about Big Edie and Little Edie, the mother-daughter duo who languished in squalor as their formerly grand Hamptons estate, Grey Gardens, fell into disrepair? Why do we want to watch mentally ill, codependent hoarders living out the exact opposite of The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous? The Kardashians, they’re not.

The Mayzles brothers’ idea for a documentary was spurred initially by their interest in the Bouvier family and then by national reports of the deplorable conditions in which the two women lived. In the summer of 1972, Big Edie’s niece Jacqueline Onassis intervened in an effort to make the house more habitable. When the Mayzles brothers approached the two women – Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale – about making the film, both Big Edie and Little Edie readily agreed. Ever ones for performing in the spotlight, the two women immediately fell in line, presumably because they thought this could finally be Little Edie’s big break into show business.

It’s true that Grey Gardens was once a truly lavish estate, a fourteen-room mansion that could hold its own among the other Long Island estates in the Hamptons. And yes, it’s true that Big Edie was aunt to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and had fond childhood memories of her niece. And it’s even true that Jackie came to Grey Gardens to visit Big Edie and Little Edie after their surroundings had begun to rot around them and that she stepped in with financial assistance to help rectify the situation. The Edies’ pretensions were grounded – at least in part – in some reality.

But they also fancied themselves performers, with their shared sights set on Little Edie making it as a showgirl. When Little Edie decides at the last minute not to pursue her audition with Max Gordon, a successful Broadway producer, Big Edie blames her severely for blowing her big chance – or perhaps Little Edie accuses Big Edie of pressuring her to move back to Grey Gardens. It’s something they never quite resolve between themselves, but both ultimately believe that Little Edie lost her chance at the big time.

Both women obviously have a flair for the dramatic, and Little Edie enjoys getting up outlandish costumes from scraps of clothing and fabric she finds around Grey Gardens. It is very much as if she is a four-year-old playing dress-up with the grown-up clothes and shoes. And even though she is in her fifties when she does this, she is – in her peculiar Little Edie way – provocative, charming, compelling. We can’t help but watch.

If watching the original documentary and the HBO film isn’t enough for you, you might want to visit Grey Gardens Online, a website devoted to Big Edie and Little Edie. You should also check out Sara and Rebekah Maysles’s book Grey Gardens, which includes illustrations, photographs, film stills, production notes, and the like along with transcripts of the two women’s stories. The book comes with a 60-minute CD, which contains conversations with the Beales and their friends, songs and poetry recited by the two Edies, and audio of the Beales during and after watching the film for the first time.

The New York Times provides an interesting account of the property itself, noting that Little Edie sold the mansion in 1979 to Sally Quinn and Benjamin C. Bradlee, former editor of The Washington Post. Quinn and Bradlee loved to entertain, and their summers at Grey Gardens found them hosting the likes of Lauren Bacall and Norman Lear. And if you visit the “5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Classic Documentary Grey Gardens,” you’ll even learn that, for a cool $250,000, you can rent out the restored mansion for the summer.

HBO’s official Grey Gardens page has links to short video clips and stills from the film, including a featurette on the making of the 2009 film.

Watch:Watch clips from the original 1975 documentary. Then watch some of the backstory from the 2009 HBO film, when the two Edies and Grey Gardens were in their prime.