The Beales of Grey Gardens have been the subject of two cult documentaries, an HBO film, countless op-eds, and even Grey Gardens—The Musical (which plays the Ahmanson Theatre through August 14, 2016). Images of the two famous (and fabulous) hermits from the 1975 documentary are so beloved that they have inspired everything from fashion designers to Hollywood parodies. But while images of these “staunch” characters lounging amid the squalor of their crumbling home may be iconic, they represent only a small portion of their eccentric lives.
The documentary (and the footage that became a sequel) was shot by the Maysles brothers over just five weeks in 1973. In the next two years, the Beales continued to go about their lives—retreating in Miltonian solitude from the goings-on of the outside world. After the documentary’s release in 1975, the two Edies found themselves thrust into the public eye. In the wake of the film’s success, they became the unwitting subjects of an ongoing debate about exploitation surrounding the film. While they may have only received a paltry $5,000 for their involvement in the Maysles' documentary, the two Beale women did remain friendly with the filmmakers for the rest of their lives. In fact, Big Edie even told an interviewer at the time,
[The film is] the greatest thing that ever happened to me in my old age. You know, I'll be 81 in October. Nobody else wanted to take my picture. I'm thrilled.
In July 1976, Big Edie suffered a terrible fall, which would prove the beginning of a swift and brutal decline. In December, the furnace at Grey Gardens malfunctioned, leaving the aged mansion (and its occupants) unprotected from the harsh New York winter. Weakened, Big Edie contracted a case of pneumonia, which would take her life just two months later. Ironically, she died away from the home that had become her world. In February 1977, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale passed away in the Local South Hampton hospital, leaving her daughter to return to the crumbling mansion alone.
Anyone who has seen the documentary is well aware of Little Edie’s stage ambitions. As a young woman, she spent five years (1947–1952) living in New York City while she pursued a career in show business.
About a year after her mother’s death Edie got another chance at stardom. In 1978, she returned to New York City as the star in her very own cabaret show at the Reno Sweeney nightclub in Greenwich Village. At the time, she reportedly told her nephew,
This is something I’ve been planning since I was 19 years old. I’m just going to have a ball.
Unfortunately, the critics were less than excited about the event. According to the same nephew, they “thought the whole idea of this 60-ish woman, dressed in her homemade version of cabaret clothes, singing and dancing, and bantering was—in a sense—outlandish.”
But according to a People account of the event, Edie’s audience loved her.
The crowd—many of them gay—cheered as she vamped uncertainly through 'Tea for Two,' 'As Time Goes By,' and two songs she wrote herself. She padded her act to a half hour by answering written questions from the audience (What do you think of television? 'It's wonderful for national emergencies!')
After a 10-performance limited engagement, the show ended as many such engagements do—with a limp and a whimper. One year later, Edie famously sold Grey Gardens to Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee for $200,000. After the sale, she hopped around the continent, living in Miami Beach, Oakland, and Canada. Photos taken during that time show the smiling ex-socialite lounging on leather furniture, posing with family members, and—generally—enjoying her life. By all accounts, Edie returned to the world of wealth and pomp with the grace and poise that had always resided beneath the patina of her circumstance.
After bouncing around between relations for some years, Edie eventually resettled in Bal Harbour, Florida to live her autumn years out in quiet seclusion. There, according to a local resident, she frequented the local Bal Harbour shops where she
was often mistaken for a statue because she used to sit in one of the atrium’s benches very still, very theatrically, and didn’t speak or move for hours. Sometimes, she would hold a script or a letter in mid-air, and would stare at it through her dark glasses without even varying her position.
When Edie wasn’t re-enacting the Pageant of the Masters, she reportedly spent her time in the ocean, swimming nearly every day in the warm Gulf Coast sun. She continued to do interviews over the phone and to speak with her fans. She even occasionally called Albert Maysles to chat about the past, Grey Gardens, and the 2000 presidential election. She died in 2002 of natural causes. According to her obituary in The New York Times, “She had not owned a cat in five years.”