On the weekend of November 17, Grey Gardens was opened to the public for an estate sale. The estate, which is comprised of the property and items featured in a state of hovel in the 1975 Albert and David Maysles’ documentary Grey Gardens, was home to “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and “Little Edie” Beale, the eccentric aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis.
The film shows the mother and daughter living in isolation in an East Hampton decaying mansion among remnants of their socialite past, cats and raccoons. Big Edie had been an amateur singer, while middle-aged Little Edie was both a fashion model and cabaret performer in her youth. Grey Gardens documents a few of Little Edie’s impromptu performances in the dilapidated home, punctuated by innovative costuming (that was probably conceived to hide her alopecia). Prior to the film, the women had been living in impoverished squalor—no running water—due to lack of money. News reporting on the property conditions prompted the local health department to threaten them with eviction…and then Jackie O and her sister Lee Radziwell stepped in, providing cash to bring the structure up to code. The Beales stayed, continuing the shut-in, cat-lady lifestyle, from which the Maysles extracted their footage that would go on to accrue a cult following.
After Big Edie died in 1977, Little Edie eventually sold the property to Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee and journalist Sally Quinn, who conducted significant restoration of the premises. The house is presently “under contract with an anonymous buyer.”
On opening day of the estate sale, folks began lining up at 4 a.m., and were required to wear paper booties to keep floors clean. Though the interest was mostly for the Beale family items, there was Bradlee/Quinn merchandise for sale as well. Prices varied from $1 up to $795, and a silver hand mirror seen in Grey Gardens was among pieces for sale.
Drew B. James and Lisa Bettencourt drove from New York City. Both described themselves as enormous fans of the documentary. “I just want a tchotchke from Grey Gardens,” Bettencourt said. “I want to lick the walls, touch the floor!” said James, who had cleared his schedule to attend the sale.
Estate sale manager Susan Wexler told Bloomberg, “We indicate one room where the Beales stayed after they trashed the rest of the house. One room is reported to be haunted by the original owner and the sea captain lover of Big Edie.”
Although the documentary is criticized for being voyeuristic and exploitive, there is the question of why both Edies were living in that dire state. According to Little Edie, her mother’s brother (her uncle) Jack B. Bouvier, a Wall Street Broker, mishandled a $65,000 trust meant for the care of Big Edie, using it to invest for his own daughters, who would become known to high society as Jackie O and Lee Radziwell. Supposedly Big Edie was left with $300 a month, with both Edies selling their Tiffany silver in increments to stay afloat.
(All estate sale photos: David Williams/Bloomberg)