What makes two addled society ladies into legends? Being the subject of a classic film certainly doesn’t hurt. The 1976 documentary Grey Gardens, by Albert and David Maysles, took as its subjects the reclusive Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edie (known as Big Edie and Little Edie), respectively an aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The Edies lived in a decaying East Hampton mansion, from which the film drew its title. Grey Gardens features the pair squabbling and good-naturedly chatting with the filmmakers, pleased to have, finally, an audience for their narcissistic monologues and atonal warbling of nightclub tunes. The opposite of intrusive paparazzi, the artful Maysles brothers actually provided the Beales an opportunity for self-validation; Grey Gardens developed a cult-like following. And now a Broadway musical—recently nominated for ten Tonys and newly available on CD from PS Classics—based on the film has become the latest radical transformation of Big Edie and Little Edie for public consumption.
The musical Grey Gardens, which opened last November after an off-Broadway run, stars Christine Ebersole (Little Edie), who possesses a brilliant voice, an astonishing gift for mimicry, and razor-sharp timing. The veteran stage actress Mary Louise Wilson, as Big Edie, expresses the hopeless fierceness and comic triviality of a Samuel Beckett character. Their extraordinary performances are bathed in subtle lighting designed by Peter Kaczorowski, a design in stark contrast to the harsh and unforgiving light in the Maysles’ film, which exposed the Beales’ every wrinkle and bodily flaw.
Playbill candidly informs us that the events of the musical Grey Gardens are “based on both fact and fiction.” The show’s website may be less than accurate in proclaiming: “Meet Jackie O’s most scandalous relatives!” (Surely the Kennedy relatives who have been accused of felonies surpassed the Beales’ unhappiness in love or failed attempts at singing careers?) The website also somewhat disingenuously introduces the Beales as the “delightfully eccentric aunt and the cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.” The journalist Gail Sheehy, who in 1972 published a groundbreaking article about the Beales, recalled Grey Gardens’ floors as “lumped and crusty with old cat feces; the roof punctured with raccoon holes.” “Delightfully eccentric” indeed! But the musical’s greatest departure from the film is, of course, its filtering of the Beales’ tremendous weirdness through the great skill of two gifted and seasoned actresses, rather than showing them warts and all.
In the musical, Big Edie’s father castigates her for being an “actress without a stage.” If anything, the Beales’ posterity looks likely to contain too many stages: another movie—this one fully fictional and minus the songs—starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange is reportedly in the works. Still, the reality of the Beales’ lives may continue to dwarf any efforts at interpretation on stage or screen. After all, in 1979 Little Edie—who would die in 2002 at age 84—sold Grey Gardens to former Washington Post editor Benjamin Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn, who laboriously restored it and currently rent it out for most of the year. What screenwriter could have concocted that anticlimactic coda to the Beales’ improbable tale?