It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A chance to wander through Long Island’s fabled Grey Gardens and maybe even take a piece of it with me.
Last weekend, author Sally Quinn, the soon-to-be former owner Grey Gardens, held an estate sale. She was selling off stuff she no longer wanted plus some iconic items that were labeled as “Original Grey Gardens“…items owned by Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter “Little Edie.”
Quinn recently sold the estate to an undisclosed buyer for between $17-$19 million. She and her late husband Ben Bradlee — the former Executive Editor of the Washington Post — liked to visit Grey Gardens every summer for just the month of August. Bradlee passed away in 2014. Quinn felt the place wasn’t the same without him and decided to move on.
In case you don’t know the astonishing and terribly tragic story of Grey Gardens, the Edies were the co-dependent and reclusive mother and daughter, aunt and cousin, of the late Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. (Big Edie was the sister of Jackie’s father, Black Jack Bouvier).
The Beale family owned the mansion from 1923 to 1979 until Little Edie sold the property to Bradlee and Quinn. (Big Edie died in 1977, Little Edie lived alone at Grey Gardens for another two years. She eventually moved to Florida, Montreal and back to Florida before she died in 2002 at the age of 84).
The couple bought the place for $220,000 with the stipulation that Grey Gardens was not to be torn down.
Bradlee and Quinn bought a mess. Structurally, the Beales had let the place go to ruin. Cats, raccoons and other animals took up residence inside the mansion along with the eccentric Edies. There were open holes in the roof. The beautiful walled garden was a tangled, overgrown, neglected disaster. As little Edie once put it, “a sea of leaves.”
Bradlee told The New York Times that he wasn’t sure he wanted to buy the place, that there were 52 dead cats inside and that funerals had to be planned for each one of them. Quinn later said it would have been easier to demolish Grey Gardens and start over.
Quinn said she had to tear most of the wood out — a lot of it was rotted — to remove the cat smell from the house. (Strangely, that’s the first question a lot of people asked when they heard I’d gone inside: “Is the cat smell gone?” The answer, yes.)
The Beales were New York socialites who summered at Grey Gardens. After a life of privilege and glamour, their existence had deteriorated to one of isolation and squalor after Big Edie’s husband, Phelan Beale, left her in 1934 and eventually divorced her in 1946. Phelan, an attorney, fell on hard times in the years following the great stock market crash of 1929. He substantially reduced Big Edie’s allowance. Little Edie was hoping to make it big as a performer in York City. She abandoned her dreams in 1952 when she was summoned to live with her mother. The Edies ended up sharing the home for nearly a half century.
The plight of the women made headlines in 1972 when Suffolk County health inspectors threatened to remove them from their abhorrent conditions. There was no working plumbing or running water. At that point, Kennedy Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill paid for repairs and to have years of accumulated trash hauled away. But once Jackie O had the place cleaned up, the Edies allowed conditions to revert to a mess again.
Albert and David Maysles produced the documentary “Grey Gardens” in 1975 about the women and their lives at the estate. The chronicle shined light on the story that lived within those walls. They followed up with the lesser-known “The Beales of Grey Gardens,” which consisted of material that didn’t make it into the original documentary. Drew Barrymore recreated the role of Little Edie and Jessica Lange played Big Edie in the Hollywood movie. There was also a Broadway play.
While to outsiders it looks as though the women were living a horrible life, watching the Maysles’ documentary, I got the impression that they were happy and comfortable enough to be themselves with abandon. That’s something few people in polite society are ever allowed to do. Despite that, Little Edie talked through the whole film about how all she wanted to do is escape Grey Gardens and lamented all of her missed opportunities. The documentary is a fascinating, yet devastating true story of love, devotion, yearning, loss and mental illness.
I’ve always been fascinated with Grey Gardens since first seeing the Maysles’ documentary. As a journalist, I was also interested in Ben Bradlee. In fact, I produced his obituary for CBS Newspath. This past summer, my sister and I found the property (you can’t really see it from the road, as hedges pretty much hide it). We drove onto the circular drive and jumped out of the car to nervously snap a few pictures. I was thrilled at the opportunity a few months later to actually go inside.
I wasn’t alone. The sale started on a Friday. I heard about it late that night and decided to make the trip out to East Hampton very early Saturday morning. I was #7 inside, as the auction company allowed groups of 40 at a time to go in. People lined up for about a half block waiting for a chance to take a peek and maybe grab a souvenir. But unfortunately, the place was pretty well picked over by Friday evening. Still, I was more interested in seeing the home for myself than buying anything.
All that remained were some kitchen goods, linens, fans, mattresses and other household items. The remaining “Original Grey Gardens” furniture was quite old and faded. Everything was priced to sell, costing between $2 and $700. I ended up with a silver spoon (go figure) and three crystal goblets (could be Original Grey Gardens, but I’ll never know) a few votives and a set of floral coasters. Grand total $14. But again, that’s not why I was there. I came to experience Grey Gardens.
The home is beautiful, a typical Hamptons abode. (If you watch the Food Network’s “Barefoot Contessa” — Grey Gardens is reminiscent of Ina Garten’s home in East Hampton.) It’s solid and huge — the outside view doesn’t do justice to the amount of space inside. There’s extensive woodwork. Bradlee and Quinn did a beautiful job renovating the place without taking away from its original charm and character.
When you first walk in, you see the staircase, where Little Edie appeared in the documentary dancing and waving the American flag. The steps wind upward to a huge open hallway with six bedrooms jutting off from every angle.
Among the bedrooms is the the one where the Maysles shot most of their documentary. That was the room where the Edies essentially lived — at least during the six weeks of shooting the documentary. Quinn restored the bedroom to its original shade of yellow. There was a sign on the door indicating many of her guests refused to sleep there because they feared ghosts. Ghosts who presumably liked pate with a slice of lemon, or maybe some boiled corn-on-the-cob chased with a quart of ice cream. Staunch spirits who loved to sing.
There are three more bedrooms — added by Quinn — in the attic. Prior to the renovation, the attic contained many of the pieces of furniture that were sold at the estate sale — the “Original Grey Gardens” stuff.
Back down the stairs, as you walk in through the front door — to the right is a huge sitting room / parlor with a big fireplace. Large windows overlook the patio. That room leads to a spacious and beautiful glassed-in solarium that contains a wet bar and overlooks the famous walled garden.
In the opposite direction on the other side of the stairway and foyer, there’s a big dining room with a fireplace leading to a hallway into the kitchen, which is HUGE. Modern fixtures now adorn the space. The day I was there, furniture was situated to resemble a small sitting room with a sofa and two love seats and chairs right in the middle with plenty of room to spare in the kitchen. I’ve seen photographs of this same space when Quinn and Bradlee lived there and they also used this space as sort of a lounge.
Continuing through the kitchen there’s a breakfast room, which has a white wrought-iron spiral staircase leading up to one of the bedrooms.
The gardens themselves are beautiful, however Long Island recently had its first killing frost so everything was dormant. I took a walk around the yard, passing a beautiful little gazebo with a thatched roof. Outside this lovely space is the grave of “Spot Beale,” a beloved family dog that died in 1942.
There are concrete benches situated around the garden along with an enclosed pergola and sitting area against the back wall. The grey concrete for the wall was imported from Spain and runs around the perimeter — hence “Grey Gardens.” In the distance, you can hear the waves rolling in at Georgica Beach. I can only imagine how lovely this wonderful, peaceful place looks and feels when it’s in full bloom.
There’s also a Har-Tru (similar to green clay) tennis court and a big Gunite swimming pool that Bradlee and Quinn added to the property.
I spent about an hour and a half inside the home and gardens. The beautiful thing was that the company administering the sale was generous about letting people wander and get the feel of the place without rushing anyone out. The way it worked, you came in and had free run of the house and gardens. The caveat was anything you wanted to buy you had to haul around with you. If you left for any reason and wanted to come back inside, you had to get back in line. I talked with people who were so excited just to be there as they walked around with their treasures and took photographs. Most were discussing the Beales as they marveled at the restoration and wondered what the Edies would have thought of all of us traipsing through their sacred sanctuary.
The weather was overcast and dreary the day I went to Grey Gardens. I wondered if the moody weather was a foreshadowing of the estate’s future. It’s not known if Quinn sold the mansion with the same stipulation — not to tear it down — as when she bought it. I hope the new owners leave this piece of history intact. The estate is on prime property, about a block away from the ocean and beach.
A security guard working the sale said it was his understanding that Grey Gardens’ new owners want nothing to do with the story once they take over the property. So I’m figuring my little field trip really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I’m really glad I went. I wish my sister had been able to go with me.
— note: All of the photographs are mine, along with the November 18 video of the gardens. LF