"Little Edie Is A Big Star" by Michael Braverman 2008

Recently I came across this wonderful essay written in 2008 by Michael Braverman, a friend of Little Edie's. It was partially published in "Edith Bouvier Beale of Grey Gardens, A Life in Pictures"--but the entire essay is a must read!!  Michael Braverman gives us a new glimpse into the Edie he knew.  Michael Braverman is an Editor at Large, Hamptons Magazine.

 Little Edie Is A Big Star, By Michael Braverman

She so tantalized us with her nonconformity that we were often blinded to her substance. I think she did this purposefully, giving us limited glimpses and bits and pieces, the way enchantresses, temptresses and seductresses have always done it. A few of us might claim to have been her friend, but who among us really knew Edie Beale?

As this important new book, "Edith Bouvier Beale of Grey Gardens, A Life in Pictures,” makes abundantly and elegantly clear, there was so much we did not know about this remarkable woman while she was alive. We knew she was smart, but now that we can read her diaries and letters we realize she was a brilliant, resourceful observer and commentator. We knew she was creative, but reading her poetry, even the very early poems, we marvel at her insights and her ability to use language and give expression to thought. We knew she was a rare young beauty and even in middle age had a radiant, charismatic quality, but photograph after photograph in this volume takes your breath away. And though she wore her family history proudly, it is only now with all this archived material and Bouvier Beale’s thoughtful introduction that we fully comprehend that the trajectory of the Bouvier and Beale families is a contour map of twentieth century upper class society in New York.

Who can read this book and fail to see that the prevailing image of Little Edie, the odd, reclusive, vulnerable Little Edie of the Maysles film is but one small dimension of a complex, diversified, exuberant and compelling life? This book will serve not merely to correct that inadequate and narrow filmed portrait of Edie, but will bring to readers an incalculably more valuable, more accurate, more dignified and more inclusive picture, one beyond the costumes and clichés. We can now start to see the whole person, the eclectic individual she was, starting with her fascinating childhood. We are fortunate that her legacy includes so much historical material, and that Eva Beale has been able to fashion a coherent and convincing chronicle of Edie’s life—particularly the happy times at Grey Gardens—before things ran downhill and before the newspapers and filmmakers sensationalized the later, brave, less happy times, unjustly turning Grey Gardens into a peep show.

There is no denying that Little Edie welcomed the attention. She was always a social person but for years had to lead an isolated life, a communicative person who was shielded and sequestered. Grey Gardens had severely limited her options; life had taken her in an unexpected and unfathomable direction.

*

Touched by fame in small, anomalous ways during her life, she’d be thrilled with the flamboyant, romantic, almost dizzying legacy that now exists. She’d be ecstatic, but not at all surprised.

The damn shame is that it came too late, she’d say. But fate also taught her to be philosophical about time. “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. Awfully difficult,” she observed. There was, after all, no clock in Grey Gardens, no need for one.

She used to say lots of things like that. Edie was an accomplished storyteller. She was articulate. Her long stories had a beginning, middle and end, a rhythm and a pattern, sustained digressions, and asides that were divulged in tones and styles different from the main narrative, sometimes in accents or stage whispers, always with a theatrical flourish. And she knew a good sound bite. After the Board of Health raid on the house, she told the local newspaper that it was “engineered by henchmen of a mean, nasty Republican town” and that “they can get you in East Hampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday.”

Her voice possessed the drawn out plummy edges of a pre-war debutante. She and Big Edie both retained a slight lock-jaw propriety that must have been heard at society garden parties decades before, referring to “my-onaisse at luncheon” or to the husband and father who had left years earlier as “Mr. Beale.”

*

Her famous family, her bizarre and fraught relationship with her mother, her years living in squalid conditions in East Hampton, the raid, the documentary film and the subsequent publicity—all that is curious and interesting, she’d assure us, but the world would one day know her as an entertainer, a singer, dancer, and storyteller. It was her fervent wish, undiminished over time, to perform for an audience

On January 10, 1978, two years after the death of her mother and nearly a year before moving from Grey Gardens, she stepped on stage as a performer at Reno Sweeney, a famed cabaret on West 13th Street in Greenwich Village. It had to have been an intimately personal and deeply existential experience for her. “This is something I’ve been planning since I was 19 years old. I’m just going to have a ball,” she told me that night.

She did. And so did everyone else in the room. Edie sang—familiar songs like “Tea for Two” and “As Time Goes By”, and two songs she had composed for the show. She danced a little—that was her real talent, she used to say, and she had strong, toned legs from swimming. She answered questions and chatted with the audience. Whatever nervousness she felt earlier vanished.

Some critics thought the whole idea of this 60ish woman, dressed in her homemade version of cabaret clothes, singing and dancing and bantering, was in a sense outlandish. But there was nothing outlandish in the connection between Edie and her audience. It was genuine and compelling. People liked her. Cousin Lee sent flowers. And if my memory is correct, Cousin Jackie called or sent a note.

After the initial audition at Reno Sweeney but before accepting the engagement, Edie called Jackie to tell her. Jackie’s response was that she preferred Edie avoid the inevitable publicity and not perform, but if it were something so personally important to Edie, she would certainly not stand in the way. It was a wise and kind answer—and maybe the only realistic one.

In her own way, Edie possessed a certain curious wisdom about her family and other people. She genuinely liked and respected her famous cousin Jacqueline Onassis and would explain that Jackie was “just a nice society girl,” as if she, Edie, had overcome this particular obstacle.

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After selling Grey Gardens, and with the money in trust, she lived mostly in Florida, first on Indian Creek Road in Miami Beach, and later in Bal Harbour. Life there suited her. For one thing she was able to swim everyday in the ocean—a lifelong love. She lived in small apartments—without cats. After Big Edie died, she gave away all the cats except for two favorites named Sonny and Cher, and they were gone by the time she moved.

She kept up with Lee Schrager, a friend from the Hamptons, in her Florida years. Schrager owned Torpedo, one of the first popular clubs in the then newly chic South Beach, and Edie performed there at a sellout AIDS benefit with a Grey Gardens theme. Around this time, she met Gianni Versace, his partner, Antonio D’Amico, and Paul Beck, who was married to Donatella Versace at the time. “They were wild about Edie, and she reveled in the attention,” Schrager, who introduced them, told me.

Sadly, with no one to guide her—and she was not equipped to do it on her own—her show business career did not continue. She died in Florida on January 14, 2002, exactly 24 years—to the night—after her final curtain at Reno Sweeney.

*

It seems remarkable, now that her life has taken on mythical qualities, that she was mostly ignored in those final years, that there were virtually no interviews, nothing archived for the future. Some gay men identified with her rebellious, outsider status and the improvised, oddball fashions, but the public’s interest in Little Edie was as a player in a melodrama with Grey Gardens as the star, Edie a supporting actress.

Sensitive enough media portrayals might yet uncover the unconventional humanity of Little Edie. But even such portrayals romanticize the reality and create a kind of cordon sanitaire around the dreadful conditions, the very real dirt and smell of Grey Gardens, and the stagnant, stifling lives of its inhabitants.

Who can explain exactly what happened? We know this much: Over the years her life with Big Edie grew increasingly insular. The number of cats multiplied and the decay surrounding them intensified. Connections to the outside frayed. Help from the family was spurned. Once on this dreadful psychological and physical course it was almost impossible to turn back. The situation worsened incrementally, step by dismaying step. None of us can entirely understand the process, and certainly none of us should judge it. It is essential to remember that this was what they chose. Their decisions might have been irrational but they were living their lives as they wanted.

Little Edie managed to come through, perhaps bent and damaged, but whole. Though she wore sweaters on her head, she walked to Guild Hall on Main Street on Election Day to vote. Little Edie was a woman who could have become crazy but was merely unorthodox, whose mind could have surrendered but stayed alert. Her grip on reality was under assault, but given the circumstances of her life, she maintained an unexpected balance. I believe that strength goes back to her roots. With the publication of this book it becomes clearer that the solid, strong foundations of her early life gave her crucial support through the difficult years. Her resilience and the way she clung to her innate intelligence are as important as her eccentricity and the idiosyncratic way she dressed. This book adds immensely to that larger legacy.

Posthumously, she triumphed, and in a bigger way than she ever could have as a performer. Grey Gardens, with Christine Ebersole, was a hit Broadway musical. An HBO movie is in production with Drew Barrymore as Little Edie and Jessica Lange as Big Edie. Even this book, one of a prestigious series from Verlhac Editions, places her in the legendary company John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Jr., Grace Kelly, Paul Newman and Marilyn Monroe.

The buzz is there; her name is celebrated in the press and on the blogs. The plaintive longing, it turns out, was not far fetched. The desperate dream that eluded her in life is now reality. Little Edie is a big star.

 

Little Edie is the inspiration for the legacy brand Grey Gardens.