This series of posts prompted me to do a bit of digging about Pamela Beale, ex-wife of Christopher Beale, Little Edie's nephew. Edie lived with Pamela and Chris Beale in Oakland in the late 1990s.
Oakland's Pamela Beale, whose aunt and cousin, Big and Little Edie Beale, are the subject of "Grey Gardens, the Musical," went to New York for its Broadway opening. Lead Christine Ebersole "sings beautifully and the show is well done," she e-mails, "but I can't help but feel that the 'cleaning up' and trivializing of the desperate circumstances of Big and Little Edie's lives was a travesty." Many people involved with the Beales "are now making a fortune after they are dead," she says, but the two "fabulous, artistic, misunderstood women living in a misogynist world were left to make do on a pittance."
(The New York Times Ben Brantley's review focused on Ebersole's performance, "an experience no passionate theatergoer should miss... The best argument I can think of for the survival of the American musical.")
From New York Magazine's Letters to the Editor, by Pamela Beale, on 27 November 2006
From Truth to Broadway
I enjoyed the review of Grey Gardens by Jeremy McCarter ["Theater: The East Hampton Star," November 13]. He accurately describes Edie Beale as "lucidly nutty," "elegant and monstrous." I knew Edie for 22 years while I was married to her nephew Chris Beale. So I was excited to make the trip to New York to see Grey Gardens. Christine Ebersole is indeed transcendent. However, the show made me sad and angry all over again that these two beautiful, artistic women were so abused by the misogynistic culture of the time and place in which they lived. The story is more worthy of a tragic opera than a trivial Broadway "hit."
-Pamela Beale, Oakland, Calif.
This is very different from how I think of the musical and the story of the Edith Bouvier Beales.
Here's a brief exchange between actress Christine Ebersole (who plays both Edies in the musical) and TCM's Robert Osborne, from when Ebersole appeared on the channel when they aired the original documentary.
Robert Osbourne: I think it's a fascinating story for all of us because I think it's, like, the definitive tale of not taking charge of your life. That's what fascinated about Little Edie.
Christine Ebersole: I think it's more complex than that for me because I see it as sort of not conforming. Not being a conformist. And sort of listening to your own drumbeat.
Robert Osbourne: (visually uncomfortable) Right, right...
I've been impressed at how Ebersole holds her ground and gently corrects people with what I've always thought of as misinterpretations of the film and musical. However, continuing with the review from The Unbearable Lightness of Blogging:
Ms. Ebersole is not just wrong, she is very wrong, and very wrong twice. The first time is when she congratulated herself for possessing such a "complex" understanding of Little Edie, when in actuality, deriving empowerment from this character is about as superficial a reading of it as you can get. The second time takes place when the actress extolls Little Edie's iconoclastic non-conformist virtues. This is undoubtedly a popular view among those who have made "Grey Gardens" a cult classic, largely for Little Edie's campy persona and unique ideas about fashion. Like Ms. Ebersole, they are wrong, very wrong, and do the film a great disservice.
Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter (Little) Edie are the black sheep of the New England Bouvier family (best known for its most famous alumni, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis), leading life in relative obscurity until their general uncleanliness and rejection of traditional lawn/home maintenance attracts the attention of local health inspectors (or, as the Beales like to call them, "Republicans"). Blind to their own relative squalor, Little Edie remarks in one memorable line "they can get you in East Hampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday." One wonders what these fascists would do if your crumbling mansion were home to a growing family of raccoons; that is until we find out who's living in the Beales' attic.
Much of the film documents the unrelenting back and forth between mother and daughter, circling the reasons behind their exile like an Escher illustration - moving closer yet farther away at the same time. Edith, like her famous niece, managed to marry even richer than she was, only to see her husband leave her for another woman (Little Edie doesn't even consider her mother divorced - "My father got a fake Mexican divorce. But we didn't recognize it). She lives in the past, spending her days singing along to records she herself recorded in her youth and staring at a painted portrait made forty years earlier that stray cats now shit behind. Edith doesn't leave her bed much, cooking her meals from a nearby hot plate.
Given her age and health, Edith's presence here is understandable (though surely still bizarre). Little Edie, the undeniable star of this piece, is entirely more complicated. Quite attractive as a debutante of American aristocracy, she never marries despite a number of proposals...or so she claims. She isn't reliable in her perceptions of past or current realities, particularly in regards to men and their affections. They all want sex (perhaps), and further, sex with her (not any more). Little Edie claims she returns to Grey Gardens to take care of her ailing mother (a fact that Edith refutes, and we believe her). She is often making asides to the camera, expressing a desire to leave this place for the neon lights of New York City. Yet no one is keeping her prisoner - the locks on her door are her own.
Verily, Little Edie (and to a lesser extent, her mother) are obsessed with men. It's a truly pre-feminist mentality (if we take anything away from the film, it is that "Grey Gardens" is a deconstruction of this mentality) taken to its grotesque extreme. Indeed, they appear to be waiting for a man to save them from these rotting walls and servant-less existence (picking up a broom is beneath them). The Beales truly are the idle rich, except they're not rich anymore and haven't realized it yet. They are convinced, as those with money always are, that the help is stealing from them (in this case, benevolent handyman Jerry) even when there's nothing to steal.
"Not conforming?" "Not being a conformist?" Little Edie is the ultimate conformist, always seeking approval and always performing - for the camera, for her mother, and in the absence of either, one imagines, herself.
Still stuffed with Thanksgiving turkey, this is quite a bit to digest! It's clear that the story of the Edith Bouvier Beales is quite complex and can be viewed from many different angles. I thank Pamela Beale, Christine Ebersole, Robert Osborne, and Kevin for their takes on this story. I'll certainly be playing over all this in my mind for the next few days.