“Mother, did you hear that? This horrible public health nurse says we’re sick!” Little Edie stamped her feet furiously, informing her invaders: “We’re Christian Scientists. The only medicine is work.”
Mother’s voice boomed from the window: SEND that nurse AWAY — SHE’S been in contact with ALL the GERMS of SUFFOLK COUNTY!
Of course, the Beales were the subject of East Hampton fascination. But the intrigue had to do as much with their living conditions as their pedigree. The pair, who referred to themselves as “Big Edie” and “Little Edie,” were born into the powerful Bouvier family — Big Edie was Jacqueline Onassis’s aunt — and after she made her debut in New York society, Big Edie was married to Phelan Beale, her father’s law partner, who bought the home in East Hampton during the 1920s.
The team’s findings — cat manure littering the floor, graceful cobwebs stretched over the furniture, wild animals roaming — are vestiges of what we’d expect from a haunted house. But there were also fixtures of a more bizarre character: a stove in Big Edie’s bed, a five-foot pile of empty cans. Cameras recorded the inspection. The following year, in 1973, Albert and David Maysles arrived to shoot a documentary about the home, chronicling the lives of Big Edie and Little Edie. They lifted their film’s title from the name of the home, calling it Grey Gardens, adding to the house’s mythology. Just this year, the property made headlines — about the auction of both the mansion and the guest house, about the accompanying estate sale — and had cameos in new books by Paul Wharton (Pulling It All Together, Skyhorse, January 16, 2018) and scholar John David Rhodes (Spectacle of Property, University of Minnesota Press, December 15, 2017). Over 40 years after its premiere, Grey Gardens continues to assert its significance in American culture, not only through news surrounding the house itself, but also in the story’s numerous adaptations. In 2015, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen spoofed the documentary in “Sandy Passage,” an episode of Documentary Now!; in 2009, Drew Barrymore starred in Patricia Rozema and Michael Sucsy’s HBO adaptation of the documentary; in 2006, Grey Gardens, the musical, opened on Broadway. It is regularly staged by theaters across the country.
What is the reason for such enduring fascination? In Spectacle of Property, Rhodes, a professor of film at Cambridge, asks: “Is this a domestic melodrama, shot through with intergenerational mother-daughter conflict? Is it an exercise in gothic horror, a story about a big house and its historical hauntings?” An adept exploration of how identities are constituted by domestic space, Rhodes’s book covers films, both Hollywood and art house, from Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis to Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon. The book describes our captivation with certain houses, examining houses’ ability to induce nostalgia and competition, the anxieties of class and race and gender they express, and the histories they contain. For Rhodes, showing the house-human relationship on film casts its attendant concerns into even sharper clarity.
Rhodes’s chapter on Grey Gardens focuses on the mysterious questions the film poses to hook its audience from the outset. Many of these questions — of the Beale family drama, of their world’s unique combination of sophistication and squalor, and even what the house’s interior looks like — are alluring in the way a reality show of the rich and famous and dysfunctional might be. Grey Gardens could, after all, be a precursor to the Kardashians. From its start, the film lets us know that we will have insider access, some sort of backstage pass. Its first shot comes from the home’s interior, in the foyer, looking out the front door. The Beales are surmising about how their cat, Whiskers, escaped, and Big Edie claims, “I think he got out in that hole.” As the camera pans to a large hole near the ceiling above the stairwell, Little Edie shouts out, “We’ll be raided again, we’ll be raided again by the Village of East Hampton!” Little Edie’s anxiety, one that comes up again and again, is self-reflexive. Through the Maysles’ lens, we are the ones who will be raiding her house.
The sequence of stills that follows, capturing the manicured homes typical of East Hampton, seeks, in its framing, to emphasize just what an anomaly the Beales’ home is in the community. It amplifies our nosiness. The series — pristine lawns an even shade of green, curated topiaries, buildings that look plucked out of a vintage Norman Rockwell cover — ends with an image of a decrepit bare house hidden under scrubby tangles of brush. This is Grey Gardens, our first view of the home’s exterior. In all of the stills, these homes, Grey Gardens included, are barricaded off from us: fences guard two of the mansions; a beach protects another; and, of course, Grey Gardens is enshrouded in ominous shrubbery.
Dissolving into a newsprint photograph of the same view, the image of Grey Gardens commences another series, this time of newspaper articles buzzing with gossip. Their headlines ring with tabloid-esque fervor: “Jackie’s Aunt Told: Clean Up Mansion,” “Jackie Cleans Up E. Hampton Mansion for Kin,” “A Good Housekeeping Seal for House,” “Beales Remain In Residence.” Our first glimpse of the Edies together, which comes next in a photograph, recalls the lack of access demonstrated earlier. They are cordoned off, peering at us from behind a beam of wood as if they are prisoners. After zooming in on a photograph of the Maysles Brothers — presumably from an article shown discussing the Beales “taking part in a motion picture about their life filmed by David and Albert Maysles” — Little Edie shouts, “It’s the Maysles!” and we see her in motion for the first time, standing outside her home.
Another look at the opening, however, reveals themes of a more sinister nature. If you read the first newspaper article, you’ll notice that it describes the home as Gothic. In one article, Little Edie refers to the health inspection as a raid; in another she explains that Grey Gardens is a place “oozing with romance, ghosts, and other things.” In other articles not shown in the film, her Gothic performance becomes even sharper. One in The Chicago Tribune, for example, enlightens us with Little Edie’s understanding of the mansion’s history, which “was built in 1905 by a sea captain whose ghost still haunts the place, Miss Beale said.” Her recital as a Gothic heroine pervades the film, too — she loves crafting hers as a horror story. At one point, during a campy act in which she envisions her escape from the house, she says, in her lolling Brahmin twang, “I can’t stand a country house. In the first place it makes me terribly nervous. I’m scared to death of doors, locks, people roaming around in the background under the trees, in the bushes. I’m absolutely terrified!” Though Rhodes does describe Grey Gardens as Gothic — a symptom of most ruminations on the film — he doesn’t go into why this might be.
Considering genre again provides some insight. Little Edie’s performances translate Gothic anxieties of 18th-century England into 20th-century language, indicating the forms in which they exist today. In one scene, for example, she acts as though her mother is the Gothic abbess, a female figure of the genre who controls the heroine and who acts as a surrogate for the male patriarch. Big Edie calls her out on the porch, and Little Edie complies, saying, “I haven’t been out of this damn, horrible place in two years. God if you knew how I felt — I’m ready to kill.” Then, after she informs her mother that Brooks, their African-American yardman, wants his check, she muses: “I suppose I won’t get out of here until she dies or I die. I don’t know when I’m going to get out.” Big Edie says, “Well why do you want to get out?” And Little Edie responds, “Because I don’t like it. I like freedom,” to which her mother asserts, “Well you can’t get it, darling, you’re being supported. You can’t get any freedom when you’re being supported.” The irony of the scene — the white socialite who complains about her entrapment as she retrieves a check to pay the black yardman — is lost on Little Edie. Self-fashioning as a tragic figure, she blinds herself to the realities of her situation.
Indeed, Rhodes notes that though the Edies are “objects of cultic devotion, it would be a mistake to romanticize their independence.” Both Beale women were dependents. As a 1972 Los Angeles Times article notes, “The late ’30s and the ’40s found Miss Beale and her mother generally alone at Grey Gardens, living on child-support payments from her father […] and a trust fund set up by her grandfather.” Their conversations tend to center on a repressed past, inaccessible to the audience, fraught with familial tension. Grey Gardens often feels like a feature-length matrilineal bicker over whose story is the accurate one. And they are able to express themselves in such an outlandish manner precisely because of their class position. Their representation rests on their solvency and their sense of themselves as debutantes of the old social order, albeit, ones who pride themselves on taking a more bohemian path. It is an avenue defined by what the Edies simultaneously oppose and rely upon: the conservative values of East Hampton society, which they so frequently and passionately critique; the wealth of this order that funds them. Of course their performances are ironic — they have to be. The Edies, and the decaying home that amplifies their identity, literalize the shaky state of the ruling class. And yet, we, like Little Edie, cling to it.
Grey Gardens is a prurient film, and its voyeurism is exactly where the beginning locates its intrigue. The illicit pleasure to look, granted to viewers from the beginning, reverberates with the morale of John Ruskin, writing at the end of the Gothic era, who proclaimed that the home is “the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt and division. In so far as it is not this, it is not home.” He continued, “So far as the anxieties of the outer life penetrate into it, and the inconsistently-minded, unknown, unloved, or hostile society of the outer world is allowed by either husband or wife to cross the threshold, it ceases to be home.” The Gothic loves the forbidden ring, the almost sexual titillation, of words like “terror” and “penetration.” We are granted penetration. We are the outer life, and through camera lenses — of the journalists, of the invading team, of the Maysleses — we infect the home with the anxieties for which it serves as a lightening rod.
Perhaps the most fraught Gothic narrative Little Edie performs for the camera, though, is that of Jerry, the white teenager who delivers groceries and performs other work for the Beales around the house. He is also a cult figure whose post–Grey Gardens life is documented in the 2011 film, The Marble Faun of Grey Gardens — a reference to the name that Little Edie gives to Jerry early in the film. She asks him if he remembers the “terrible, terrible tragedy connected with the Marble Faun,” itself a reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel of the same name.
As the film progresses, Edie constructs a story about him, first establishing her belief that Jerry is romantically pursuing her. Later, she begins cursing him in passing, and finally, near the end of the film, in a loud whisper to the camera, she declares her suspicions:
Guess what’s happening. What I felt was in the cards, you know, and I’m telling you, I’m not going to spend another ten years with this — the Marble Faun is moving in. He just gave us a washing machine — that cements the deal. I gotta get out of here. I can’t spend the rest of my life washing clothes […] He’s moving in […] I’m pulverized by this latest thing.
Charting the home’s penetration by a male force, Little Edie aligns Jerry’s invasion with control over her behavior, namely, those of female domestic codes. Little Edie’s story indicates an awareness of Gothic conventions, but she doesn’t recognize how this narrative mirrors the Maysles’ penetration, the way it converts Grey Gardens from a home into a stage in which domestic roles are enacted or reacted against under a patriarchal gaze.
At the same time, Edie’s narrative is a simple one. She is horrified by the prospect of having to do her own laundry, for she can’t fathom spending the rest of her life washing clothes. It’s a funny story, mocking the quotidian responsibilities of anyone — basically everyone — not in the position of the Beales. Yet it also captures, as most things that make us laugh do, messages of utmost seriousness, ones that are too difficult to confront directly. It shows what the Edies mean for our culture: what it means that the documentary has repeatedly been hailed among the most important in history, what it means that we have selected it for the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.
Despite its claims to realism, Grey Gardens insulates us from the world of the Beales. The Beales’ irony, like the Maysles’ camera, protects us from the house’s squalor — the flocks of fleas, the stench, the rodents that roam without abandon. These characters, and the film they inhabit, keep us at a distance that allows for voyeurism. The women of Grey Gardens mock the ruling class, but they are the ruling class. Their Gothic self-presentation neutralizes the tragedies of American capitalism as camp.
Kelly Coyne is a student in Northwestern’s PhD program in film and media studies. Her work has appeared in Literary Hub, Persuasions, and Polygraph.
 I would like to extend my gratitude to Patrick O’Malley for his relentless support.