Friday, October 31, 2014

Grey Gardens:
A Fascinating Story of Hoarding & Squalor

Hello Collectors! While writing my blog last month on Diogenes Syndrome I came across the story of  the Grey Gardens featuring "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Beale.
It's a true story about high-society castaways keeping house in a dilapidated East Hampton mansion.

Of course, I could not wait to learn more about them!
Why am I interested personally? I clean up homes like this for a living!

I began "trolling" the internet.  I read all sorts of blogs, I ordered the documentary about the Beale's "Grey Gardens" and watched it, ordered the HBO movie "Grey Gardens", and watched it as well. I also have some video posts below of the musical.
Like you Collectors, I like to do my research.  

I am now a fan of all things Grey Garden. It's a fascinating story about two women who lived together at Grey Gardens for decades with limited funds in increasing squalor and isolation. If you want to learn more about Grey Gardens read below.

Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (1895–1977), known as "Big Edie", and her daughter Edith Bouvier
Do you expect Jackie to come?
“I told her not to come here. I thought she’d upset my act.” - Little Eddie
Beale (1917–2002), known as "Little Edie", were the aunt and the first cousin, respectively, of former U.S. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

The house was designed in 1897 by Joseph Greenleaf Thorpe and purchased in 1923 by "Big Edie" and her husband Phelan Beale. After Phelan left his wife, "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" lived there for more than 50 years.

The house was called Grey Gardens because of the color of the dunes, the cement garden walls, and the sea mist. Throughout the fall of 1971 and into 1972, their house was infested by fleas, inhabited by numerous cats and raccoons, deprived of running water, and filled with garbage and decay. The Beale's were exposed as the result of an article in the National Enquirer and a cover story in New York Magazine   after a series of inspections (which the Beales called "raids") by the Suffolk County Health Department. With the Beale women facing eviction and the razing of their house, in the summer of 1972 Jacqueline Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill provided the necessary funds to stabilize and repair the dilapidated house so that it would meet village codes.

“In all my life, including years reporting about slums from Washington to Casablanca, I have never seen a house in such dreadful condition: attics full of raccoons and their droppings, toilets stopped up, a kitchen stove that had fallen into the cellar, a living room with literally only half a floor, grounds so matted with devil’s walking sticks and other thorns they were impenetrable, a large walled garden which was so overgrown it could not even be seen. Over everything hung the knee-buckling smell of cats and cat excrement. Whole rooms had been abandoned when they filled-up with garbage, as the Beales moved to the next room…’Big Edie’ had passed away, and ‘Little Edie’ was forced to sell, but willing to sell to someone who would not tear the eyesore down.” – Ben Bradlee

Grey Gardens, The Documentary

Albert and David Maysles became interested in their story and received permission to film a documentary about the women, which was released in 1976 to wide critical acclaim. Their direct cinema technique left the women to tell their own stories. (Courtesy of

Entertainment Weekly magazine ranks Grey Gardens as the #33 top cult film of all time.

Grey Gardens the Musical
Grey Gardens is a musical with book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie, based on the 1975 documentary of the same title about the lives of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale ("Big Edie") and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale ("Little Edie") by Albert and David Maysles.
Set at Grey Gardens, the Bouviers' mansion in East Hampton, New York, the musical tracks the progression of the two women's lives from their original status as rich and socially polished aristocrats to their eventual largely isolated existence in a home overrun by cats and cited for repeated health code violations. However, its more central purpose is to untangle the complicated dynamics of their dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship. (

Grey Gardens, The Movie (2009)
It's hard to imagine a feature film that could improve upon the classic 1975 Hamptons-gothic documentary Grey Gardens, co-directed by Albert and David Maysles. Yet this Grey Gardens, directed by Michael Sucsy for HBO Films, captures not only the pathos and peculiarity of Edith Beale, mère et fille--aristocrats who were aunt and cousin to former first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy--but it provides something deeper and richer: the background story of the glamorous Beale
ladies, and a glimpse at how they slid from gay 1930s high society to sharing rotting living quarters with litters of cats and raccoons.

Photo Courtesy of HBO
Drew Barrymore, the Grey Gardens standout, rises to the particular challenge of playing "Little Edie" Beale, whose accent, carriage, and mannerisms have developed their own camp following over the years. Barrymore's performance is a revelation: she captures the weirdness of Edie, but she knows what the documentary fans know--the reality of what Edie once had been, and what she was becoming. Barrymore's performance is delicate and strong, with a hint of sadness underneath the fading ingénue's brave face.
Jessica Lange plays "Big Edie," the mother who made more concrete choices to wall herself off from the outside world. Lange is excellent, though Big Edie is a less nuanced character than her daughter, and she seems more content with her lot, perched in her teeming twin bed surrounded by mounds of cats and trash. (courtesy of

This documentary/movie/musical is great for Collectors and non-collectors to watch. It might make you feel like you are not the only one. It might motivate you. It might make you more understanding if you are a non-collector.

Before I go, I will leave you with some fun quotes from the Beale's...

“One is a lone woman who hasn’t got much money and she’s fighting to get the same thing she always wanted – recognition as a dancer, singer, and entertaining artist. Here, I’m mother’s little helper, cleaning up after the cats.” – Little Edie

"I love the smell [of Grey Gardens]. I thrive on it. It makes me feel good.” – Big Edie

“Oh, Mother thinks its artistic this way, like a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Don’t you love the overgrown Louisiana Bayou look.” – Little Edie

“Two women can’t live together for twenty years without some jealousy. Not that my voice is better than Mother’s, but she can’t dance.” - Little Edie

"But you see in dealing with me, the relatives didn't know that they were dealing with a staunch character and I tell you if there's anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman... S-T-A-U-N-C-H. There's nothing worse, I'm telling you. They don't weaken, no matter what." - Little Edie

I could not have made this all possible without the amazing information I found on Grey Gardens Online! This good looking couple dedicates an entire site to the Beale's! Check them out to find out what ever happened to the home, and who is living there now. 

Also, a special thank you to the KOMMA HEM website for such incredible photos and all the great research you have online about the Beale's.

Rachel Seavey
Professional Organizer & Extreme Cleaner
Rachel Seavey, Blogger
Owner of Collector Care Organizers
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1 comment:

  1. I didn't know about these ladies, I'm going to look up for those documentaries and films. Such an interesting post.