Grey Gradens: HBO's Drama–Recycling Classic American Tragedy

“Grey Gardens,” the story of Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, members of the American aristocracy who ened their lives in misery as social misfits and outsiders, has been dealt with in every possible medium, as a seminal documentary, Broadway musical, and now HBO film.

Directed and co-written (with Patricia Rozema), “Grey Gardens,” the high-profile HBO film, starring Jessica Lange as “Big Edie” and Drew Barrymore (who also produced) as “Little Edie,” Jeanne Tripplehorn as Jacqueline Kennedy, and Daniel Baldwin as Julius Krug, will world-premiere April 18, 2009. 

First came the Maysles' 1975 documentary film, made by the distinguished team of Albert and David Maysles, Susan Froemke, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer. The film depicts the lives of two social misfits, who lived at Grey Gardens, a decrepit 28-room mansion at West End Avenue in the wealthy Georgica Pond neighborhood of East Hampton, New York.

As most of you know by now, Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale were the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. The two women lived together at Grey Gardens in squalor and total seculation.

In fact, in the early 1970s, their living conditions were so appalling (and unsanitary) that they received an extensive coverage in the press, first in an essay in the National Enquirer and the a major cover story in New York magazine.  This coverage–and the lineage to Jackie Onasis—led to a series of inspections, which the mother and daughter team referred to as “raids,” by the Suffolk County Health Department.

Grey Gardens was purchased in 1923 by Phelan Beale and Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, aunt and uncle of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, which they occupied for over 50 years.

The house itself, a cottage of 14 rooms and 3 bathrooms, was designed by Joseph Greenleaf Thorpe in 1897 and completed years later. The grey color of the dunes and the hue of the cement garden walls are responsible for the famed house's name. In 1972, with the Beale women facing eviction and the razing of their house, Jacqueline Onassis and her sister, Lee Radziwill, provided some necessary funds to repair the dilapidated house so that it would meet codes.

“Big Edie” died in 1977 and “Little Edie” sold the house in 1979 to former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and wife Sally Quinn.  Since then, the estate and land have been completely restored. Philanthropist Frances Hayward currently rents the home 11 months out of the year from the Bradlees. “Little Edie” died in 2002 at the age of 84.

In 2006, Albert Maysles made available previously unreleased footage for a special 2-disc edition for the Criterion Collection, including a new feature, “The Beales of Grey Gardens,” which also received limited theatrical distribution.

The docu has been adapted into a musical title “Grey Gardens,” with book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie. Starring Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, the show premiered at Playwrights Horizons in New York City in February 2006. The musical reopened on Broadway in November 2006 at the Walter Kerr Theatre, winning a Tony Award for Best Costume Design, and acting kudos for Ebersole and Wilson. The musical, the first  Broadway show adapted from a serio docu, closed July 29, 2007.