Being Edie



Every once in a while a story comes along so compelling that no matter how much time passes, people continue to tell and retell it with relish as though it were the freshest gossip. Grey Gardens is one of those stories. Have you driven past the house? Have you seen the movie? The answer is probably yes. There are more than a few rumors and theories floating around about the old house near Georgica Beach and the eccentric Beale women who lived there. 

The basic story is this: Edith Beale and her daughter, also Edith Beale (commonly called Big Edie and Little Edie) were relatives of Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s who lived in a picturesquely decaying shingled house in East Hampton, with an overgrown garden out back. Once high society — and Little Edie a prototypical It girl of the New York aristocracy — the Beales lost their fortune and, over time, the two Edies slid into poverty and hermitude.

Little Edie as a tanned, sporty young deb in the late 1930s.

The 1975 documentary by Alfred and David Maysles, which revealed the women living in squalor with not one, not two, but 52 feral cats, was one of the most talked-about films of its day, earning a cult following. Despite their shocking ­­— and, according to town inspectors, unsanitary — living conditions, the mother-daughter duo were oddly endearing. Dancing around the house and dressing in elaborate gowns that clashed fantastically with their grim surroundings, the Edies were lively and captivating and, to many, inspirational in their wilful disregard for circumstances. 

It’s the inexplicable charm of the Edies that has imbued the story of Grey Gardens with such staying power in the American cultural imagination. The tale has have retold on HBO and the Broadway stage, and, in the last decade or so, Little Edie, who died in 2002, has become a genuine high-fashion darling. Her iconic ensemble of a patterned headscarf, fur coat, and skirt fashioned from a crocheted tablecloth has popped up on runways from New York to Milan. 

The goods include scented candles, which are available on the East End at White's Apothecary, and floral textiles.

In 2015, a relative, Bouvier Beale, and his wife, Eva, revived the glorious ghosts of Grey Gardens by launching a lifestyle brand and line of products inspired by his grandmother, Big Edie, and his great aunt, Little Edie. Although Bouvier lives in San Francisco, he remembers visiting East Hampton for birthdays with his grandmother at the Palm or the Maidstone Club. The Grey Gardens line of accessories and home goods takes its cues from Little Edie’s indomitable joie de vivre.

Of course, a Grey Gardens candle doesn’t smell exactly like Grey Gardens, the house, must have, circa 1975. It smells of the good times, of halcyon days and sunshine. “We wanted to bring to life the scents that reminded us of summer,” Eva Beale says. “We worked with a local candle maker, Hamptons Handpoured, and explored different combinations of essential oils.” The candles are sold at White’s Pharmacy in East Hampton and Southampton in three different scents. The company is also offering brooches modeled after a family heirloom, bright scarves, and, most recently, a rosé wine. 

Nina Channing

Our associate editor at EAST, Nina has written this year about yoga studios, Grey Gardens, and Trump helicopters. Born and raised in Bridgehampton, she is a high-school dropout, a Wesleyan graduate, and now an MFA candidate at Stony Brook Southampton. When she’s not working, she can almost always be found with a book and a stack of blueberry pancakes in the back booth at Candy Kitchen.