Grey Gardens is a fourteen-room mansion that sits on four acres in the Georgica Pond Area of East Hampton, NY. Joseph Greenleaf Thorpe, the architect responsible for designing many of the grandest Hampton homes, planned the home in 1897. Two years prior, the property had been purchased by Stanhope Phillips and his wife, newspaper heiress Margaret Bagg Phillips. Before construction could get underway, there was a problem with the title of the land, which took years to untangle. Stanhope Phillips never lived to enjoy the property, as he died in 1901. His death was considered suspicious, and a family battle over his large estate ensued, igniting whispers of scandal among the New York society crowd.
Once the dust settled from the court battles, the seaside house was finally built. Another society couple, the Hills Robert C. Hill, president of Consolidated Coal and his wife Anna, bought the house. Anna Hill named the property Grey Gardens. One of the finest additions to the home during the Hill’s residence is the gorgeous Spanish granite garden walls and ornate landscaping that help give the property its unique appeal. The grand grey walls, plus the Atlantic Ocean view made this name quite fitting.
The Beale Family Moves to Grey Gardens
In 1924, Phelan Beale, a prominent attorney bought the house for his wife Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale. Edith was the daughter of Beale’s law partner, John Vernou Bouvier, and sister to John “Black Jack” Bouvier, would have two famous daughters. He was the father of Jacqueline Bouvier and Lee Bouvier. Although the family had their share of scandals, the Bouviers and the Beales were unquestionably considered good families in high society circles. Phelan and Edith had three children, the oldest Edith Bouvier Beale, followed by two brothers Phelan Beale Jr. and Bouvier Beale. Grey Gardens was the perfect weekend escape for the New York attorney and his family. Soon, however, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (affectionately known as “Big Edie”) chose to spend more and more time away with the children in the Hamptons, throwing lavish parties featuring her musical song and dance performances. She ran the estate with the help of a large household staff, including an accompanist, George Gould Strong, whom many say stayed there with her for more than music, although in the 2009 movie “Grey Gardens” Gould is portrayed as Big Edie’s gay companion. Whatever the case, Phelan Beale was growing exasperated with his wife’s showy, lavish lifestyle.
Society women did not wear outlandish costumes or turn their drawing room into a dance hall. While his wife was partying, Beale was a nervous wreck, as during the depression, Beale’s firm, along with most other New York businesses, was hemorrhaging money. Edie’s spending (and Phelan’s affair) broke the marriage and Phelan stayed in Manhattan full time, and Big Edie and the children stayed at Grey Gardens. Phelan had obtained a quickie Mexican divorce and remarried, although most of the family, being Catholic, did not recognize this union, although it was legal.
The household staff was greatly reduced; however, there was still plenty of fun at Grey Gardens. The children little Jackie and Lee Bouvier frequently visited the home, with Little Edie taking them to the beach during long summer vacations.
Phelan hoped that Little Edie would find a boy from a good family and settle down, but she too had the show business bug. After various family fights, Little Edie moved back to the city, but she did not live with her father. She, like many aspiring starlets, stayed at the Barbizon Hotel for Women. While all the young socialites, no matter how homely were flatteringly dubbed as “beautiful”, Edith Bouvier Beale actually was a stunner with charisma, intelligence and a quick wit. While she did do some modeling and rumor had it that she was asked to audition for mega-producer Max Gordon, she didn’t achieve her goal of stardom. By 1952, upset by her refusal to shake off her dreams and get a regular job and alarmed at rumors of her affair with a married Cabinet member, Phelan stopped funding Little Edie’s New York lifestyle and sent her back to live with her mother. They were left with a pittance of a monthly allowance and no regular household help.
After Phelan’s death, in 1956 Little Edie’s brothers, now married with homes and families of their own, were put in charge of a trust. The sons tried to get their mother to move to a less expensive local and a home with simple upkeep. Both brothers were astute businessmen and knew that even in those days $65, 000 would not last long. It didn’t. Two decades later, the mother and daughter were making their way the best they could without heat, running water or money for groceries. Deliveries from friends and selling off heirlooms were their only means of support.
The same features that made the house so attractive, became the home’s enemy. Without proper maintenance, the sea breeze battered the shingles. Raccoons and birds traveled from the overgrown garden to the house and nested in the attic, digging holes in the walls. The Beale woman also loved cats, and without spaying or neutering, the place was soon overrun. The Sanitation Department no longer picked up their trash, as they hadn’t paid the bill, so Grey Gardens was soon piled high with refuse.
Grey Gardens Post 1972
Things went on like this until 1972 when the ladies of Grey Gardens got some attention—much of it unwanted. Due to complaints from neighbors, the New York Board of Health and the ASPCA raided the home and cited it for clean up or tear down. Reporters got wind of this and the “Kennedy Connection” and soon the papers were running stories about the deplorable conditions at Grey Gardens contrasted with Jackie Onassis’s lavish lifestyle. At the same time Jackie’s sister, Lee Radziwell, who ran with the artistic jet set, was working with Peter Beard, Andy Warhol, and the filmmakers the Maysles Brothers on a movie about her childhood memories of the Hamptons. This could not have happened at a better time. Although Jackie funded much of the repair and renovation, Lee rolled up her sleeves and actually supervised the project. While they were filming the work, Big and Little Edie totally stole the show, quipping, breaking into song, sometimes fighting and just being themselves. That movie was put on the shelf until recently when “That Summer” was finally released as a long-awaited prequel to Grey Gardens.
Although the 1972 project didn’t pan out at the time, in 1975 the Maysles Brothers decided to go back to the historic home and reconnect with the eccentric women to make one of the most enduring, entertaining cult classic films, “Grey Gardens”. In the age before reality TV, this film was something special, not just for the women’s famous family connections, but for the bittersweet honesty that shone through as the women reminisced and debated the past. Most heartbreaking was Little Edie talking about what her life might have been or could be if she could leave Grey Gardens. Particularly poignant is the daughter’s sorrowful commentary alongside the bedridden mother donning a hat and gaily singing “Tea for Two”, feeding on the attention. Despite Big Edie’s attempts to steal the show, Little Edie’s eclectic passions for astrology, the Catholic church, and “staunch characters” captured the curiosity of the public, along with the pitiful once again condition of the home. Yes, repairs were done, and utilities turned back on, but cats kept breeding and without household help the home became once again overrun with clutter, cats, raccoons and fleas.
A year after Grey Gardens premiered, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, passed away. Little Edie finally got her chance to sell the home. In 1979, she agreed to sell it to Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn, on the condition that the house be restored, not torn down. The buyers kept true to their word and the house and garden now reflect their former glory. After her mother’s death, Edith (Little Edie) Beale finally got the chance to go on stage. Due to the popularity of the Grey Garden’s documentary, she was booked to perform in her own cabaret show. Her signature hair scarves, worn due to suffering from alopecia became a fashion trend and was soon copied by many designers. Edith (Little Edie) Beale traveled for a few years eventually settling down in Bal Harbour, Florida where she died in 2992.
No matter who owns the home itself, the Beales of Grey Gardens are an unforgettable part of the Hampton’s mystique. Grey Gardens has spawned a 2005 Award Winning Broadway Show of the same name and a 2009 movie starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange as the mother-daughter duo.
Grey Gardens enjoys an enduring legacy; although those driving by the historic home now will find little connection to the ramshackle mansion depicted on film. It’s the characters, Big Edie and especially Little Edie, whose legacies remain in celluloid, untouched by time.