The Maysles brothers pay visits to Edith Bouvier Beale, nearing 80, and her daughter Edie. Reclusive, the pair live with cats and raccoons in Grey Gardens, a crumbling mansion in East Hampton. Edith is dry and quick-witted – a singer, married but later separated, a member of high society. Edie is voluble, dresses – as she puts it – for combat in tight ensembles that include scarves wrapped around her head. There are hints that Edie came home 24 years before to be cared for rather than to care for her mother. The women address the camera, talking over each other, moving from the present to events years before. They’re odd, with flinty affection for each other.
Grey Gardens is a 1975 American documentary film by Albert and David Maysles. The film depicts the everyday lives of two reclusive, formerly upper class women, a mother and daughter both named Edith Beale, who lived in poverty at Grey Gardens, a derelict mansion at 3 West End Road in the wealthy Georgica Pond neighborhood of East Hampton, New York. The film was screened at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival but was not entered into the main competition.
Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer also directed, and Susan Froemke was the associate producer. The film’s editors are credited as Hovde (who also edited Gimme Shelter and Salesman), Meyer and Froemke.
In 2010 the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. In a 2014 Sight and Sound poll, film critics voted Grey Gardens the joint ninth best documentary film of all time.
Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (1895–1977), known as “Big Edie”, and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale (1917–2002), known as “Little Edie”, were the aunt and the first cousin, respectively, of former US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The two women lived together at the Grey Gardens estate for decades with limited funds in increasing squalor and isolation.
The house was designed in 1897 by Joseph Greenleaf Thorpe and purchased in 1923 by “Big Edie” and her husband Phelan Beale. After Phelan left his wife, “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” lived there for more than 50 years. The house was called Grey Gardens because of the color of the dunes, the cement garden walls, and the sea mist.
Throughout the fall of 1971 and into 1972, their living conditions—their house was infested by fleas, inhabited by numerous cats and raccoons, deprived of running water, and filled with garbage and decay—were exposed as the result of an article in the National Enquirer and a cover story in New York Magazine after a series of inspections (which the Beales called “raids”) by the Suffolk County Health Department. With the Beale women facing eviction and the razing of their house, in the summer of 1972 Jacqueline Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill provided the necessary funds to stabilize and repair the dilapidated house so that it would meet village codes.
Albert and David Maysles became interested in their story and received permission to film a documentary about the women, which was released in 1976 to wide critical acclaim. Their direct cinema technique left the women to tell their own stories.