"You don't see me as I see myself, but you're very good what you do see me as... I see myself as a little girl and all that. [My mother] sees me as a baby and I see myself as some kind of a little girl," says Little Edie as she, three-quarters of the way through Grey Gardens, talks with the Maysles brothers and adjusts her head scarf. "[You] see me as a woman. I don't see it. When I get out of here, I do. When I go to New York City, I see myself as a woman, but here, I'm just mother's little daughter."
It's at this point that I, watching the newly restored version of Grey Gardens at Film Forum this past weekend, realize that I've never actually seen this documentary in full. I've watched endless clips of it on YouTube—short, three-minute bursts of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (Big Edie) and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale (Little Edie), two wildly eccentric shut-ins who achieved cult notoriety after the release of the film in 1975. In small doses, the women are hilarious. They speak in a strange patter that's half East Coast aristocracy (they're the aunt and cousin of Jackie O.), and half unique patois of two women who've lived removed from society for decades. They sing and dance at inappropriate times, are obsessed with horoscopes, wear bizarre, makeshift outfits and seem entirely unbothered by living in a home that's overrun by raccoons and feral cats.
But watch it all at once and a different, sadder picture starts to emerge. Grey Gardens isn't just the story of two entertaining, oddball women. It's the story of a mother who stole her daughter's life and won't give it back.
It's hard to determine how much of what Little Edie says is true, but according to her, her life has been a series of near misses—missed proposals, missed lovers and missed chances at fame. As a narrative, it's fairly easy to poke holes in her story, but what's certain—and what neither mother nor daughter deny—is that in 1952, Little Edie, then 34, was begged by Big Edie (who, years before, had been abandoned by her husband) to give up her life in the city and come care for her mother at Grey Gardens in East Hampton:
Big Edie: "I thought you'd been in New York long enough. You were getting lines in your face."
Little Edie: "But I didn't want to leave."
Little Edie: "When she said I had to come home—"
Big Edie: "I thought you should come home."
Little Edie: "She started high-pressuring me to come back—"
Big Edie: "It was time..."
Not only did Big Edie keep Little Edie from the world, she also kept the world from Little Edie. In a gut-wrenching scene towards the end of the film, Little Edie tells the story of a suitor who came to the estate to woo her.
"He actually proposed under the window. He said, 'Edith, if you want to get married, I'll marry you,' and I think that was decent, don't you? He probably wouldn't have, but just the same. Not one person had entered Grey Gardens for many years before Eugene Tyszkiewicz came around, so I credit him with all the nerve in the world."
After several interjections from Big Edie, who—story goes—had sent Eugene away because he'd written a cookbook and she "couldn't stand having another cook in [the] house," Little Edie has a melodramatic breakdown:
"I think you were very cruel, mother. He came from one of the best families in Poland...I think it's terrible that she wouldn't give me a chance with Eugene Tyszkiewicz. I think it was absolutely cruel to drive my only beau away...[He] was the only one besides these horrible people to ever come around."
In all honestly, there's only a slim chance that Little Edie would have turned out successful, happy and emotionally healthy had her mother not insisted that she come home or sent Eugene Tyszkiewicz away. Based on the film and what we know of her, Little Edie was always troubled and her life of isolation only made it worse. She clearly loved talking with people and, based on her enduring relationship with Grey Gardens filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, was a highly likable (albeit very overwhelming and S-T-A-U-N-C-H) woman.
"I think my days at Grey Gardens are limited," she says in the documentary. Little Edie wanted out of the estate, out of East Hampton and out from under her mother's thumb for decades, but was ultimately held there by Big Edie and her own neuroses. Finally, after Big Edie's death in 1977, she was able to sell the mansion (one of her mother's dying wishes was that Little Edie not leave Grey Gardens unless the new buyers promised not to demolish the residence) and leave. As a 60-something-year-old woman, she was finally be able to see if she could live up to her lost potential.
Sadly, she couldn't. Her strange life would always be one of fascinating and campy tragedy, even until the very end when she died alone in her Florida apartment in 2002. She had requested to not be buried alongside her mother and instead have her ashes scattered in the Atlantic Ocean. What she ultimately got was an interment at a cemetery in Long Island.
Little Edie always looked back on the making of Grey Gardens with fondness and never felt, as many felt for her, that she had been exploited by the Maysles brothers. True enough, the documentary, 40 years after its release, remains a stunning portrait of loneliness, isolation and character and it's Little Edie, with her short-lived tantrums, brilliant turns of phrase and desire to entertain, that makes it what it is. She gives the film what she could never have—a life of its own.
Image via Grey Gardens.
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