I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it earlier. For some reason, it only occurred to me as the taxi was pulling into the hotel. “Are we, by any chance, anywhere near… Grey Gardens?” My eyes had grown wider just from the possibility. My driver had no idea. But there was something about the streets of Bridgehampton, the windmills and the picket fences, that made me think we must be close. I could feel it.
My cabbie hadn’t even heard of the film, but the internet knows plenty about Grey Gardens –the Maysles brothers’ documentary portrait of two stray Bouviers who slipped through the net of high society and sanity to swim and wallow around their own freeform universe in a house in East Hampton.
The house that gave the film its name was built in the late 19th century next to the dunes of Georgica Beach by Arts and Crafts architect Joseph Greenleaf Thorpe, and bought by Edith Beale (sister of John Bouvier, the father of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis) and her husband, Phelan, in the 1920s. After Phelan left his wife in the 30s, Big Edith and their daughter, Little Edie, let the sizeable estate fall into decay, to the point where, in 1972, found to be living in their own filth and fairly unhinged to boot, they were threatened with eviction. It became a national scandal, and Jackie O stepped in to help the women clean up their act to the tune of $4,000, a new roof and ceilings, and 1,000 bin bags. Which is how the story caught the eyes of the Maysles brothers. The rest is cult cinema history, launching 10,000 Halloween costumes involving nothing more than a headscarf, a brooch and a swimsuit.
The rest is cult cinema history, launching 10,000 Halloween costumes involving nothing more than a headscarf, a brooch and a swimsuit
Little Edie is a touchstone of fashion design inspiration. Her marching flag dance – in which she wears black hotpants, white heels and a red and navy headscarf, and swings around a star-spangled banner – is one of the most joyous moments in cinematic history. It transcends style. And her quotes on film are as wonderful as anything Diana Vreeland came up with during her career. In one of my favourite scenes, she takes the brothers into her confidence at the door of the house and, in a stage whisper, talks them through her outfit: “This is the best thing to wear for today, you understand. Because I don’t like women in skirts and the best thing is to wear pantyhose or some pants under a short skirt, I think. Then you have the pants under the skirt and then you can pull the stockings up over the pants underneath the skirt. And you can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape. So I think this is the best costume for today.”
If you open up a map on your phone in Bridgehampton and search for Grey Gardens, it comes straight up – right where Lily Pond Lane meets West End Road. I was staying at Topping Rose House, on assignment for the Telegraph in London. The map told me I was a mere 12-minute drive away. When the route drew itself across my screen, I could barely contain myself, but waited until the next day to visit – after rewatching the film on Youtube for what must be the 15th time.
Grey Gardens itself outlived both of the women who made it famous. Along this stretch of pretty but boring coastline, with countless crap restaurants, overpriced antique shops and atrocious art galleries – all so beloved of New Yorkers who would give anything to be able to live in something with two floors, a garden and a view of the sea – it has always been prime real estate. Many potential buyers wanted to acquire it to tear it down after Big Edith died, but Little Edie would only sell to someone intent on restoring it – she may have seen it as a prison, but she must have loved it too.
It might just be an hour and half on the Jitney from Manhattan, but it feels a million miles away from the bright lights of Broadway
Sally Quinn and her husband Ben Bradlee, former celebrated editor of the Washington Post (who died in 2014, aged 93) took on the task and brought the house back to life. When I drove to the house on an early summer afternoon, there were workmen busy in the back garden, and cars coming and going on the iconic driveway. The whole thing is hemmed in by a high, all-encompassing hedge, and its corner situation makes it impossible to get a good enough view for a photograph without trespassing, but you can pull up for a moment, hop out and take in the façade. It may not be a surprise that it’s so immaculate these days, but it struck me how huge the whole thing is. It’s no wonder that the Beale women couldn’t manage it – not without access to the vast fortunes that most of their neighbours would have enjoyed. How weird it would have been to live in the bare bones of this seaside mansion, sustaining yourself with periodic home deliveries of gallons of ice cream, cooking everything on a hob in the bedroom.
More than the one house itself, it’s the milieu of the Hamptons that conjures up all those fantastic Grey Gardens images today. The wind blowing in from the sea, the monochrome nature of the shingle and clapboard architecture, the grand columns portico entrances of the largest houses, and the twee little stores that sit between Starbucks and J. Crew. It might just be an hour and half on the Jitney from Manhattan, but it feels a million miles away from the bright lights of Broadway. Which is why Little Edie would have felt so distanced from the showbusiness she so desperately craved.
Leaving Grey Gardens, I drove 10 minutes north, to the Most Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Cemetery. Little Edie refused to be buried with her mother – having moved to Florida, she died in 2002 and her remains are in Long Island’s Locust Valley cemetery, a couple of hours away. But Big Edith is buried in the Bouvier family plot right here, in East Hampton.
It took me an hour to find her, in the unseasonably dark, but somehow fitting, drizzle. I combed both sides of the cemetery, starting at the furthest grave from the gates. I found a fabulously ornate Morrissey headstone, which I Instagrammed with the suggestion that it would make a marvellous Greatest Hits cover, and lots of stone crosses that were a little like the main Bouvier marking I had seen on various online fan sites, but still no Edith. After covering my ground several times, I realised where I’d find it: at the front. Where else would the Bouviers be!? And there it was: just left of the gates, the ornate Bouvier cross and family plot. And there she was: represented by a small stone tablet with the words “Edith Bouvier Beale 1895-1977”. I sent a photograph of it to a close friend in London, who I knew would appreciate it. “Oh my, how wonderful!” he replied, a few seconds later. “Such a shrine: a site of international pilgrimage. Be ready for a miracle!”
I wished I’d planned ahead, and dressed for the occasion. But then I realised I could, as Little Edie did, improvise: I fashioned a long sleeved T-shirt from my bag into a headscarf, and plucked a flag from one of the neighbouring graves (no, really, I did) and thought of Big Edith, so overshadowed by her daughter in history, but still with some of the best lines – like when she notices one of the many cats in the house emptying its bladder behind her portrait. “I’m glad somebody’s doing something they want to do,” she quips. She was astonishingly beautiful, even in old age and living in rancid, raccoon-chewed debris. And sharp as a tack, too, even while mad as a box of frogs. “You get very independent when you live alone,” she says in a scene from the documentary. “You get to be a real individual.” C