We watched the seminal ’70s documentary, Grey Gardens, because why not? Annemarie needed to bear witness to the absurdity that is Little Edie running about, whispering with a sweater on her head and Big Edie suggesting that film is wasted on her, because whatever her daughter is doing must be crazy. So, kick us off AM. Were you adequately prepared for Grey Gardens? What is your reaction? Did you go home and clean your house? Did you read a billion articles about these two?
AM: I thought I was prepared, but these two are wayyyyyyy more bonkers than I could have imagined. I remember seeing a short snippet on Gilmore Girls, I knew there was an HBO film starring Drew Barrymore a few years ago and I did know that they were related to Jackie Kennedy. I wasn’t aware of the magnitude of decrepitude these women were living in, or just how nuts they must have become, living in that state. I’m going to hold off reading any more about them until we put our thoughts down here, but I find the whole thing to be overwhelmingly sad.
Little Edie in particular is bitter about the experiences she didn’t have and the men she didn’t marry because she was “stuck” at Grey Gardens. She’d rather live in a tiny shithole apartment in New York City than continue living with her mom, and part of me doesn’t blame her for her anger. There’s always something that we miss out on, no matter how our lives turn out, and Little Edie’s angst comes from way more than FOMO. She’s missed out on her entire life, and I think the desperation has turned her quite crazy.
In addition to the situation being sad, the film itself is almost unwatchable. I understood only about 15% of what either woman was saying because they TALKED OVER EACH OTHER CONSTANTLY. It makes for an interesting narrative, but damn does that make it hard to follow. Brooke, what are your thoughts on this film and how completely bonkers it is?
B: This was actually only the second time I have seen Grey Gardens, and while I think it is a much watch for its sheer absurdity, it probably would not have come up on our list for quite a long while if it hadn’t been for Afternoon Tea. Like you, AM, I find this movie terribly tragic. It’s heartbreaking to think too deeply on the way these women are living their lives. I also recall turning on the subtitles during my first watch, but somehow I was able to speak their language pretty well this time out, except for when the over talking was at its most extreme. I’m kind of alarmed by that.
Anyway, let’s see if we can unpack this thing. One of the things I remembered most vividly was Little Edie’s dance numbers. She seems to find some genuine joy in those moments, and this accentuates her childlike nature. I found myself rather stunned when it was revealed early on that she is a woman in her 50s. To be sure, she has the angst of those years, but more often her spirit overwhelms that and she comes off almost as an innocent. What do you think AM, should she have married any of those guys they mentioned? Should she have run away to New York? Is she a victim here, or is she blaming her inaction on a sick mother? Also — where are her brothers, and how can they let their own family exist like this? At least Jackie swooped in and cleaned house.
A: I was also shocked to learn that Little Edie was that old. For how poorly they live their lives, she actually looked younger than that to me. She definitely acts no older than about 15, both when she’s happily dancing away in the foyer and when she’s griping about her lot in life. Looking back, there’s definitely a mental illness present in her (I’m not a doctor, but it’s kind of obvious). It’s a chicken-and-egg question to wonder whether Little Edie came home to deal with mental illness or if the mental illness manifested itself as a result of moving home. My guess is that it’s some combination of the two, since the “official” reason was that Big Edie was sick and needed help. When we get this view on the two women, it’s clearly they’re both suffering from mental illness, although Big Edie seems to have more of a grasp on reality than her daughter.
Again, I can’t overemphasize how tragically sad this whole thing is, but I do understand the morbid fascination with their lives. We love nothing more than building up the rich and famous and breaking them down. We look at the charmed lives of American royalty like the Bouviers and Kennedys and we marvel in their wealth and privilege but when we discover that one of them has fallen on hard times, we can’t gorge ourselves enough on the horrible details. I think the situation we see at Grey Gardens was due to so many factors, and it’s hard to forgive Big Edie’s other children for abandoning them, but also, can you blame them? Who would put themselves deliberately into that mess, except for that odd kid who enjoyed the way Big Edie “did” her corn? This is why Hoarders is a series on A&E and a thing that exists.
I would bet that Little Edie’s brags about the men who wanted her back in the day are based somewhat in truth, but I doubt she had all the proposals she said she did. Not that anyone needs to be married to be happy, but it is curious to think about what might have happened if she had found a partner and perhaps also had children. Maybe it would have ended just as tragically — or even more tragically — but you do get the sense that she never grew up, never had adult responsibilities and wouldn’t have known how to deal with it even if circumstances were different. Since this is a documentary and the lives of the people shown do continue in real life, we know that Little Edie did make it back to New York after her mother died (not long after the film was shot), as well as had stints in Florida, before she passed away.
Brooke, are you buying what Little Edie is selling in terms of blaming the house and her mother? How many cats can one have before one becomes a true cat hoarder? And let’s discuss outfits. Headscarves / sweaters are just the beginning.
B: I think that Big Edie and that environment absolutely exasperates whatever might have been going on with Little Edie to begin with — we do know that she was in New York for a time before the war, and before returning home, and it seems that she was happy there. Or at least she thought she was. I tend to think that she would have had a much more full life had she stayed there. After all, she is disgusted by the cat toilet behind the picture and she does have pursuits of her own, but she’s constantly interrupted and criticized by her mother. That’s toxic for anyone. She may have been a rather wacky eccentric in New York, but it’s difficult not to believe she wouldn’t have had a less tragic day-to-day experience. Even if she never did marry any fella. I wonder what she would have done for money, as I seem to recall her balking at getting a job at one point in the picture. I like to imagine her teaching children’s theater.
AM. I’m going to need you to promise me, your perpetually single partner in over-analysis and verboseness, something. If I ever acquire more than two cats or start reminiscing about all the people I could have married, or generally let a beautiful home fall apart around me, I’m going to need you to intervene. I think I can get on board with wearing a sweater on the hair as an improvised bit of fashion though — consider that a sign, perhaps, but it’s nothing to halt the presses over. Cool?
Anyway, for two people with a lot of space, I’m going to say anything more than three cats is pushing it — MAYBE four, but probably not. You never want to be too outnumbered by your furry companions, it seems like you’re asking for a coup somehow.
But now, onto the question of outfits. I genuinely adore that Little Edie is blazing her own trail in this respect. She has limited resources, but it is clear that she still makes an effort to cultivate and curate her Look. I enjoy the all red number she pairs with her patriotic dance and I have to respect that ever managed to arrange the sweaters as gracefully as she did. It’s a detail that you almost wouldn’t catch if you weren’t looking for it — and that is saying something. Now, I’ve never been to The Hamptons (that’s roughly where they are, yeah?), so I don’t know how to gauge the temperature there, but I have to think I would have a bathing suit-heavy wardrobe if I lived literally *on the beach* as they do. Now, Big Edie, is an entirely different story. So far as I can tell, she pairs big fold-y hats with as little else as possible. At one point she wantonly flashes the camera, I think out of defiance? I guess I’m impressed that this is her power play, but I have to think that if it’s hot and sweaty there that one would at least want a shift or something to keep different limbs and bits of flesh from sweating on each other, no?
Let’s also explore the food in this picture a bit, what even is happening there? Also, if you had Grey Gardens, how would you decorate and what kind of fabulous parties would you throw?
A: I’ve also never been to the Hamptons, but that’s indeed where they are, East Hampton to be exact. My understanding is that New York City gets so unbearably hot during the summer that all the well-to-do and the somewhat-less-well-to-do flock out to Long Island every chance they get. This is based mostly on a book about how a bartender works her way through the social landmines surrounding the very rich in New York. It’s called The Perfect Manhattan and it’s pure fluff, but I adore it. So I think the bathing costume is an appropriate wardrobe choice, but a sweater wrapped around the head might be pushing it in terms of pure comfort. I also applaud the effort to be fashion-forward, and you’re right, Big Edie seems to be purely interested in provoking the documentarians and her daughter, likely in equal measures.
The ladies seem to subsist on a diet of mostly ice cream, pate, and corn somehow cooked in Big Edie’s bedroom/kitchen/sitting room/cat bathroom. I’m on board with an occasional dinner consisting mostly or entirely of cake, but I don’t know how anyone exists on what they were eating. We see glimpses of food being delivered, and this is an era right smack in the middle of microwaved dinners, so I don’t know what else made it into their little world. We’ve discussed briefly the causes, but we haven’t directly addressed the elephant in the room: the smell. Between the lack of cleaning, the accumulated garbage and dirt, the cat and raccoon feces and urine, probably a lack of personal grooming, and the fact that it was summer in a beach house, the stench must have been overwhelming. So add into that into the thought of eating cooked corn on the cob? That’s barf-worthy. I solemnly swear that I will intervene if you veer into Big Edie / Little Edie territory, but do feel free to try out wearing sweaters or stockings on your head. You do you, girl.
I can easily imagine the life of a Hamptons socialite, with grand themed parties inside and out. Living that close to the beach, but with that house and pool? You wouldn’t need to be a Hilton or a Bouvier to have lots of hanger-on friends. If there’s such a thing as throwing slightly more subtle Gatsby-style parties, that’d be me. At the very least, I’d insist that my friends all potluck at my pool twice every week. We don’t need fancy, just burgers, beer, and potato salad and of course, all the ice cream. I cheated a bit and looked at what Grey Gardens looked like circa 2009 when it was on the real estate market, and it’s absolutely stunning. They renovated it so it’s beachy yet classic, with gorgeous gardens and landscaping and what looks like super comfortable beds and couches. I’d actually just keep everything as it was sold 8 years ago. Does the furniture come with a house on the market for $20 million? It’s a remarkable turnaround for a historic house that deserved to be preserved and loved. My heart breaks that the Edies couldn’t do it, but that has since been rectified.
Brooke, what sort of parties would you throw? Are you rather shocked that the owners post-Edies didn’t have to completely bulldoze the house?
B: I would definitely follow in your model of having my entourage around on the regular — and always with snacks! But I think I’d occasionally go in for a full-on theme party, fun vintage dress and shenanigans, because, why not. We both know I would have a killer screening room, and next-level watch parties would be my main jam though.
I am really quite stunned that any of the house could be saved, mostly because of the aforementioned smell. It seems like once that’s there, there can be no going back, but maybe if you say “I don’t care what it costs” and mean it, stripping down to the bones and preserving the history really is a possibility. Now pardon me while I gaze off into the distance and dream about having that kind of scratch.
Next time we’ll meet a very different dynamic duo. If you’ve ever wondered what the more Riot Grrrl-flavored little sisters of Buffy Summers and Veronica Mars would look like, we’ve found them, and they’re wonderful.