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Grey Gardens, Act III

posted by Nell Minow

What is is about the story of Grey Gardens that has been so enduringly fascinating? They have inspired a documentary film, a Broadway musical, endless articles, even a song by Rufus Wainwright.

Some people think it is because the two women who lived in splendid squalor were the aunt and cousin of one of the world’s most famous and glamorous women, Jacqueline Kennedy. And some think it is because of the schadenfreude effect — seeing two women born to wealth and power fall into helpless poverty. Both are certainly a part of it, but I believe the reason that the story of the two Edith Beales is so enthralling is because of something central to the lives of all of us. It is about family ties that both sustain and constrain. It is about the line between function and dysfunction. It is about devotion. It is about love. It is about control. And it is about the way that the route to madness is much more slippery and treacherous than we would like it to be.

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Edith Beale and her daughter “Little Edie” lived in a mansion in East Hampton called Grey Gardens. At one time they were at the heart of high society and Little Edie, a debutante, was known as “Body Beautiful Beale.” Their lives seemed filled with luxury and promise. But by the time a documentary film crew arrived in the early 1970’s the mansion had fallen into filth and disrepair. The two women shared the house with more than fifty cats and other animals. They had almost no electricity or plumbing. The women’s behavior was outlandish, even delusional, but their resilience and ferocious passion for survival were inspiring. They were not just willing to defy convention; they seemed to relish it. The film was a sensation. It led to a Tony-award-winning Broadway musical starring Christine Ebersole. Tonight, the latest version of the story premieres in HBO, starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.

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Here is a clip from the original documentary with Little Edie explaining her “revolutionary” attire, followed by Ebersole in a scene from the musical based on that monologue and a trailer for the HBO movie.

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