I write a series called forgotten women but Edith Bouvier Beale is not forgotten and so I’ll call this post ‘Edith Bouvier Beale – A Memorable Woman’.
Edith Bouvier Beale was born in New York City, the only daughter of Phelan Beale, a lawyer, and the former Edith Ewing Bouvier (known as ‘Big Edie’). She had two brothers, Phelan Beale, Jr. and Bouvier Beale, and had a privileged upbringing and gilded youth. Edie attended The Spence School and graduated from Miss Porter’s School in 1935. She had her debut at the Pierre Hotel on New Year’s Day 1936. The New York Times reported on the event, where she wore a gown of white net appliqued in silver and a wreath of gardenias in her hair.
It is such a lovely description of Edie’s gown that I’m sure a character in Book 2 that I’m in the midst of writing will wear this gown.
In her youth, Little Edie was a clothes model at Macy’s in New Yorkand Palm Beach, Florida. She later claimed to have dated J. Paul Getty and to have once been engaged to Joe Kennedy, Jr. (although in reality she only met him once). During the 1961 inauguration of John F. Kennedy, she told Joe Kennedy, Sr. that, if young Joe had lived, she would have been First Lady instead of Jackie.
Edie felt that she was on the verge of a big break into films in 1952 when she was 35. She said she had offers from MGM and Paramount, and that her dance career was set to take off.
According to Edie Beale’s diaries and letters that she left to the executor of her estate, her nephew Bouvier, she had an affair in the late 1940s with Julius Albert Krug, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, who was married. The relationship is depicted in the 2009 HBO bio film Grey Gardens. Her mother alludes to ‘that married man’ during an argument with her daughter in the documentary in which she says, ‘That married man was not going to give you any chance at all.’
When she was in her late 30s, Edie developed alopecia universalis which caused her body hair to fall out and prompted her to wear her signature turbans. According to a relative, she once climbed a tree at the house and set her hair on fire.
Sickly, alone, and with no money, Edie’s mother begged her daughter to return to the East Hampton estate in March of 1952. On July 29, 1952, Edie returned to live with her mother in the East Hampton estate Grey Gardens (at 3 West End Road). The home had been purchased for Big Edie in 1923 when it still had one of the finest gardens on the East Coast.
After the 1963 death of the Beales’ caretaker and handyman Tom ‘Tex’ Logan, and a burglary in 1968, the women lived in near isolation and, eventually, poverty.
On October 22, 1971, inspectors from the Suffolk County Health Department raided the house and discovered that it violated every known building regulation. The story became a national scandal. Health Department officials said they would evict the women unless the house was cleaned. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis came to the rescue, paying $32,000 to clean the house, install a new furnace and plumbing system, and cart away 1,000 bags of garbage.
The Beales then rose to fame as a result of the Maysles brothers’ 1975 direct cinema documentary film Grey Gardens. The film revealed the strong and dysfunctional ties between Mrs. Beale and Little Edie, as well as showcasing the reclusive pair’s daily rituals of song, recollections, arguments, and reconciliations. Edie and her mother were each paid $5,000 for the documentary, which featured their daily lives, songs and dances included.
After her mother’s death in February 1977, Edie moved to a small rental cottage in Southampton, New York, and then to a studio apartment on East 62nd Street in New York City, where she lived from 1980 to 1983 before moving to the Roney Plaza Apartments in Miami Beach, Florida. She lived briefly in Montreal in the mid-1990s (to master speaking French, a skill she mentions in Grey Gardens), and then with relatives in Oakland, California, in 1997. She returned to Bal Harbour, Florida, in the fall of 1997, where she remained in quiet isolation, writing poetry and corresponding with friends and fans. She reportedly swam every day until close to her death at the age of 84.
Edie Beale was discovered dead in her apartment on January 14, 2002, after a concerned fan could not reach her on the phone. She had been dead about five days from a presumed heart attack. She was survived by three nephews and one niece.
She reportedly did not wish to be buried alongside her mother in East Hampton, and had requested having her ashes scattered in or near the Atlantic. Her remains are interred in Long Island’s Locust Valley Cemetery, next to the grave of her brother Bouvier “Buddy” Beale Sr.
Edie was a free spirit.
Have a lovely Easter Sunday, Elise