the timeless style and spirit of grey gardens
As the Broadway play of the iconic Grey Gardens documentary comes to London, we salute the enduring fashion legacy and fighting spirit of Big Edie and Little Edie.
In a week that has been dominated by the mourning of David Bowie's unparalleled originality, over at Southwark Playhouse, the later life eccentricities of New York socialites Edith Ewing "Big Edie" Beale and her daughter Edith Bouvier "Little Edie" Beale are being feted in a musical adaption of the much loved Maysles' documentary Grey Gardens. This Tony award-winning Broadway show has sold out in its European premiere run, proving that the story of the two Edies is still a potent one, 40 years after Albert and David Maysles ventured into their derelict East Hamptons mansion and found a story that was more enticing than their original target subject matter (the documentary was supposed to be about the childhood upbringing of Lee Radziwill, the glamorous younger sister of Jackie Kennedy Onassis).
For me, the enduring appeal of watching this complex relationship between a mother and a daughter play out in and amongst countless cats, a disarray of clothes and crumbling cement walls, is multi-pronged. There's the much-lauded aesthetic appeal of the film, with the likes of Marc Jacobs, Zac Posen and Giambattista Valli citing Grey Gardens as an aesthetic touchstone. John Galliano took it one step further and paid homage to Little Edie's headscarf and brooch antics in his autumn/winter 08 show. As a fellow layering addict, it's hard not to fall hard for the beginning of the documentary when Little Edie is explaining in an endearingly convoluted way, why she is wearing pantyhose pulled over the pants underneath a skirt, which can then be worn as a cape. The physical layers of Little Edie's ensembles become part of her performance routine for an equally layered on-camera persona.
In the follow-up documentary, The Beales of Grey Gardens, released in 2006 featuring unused footage, Big Edie is asked how many of Little Edie's costume changes satisfy her, and she replies "Oh, about 10." Even though they were being filmed, it's clear the two Edies took pleasure in expressing flamboyance for themselves as well. When Little Edie explains that her costumes are a way of protesting against her former life as a model, it speaks of a self-possessed idiosyncrasy that enables her to create elaborate outfits out of old clothes. It's no wonder the two have become pop cultural postergirls of drag eccentricity, destined to pop up as Halloween costumes and on designer moodboards.
Then there's a fascinating backstory in two Park Avenue debutantes, who happen to be related to one of the most popular First Ladies there ever was, seemingly devolve into 'mad' women, living alone in a dilapidated house. Did they voluntarily shun society? Or did society shun them? Why did Little Edie reject marriages from J. Paul Getty and Joe. Kennedy Jnr? It's an enticing narrative about rebelling against societal norms, which is open to interpretation as either tragic or defiant. You want to believe it's the latter though as you root for the two Edies' survival in this self-imposed harsh environment, as they fight judgement from their neighbours, their family and ultimately the documentary's audience. They lay themselves bare and that vulnerability is heart-wrenching.
Or there's the idea of the duo's quest and lust for fame that still resonates today. Some critics of Grey Gardens, have called out the Maysles for being "exploitative" in the way they capture their subjects on film; that it is basically the predecessor of our reality TV today. You can see elements of play-acting in the two Edies' interaction with the camera as well as a constant need to emphasise their love of singing and dancing. Big Edie, whilst bed-ridden, will often burst into dramatic song, which can be traced back to her early career as an amateur singer. There's Little Edie's patriotic American flag dance, that is almost eye-wincing to watch, in her eagerness to please the cameras.
When the film premiered in 1976, Little Edie was under the impression she was going to take a huge profit and regularly scanned magazines to check up on the success of the film. "I like anything that is even near show business. I don't feel well unless I'm near it," she once said. In fact, after Big Edie died in 1977, Little Edie made a stab as a cabaret performer in New York, controversially angering Jackie Onassis, so much so that she tried to have the nightclub terminate Edie's contract. In other words, one powerful woman trying to shut down the voice of a vulnerable one. You can't help but cheer on the two Edies' feature-length tragicomic song and dance.
Deeper than turbans and brooches though is the keen and true observation of two women leaning on each other for support. Strip away the theatrics and you have two women living in a co-dependent relationship, filled with wistful camraderie as well as embittered snipes. For every catty jibe the Edies throw at one another, there's a touching moment of affection between the two. It's a relationship that can only be fostered through claustrophobic intimacy, as well as equal parts resentment and love for one another.
Taking care of one another in their own dysfunctional way, the two Edies represent the sort of love story that isn't often portrayed, nevermind understood. Ultimately, the two Edies make us think about the fate of life itself, and all that gets dealt to us. There's nothing more universal than that. "You can't have your cake and eat it too in life," argued Little Edie with her mother in one memorable spat in the documentary. "Oh yes I did. I did," retorted Big Edie. "I had my cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it and had everything I wanted."
Text Susie Lau