Grey Gardens first drew national attention through Gail Sheehy’s 1972 New York magazine cover story that looked into the lives of the two eccentric residents who allowed the property to deteriorate in inconceivable ways. Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, lived in seclusion on the once-magnificent 2-acre property that fell so far beyond reproach that it was eventually raided by the Suffolk County Health Department. A documentary film made in 1976 by Albert and David Maysles about the Edies and their decaying home, called “Grey Gardens,” became a cult classic.
Last year, HBO filmed a Grey Gardens movie which shows the Beales’ lives from the beginning, through the deterioration of the house they couldn’t leave behind. It’s an amazing film, and I’ve seen it about 10 times now (Mike loves this). The story is fascinating, but so is the actual house itself.
Here are some photos of the home from the movie (recreating what the house looked like in its heyday in 1936):
Well, the Beales divorced, and Phelan left Little Edie and Big Edie in the house with such a modest allowance, they could not afford to keep it up. However, Big Edie refused to sell. So the house fell into disrepair. After Big Edie died, Little Edit finally went about the task of putting it on the market. And it looked like this...
The house was put on the market for $220,000 but Little Edie had strange conditions and turned down many buyers, fearing they would tear it down and build something new. She sold it to Ms. Quinn on the condition that it would not be torn down.
“It was worse than the movie,” Ms. Quinn said, describing what she encountered on her first visit to the house at 3 West End Avenue. The windows were broken, vines climbed high up on the house, and the outside wall garden was so overgrown that she and her husband had only the word of Little Edie and their real estate agent that it existed.
Inside, shreds of fabric that once were curtains caught the wind as it traveled under unhinged walls and twisted through jagged glass window fragments. On the floor, Ms. Quinn recalls finding holes, raccoon skulls and waste from 52 cats that had become feral while still living within the property lines.
“The smell of the house was beyond anything you can imagine,” she said, later noting that the film never captured how awful it really was. “If you could put the smell on a DVD, you could get the picture.”
The showing had been arranged by a local real estate broker whom Ms. Quinn called a “killer agent” who would do anything to sell—but, repelled by the state of Grey Gardens, the broker refused to join her inside.
She had no intention of purchasing Grey Gardens, but it was on the market and affordable, and she was curious. “We had a small house in Amagansett, and we were looking around for something larger,” Ms. Quinn said.
Two years after Big Edie died in 1977, Little Edie sold the house to Sally Quinn and Benjamin C. Bradlee, who undertook a massive renovation. These photographs were taken by a photographer hired by Ms. Quinn at the time she and her husband purchased the house, in order to capture the extent of the decay.
“All it needs is a coat of paint,” Ms. Quinn recalled Little Edie telling her while twirling whimsically in the living room.
Today, the wall garden that was buried in growth behind the house resembles a lush secret garden and contains a vast array of diverse flowers and plants. Accessible by a small door in the stone wall, the garden has been enjoyed by invited guests at parties and benefits held over the years since the restoration was completed. Nothing is overly manicured, but everything is well maintained.
The house has been regularly described as a “28-room mansion,” but the Bradlees, including their son, Quinn Bradlee, 16, feel that to be an irksome overstatement. The house has more like 14 rooms, they said, but admitted there were a number of other smaller rooms before the restoration.
Downstairs, the primary spaces comprise a kitchen, dining room, sunroom and living room. Ms. Quinn said a grand piano stood in the corner of the living room when she first visited the house, but when she timidly began tapping the keys, it collapsed to the floor.
Mr. Bradlee’s first experience at Grey Gardens was even more distressing. At the behest of his wife, he found himself in the house, considering the purchase, when he was brought to his knees by a violent allergic attack triggered by the dense feline population.
The couple added French doors where there were once windows, and put a swimming pool in the back, outside the wall garden. Mr. Bradlee said the property was a mess, consisting of brown earth, overgrowth and thorny plants called “devil’s walking sticks,” which he said were “the meanest things you ever saw.”
“We leveled the whole goddamned place,” Mr. Bradlee said, later adding, “We literally bulldozed the entire property.”
Starting almost from scratch, the Bradlees began landscaping the gardens themselves until hiring noted gardener and author Victoria Fensterer, who created what exists today. “The garden is so good,” Mr. Bradlee said. “Fensterer is a genius.”
It was originally designed by Anna Gilman Hill, who brought the walls in from Spain.
The Bradlees found Gene Fudderman, an architect who followed their uncommon passion for keeping the structure standing and restoring it, and hired apprentice carpenter Robert Langman to do the building.
“The whole thing was a magical experience,” Ms. Quinn said.
As they moved ahead with the restoration and renovations, Lois Wright, a local public access television host who wrote a book about her experiences with her friends the Beales, came by with a message for Ms. Quinn from Big Edie, who died more than two years before: Ms. Wright said Big Edie was thrilled Ms. Quinn had bought the house and would watch over everything and make sure the massive job went smoothly.
When Little Edie left, Ms. Quinn offered her the option to leave Grey Gardens as is or broom-cleaned—removing the furniture and debris. Little Edie, as she was, left everything.
“The entire attic was filled with fabulous furniture,” Ms. Quinn said, pointing out some of the original pieces in the living room, including wicker chairs, antique tables and a pair of seafoam green chaise lounges on which one could still conjure the image of the Edies, side by side, in all their enigmatic glory. Most of the furniture in Grey Gardens are restored pieces that Edie left behind.