You've probably read similar stories before, but it's always great for Grey Gardens to get publicity, and for Sally to get kudos for saving the house!
Grey Gardens Revisited
Grey Gardens, the former home of Big and Little Edie Beale, was a ramshackle mess when Ben Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn, bought it. Three decades later, it’s a showplace.
Grey Gardens stood crippled and barely upright on scorched earth, the grounds devoured by thorny overgrowth, its walls flapping in the wind. The squalid rooms inside contained cat skeletons, excrement and all manner of detritus from its owner’s damaged life.
But Sally Quinn saw something beautiful.
Ms. Quinn, an author and journalist, and her husband, Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post’s vice president and former executive editor, bought the East Hampton estate for $220,000 in 1979 and restored the lonely ruins from a sad curiosity to a rich and thriving home that is as attractive as it is accessible.
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.
“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.
Big Edie died in 1977, two years before Ms. Quinn visited Grey Gardens alone in 1979. She was greeted by Little Edie and toured the estate, finding that despite its condition, the property, designed by Joseph Greenleaf Thorpe in 1897, was fabulous.
Ms. Quinn, who is in East Hampton with Mr. Bradlee for the month of August, said she and her husband love ruins and had no intention of tearing Grey Gardens down when they bought it. “We don’t like to tear things down,” Ms. Quinn said. That fact separated the Bradlees from other buyers and secured them Little Edie’s blessing to buy Grey Gardens.
“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.
“It’s not so awesome that you can’t have a good time here,” Mr. Bradlee said. He pointed out the small garden house within the wall garden and said he wrote much of his memoir, “A Good Life,” inside its tight confines.
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. It was Mr. Langman’s first job, but the results propelled his career and moved him to later work for notables like Kurt Vonnegut and Nora Ephron.
“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.
The project came in on time and under budget, an almost impossibility on the East End, according to Ms. Quinn. “Clearly, Big Edie was on the case,” she said. “That was very reassuring.”
Although Little Edie lived until 2002, Ms. Quinn never saw her again after purchasing the house. “There was something really heartbreaking about her,” she said, noting Little Edie’s potential “had turned to dust.”
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.
The attic, which has since been converted into a dormitory for the Bradlees’ son, also contained a trunk of the Beales’ letters, which the Bradlees intend to bring to an archivist in Washington, where they live most of the year.
“Grey Gardens” the movie was recently adapted into a Broadway musical, and the Bradlees said they were thrilled. Christine Ebersole won a Tony for Best Leading Actress in a Musical this year for her role as Little Edie, and Ms. Quinn said she was amazing. “I thought it was brilliant,” she added.
“It was eerie,” Mr. Bradlee said, describing the “offbeat” production.
Though they spend only one month a year at Grey Gardens, the Bradlees enjoy the property while they’re here. They rent the house to Francis Hayward 11 months of the year and say the arrangement is flexible to their schedule and works well.
Ms. Hayward held a gathering for the Humane Society there in July, and has hosted benefits for the New York Philomusica over the years.
Touring Grey Gardens in 2007, it’s hard to imagine the lush and fanciful property disgraced as it was during the Beale women’s final years of residency. The Bradlees hired a professional photographer to document the wreckage before they removed even the first cobweb, but Ms. Quinn said she has been unable to find the photos for years. As the photos were taken more than three years after the Maysles shot their famous film, the photographs would be the only visual record of how ignoble Grey Gardens actually became. But the house stands as a living document of how magnificent it has become.