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