Grey Gardens is a 1975 American documentary film by Albert and David Maysles. Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer also directed, and Susan Froemke was the associate producer. The film depicts the everyday lives of two reclusive socialites, a mother and daughter both named Edith Beale, who lived at Grey Gardens, a decrepit 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.
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".
"It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present," Little Edie wistfully points out, as her mother boils corn on a hot plate next to her bed. Dressed in a bathing suit and torn fishnet hose, her head wrapped in a towel held in place with a large broach, Little Edie has an outlandish sense of style that gives little indication of her family pedigree.
Born in 1893, Big Edie Beale had two brothers: "Black" Jack Bouvier, who made a fortune on Wall Street and fathered Jackie Kennedy in 1929; and Bud Bouvier, who made his money in oil and drank himself to death before he was 40.
An aspiring singer, Edie Beale made a few records before her 1916 marriage to Phelen Beale, an Alabama-born aristocrat whose grandfather was pals with Jefferson Davis. Little Edie Beale was born in 1918, the second of three children. (Edie's younger brother, Bouvier Beale, became a lawyer; her older brother, Phelen Beale Jr., went into business in Oklahoma; both brothers are now dead.)
In 1923 Phelen Beale Sr. moved his wife and children into Grey Gardens, where he abandoned them 10 years later; when he died in 1956, his estate went to his second wife. Forced to rely on her family for the money to raise her children, Big Edie withdrew into seclusion, and after her children reached adulthood she lived alone at Grey Gardens. In 1936, Little Edie had a lavish coming-out party in New York's Pierre Hotel, and she spent the next 16 years in Manhattan attempting to establish a career as a dancer.
Then in 1952 Little Edie returned to Grey Gardens. Whether that return was a result of her inability to make a life for herself, or because her mother needed her, is a subject of endless debate between them in the film.
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 U.S. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The two women lived together at Grey Gardens 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 home, 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.