A cautionary tale, maybe, that when human beings allow fantasy to overtake reality, complete and utter mental and physical breakdown can and will occur.
I am a writer. So naturally I spend most of my waking if not sleeping hours awash in the fantastical, what I think, in my imperious mind, Life should be, over what it really is. That’s all well and good for the imagination, it’s wonderful if you are the type to want to take the hand of your reader and have him go on an incredible journey with you. It allows that reader to “go there”, knowing full well they WILL return…my life’s work, was never meant for the permanent.
But some people, literary or not, live through times and traumas that somehow “freeze” them into place; the Now of the Past becoming the Now of Forever.
Mores the pity when such tragic circumstances can surround the Edwardian “Blue Bloods”, I think. There is a reason why a) money doesn’t make a difference in class; and why b) humans have to die. You can give all the money you want to a working class person but he or she will measure worth by what they do, not by what they have. You can also quite literally outlive your purpose here on Earth, the times in which you were born dying well before you do and you’re left set adrift as to what the modern reality of your existence really is.
It can be 1856, 1956, or 2066 when time freezes for people such as these. And in the case of this story, the year is 1926, when Phelan Beale Sr., law firm partner of Jacqueline Kennedy’s Grandfather, John Vernou Bouvier Jr., separated from “Big” Edie Ewing Bouvier Beale, sister of Jackie’s Father, John “Black Jack” Bouvier, leaving her with a very small monthly allowance and the estate of Grey Gardens.
And from 1926 until her death 51 years later, Grey Gardens and Big Edie were “stuck” in a place and time, a forever kind of post World War I fantasyland on the idyllic slip of land on Long Island, the East Hamptons.
Big and Little Edie were peas in a pod. After Little Edie came to her Mother’s side, leaving the high life of Manhattan for this bucolic universe of tea parties and soirees, she too fell into a kind of frozen wonderland where in her mind she was always just an “audition” away from professional dancer stardom.
Likewise, Big Edie had dreams of being a professional singer, both living in illusions of grandeur, of course. Big Edie could sing, Little Edie might have danced but neither were outstanding in either. Both these High Society gals were what their generations expected of them - to “Be” instead of to “Do” - for old money blue bloods never demeaned themselves into the doing of anything; that was for the crass new-moneyed upstarts to aspire.
Yes, there was a time when well-healed ladies just spent their hours waiting for the mail to arrive, choc-a-block with Invitations from others on the Social Register, dressing for teas and luncheons, writing Thank-you’ s and sending out their own Invitations, then re-dressing for evening affairs. As young girls, they were expected to attend the best private schools like Vassar and Farmington, have a general aptitude in singing, dancing, maybe English literature, most being proficient at the “piano forte”, of course. These maids-in-waiting were never to “work” for anything more than ultimately being married off into the “right” families, in the singular effort to reinforce the power and glory of those orbiting in that well-healed universe.
There was never an issue of what does one do if things don’t work out for the Ladies of East Hampton. The Catholic ones at least, married for life and in that permanence thought they were marrying their husband’s money for life too. There was never a need for a Plan B, or a career, or a skill set on which to depend. You were born “Being”, you would grow up “Being”, marry into the “Being” world, slide gracefully into a “Being” old age and then see your own progeny take up the baton of the Idle Rich as your corpse was ever so gently laid out in an exclusive “Being Only” East Hampton cemetery.
At first, of course, all seemed to be well. The estate, after all, had been well cared for up to that point, the house immaculate due to the loving care of the servants, the gardens exquisite due to the many gardeners tending to the odd stray weed or out of place vine. But after a time, when the allowance Big Edie was given didn’t cover for such luxuries, and with the ladies of the house not having any experience in “doing” anything themselves, the house and the grounds, slowly, inch by inch, began to fall into disrepair. Heck, it was hard enough for those women to even answer the telephone on their own without a servant screening the call first.
Months flowed into years and years into decades and slowly what was the toast of East Hampton became the bane of existence for their neighbours…that eye-sore peeking out from under over-grown hedgerows, crumbling chimneys and weather beaten roof shakes staring them right in the face, forcing all, who lived in and around the Beales, to realize not all was peaches and cream in their upper-crust society.
Neighbours, if they had had hearts, could have tried to help. Maybe some did and maybe Big and Little Edie refused in their Pride but as time wore on and tides came in and out on that soft white sandy beach, paint faded, dust settled, cracks and leaks that began as fissures soon became caverns and before anyone noticed Grey Gardens had indeed become grey…a living, breathing embodiment of disillusion and despondency.
In the movie of the same name, the fact that these two women become freeze-dried in their own post WWI fantasy becomes abundantly clear when during a Birthday party for Big Edie, she is handed the telephone to receive well-wishes from a friend. After the call is finished (and only if you are ready to perceive it), you see a hesitancy in Edie to not know quite what to do with this black object one puts to one’s ear after a conversation is over, as if to suggest that in Big Edie’s world there would always be a servant on hand to deal with the tedious chore of hanging up the receiver.
1926 is forevermore at Grey Gardens and if, by chance, their pastel lime green transistor radio accidentally spouts some garrulous 1970s sound from Led Zepplin or The Who, Little Edie will sure be on hand to glide gracefully across the rotting wood floor to swiftly turn the dial to a “proper” station, All Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin, All the time.
As a voyeur into this microcosm, if you’re me, for a time, you get caught up in their wonderland, that for an instant you don’t see Big Edie pouring a Gin & Tonic mix from an unwashed Mason jar into a more unwashed cheap tumbler. For a moment or two, you see through their eyes, feel your movements through their bodies and somehow, through their souls, you get transported as if this truly is Cocktail Hour with the Beales in East Hampton; oriental rugs below our feet, crystal chandeliers over our heads and someone with Brylcreamed hair in a cravat and smoking jacket playing “Night & Day” on the baby grand Steinway in the Front Drawing room.
Your mind becomes awash in their world, you begin to smile, then maybe to laugh, for Little Edie has the most darling of expressions and Bostonian phrases…Then because you are not them and you were not born with a silver spoon in your mouth, that Vassar and Farmington, had you wanted to go, would never have accepted your application in the first place, you come crashing down from their idyllic cloud on to bare and rotting wood floors below, the fibre of the burled walnut long since eaten away by the acid from many a piddling feral cat, your cocktail glass no longer sparking but with a definite all-over slime you’re sure has the lingering odour of Polident and the piano merely just planks of wood barely holding together the keyboard whose alabaster and ebony shimmer is now made dull with the paw prints and feces of who knows what four-legged beasts.
You ebb and flow from smile to frown, from laughing to crying, from the haughty to simply the horrific.
Before Big Edie begged her daughter to move back to Grey Gardens, in a vain attempt to have her become Chief-Cook-And-Bottle-Washer, Little Edie had some prospects and was living a rather normal, if naively blissful, life of the well-healed in Manhattan, her eccentric tendencies evident but basically in-check. Once she moved in with her Mother, a perfect storm of delusion formed and the two, now became One, and that beast squeezed itself into an ever-deeper time-capsule hole from which there was no escape.
Life eventually became smaller and smaller, their entire universe finally encapsulating the largest upstairs bedroom where Little Edie’s brothers had slept as young boys all those decades earlier. Mini fridge, transistor radio, two twin beds, one too neat, nearest the window, one in such disarray, nearest Big Edie’s oil painting of herself. The outfits on Big Edie made of the most exquisite material, albeit thread bare now, the outfits on Little Edie bordering almost on the macabre, her alopecia becoming so severe, towels and scarves to cover up her patches of hair adorned her head with that same gaudy brooch, all of which became her “look”…and some how on her, it just all made sense.
The pair gone now, of course, Big Edie only a year after the documentary by the Maysles Brothers hit it big in the noire film genre. She died after complications from a fall in the home in which she said she would spend her last days, and she did, aged 81. Little Edie, in 2002, in Bal Harbour, Florida, where she always said she wanted to live, aged 84. Maybe what we thought of as a sad ending for both was really exactly the ending they both wanted.
Big Edie’s home, Grey Gardens, had its own Knightess in Shining Armour come to its rescue in the form of Washington Post’s own Ben Bradlee’s wife, Sally Quinn, after she decided to buy the home (to everyone's amazement) when it was put on the market by Little Edie after her Mother’s passing. It now holds court in such splendour, I daren't imagine any nearby home matching. The original home builder, one Mrs. Hill, was a horticulturist by name and Sally, in her singular mind to restore the estate to its former glory , has done her, the Beales and everyone associated with this home very, very proud.
That’s the problem with this tale. You just never know when to be happy or sad.
In the end, there is just nothing grey about Grey Gardens and maybe I have to learn a lesson or two about not judging anyone’s book by anyone’s cover.
I still like my cocktail glasses sparkling though.