There’s a doc­u­men­tary so fa­mous it has be­come a cul­tural ref­er­ence. But what if it’s passed you by?

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - SEX ADVICE, ROBYN SALISBURY -

Does this ever hap­pen to you? You’re talk­ing to some­one bet­ter read than you are, who prob­a­bly keeps up with Net­flix and – good grief – may even go to the the­atre. They drop a ca­sual cul­tural ref­er­ence into the conversation, ex­pect­ing you to un­der­stand it. It’s clear they think this thing is so ob­vi­ous there’s no way you could have missed see­ing it, read­ing it or at least hear­ing about it. They as­sume knowl­edge. You have none.

At this point, you have a split sec­ond to choose. Do you stop them mid-flow and say: “I’m sorry, what?” Or do you nod, dis­guis­ing that ner­vous bird-flutter in your chest, and bluff?

When­ever this hap­pens to me, it’s al­most al­ways about Grey Gar­dens.

For years, I didn’t know what “Grey Gar­dens” was sup­posed to sig­nify. It couldn’t have been good, be­cause whoever men­tioned it usu­ally said: “Well, it’s not like it’s Grey Gar­dens or any­thing,” or merely used em­pha­sis (“Gah! Grey Gar­dens!”) and an eye-roll.

Any­way, I was read­ing an aw­ful dou­ble bi­og­ra­phy of Jackie Kennedy and her sis­ter.

I mean the bi­og­ra­phy was fine, but the sis­ters were aw­ful. And up it popped again: Grey Gar­dens. I fin­ished the chap­ter, then fi­nally looked it up on­line. I’m telling you, I didn’t stop look­ing for a week.

I can now re­veal that Grey Gar­dens was a man­sion, but it was also the ti­tle of a film about the man­sion – a 1975 doc­u­men­tary that’s still a cult clas­sic.

The house was one of those gra­cious, shin­gled es­tates in the dunes in New York’s up­mar­ket Hamp­tons, an area now over­run by new money late­com­ers like Tay­lor Swift and Gwyneth Pal­trow. But be­fore the war un­til per­haps the 80s, Amer­ica’s old money aris­to­crats would spend their sum­mers here. These were pow­er­ful, dy­nas­tic fam­i­lies like the Kennedys, Bou­viers, and Beales.

Grey Gar­dens be­longed to “Big Edie” Ew­ing Bou­vier Beale, Jackie Kennedy’s aunt. She lived there with her daugh­ter “Lit­tle Edie”, in re­treat from so­ci­ety as the money ran out and their san­ity did too. The film dis­cov­ers them liv­ing in a cou­ple of squalid rooms which are filthy with cats, thick with fleas and lit­tered with junk. The walls are stained. Rac­coons gnaw the walls and vines claw the win­dows, chok­ing out the sun.

Lit­tle Edie is a fad­ing beauty, who fash­ions odd out­fits from fab­ric and string. She is hair­less with anx­i­ety, and pins scarves tightly to her head. She dances with her­self and hums wartime mu­sic. Big Edie war­bles songs from bed, looks at old pho­to­graphs and al­lows cats to defe­cate be­hind a mag­nif­i­cent por­trait of her young self, propped against the wall.

They’re obliv­i­ous to the trou­ble they’re in, spend­ing the film talk­ing about their van­ished po­ten­tial as singers and dancers. Lit­tle Edie feeds the rac­coons with Won­der Bread and Cat Chow. They eat from tins, or with their fingers, but in­sist on lofty conversation about po­etry and mu­sic, with the elon­gated Kennedy vow­els that im­ply good breed­ing.

Lit­tle Edie shows flashes of anger. “In deal­ing with me, the rel­a­tives didn’t know they were deal­ing with a staunch char­ac­ter,” she tells the cam­era, her eye­brows pen­cilled on, her bald head in a towel that’s spiked by a sin­gle brooch. She claims her duty as a daugh­ter im­pris­ons her in the house. “The hall­mark of aris­toc­racy is re­spon­si­bil­ity,” she hisses to her mother. “Is that it?”

Who traps Lit­tle Edie at Grey Gar­dens – her mother, as she re­peat­edly claims, or her own brit­tle per­son­al­ity? She could have mar­ried mil­lion­aires, says Big Edie, but al­ways said no.

“France had just fallen,” Lit­tle Edie says, wist­fully, of one boyfriend. And her mother adds: “France fell, but Edie didn’t fall.”

Two brothers made this film, about a mother and a daugh­ter who fell out of his­tory and landed in a fan­tasy world that’s dis­in­te­grat­ing around them. Two men, film­ing two women who of­ten talk about men – in­clud­ing a dom­i­nat­ing fa­ther. “Mr Beale would have had me com­mit­ted,” Lit­tle Edie says.

I can’t han­dle watch­ing Grey Gar­dens in one go, but I keep watch­ing. I can’t see the hap­pi­ness, the love be­tween the women, as film fans can. I un­der­stand why they re­main high camp icons – like Judy Gar­land or Joan Craw­ford – but I don’t un­der­stand why any­one would buy a Marc Ja­cobs “Lit­tle Edie” hand­bag, or a scarf from the Grey Gar­dens on­line shop.

Still, there’s a mor­bid fairy story here for women like me. The house is de­cay­ing, of­fend­ing the up­scale Hamp­tons. Or­der is un­rav­el­ling. House­work is re­jected, na­ture invited in. This is what can hap­pen if you refuse to be a lady, a chat­tel, a good mother, or to stay in the present. Men mat­tered once, but no longer live here.

“This is a sea of leaves,” mar­vels Lit­tle Edie, as she gazes from the bal­cony. “A com­plete sea of leaves.”

For Jo­ce­lyn, the de­ci­sion to build on her fa­ther’s legacy, while giv­ing back to her home­town, was a no-brainer.

Photo: Vic­to­ria Birkin­shaw

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