Satiated after lunch at The Royale Fish in Amagansett my husband, Albert, and I set out on an expedition to find Grey Gardens. A recent New York magazine article had told the fascinating tale of Jackie Kennedy’s aunt, Big Edie, and her cousin, Little Edie, living in squalor in a once posh East Hampton mansion. Little Edie, in a tattered fur coat had posed for the cover, her expression one of defiance and trepidation.
As residents of a sweltering apartment in Queens we sought refuge on the South fork, leasing a share in an old Victorian home in Bridgehampton. Local denizens called the residence “The Rose House.” The undulating dunes, potato fields, and fruit stands were strong draws to two city dwellers using their fire escape to escape the heat. The house had neither air conditioning nor pool, then common and accepted by East Enders who swore the ocean breezes cooled hazy, hot New York summers.
Always fascinated by eccentrics (I had written a term paper about the notorious Collyer brothers, who had lived and died in a Harlem apartment stuffed with junk and decades of newspapers,) the article had aroused my interest. More elusive than we’d thought it would be Grey Gardens led us down sandy lanes, around old cemeteries and past potato farms to find her. When we reached Lily pond, dancing with dragon flies, we spotted a handmade sign tacked to the trunk of a Beech tree stripped bare by gypsy moth caterpillars. It advertised: “Grey Gardens Sale. Treasures!”
Feeling like Stanley finding long lost Doctor Livingston in the African jungle, I saw the 1937 Cadillac mentioned in the article. Twisted bittersweet vines proved too great an obstacle for our old, rusty Duster with its faulty transmission. We proceeded on foot, thorns scratching our bare legs and arms that were also being sucked dry by mosquitoes and fleas.
A congregation of feral cats and the stench they had made greeted us. But there it was, Grey Gardens, a mound of termite-riddled clapboard and shattered windows topped by a sagging roof replete with gaping holes. The decrepitude intensified my determination to reach the house that I didn’t know then, would remain famous for decades to come.
I recognized Little Edie standing on the porch studying us through an old pair of binoculars. A woman, supposedly Big Edie, called from inside, “Edie! Oh Eeeedie! I need my radio! I can’t live without music! Eeeedie!”
“Yeah, just a minute,” Little Edie mumbled, looking at us. “Are you here for the sale? I saw you driving up. I’ll be right back.” After pulling open a screen door filled with holes she did a clumsy pirouette into the mysterious darkness within.
An old leather suitcase sat opened on top of a warped wicker chair on the porch. The tangle of necklaces, bracelets and rings beckoned, even as the strengthening rank odor made us gag, cover our mouth and pinch our nostrils closed.
Little Edie soon returned. “Do you have a mother who drives you insane? I mean, completely insane? Now mother is quite fun, but twenty years of feeding cats and raccoons is quite restricting, if you know what I mean.” She squinted over at our old tin can of a car with the bluest, most beautiful eyes I had ever seen. She had accentuated them with black eyeliner “Cleopatra” wings and penciled in arched brows. “I hope your lovely automobile hasn’t drowned in our sea of leaves. Mother loves the debauched Bohemian look because she’s an artist and all and it’s her house so …” We said we found the grounds enchanting, especially a crumbling brick garden wall covered with flowering Vinca.
“Mother and I had such a fight this morning,” she said. “She doesn’t want to part with any of her things and you know how difficult it is to find storage space in August.”
In her fifties, little Edie wore a floral bathing suit a good two sizes too small for her; An upside down woolen skirt pulled tightly across her wide hips and fastened close with a large safety pin over a half visible long leg girdle; Torn black fishnet stockings; another skirt draped over her shoulders like a cape, a pair of scuffed white shoes and a red, white and blue silk scarf tightly wrapped around her head and held in place with a large sparkly bow- shaped brooch.
It was difficult not to gawk at the odd apparition before us. We lowered our eyes and sifted through the trinkets on offer. Despite being a bit moldy I chose a marcasite bracelet with a questionable clasp. I asked how much it was and taking it from my hand she walked a few steps over to a long low bench with an astrology book and a magnifying glass upon it. Obviously extremely near sighted, she held the glass quite close to her eyes to study it.
“This is marcasite, do you know it? It was quite the thing during the thirties.” She cradled the bracelet in her hand. “Oh, what would Mother think of my selling this? Is fifteen dollars too much? I don’t want you to think I’m cheating you.” She pulled her scarf lower on her forehead. In High School one of my friends had alopecia, a condition that causes baldness, and I wondered if Little Edie might be suffering from the same affliction. Still holding the bracelet she looked toward the ocean and said, “The Sea is sapphire today, that’s what mother said. Do you swim? Nobody around here swims. They buy houses with an ocean view because it increases the value of their property but not one of them puts a toe in the water, isn’t that awful?”
Ignoring the eccentricities of her dress I saw that her face was quite beautiful: eyes flickering with joy and sorrow; full rosy cheeks; a diminutive pug nose; small straight white teeth and nicely shaped lips tinted with frosted orange lipstick. Albert paid her and she handed me the bracelet.
“Are you out here just for the day or are you staying the summer?” she asked us. I said we were staying at the Rose House until Labor Day. “The Rose House!” She placed her hand over her heart. “What an exquisite old, crushed Valentine it is! I love that house almost as much as I love Grey Gardens.”
“How many years have you lived here?” Albert asked.
“Me and my brothers were raised here. I was a debutante … coming out balls, society debuts …you know about those? I came out at the Pierre Hotel in the city.” Her eyes glazed over lost in the past. “I had many beaus. We called them beaus back then. I met Joe Kennedy Jr. at a Princeton dance. He proposed marriage to me but … well, the war took him away. That damn war took so many handsome young boys away its absolutely tragic.”
While she spoke to Albert I sneaked a peek through the screen door. The stench got worse but I managed to hold on to see, seated in a hallway leading to the kitchen, an old woman with lank shoulder length gray hair. I assumed she was Big Edie. She ate ice cream out of a pint sized container with a plastic knife.
When I returned to Albert’s side Edie was still talking. “Joe was supposed to be president, that’s what the father wanted. If I’d married him I, not Jackie, would have been first lady.” She laughed. “That would’ve set tongues wagging.” She looked at me. “Did you see Mother?” I was a little ashamed she had caught me snooping. “I didn’t live here for some time during the forties and early fifties when I stayed at the Barbizon Hotel for Women in New York. It was quite famous. The movie “Stage Door” with Kate Hepburn and Ginger Rodgers is all about it. I had a real chance to be a dancer but my father wouldn’t have it. No lipstick, no powder, no rouge. Well, I don’t have to tell you how debilitating fathers can be.”
“Edie! Oh Eeedie!” her mother called again. “The cats need luncheon!”
“I have to dash, but do look at the silver in the box over there. It’s Gorham. Would you like some liver pate and crackers? You look famished.” She called, “Tedsy! Luncheon!” then with a concerned expression said, “We haven’t seen him today and mother is quite frantic. You know how it is when you lose a cat. Complete chaos.”
That night, deeply honored to be in the house Little Edie had called a “crushed Valentine”, I dreamed of her. Dancing and surrounded by adoring beaus she levitated and fluttered through a starlit sky like Tinkerbelle. She flapped her arms and giggled, her long blond hair trailing behind her.