In 1972, Gail Sheehy wrote an article for New York magazine profiling
a mother and daughter of unconventional tastes who long ago turned their backs on public opinion. This was America’s first introduction to the Beales and their dilapidated mansion known as Grey Gardens.
In the 44 years since, Edith Bouvier Beale and her namesake daughter’s fall from mid-Atlantic aristocracy (and how that fall was reflected in their crumbling home) has made Little Edie and Big Edie permanent fixtures in the ever-shifting landscape of American pop culture, most notably in the Maysles brothers’ 1976 documentary and of course in the musical Grey Gardens, onstage at the Ahmanson Theatre July 6 – August 14, 2016. However, while images of Little Edie in her signature head wrap may remain fixed in time, the house itself has not. In fact, for all their notoriety, the Beales represent only one episode in Grey Gardens’ 200-plus-year history.
The house that would one day be made so famous was designed in 1897 to rest upon the ritzy windswept shores of New York’s Long Island. It was the product of a wave of development spurred by an extension of the Long Island Railway system, which made the peninsula (Long Island is technically not an island) a viable (and accessible) weekend vacation spot for wealthy New York businessmen.
It was truly a grey garden…The soft grey of the dunes, cement walls, and sea mists gave us our color scheme as well as our name.
Architect Joseph Greenleaf Thorpe designed the 28-room house to embody the Arts and Crafts Movement. Its shingled face and Craftsman-style structure was erected upon a four-acre lot a mere stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean. Thorpe designed many of the homes built in Long Island during this time, and so Grey Gardens shared many features with those of its neighbors in the growing vacation community of East Hampton.
The house was commissioned by Mrs. Margaret Bagg Phillips, whose father was the first editor of the Detroit Free Press. By all accounts, the summer home was completed without incident, and Phillips seems to have lived there until 1913, when it was purchased by Robert C. and Anna Gilman Hill. During this time, the house would change considerably—even gaining the garden from which it would eventually draw its name.
Anna Gilman Hill was a dedicated gardener and a prolific writer. She spearheaded much of the changes at Grey Gardens during the Hill residency. In 1938, she published Forty Years of Gardening, which—among other things—chronicled her efforts to transform her East Hampton property from a summer home into a proper estate.
The first year I tried to grow my plants in an open field, wrote Hill. “They flourished like Jonah’s gourd, but the first nor’easter laid them flat. No amount of tying and staking could hold them upright against the scudding sea-spume. A windbreak is the sine qua non of seashore gardening.”
Sparing no expense, that windbreak—which would one day protect the Beales from more than just the ocean chill of the Atlantic—took the form of a wall that was imported directly from Spain. Not long after, Hill populated her newly protected garden with a cornucopia of pale flowers such as climbing rose, lavender, phlox, and delphinium. She would later write that, “It was truly a grey garden…The soft grey of the dunes, cement walls, and sea mists gave us our color scheme as well as our name.”
Ostracized from family and set adrift by Phelan—Big Edie and her daughter subsisted at Grey Gardens on a paltry trust fund of $65,000.
In the late 20s, New York City attorney Phelan Beale and his wife, Big Edie (the daughter of Beale’s law partner), bought Grey Gardens to enjoy the seemingly bottomless splendor of the Gold Coast. It was a honeymoon that was to last only two years before the Great Crash of 1929 left the family in less-than-desirable financial straits. Then in 1934, Phelan left his wife for the West Coast—never to return. Big Edie got Grey Gardens in the divorce and continued to live in the mansion until her death in 1977.
As a young woman, Little Edie moved to New York City to break into the entertainment industry. (She had previously modeled and considered herself to be quite the dancer.) But she later told Sheehy that in 1952
mother got the cats. That’s when she brought me down from New York to take care of them. During this period—ostracized from family and set adrift by Phelan—Big Edie and her daughter subsisted at Grey Gardens on a paltry trust fund of $65,000. While they were able to stretch this sum for many years, the diminished spending power made it impossible to hire the help required to maintain a home of Grey Gardens’ size. The house and overgrown gardens became the looming sanctuary for cats and raccoons that the Maysles brothers so graphically depict in their 1975 documentary.
The town of East Hampton did its best to evict the two recluses from their crumbling home in the early ’70s. Articles in the National Enquirer and New York Post ran headlines such as: “JACKIE’S AUNT TOLD: CLEAN UP MANSION.” By Big Edie’s death in 1977, the house had become so derelict that it had begun to attract attention from tourists and town officials alike.
Soon after the death of her mother, Little Edie (still suffering not inconsiderable financial troubles) put the mansion on the market. Enter Washington Post reporter Sally Quinn and her new husband, Post editor Ben Bradlee. In 1979, a year after they married, Quinn and Bradlee bought the home—and everything in it—from Little Edie for $200,000. Even at the time, such a sum was considered to be a steal, but according to Quinn, the money was far less important to Little Edie than the house. In fact, by the time Quinn made her offer on the property, Little Edie had already turned down many others. So why did Quinn and Bradlee end up with the house? According to Quinn, she was the only prospective buyer who wanted to renovate the property rather than tear it down. Quinn said that Little Edie was so overjoyed at the prospect that she sold the house to her on the spot, proclaiming,
I know that this house belongs to you. You’re the person who should have this house.
In 2015, the house was available for a yearlong lease at $175,000/month.
Quinn still owns Grey Gardens, and in the past 37 years has made good on her promise to restore the property to its former glory. A quick Internet search will reveal numerous articles from home and garden publications featuring the property. Quinn has even gone to great lengths to archive and document objects left behind by Little Edie when she moved away from the property in 1979. In 2015, the house was available for a yearlong lease at $175,000/month—perhaps not a bad deal considering it was reportedly renting for $250,000/month in the summer.
But even as Grey Gardens once again basks in splendor, it is hard not to look at pictures of the modern grounds without imagining—even for a moment—the dancing form of Little Edith Bouvier Beale.