Grey Gardens

GreyGardens First of all, thank you thank you thank you for all the lovely, kind, encouraging, wise comments and emails you guys left me after my rather self-indulgent complaint about work and life and motherhood the other day. You got me through AND I made all three deadlines. I promise not to be such a wet blanket again. (At least, not in the near future). (I hope).

I just watched the documentary Grey Gardens. Have you seen it? You probably have, I'm a little behind the times since it was actually released in 1975...

It goes inside the lives of mother and daughter "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" - both of their names are Edith Bouvier Beale - in their once-magnificent but now derelict East Hamptons home, Grey Gardens.

Their bigger story, of which the documentary is only a moment, is that they are "fallen from grace" socialites (and also the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis).

I say "fallen from grace" because once upon a time they were both very rich and very beautiful, but Big Edie was an amateur singer and wanted to be an artist, of the kind that was pronounced artiste. Socialites cannot also be artistes, apparently, and that was part of what led to her husband eventually leaving her (so I've read).

Little Edie was her only daughter and was encouraged and schooled by her mother in artistic pursuits. Growing up, she wanted to be an author, a poet, a singer, a dancer. She went to New York and pursued a possibly promising career as a model and as an actor on Broadway, before her parents put paid to that. First, her Father smashed a window in which a picture of Little Edie was displayed, because he refused to see her in the public eye (I think it was gauche, or something like that I imagine, for a socialite to do modelling).

Then her parents' marriage ended. Her mother had Grey Gardens but little else, and could no longer afford to send Edie food parcels to support her life in New York. She called her back home.

Little Edie gave up her New York dreams in 1952 to live with and care for her mother in Grey Gardens. In 1974, when the documentary was filmed, they were both still there, living with about a bazillion cats and apparently some raccoons.

I watched the whole thing with a sense of unease. From the little I'd read before I saw it, I was prepared for the squalor (it's awful) and the mother-daughter arguments (frequent), but I was also ready to celebrate the joyful way the women embraced their eccentricities, and the underlying love between the two.

Those elements were there but, honestly, I couldn't get past the sense that I was intruding. It was as though both Edies were desperate to be seen in a certain way, and didn't realise that the broader context of their life in that house created a very different impression. They performed for the camera: both sang, and Little Edie danced. They pulled out old photographs of themselves to show the documentary-makers. Both women were indeed once breathtaking, but it was as though they were locked in the past. I think Little Edie said something along those lines near the start of the film, that past and present were blurred, and hard to define. I got the sense that inside her 56-year-old body, Little Edie was still 19.

Watching these ladies in their crumbling prison, I couldn't shake the feeling that Little Edie, in all her optimism and confidence and faded-but-still-evident beauty, was being exploited without knowing it.

I mean, I can watch something like Real Housewives or The Bachelor and feel kind of ick sometimes about the way these women are portrayed, and think "Why would anyone put themselves in that position?" - on TV I mean - but I don't feel too bad because, you know, they chose to do this. And these shows have been going for a pretty long time, so you can be fairly sure they knew roughly what they were getting into.

But Little Edie, locked away with her controlling/loving/controlling mother, among all those put-downs and all those cats? No, that just didn't feel right.

But then again, perhaps I need to watch it again. Because maybe Little Edie WAS being exploited but, on the other hand, maybe she was finally getting exactly what she wanted, which was to perform, at last, for an audience. I am very tangled up in my thoughts about this film!

Have you seen Grey Gardens? I'd love to know your thoughts if you have. Here it is in its entirety on YouTube, if you want to take a look:


ps. And now... The Gilmore Girls watching Grey Gardens (scary parallel alert!)

pps. And apparently Grey Gardens was also made into a film starring Drew Barrymore in 2009, and also a Broadway show, but STILL I hadn't heard of it until this week