Grey Gardens – A Review

July 19, 2010 at 2:20 pm (Uncategorized)

A few days ago, a friend of mine forwarded an old essay by Jared Diamond entitled “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.” The mistake in question is agriculture. In the essay, Diamond,  the author of the best-selling Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, argues that the notion of  uninterrupted progress in human society is quite inaccurate, and casts doubts over whether or not agriculture meant an unqualified improvement over hunter-gatherer societies.

This argument is not new, and you don’t have to be a  primitivist to accept parts of it.  Diamond doesn’t overly idealize hunter-gatherer society, but he does point out one important negative aspect of the development of agriculture, namely class society. With the development of agriculture comes surplus, and the allowance of segments of the population who do not work. Of course, socialized  control of  that surplus is the basis for a very different type of society.

As luck would have it,  the same day I read diamond’s essay, I watched the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. The film focuses on Edith “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale,  the aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy. Once upon a time,  the Beales lived  connected glamorous lives, but now they existed in a broken-down house (the titular Grey Gardens), overrun with cats and raccoons  in East Hampton, New York in fairly squalid conditions.

It would be easy to see them as parasites. If you’ve seen Angels and Insects, you’re familiar with the notion of the aristocracy as a doomed branch of the evolutionary tree having no social purpose, and thus no ultimate reason for continued existence. Big and Little Edie  certainly fit this bill.

However, as you watch the movie, it’s increasingly difficult to sustain this opinion. The two characters are easy to dislike, but ultimately their social existence and detachment from any sort of reality lead us to feel pity for them. 

Big Edie had been an amateur singer known for eccentric behaviour. When she was 36, she separated from her husband Phelan Beale, receiving no alimony, but some child support and Grey Gardens.  Her daughter Little Edie was a model, socialite and singer who aspired to a movie career.  However, in her thirties, she returned to Grey Gardens to live with her mother.

The two women spend their days in almost total isolation from  the outside world. Groceries are delivered, but save for two employees, a gardener named Brooks and a handyman named Jerry, they seem to have little contact with the outside world , except for its presence in their memories.

They spend their days singing, reminiscing and fighting. Little Edie reproaches her mother for holding her back, while her mother alternates between normality and senility. As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but flash back to Norma Desmond , Baby Jane Hudson, Charlotte Hollis and various Hollywood characters living a similar existence. The level of denial is extremely high in this film. Both mother and daughter seem unaware of the squalid existence of their lives. Big Edith spends a great deal of time in bed mumbling over her memories and singing, while her daughter wallows in self-pity over missed opportunities, perhaps channeling Terry Malloy too.  

In the early 1970s, the local authorities inspected the house nd condemned it. Luckily cousin Jackie and her sister Liza came up with funds to fix the place up sufficiently to reverse the court order (I can’t imagine the condition, but reportedly when the filmmakers first visited the house they wore flea collars on their necks and ankles), and big Edie’s sons, who had unsuccessfully tried to persuade her to sell the house, paid the back taxes.  

Big Edith died in 1977, and two years after that, Little Edith sold the house, on condition that it not be razed, to Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Little Edith . She died in 2002 aged 84.

It’s a bleak film; difficult to watch, but also compelling. And it’s hard not to wonder what kind of society produces things like this. But of course, we all know the answer to that one.



  1. jo said,

    hum…very Eileen Chang

    • fischerzed said,

      Although, Eileen Chang did produce work of lasting merit. That’s not the case with Big and Little Edie.

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