Edith Bouvier Beale was a socialite, model and first cousin to former First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. The first half of her life was a pampered and promising one. Her later life was a sad one, though it seems as though she did not realize it as much as other people did.
Edith Bouvier Beale was born on November 17, 1917. The Bouvier comes from her mother’s side of the family. Her mother was also named Edith and her father was Phelan. She had two younger brothers and grew up in the Hamptons and in New York City. The family had a beautiful 28-room mansion in East Hampton called Grey Gardens. Edith Bouvier Beale had a charmed life.
As Edith Bouvier Beale grew up, she became undeniably beautiful. She had blonde hair, blue eyes and a vivacious personality. She had dreams of grandeur, which were likely inherited from her mother, who was a small time singer. At different points in her life, Edith wanted to be a singer, a writer and an actress. Her greatest desire was to become a movie star.
Phelan was completely against his daughter pursuing acting. On the other hand, Edith Beale, or Big Edie, encouraged it. Edith Bouvier Beale did not attend school between the ages of 11 and 13. Big Edie portrayed her as a sickly young girl, saying that she had breathing difficulties. This has not been confirmed. Big Edie may have enjoyed the attention and she certainly enjoyed the company of her daughter, no matter what the cost to Little Edie. Instead of school, Edith Bouvier Beale spent those two years attending many movies and theater productions with her mother.
Edith Bouvier Beale began modeling when she was a girl. She continued to do so into her twenties (possibly her thirties). She modeled for Macy’s Department Store in 1934. She also did fashion shows around this time. At the peak of her beauty and success, she was known as “Body Beautiful.” It was probably the happiest time of her life. However, when she was in her twenties, she began experiencing hair loss that would plague her for the rest of her life.
In 1947, Little Edie moved into the Barbizon Hotel for Women in New York City. There, she lived with other women who were pursuing careers in film and theater. Later in life, she would say that she was close to being signed with huge production companies toward the end of her stay in New York City. She boasted of affairs (in conversation and in her diary) with men like Howard Hughes, Joseph Kennedy Jr. and Secretary of State Julius Albert Krug, which have never been confirmed. Despite the fact that she was eccentric and possibly a mentally disturbed later in life, she was very beautiful and important enough to have her debutante party covered in the New York Times when she was in her prime. It is not impossible that Edith Bouvier Beale had affairs with important men.
While Little Edie was out trying to make it big, her mother was dealing with Phelan having an affair and eventually, a divorce. When the divorce happened, Big Edie got Grey Gardens and some child support. She broke out of her shell and began going to clubs, recording songs and pursuing a real career singing. However, her behavior and manner of dress offended her father, who had been helping her financially. Edith Bouvier Beale’s grandfather removed her mother from his will. This act and her parents’ divorce sealed both the Edies’ fates.
Big Edie had Little Edie move back into Grey Gardens in 1952. Her financial situation had already spiraled out of control. She had very little support and she needed her daughter, if only to have someone suffer with her. Edith Bouvier Beale conceded to her mother’s wish.
Little Edie and Big Edie had been pampered all their lives. Neither of them had ever made their own money, at least not enough to support themselves. They were the sort of women who are fragile without money and powerful men. Neither of them had any real job skills and no idea how to maintain themselves and a 28 room mansion in East Hampton. Big Edie could have sold the house and both of them could have lived comfortably, but apparently, she had no mind for such things.
Slowly, but surely, the once vivacious Edith Bouvier Beale became a reclusive, poor woman who lived in a filthy 28 room mansion that had fallen into utter disrepair. Trash piles that were several feet high clogged up the corners of the once beautiful mansion. Stray cats, which Edith fed, took over the house. Some estimates put their number at an astounding 300 cats. Some say that the Ediths took to eating cat food. The fact is they were horribly poor and seemingly oblivious.
After nearly 20 years of neglect, Grey Gardens was on the verge of being condemned. In 1971, the county issued a search warrant and Grey Gardens was declared uninhabitable. Edith Bouvier Beale was her usual oblivious self. She acted as if it were some kind of conspiracy theory. She and her mother were performers and sophisticated creative types; the house was not a concern. Cleanliness was not a concern. Lucky for them, Jacqueline Kennedy decided to pay $25,000 to have the house repaired. Little Edie continued to suffer her delusions and Big Edie continued to be content with having herself and her daughter live in squalor.
It did not take long before Grey Gardens was squalid again. Two years later, a documentary was made about Little Edie, Big Edie and their home. In the film, the house is a wretched mess. Edith Bouvier Beale, arguably the star of the film, prances around in contrived getups, putting on a sad fashion show for the filmmakers. You can see that she was formerly beautiful and you can feel the hopelessness that surrounds her, even if she cannot. She babbles on about lost chances, horoscopes, her clothes and more for the camera. At some points, she seems almost drugged, but she probably was not. Chances are Edith Bouvier Beale was mentally ill. Who wouldn’t be after living life on two ends of the spectrum, both with her looks and her lifestyle?
Big Edie died four years after the documentary “Grey Gardens” was filmed. Edith Bouvier Beale was left with the mansion. She began performing at a club in Greenwich Village. By then, she was 60-years-old. Sadly, she was probably more of a joke to the audience, who knew of her past, then a real performer. She does not seem to have minded, though. She said she was going to “have a ball” now that she could.
Grey Gardens was sold for 220,000 dollars and Edith Bouvier Beale took the money and ran. She traveled for a time, as far as Canada and California, before settling in Florida. She died there in 2002, at the age of 84.
A&E Network, Edith Bouvier Beale Biography, retrieved 9/11/10, biography.com/articles/Edith-Bouvier-Beale-435518?part=0