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Edith Bouvier Beale ("Little Edie") was an eccentric cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She became a cult figure and fashion icon after her appearance in the documentary Grey Gardens.
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To keep the household going, Edie Ewing Beale leaned on her father for financial assistance and sold family heirlooms.
On her own, without a husband to try and drag her to the Hampton cocktail parties she had no interest in attending in the first place, Big Edie's singing aspirations only strengthened. She frequented clubs, and even recorded a few songs. In 1942 she showed up late to her son's wedding, dressed as an opera singer. Her father, "Major" John Vernou Bouvier,
Jr. was appalled and soon cut her out of his will.
Without the money to support her or her house, Edie Ewing Beal's life at Grey Gardens fell into disrepair. In 1952, at Big Edie's calling, Little Edie returned home from New York City to take care of her mom. She wouldn't leave again until Big Edie's death in 1977.
For the next two decades, Edie Beale and her mother became increasingly reclusive, rarely venturing outside their property. Grey Gardens itself continued to slide downward, too, becoming the domain of stray cats—later estimates would put the count as high as 300—and raccoons, both of which Edie Beale took care to feed on a regular basis. Bills went unpaid and the two women subsided, in part, on cat food. In one memorable photograph, Edie Beale stands in front of a mound of discarded cat food cans measuring several feet in height. The exterior of the property changed as well; unkempt trees, shrubs and vines closed in around the house.
In the fall of 1971 County officials, armed with a search warrant, descended on Grey Gardens. They informed Edie Beale and her mother that their home was "unfit for human habitation" and threatened eviction. The story, and the close family connection the two women had with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, caught fire with the press. The New York Post ran the headline, "Jackie's Aunt Told: Clean Up Mansion."
Big Edie and Little Edie railed against the threats, calling the visit by County officials a "raid" and the product of "a mean, nasty Republican town." "We're artists against the bureaucrats," Edie Beale said. "Mother's French operetta. I dance, I write poetry, I sketch. But that doesn't mean we're crazy." Eventually, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis stepped in with her checkbook, paying $25,000 to have the place cleaned up—on the condition that her aunt and cousin could remain in their home.
In the fall of 1973, filmmakers David and Albert Maysles started shooting their documentary on Edie Beale and her mother. The film, which was released in 1975 to wide acclaim, showed a Grey Gardens that had virtually reverted back to its pre-cleanup squalor. But audiences and most critics took to the unique Beales. Amid the trash and the cats, Little Edie paraded around in high heels, dancing in front of the camera as she lamented her missed chances at true fame.
Edie Beale's style was also a popular part of the film, in particular the improvised head wraps—towels, shirts, and scarves—she used to constantly adorn her head.
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