Grey Gardens: Brilliant Manipulators or Victims of Exploitation?


When does “participating in something that doesn’t show you to best advantage” equate with being duped? When you’re Big Edie and Little Edie Beale (featured in the documentary film and Tony Award-winning Broadway adaptation of Grey Gardens) living off of ice cream in a dilapidated 28-room East Hampton mansion, and being eccentric is equated with schizophrenia.

Blame the finger wagging on the fact that they were the polar opposite of their close relative, Jackie O. But mentally ill? We’re as offended by that charge as the new PBS documentary, Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway, reveals that Little Edie was. In fact, she wrote an unpublished letter to New York Times reviewer Walter Goodman explaining that she and her mother were not the helpless victims of exploitation by filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, or as Goodman so harshly put it, “a circus side show.”

In her opinion the foursome were equal collaborators in a new kind motion picture — “a breakthrough into the very beautiful and precious thing called life.” Perhaps the mother/daughter duo would have fared better in the South, where crazy old lady characters are a dime a dozen; they certainly could have taught Britney Spears a thing or two that would have worked well in her recent MTV doc.

Jezebel has some clips from the PBS special here (it replays on New York’s Channel 13 Friday at 4:00 a.m.), and as one of their commenters points out, in My Life at Grey Gardens author Lois Wright, a family friend who spent 13 months living with the Beales, says that fame-hungry Little Edie loved all of the attention she received from the film. We’ll tune in on Friday and let you know what we think. There’s also an HBO film based on their lives starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange due out in April of next year, so victims or not, it seems like the crazy Beales (who are both dead now) aren’t planning on leaving the public eye any time soon.