Three things fashion loves: eccentrics, glamour and tragicomedy – that perverse play of humour and sadness cherished in the British (and camp) comedy canon. Grey Gardens has an abundance of all three, so naturally it has become an enduring cult classic among fashion folk. Released in 1975, the film was directed by documentary filmmakers and brothers Albert and David Maysles. It depicts the lives of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale, or as they are more usually known, Big Edie and Little Edie. Fashion people who haven’t at least been to a fancy dress party where someone is dressed as Little Edie are few and far between.
Born into high society, the Edies were close relatives of American First Lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis (Jackie O) and her sister Lee Radziwill – Big Edie was their aunt, and Little Edie their first cousin. And it was during filming for a planned documentary about Lee’s life (which she was funding herself) that the Maysles brothers first visited the Bouvier Beale estate in the Hamptons. When they arrived at Grey Gardens, the Maysles realised they had discovered two of the most fascinating subjects a documentary maker could possibly hope to find.
Despite their rich and well-connected family history, the mother and daughter pair were almost completely isolated from the outside world and, surprisingly, were living in abject squalor. Surrounded by the faded trappings of their wealth and social status – from a commissioned portrait painting of Big Edie in her youth, to a dusty grand piano, and battered but ornate furniture – they also cohabited with dozens of semi-feral cats (and mountains of empty cat food tins), semi-domesticated raccoons, peeling wallpaper, piles of magazine cuttings, and mounds of couture. Living together in a world of their own creation, the Edies were a time capsule of manners, romantic expectations, culture and aesthetics. And they are also really, really funny.
They cohabited with dozens of semi-feral cats (and mountains of empty cat food tins), semi-domesticated raccoons, peeling wallpaper, piles of magazine cuttings, and mounds of couture
"But you see in dealing with me, the relatives didn't know that they were dealing with a staunch character, and I tell you if there's anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman, S-T-A-U-N-C-H," says Little Edie. "There's nothing worse, I'm telling you. They don't weaken, no matter what." From monologues on her temperament to stories of the rich suitors she rejected ("She had a proposal of marriage from Paul Getty...Remember Paul, the richest man in the world?"), Little Edie is a rare and fantastical bird. And never more so than when she gives an impromptu dance recital ("Do you think I'm gonna look funny dancing?" she asks the Maysles coyly. "I do terrific dances!") or models an extravagant costume change for the camera. "This is the best thing to wear for today, you understand," she says. "Because I don't like women in skirts and the best thing is to wear pantyhose or some pants under a short skirt, I think. Then you have the pants under the skirt and then you can pull the stockings up over the pants underneath the skirt. And you can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape. So I think this is the best costume for today."
Together with Big Edie – who can usually be heard in the film calling "Oh, Ediiiiie" to her daughter – the pair make a spectacular double act. "The cat's going to the bathroom right in back of my portrait," Big Edie says, while sitting in one of only three habitable rooms in the 28-room mansion. "God, isn't that awful?" Little Edie drawls absentmindedly. "No, I'm glad he is," Big Edie counters. "I'm glad somebody's doing something he wanted to do."
Despite the humour, there is a sadness that pervades the film. From Little Edie’s thwarted romances, to her plan to go to New York in the autumn ("I bet you one billion dollars you don’t go to New York next fall," Big Edie scolds), it’s clear that Little Edie feels trapped at Grey Gardens; and with the Maysles documenting a number of her breakdowns, people have accused the film of being exploitative.
The same accusation was levelled at Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning, another cult documentary among fashion folk, which chronicles the (drag) ball culture in New York City in the late '80s, and the oppressed and impoverished lives of the African American and Latinx gay and transgender communities who took part. Both films take a subculture (of just two, in the Edies’ case), and allow us to inhabit their world. Fashion’s obsession with eccentric people – and people read as eccentrics due to their marginalisation – likely has something to do with its never-ending quest for the new. A central challenge for fashion people is to create something (a collection, an editorial, a campaign) that is as original as possible. (Especially in the age of copycat call-out culture à la Diet Prada.) And where do the most original, unexpected and non-derivative ideas come from? Often, true eccentrics. People who have been isolated in some way from mainstream culture, and so have radically different frames of reference. It is 'strangeness' as survival.
Just as the discovery of the New York character and proto-street style photographer Bill Cunningham’s secret memoir sent a wave of excitement through the industry, so too did news of a second film about the women of Grey Gardens. Titled That Summer, the film is pieced together from archive footage shot by Lee Radziwill’s artist boyfriend Peter Beard in 1972, a few years before the Maysles shot Grey Gardens, and intended to be part of a documentary on the history of the Hamptons. Peter’s footage was thought to be lost, but when four reels showed up, he gave them to the Swedish director Göran Olsson – a master of editing, and director of The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 – to work into a new film.
Along with the four reels Peter shot at Grey Gardens, Göran acquired film by Andy Warhol showing the glamorous Studio 54 crowd, including Lee and Peter, Truman Capote, Mick and Bianca Jagger and others on the beach in the Hamptons at the same time Peter was filming there, and an audio interview with Lee Radziwill about that era recorded by Sofia Coppola. While the celebrity names give a sense of what was happening in the world outside of Grey Gardens at that time – the '70s pop culture history you already know – Big Edie and Little Edie are more fascinating still. Framed anew by the freedom of the holidaying artists, Little Edie’s life at Grey Gardens appears isolated, but also defiant. As Lee attempts to fix up their home to the standard expected by the Hamptons council, we see how disturbing the Edies find the intrusion into their way of life, which in many ways they are completely comfortable with. As Little Edie puts it, "I think any of us would be happy to have raccoons who look upon us as friends."