I think I’ll always consider this one of the most difficult posts I ever write. I have no idea when I first heard about the cinéma verité Grey Gardens. But it is (perhaps) obligatory, even de rigueur, maybe a rite of passage, for Professional Organizers to watch this 1975 documentary about Edith (“Big Edie”) Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith (“Little Edie”) Bouvier Beale, members of THE Kennedy family. The film’s buried prologue, an aborted start at a sunny whimsy of a trip down memory lane for Lee Radziwell (another Kennedy), began the disgrace by introducing David and Al Maysles, the Grey Gardens producers, directors and camera crew, to the Beales in 1972. The 1972 footage of the Beales is the resurrected 2017 zombie That Summer by Goran Olsson. The Maysles perpetuated their own barbarity with their 2006 tag-along The Beales of Grey Gardens. A cult following has also propped up a Broadway musical, a copycat movie starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, and a large number of books vying to include at least one photo, quote or historical fact about the Beales to boost sales.
The films are interviews of these two women, who lived in a storybook Arts and Crafts East Hampton mansion, renowned for a grey garden planted by its second owner, Anna Gilman Hill. The Beales had been quite wealthy, the third family to own the 14-room estate completed in 1897. Mother and daughter grew overwhelmingly impoverished for numerous reasons, some grotesque, some commonplace and sad. As their resources diminished, they became increasingly reclusive. And lived in progressively more squalid conditions, with rotting walls, raccoons coming through the roof, an untold number of cats peeing freely throughout the rooms (which means they were frequently breathing in ammonia), no heat… Some observers believe they suffered from hoarding disorder. Certainly a case could be made that they were mentally ill if they preferred living in such conditions, an argument reinforced by their bizarre behaviors.
I’ve watched the 1975 film, its follow-up and That Summer. Grey Gardens is the most “remote” of the three films, treating the Beales purely as the interview subjects of a film. The Beales of Grey Gardens is more behind-the-scenes, even including footage of a fire which broke out only minutes before the Maysles arrived for a day. That Summer discovered the Beales, with Ms. Radziwell’s encouragement, and only focuses on them by that “happy” accident. Mother and daughter fought, made up, delivered cutting bon mots for the camera. Big Edie ruthlessly ruled every facet of her daughter’s life to avoid being alone. Little Edie, a spinster if you use the mindset of her day, pitifully flirted with both Maysles and tried to use the movie-making to audition for nightclub cabaret work. Mother and daughter were both undeniably intelligent, well-educated, worldly and creative.
I’ve spent several days looking at popular opinions of these women, movie reviews, articles about the house and its history – it’s been restored to exquisite original condition. I wish I could REFUSE to provide attribution (Grey Gardens online, Home page, sixth paragraph) for the quote I’m about to use, because I despise giving the speaker even indirect applause for his opinion. “…the Edie Beales were the ultimate survivors. They continued to stay afloat no matter what life threw at them. They enjoyed life and they fought to live it (even if, at times, their battle armor happened to be expressed in outlandish costumes!). Survival in the face of adversity was an idée fixe.”
Even though that was true, I rage as I read it. These women needed help, not a camera turning them into Muses for camp humor. Depending on which source one believes, the Maysles promised, and never delivered, $10,000 to the Beales for “starring” in Grey Gardens. Compassionately, Lee Radziwell did help, gracefully and gently persuading the Beales to allow Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her husband to fund an army of repairmen to fix the plumbing, electricity, timbers and an attorney to repel East Hampton bureaucrats trying to evict the women. That Summer records the work, and Ms. Radziwell interacted with the Beales with true sympathy: it’s obvious she was fond of them and honored the full depth of their humanity. The repairmen and attorney who came in also offered the Beales simple courtesy.
I know part of my fierce reaction to these films is the work I’ve done with people who may have hoarding disorder. I know part of my loathing for this “oeuvre” is my friendship with people who acknowledge their struggles with mental illness. I know the mentally ill can’t always be helped. But for Big and Little Edie, no one seems to have even tried until it was damn close to too late.