Meet the Beales of “Grey Gardens”

HBO tackles the legend of Big and Little Edie

Drew Barrymore is almost unrecognizable as Little Edie. PHOTO COURTESY HBO

Ashley Goetz

Drew Barrymore is almost unrecognizable as Little Edie. PHOTO COURTESY HBO

âÄúGrey GardensâÄù STARRING: Drew Barrymore, Jessica Lange DIRECTED BY: Michael Sucsy AIRING: April 18, HBO You wouldnâÄôt know when immediately comparing the two, but the always-elegant Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and âÄúLittleâÄù Edie Bouvier Beale, with her crazy headwraps and long fur coats, were first cousins. While Jackie was yachting in Greece, Little Edie and her bedridden mother, Big Edie, were shacked up in their decaying Hamptons mansion, Grey Gardens, ignoring the health department and inviting dozens of stray cats into the dilapidated estate. Certain rooms were off-limits due to the decay and disaster, raccoons roamed the hallways and the Beale women had been known to eat cat food when the money ran low. No, this is not a made-up story about two crazy old cat ladies âÄî this is the tale of âÄúGrey Gardens,âÄù and itâÄôs the subject of not only a 1975 documentary, but also a touring Broadway production and an upcoming HBO film starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange as the Edies. The Beale women came from an affluent family, and Little Edie spent her teenage years as the belle of society. However, her starry-eyed dreams of fame didnâÄôt quite work out, and after a disastrous affair with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Julius Albert Krug, Little Edie returned to her home, Grey Gardens, and her motherâÄôs comforting embrace. The trust fund money began to run out, leaving Big and Little Edie near-desolate and isolated in increasingly poor living conditions. In 1971, with the health department threatening and a New York Magazine story bringing the Beales national attention and alarm, Jackie (of whom Little Edie was always jealous) aided her eccentric relatives by paying more than $30,000 to have the estate cleaned and repaired. More than 1,000 bags of trash were removed from the 28-room mansion. Without the documentary film, the âÄúGrey GardensâÄù legend wouldnâÄôt have nearly the momentum that it does today. In the cult obsession, now in two-disc format, Big and Little Edie are shown going about their daily lives. Little Edie explains the method behind her odd form of dress and the mother and daughter duo spar and bond. They appear at times far away from reality. âÄúThereâÄôs a fine line between the past and the present,âÄù says Little Edie. Big Edie died in 1977, leaving Little Edie to pursue a career as a cabaret singer. She died in 2002 at 84 years old. In the full-length film, Drew Barrymore manages to keep her whimsical, lovable romantic comedy person far, far away from her portrayal of Little Edie. In an interview with W Magazine, Barrymore says she delved so deeply into the persona that she requested everyone call her Edie, and her invitation to her best friendâÄôs wedding to Jimmy Fallon came addressed to Edie Beale. And, in fact, clips released from the film show an unrecognizable Barrymore; in Little EdieâÄôs later years, she lost her hair (thatâÄôs the reason for the turbans and scarves) and Barrymore is seen under pounds of age makeup. Even the harshest of critics have found themselves impressed by her transformation. Watching a video of the real Little Edie on YouTube and comparing it to Barrymore, viewers will see that the similarities are astounding and the accent is spot-on. Jessica Lange, a sometime Minnesota resident and wife of playwright Sam Shepard, plays Big Edie and sees her stunning features also consumed by makeup as Big Edie ages. The film takes its viewers through the history of the Beale women, from their golden years to the squalor of the later days. The American people love a good âÄúfall from graceâÄù tale and âÄúGrey GardensâÄù has clearly captivated them. The fashion industry has counted Little Edie as an inspiration and icon for years. When Mary-Kate Olsen went through her âÄúbag ladyâÄù phase, magazines were eager to point out the similarities to layer-loving Little Edie. (MK played a version of Little Edie in a HarperâÄôs Bazaar editorial several years ago, too.) The spring-summer issue of British import fashion magazine Lula has dedicated pages to Little EdieâÄôs costumes, and turbans paraded the runways of Prada and trickled down to Forever 21 a few seasons ago. For all its admirers, âÄúGrey GardensâÄù is not the happiest of tales. âÄúYou can have your cake and eat it too, in this life,âÄù says the filmâÄôs version of âÄô40s Big Edie, untouched by the ravages of time and money woes. Her daughter answers her with the truest summation of the movie: âÄúNo, you canâÄôt, mother darling.âÄù