With so much information to take in, I found it hard to know where to begin on the subject of Little Edie Beale, self-imposed prisoner of the mansion known as Grey Gardens. Largely infamous for her bizarre eccentricities being the reclusive cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis, dare I use that term as her own mother once said, “’Eccentric’ is a lack of money.” I came to know her as an artist. More importantly, I discovered that she was not delusional or schizophrenic as many think to this day. She was a vastly intelligent woman who dared to live a life unconcerned with money and opinions in a time when such behaviors were considered improper and unfeminine. Therefore she was branded as insane.
Born on November 17, 1917, in New York City, Edith Bouvier-Beale was the youngest of three children for Phelan and Edith Ewing Beale. Phelan’s side of the family had amassed much wealth on Wall Street and in the legal arena. Because of their financial prosperity, Edie and her two brothers spent most of their childhood bouncing between Manhattan and the Hamptons. While Edith Jr., who would later be known as Little Edie, was in her early twenties, her father moved the family into the 28 room mansion and summer home that had been dubbed Grey Gardens by its previous owner. As Little Edie explains in a documentary, named after the home and filmed by David and Albert Maysles, storms would come through and rip apart the gardens every year causing the former owner, a very accomplished female botanist, to bestow upon it such a gloomy name.
Little Edie was known as the beauty of the family. Her cousin, John H. Davis, once said that the charming young lady’s looks were “…surpassing even the dark charm of Jacqueline.” Largely influenced by her artistic mother, one of Edie’s poems was published in a local New York magazine at the age of 9. Her first love was being on stage; however, being published encouraged the blossoming writer within her. Her father, a stern and strict Republican, often objected to the free-thinking ways of his 2 Edie’s.
At the age of 11 Little Edie was taken out of school by her mother for a span of 2 years due to, what she called, a mysterious respiratory illness. Although Big Edie claimed that her daughter was far too ill to attend classes, she found her well enough to accompany her to the theater and cinema almost daily which ensured that Edie Jr. would grow up to be as star stricken as her mother. She also felt that her daughter was in good enough health to take a shopping trip to Paris. Being the only girl in the family, Little Edie became the center of her mother’s focus and was always at her side for luncheons in East Hampton.
At the age of 17, during her studies at Miss Porter’s finishing school, she modeled for Macy’s regardless of the fact that Phelan was greatly opposed to his daughter being on public display. He lived with the fear that such behavior would tarnish his family’s good reputation and status in the Park Avenue Social Register and Big Edie’s antics only added fuel to the fire. She loved to shock the snooty crowd at the ritzy Maidenstone Club by carrying on about Christian Science and singing operettas. She also took pleasure in shunning the garden parties that East Hampton women were expected to attend so that she could live, what she referred to as, “the artistic life.”
2 years after she began her modeling work with Macy’s, Little Edie was thrown a debutante ball so grand that it was covered by the New York Times. She was also taking to the catwalk in fashion shows earning herself the well-warranted nickname “Body Beautiful”. Meanwhile, Edie the Second was dating the likes of millionaires Howard Hughes, Paul Getty and Joe Kennedy Jr. who, were it not for an ill-fated accident while bombing the Nazis, would have been her husband and, very likely, president of the United States. Although she had a slew of men swooning over her, when it came...