memories of the ’70s – Grey Gardens

The wealthy are not always happy and living the high life as well depicted in the documentary Grey Gardens.

Produced in 1975 by Albert and David Maysles, Grey Gardens got its name from the residence of two elderly women living in the wealthy neighbourhood of Georgia Pond in East Hampton of New York State.

The “stars” of the film were Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (Big Edie) and Edith Bouvier Beale (Little Edie), a mother and daughter, who where the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, the widower of US President John F. Kennedy.

Despite their rich connections, the two lived with little money and in squalor in one of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States.

The documentary showed the aftermath of how these women had been pushed to the brink – thanks to flea infestations, invasions by raccoons and cats, a lack of running water, endless garbage, and then a cover story in New York Magazine, after numerous visits by the Suffolk County Health Department.

The women claimed they were raided by the health department, but the reality was these women were living in conditions unfit for humans. As a result Onassis and her sister, Lee Radziwill provided funds to bring the house back up to codes.

The Maysles let the mother and daughter tell their story in the documentary, in the style now known as direct cinema, revealing their history, memories, hopes and dreams as they detailed the past 50 years of their lives.

The film debuted at the New York Film Festival in September 1975 and in mid 1976, the documentary was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in France, after going into general release in the United States.

For those fascinated with the wealthy, this documentary illuminated their view of the world, but also the reality of how that view can trap someone. The documentary was the first to be adapted for a Broadway musical play, as well as became a feature film starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.

I was lucky enough to see this documentary decades later at an art house theatre, and was fascinated by the stories of these two women, who had entree into the world of the rich and famous. Grey Gardens let the two women tell their story, giving the audience an understanding of their circumstances living an oddly reclusive life in the Hamptons.