FIVE YEARS AGO, The New York Post ran a story under the headline, "Jackie's Aunt Told: Clean Up Mansion." The Post reported that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's aunt and cousin were living "in a garbage-ridden, filthy 28-room house with eight cats, fleas, cobwebs, and no running water" and faced eviction by the Suffolk County Health Department.
The account piqued the interest of David Maysles and his brother Albert, two young film-makers who had produced Gimme Shelter and Salesman. They went to East Hampton in the fall of 1973 and spent five weeks filming Mrs. Edith Bouvier Beale, age 79, and her daughter Edie, 56, then edited the footage into Grey Gardens, a disturbing portrayal of their gothic relationship.
The Maysles say that Grey Gardens is not a documentary--they prefer to call it "a non-fiction film." The documentary medium tends to imply that the camera is neutral, passive, recording life exactly as it reveals itself in front of the lenses. This pretense is discredited somewhat by the suspicion that people behave differently under the eye of the camera than they would otherwise. No such claims are implicit in the style of Grey Gardens--both of the main characters direct their attention, words, and action toward the camera. But one doesn't get the sense that the Beales' "performances" in any way belie their inner reality. Their performances are the reality--the personas they adopt, the way in which they wish to be perceived and the manner in which they construe their relationship all mesh to form the "truth" of their lives.
Black Jack Bouvier moved into Grey Gardens in between the wars with his wife, his sister Edith and her husband, a lawyer. Then came the Wall Street crash and the Bouvier fortune was smashed. The Bouviers moved out and Edith's husband ran off, leaving her as the sole mistress of the mansion. Jacqueline and Lee Bouvier were brought up there with Edie, who at the time outshone them both--her prospects seemed boundless. But things reversed themselves. Jackie went off to marry Jack Kennedy, Lee became a princess, and Edie was left behind, never quite able to break away from Grey Gardens. She tried--every once in a while she would run away to New York, model part time, and wait for a call from impressario Max Gordon to audition for dancing jobs. The call never came. In 1952, Edith summoned her back to Grey Gardens to take care of her and the cats. Since then, Edie has only left the house once, to attend her cousin's husband's inauguration in 1961.
A picture emerges from the movie of two different women, differing radically in temperament, locked in a timeless, unchanging struggle with each other. Edith, nearing the end of her days, reviews her life with contentment. "I had my cake, loved it, masticated and chewed it," she tells us. "I had everything I wanted. I had a very, very happy, satisfying life." Her daughter is profoundly embittered, looking upon her time at Grey Gardens as a waste, hating it, but incapable of leaving, and holding her mother responsible for her disappointments.
THE TENSION MANIFESTS itself primarily in battles over Edie's suitors--she claims to have been pursued by large numbers of worth-while men, any of whom she would have married, had it not been for her mother's interference. But in fact her string of unhappy affairs appears to have only drawn her closer to her mother--they go through their fights effortlessly, even lovingly in a compulsive sort of way.
The original sources of these conflicts have become obscured to such a degree that the truth is impenetrable. Each woman has her own version of the past. Edie refers to one suitor who was twenty years her junior, and reiterates her charge that Edith scared him away. Edith on the other hand claims, at a moment when Edie is out of the room, that the man said of her daughter: "How can a woman with such a beautiful voice be so cold in person?" and for this reason the mother suggested that he not come back to visit them.
Edie's physical appearance, a sort of Jackie Kennedy-on-the-skids look, lends a ghoulish touch to the movie. It is almost as if Andy Warhol had decided to film Camelot. "Come in," Edie purrs soothingly, "we're not ready yet." She is thoroughly disorganized--she wears her dresses upside down, empties loaves of Wonderbread for the raccoons in the attic, dons a different makeshift scarf in each sequence to cover her head (which may or may not be bald).
Edith and Edie don't feel that their privacy was invaded by the movie. Edith is now bedridden with arthritis, but her daughter has been actively promoting the film, giving press conferences and granting private interviews. Associate producer Susan Froemke said in an interview on Monday that Edie believes the film has "given her back to herself," and is grateful to the Maysles for understanding her so well. She even entertains hopes of doing a nightclub act in New York. It is almost as if it is 1952 again and she is waiting for that call from Max Gordon.
ONE WOULD LIKE TO think that this time things will be different and that, when her mother dies, she will be able to begin her own life. But the old patterns die hard. A woman who appeared for a moment in the film, Lois Wright at Edith's birthday party, had a similar relationship with her own recently deceased mother. Lois has since moved in with Edie and Edith. Froemke reports that Edith seems to be reproducing her relationship with her mother in her relationship with Lois the same strains, the same resentments, are appearing. Now Edie complains that Lois is keeping her at Grey Gardens. If our chains didn't exist, we would have to invent them.