Today is the 125th birthday of the eccentric socialite and documentary film subject Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (Big Edie). It’s no exaggeration to state that the documentary film Grey Gardens changed my life, it holds a place on the top five list of my very favorite documentaries. It gave a glimpse into the unorthodox, unconventional, and unconcerned lives of a mother and daughter that lived life how they saw fit. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
NAME: Edith Ewing Beale
BIRTH DATE: October 5, 1895
DEATH DATE: February 5, 1977
PLACE OF BIRTH: Nutley, New Jersey
PLACE OF DEATH: Southampton, New York
NICKNAME: ”Big Edie”
MAIDEN NAME: Edith Ewing Bouvier
FULL NAME: Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale
BEST KNOWN FOR: Edith Ewing Beale, also known as “Big Edie,” was aunt to Jackie Kennedy, and resident of the decrepit mansion called Grey Gardens.
Born Edith Ewing Bouvier on October 5, 1895, in Nutley, New Jersey, Edith Ewing Beale (best known as “Big Edie” or, simply, “Edie”) was the aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and one of five children born to “Major” John Vernou Bouvier Jr. and his wife, Maude.
Edie’s life was a study in contrasts. While her later years were marked by poverty, her childhood and early adult life had known nothing but affluence. Her paternal great uncle, Michael Charles (M.C.) Bouvier, made a fortune on Wall Street. Edie’s father, an attorney and judge, followed in his uncle’s footsteps. It didn’t hurt that Edie’s English-born mother was the daughter of a wealthy pulp merchant and paper producer.
By the age of 10, Edie was already known for her artistic talent and was considered to be somewhat of a singer/pianist prodigy. When her family relocated from Nutley to an expansive 24-room apartment on Park Avenue in Manhattan, Edie began frequenting the social scene. Her father resented the “wasted” time she spent attending to her voice and appearance.
In 1917, Edie married Phelan Beale, an attorney who would later make partner at his father-in-law’s firm, and the couple settled into high-society life in Manhattan. Their first child, daughter Edie Bouvier Beal (nicknamed “Little Edie”) was born that same year. Two sons, Phelan Jr. (b. 1920) and Bouvier (b. 1922), followed. Not long after the boys were born, Edie and Phelan purchased a spectacular 28-room mansion, now known as Grey Gardens, situated on a dead-end road, not far from the ocean.
Edie’s husband, like her father, was not a fan of Edie’s musical aspirations. But that hardly deterred her. Edie’s preference was to bang away on the grand piano and sing, rather than venture to the cocktail parties her husband enjoyed attending. “Since she was likely to wear a sweater over her evening gown and discuss Christian Science, the family became less and less insistent that Big Edie come along,” wrote Gail Sheehy, in an early 1970s profile of Edie and her daughter, for New York Magazine.
Edie’s eccentricities also extended into her parenting. Claiming that her daughter had a respiratory illness, she pulled Little Edie out of school at the age 11 and kept the girl at her side for the next two years, bringing her along to movies and the theater on a regular basis.
By the mid-1930s, Phelan Beale had left Edie for a younger woman. The couple’s eventual divorce led Edie to acquire Grey Gardens and some compensation for child support, but little else. To keep the household going, Edie leaned on her father for financial assistance and sold family heirlooms.
On her own, without a husband to pressure her to maintain a socialite status, Edie’s singing dreams only grew. She attended nightclubs, and even made a few recordings. In 1942, she showed up late to her son Bouvier’s wedding, dressed as an opera singer. Her father was appalled, and soon cut her out of his will, setting up a small trust fund for her of about $65,000 and turning control of the money over to Edie’s two sons. The small monthly payments hardly supported her life or her house, and Grey Gardens soon began falling into disrepair.
Claiming that she was worried about her mother’s welfare, Little Edie abandoned New York City and her own dreams of the stage. In 1952, she accepted her mother’s request to move in with her at Grey Gardens. For the next two decades, mother and daughter became increasingly reclusive, rarely venturing outside their property. Grey Gardens itself continued to slide downward, too, becoming the domain of stray cats—later estimates would put the count as high as 300—and raccoons, both of which Little Edie took care to feed on a regular basis.
The two women shared a bedroom and cooked their dinners over a hot plate. Visitors and the occasional handymen often had to wear flea collars on their arms or legs if they wanted to stay more than a few minutes. Bills went unpaid and the two women subsisted, in part, on cat food. Outside, the overall look of the property changed as trees, shrubs and vines closed in around the house.
In the fall of 1971, county officials, armed with a search warrant, descended onto Grey Gardens. They informed Edie Beale and her daughter that their home was “unfit for human habitation,” and threatened eviction. The story, and the close family connection the two women had with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, caught fire with the press. The New York Post ran the headline, “Jackie’s Aunt Told: Clean Up Mansion.”
Mother and daughter railed against the threats, calling the visit by county officials a “raid,” the product of “a mean, nasty Republican town,” and “the most disgusting, atrocious thing ever to happen in America.” Eventually, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis stepped in with her checkbook, paying $25,000 to have the place cleaned up—on the condition that her aunt and cousin could remain in their home.
But their story did not go away. In the early 1970s, Onassis’s younger sister, Lee Radziwill, contacted filmmaker brothers Albert and David Maysles about doing a documentary of her childhood. The project, however, was scrapped after Radziwill got an early look at the footage and saw that the Maysles had featured quite a bit of Edie Beale and her daughter. As a result, the filmmakers turned their attention exclusively to the Beales. In the fall of 1973, they began shooting their new documentary. Released in 1975 to wide acclaim, the movie showed a Grey Gardens that had reverted to its pre-cleanup squalor. Audiences and most critics took to the story of Big Edie and Little Edie. Additionally, both Beale women adored the film.
In the film, Little Edie, dressed in heels, makeshift dresses and head wraps, freely dances as she talks longingly about her missed opportunities to become a star; Big Edie doesn’t share the same regrets, but is careful to remind filmmakers, and her daughter, of her past talent as a singer. Around them are the deteriorated remnants of an aristocratic past. In a very real sense, the film offered a bit of redemption for the Beales, who had both longed to be in show business. In addition to gaining a cult following, the movie inspired a Broadway musical that went on to earn three 2007 Tony awards. It also inspired the creation of an HBO production starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange in 2009.
Sadly, Edie Beale didn’t get to experience her new fame for long. Shortly after the original film’s debut, Big Edie’s health began declining. She was injured after falling in July 1976, and, that December, the Beales’ furnace went down for three days. According to her daughter, Big Edie never recovered from the cold. On February 5, 1977, Edie Ewing Beale died at the Southampton hospital. She was 81 years old.
Edie was buried in the Bouvier family plot in East Hampton. Her funeral saw the attendance of her nieces, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill. Fittingly, a portion of a recording that Edie had made decades before was played at the service.