January 22, 2011

Grey Gardens - The Simple Life In A 28-Room Mansion

“The simple life is not understood in America. They’re all so rich and spoiled." - Edith Beale
I just watched the movie Grey Gardens that introduced me to the amazing, memorable story of one time socialites Edith Beale and her daughter of the same name. Big and Little Edie, relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, lived in a 28-room mansion (Grey Gardens) in the East Hamptons for decades. The mansion was bought for Big Edie in 1923, and she lived there till her death in 1977. For many of the later years mother and daughter lived in a state of poverty. However, compared to their upper crust neighbours, most people live in a state of poverty.

Some say the Edie's riveting story is about mental illness, fear, and co-dependence. I choose to focus on the more positive aspects of their tale. I saw two women determined to live simple lives free and clear of the expectations of the patriarchy and society at large. It was only because they were seen as 'unconventional' that they ended up living in almost total isolation. But these gals didn't seem to mind too much.

The quirky mother and daughter didn't aspire to meet anyone's expectations other than their own. They seemed to enjoy shocking the high society types that lived around them. Their crumbling mansion and unkempt yard was like a big middle finger flipped at the crusty elites suffocating under puffy duvets, class obligations and excess.

Both women were free-spirited artists that had a passion for music, dance, and life. Big Edie had an excellent singing voice that she often used to entertained guests in her earlier, more connected and financially lucrative days. Little Edie had a flair for fashion, fancied herself a dancer, and wished to be an actress and cabaret singer. She was an accomplished poet.

In 1931, when Big Edie was 35 years old, her husband abandoned her and the children. Mrs. Beale had a trust fund from her grandfather, but it was reportedly stolen by Beale's brother, Jack Bouvier, who wanted it for his daughters Jacqueline and Lee. He put his sister on a $300 dollar a month allowance, even though Jack himself was a wealthy Wall Street broker. The small allowance was insufficient for the two women to live on. Big Edie took to selling her possessions over the years to finance her unusual simple life.

Little Edie was a very physical woman that swam nearly every day till her death in 2002 at age 84. She also enjoyed walking. The family's lonely 1937 Cadillac sat broken down in the front yard for years with tangled growth almost obscuring it.

The Beale's disused car melting into the yard.
What Edie didn't enjoy were the stares from all the people driving by. "They look at you like you are crazy if you walk around here", she complained. Most of the time, though, the Edies stayed home, occupying 3 or 4 rooms in their aging, character-laden mansion.

These tough, resilient ladies did what they needed to do, with what they had on hand, where they were at. Because they were so strapped for cash they became experts at making do. Little Edie had a condition that caused her hair to fall out, and therefore wore turban-like head dressings all the time.

She went beyond silk scarves though, and used shirts, skirts, and whatever else was in the mansion's closets, often securing the unusual head coverings with a big, showy brooch. When her skirt became too small at the waste she wore it upside down with a large pin holding it closed. This kind of creativity, adaptability and playfulness allowed the mother and daughter team to happily survive harsh conditions as the mansion crumbled around them.

Were Big and Little Edie living simply, or simply surviving? It is hard to say, but what I can say is that these women were not willing to limit themselves to the roles and expectations outlined for them by culture and high society. They were fiercely independent and completely unafraid to be who they wanted to be. They were rebels, and their cause was freedom and living life with abandon and enthusiasm.

If you are living an unconventional lifestyle, or want to, the story and the dignity of the Beales will be an inspiration.


  1. Hi Gregg,

    Very interesting post. I had a Great Aunt that lived in Southampton that we used to visit when I was young. My Great Uncle passed away, but he built their home himself. Eventually they built mansions all around her little ole house. It sounds like she could've been friends with these ladies...

    I will have to check out the film. Thanks for recommending it!


  2. Karla,

    What an amazing link to this beautiful spot, and this engrossing story. When the Bouviers "discovered" East Hampton it was known as a simple summer resort. It sounds like Southampton was the same at one time. Your aunt and uncle sound like interesting folks. What a place to visit as a kid. Enjoy Grey Gardens - It really stuck in my brain.

  3. A paid for house, over your head is always good to have. It worked for these two women. Living as they did, was not a question of choice, some one forced them to live like this. If they had been able to keep their money, they might have lived differently. it is however a good example of living with less. What it demonstrates is people can make do, with what they have, when they are creative.

    1. It is amazing how little we need to get by. The Beales had a lot of freedom in their own small world.

      I would like, one day, to have a small bit of paid for land where I can live however I wish.

    2. Unfortunately, they suffered from a bit of hoarders syndrome, manifesting itself in their behavior. Young Edie was perfectly capable of gaining employment, as was her mother after WWII. They were both encouraged to move to Florida by the male siblings. Instead, they chose to live in a cat-filled house that they couldn't afford to heat and refused to clean. it was their choice to remain there in squalor. There are people who suffer from mental illness who simply don't see it.

  4. Both women were perfectly capable of securing employment and living a quiet, comfortable "simple life" in a clean well maintained home instead of in a decaying mansion with no heat, running water or electricity. The house was filled with garbage, the toilets were stopped up, racoons and Ferrell cats were everywhere - their urine and feces covering the floors. The roof was full of holes - allowing racoons to travel freely from outdoors to in.

    The Beales were clearly mentally ill, and I'm sure this was not the type of life they would have chosen had they been more balanced people. The idea it was their desire to live simple lives free and clear of the imaginary patriarchy and society at large is beyond stupid. They were deeply and profoundly mentally ill which rendered them incompetent.

    1. Perhaps.

      Or maybe we mislabel people who don't buy into mainstream views and keep up the "proper" standards of cleanliness and conduct to be "mentally ill".

      Unique individuals like the Beales tend to scare regular folks. That might explain strong reactions to their situation.

      Why don't we consider billionaires to be mentally ill? Obvious hoarding behaviour that affects all of humanity.

      These ladies were harmless.


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