16 Facts About Jackie Kennedy's Infamous Cousin and Aunt's Downfall
16 Facts About Jackie Kennedy’s Infamous Cousin and Aunt’s Downfall

16 Facts About Jackie Kennedy’s Infamous Cousin and Aunt’s Downfall

Trista - October 17, 2018

The Bouvier family is most famous for producing one of America’s most influential socialites and First Ladies: Jacqueline Lee (Bouvier) Kennedy Onassis, the wife of President John F. Kennedy. However, their legacy also includes the sad tale of the daughter of a great house being reduced to poverty and misery.

16 Facts About Jackie Kennedy’s Infamous Cousin and Aunt’s Downfall
A photograph of Grey Gardens in 2009. Wikimedia

Edith Bouvier Beale, aunt to Jackie Kennedy, and her daughter went from a promising and bright future as socialites to living destitute in a decrepit house as nature crept in around them and filth overtook them. A 1975 documentary Grey Gardens drew national attention to the plight of the two women and the hidden disgrace of how one of America’s illustrious families treated their own.

16 Facts About Jackie Kennedy’s Infamous Cousin and Aunt’s Downfall
A photograph of Big Edie. musicalstagecompany.com

1. Big Edie Was Once a Child Prodigy

Big Edie Bouvier was born into a wealthy family. Her father, John Vernou Bouvier was a prominent attorney, while her mother, Maude Frances Sargeant, was the daughter of a wealthy paper manufacturer. Her father was obsessed with the idea of aristocracy and went so far as to fabricate a royal background for the family. He had the book Our Forebears privately printed which laid out the family’s fake royal lineage and contained the family motto “The hallmark of aristocracy is responsibility.”

Amidst the privilege and luxury of her wealthy upbringing, Edie embarked on a singing career. Big Edie was widely recognized as a very talented child singer and, by the age of 10, was considered by some to be a child prodigy. In her teenage years, she pursued a career in amateur singing.

As she got older, Edie kept up with the demands of the socialite lifestyle and began attending parties in search of a spouse. In 1917, she married attorney Phelan Beale and gave birth to her first child, a daughter named little Edie, that same year. Edie had two more children, sons, in 1920 and 1922. With three children, she placed her singing career on a back burner. Shortly after the birth of their third child, Phelan moved the family to the Grey Gardens estate in the Hamptons.

16 Facts About Jackie Kennedy’s Infamous Cousin and Aunt’s Downfall
Big Edie Beale’s wedding portrait, taken in 1917. Photo credit: Edith Bouvier Beale of Grey Gardens: A Life in Pictures. Courtesy of the Estate of Edith Bouvier Beale

2. Phelan Beale, Big Edie’s Husband, Left Her Destitute For Another Woman

Big Edie’s husband, Phelan Beale, was a partner at her father’s law firm of Bouvier, Caffey, and Beale. While he initially survived the stock market crash of 1929, he eventually lost all of his money during the Great Depression. In addition to the financial stress, Beale was unhappy with Big Edie’s lifestyle. He expected a demure socialite wife who would host parties and tend to the children while Big Edie remained interested in the arts and still wanted to pursue her singing career.

The Beales, despite their increasing poverty, were members of the exclusive Maidstone Club. Big Edie often embarrassed Beale by performing operatic songs in front of fellow club members. Beale eventually left Big Edie, divorcing her in the 1940s. While the financial and gender role stressors played a part, Beale ultimately separated from Big Edie because he started a relationship with a younger woman sometime before the divorce and possibly as early as the 1930s.

Beale gave Big Edie strict instructions not to allow their daughter to learn of their dire financial straits before leaving. He warned of telling her, “She will think we’re at the poorhouse. It will rob all her joy.” Little Edie lost her father and was left unaware of the precarious position of her mother.

16 Facts About Jackie Kennedy’s Infamous Cousin and Aunt’s Downfall
A photo of Little Edie used to promote the original 1975 “Grey Gardens” documentary. paradigmchange.me

3. Big Edie’s Father Cut Her Inheritance

After Big Edie’s divorce from Phelan Beale, she no longer had a demanding husband dragging her along to socialite parties and governing how she tended their children. This newfound freedom allowed her artistic aspirations to flourish. She began attending clubs and even recording several songs. While Big Edie received child support and the ownership of Grey Gardens, she received no alimony from the destitute Beale.

The lack of alimony and little child support forced Big Edie to rely on her father for the bulk of her financial aid. Her father strongly disapproved of his daughter’s interest in the arts and encouraged her to sell Grey Gardens and re-marry. He also wanted her to completely quit her singing career, as he found it unseemly.

The breaking point between Big Edie and her father came when she arrived at the wedding of her son dressed as an opera singer. A furious Major Bouvier, Big Edie’s father, drastically cut the amount of her inheritance in his will from over $800,000 to a relatively meager $65,000. This reduction led Edie to become extremely depressed and stopped her from being able to afford Little Edie’s out-of-state education at a private institution in New York.

16 Facts About Jackie Kennedy’s Infamous Cousin and Aunt’s Downfall
A modeling photo of Little Edie Beale, 1940. Photo credit: Cantor Studio, Brooklyn, NY and Edith Bouvier Beale of Grey Gardens: A Life in Pictures. Courtesy of the Estate of Edith Bouvier Beale

4. Little Edie Once Had a Promising Movie Career

Little Edie, as befitted her privileged family status, attended a prestigious finishing school called Miss Porter’s in Connecticut as a teenager. She also did some modeling for Macy’s. Little Edie was widely considered a bright beauty, and a complement to her cousin Jacqueline’s dark beauty. In 1936, she caught the eye of the New York Times during her debutante debut. She appeared in several fashion shows in New York City and almost signed contracts with both MGM and Paramount.

Little Edie claimed that she was told that Max Gordon wanted to talk to her about film roles. Sadly, before she had the opportunity to interview for a chance to break into films, her mother’s money ran out, and she was called home to Grey Gardens. In addition to the financial strain, Big Edie wanted Little Edie’s help caring both for her failing health and her growing number of cats. While Little Edie was making a name for herself in New York City, Big Edie was growing increasingly reclusive.

Little Edie famously claimed that, during her teenage years in New York City, both Howard Hughes and millionaire industrialist J. Paul Getty had both proposed marriage to her. However, her own family threw those claims into question with her cousin John H. Davis being quoted as saying “she had a very, very fertile imagination.”

16 Facts About Jackie Kennedy’s Infamous Cousin and Aunt’s Downfall
Little Edie Beale in 1940. Everett Collection / nymag.com

5. Little Edie Was Considered Even More Beautiful Than Jackie

Little Edie’s cousin, John H. Davis, in his biography of the family The Bouviers: Portrait of an American Family, claimed that the family regarded Little Edie as more beautiful than Jacqueline Bouvier, later Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. While it would be difficult to compare the two differently beautiful women, Little Edie did successfully land modeling work in addition to being a socialite.

About her cousin Jacqueline’s husband, President John F. Kennedy, Little Edie stated, “Jack never liked society girls, he only dated showgirls… I tried to show him I’d broken with society. I was a dancer. But Jack never gave me a tumble.” Despite the more magnificent beauty, Little Edie had to watch her social capital dwindle due to her father’s adamant status that his daughter should be hidden from the world. After modeling for Bachrach, her father reportedly marched down to Madison Avenue and broke Bachrach’s store window.

It appeared Little Edie held more than a little jealousy towards her famous and beloved cousin, telling Joe Kennedy Jr.’s father that if he hadn’t died in World War II “[she] probably would have married him, and he would have become President instead of Jack and [she] would have become First Lady instead of Jackie.”

16 Facts About Jackie Kennedy’s Infamous Cousin and Aunt’s Downfall
Big Edie and Little Edie, circa 1918. Photo courtesy of the Estate of Edith Bouvier Beale

6. Little Edie Set Her Hair On Fire After Moving In With Her Mother

Little Edie Bouvier’s cousin, John H. Davis, who documented many of the family’s quirks in a biography recounted a strange episode involving the young woman. Shortly after moving back home to Grey Gardens to care for her ailing mother and cats, Little Edie climbed a tree and pulled out a cigarette lighter and set fire to her own hair. John recalls begging the young woman not to light it.

While Little Edie began developing stress-related alopecia in her 20s, the journalist Gail Sheehy claims the act of self-immolation was both a protest of her new confinement away from the life she had begun in New York City and also sealing of her “fate as a prison of her mother’s love.”

One cannot even begin to imagine the frustration of going from believing you are a wealthy socialite who is entertaining offers to star in movies and perhaps even marriage offers from wealthy young bachelors to being called home in poverty to care for your ailing and increasingly unstable mother and her horde of cats. While it is not clear how much of Little Edie’s New York success is true and how much is fanciful imagination, the Bouvier women’s fall from luxury is still indeed the stuff horror tales are made of.

16 Facts About Jackie Kennedy’s Infamous Cousin and Aunt’s Downfall
Little Edie Beale in her debutante dress. Photo credit: Edith Bouvier Beale of Grey Gardens: A Life in Pictures. Courtesy of the Estate of Edith Bouvier Beale

7. Little Edie Developed Alopecia In Her 20s

In the Grey Gardens documentary, Little Edie is also shown wearing fanciful headscarves and jewelry holding them in place. The range of head coverings, from scarves to towels and even shirts, inspired a renaissance of scarves among fashion-conscious women after the documentary aired. Even fashion houses like Calvin Klein found inspiration in her headwear and Harpers Bazaar and Vogue featured spreads taking cues from her style.

Sadly, the head coverings were not just a fashion choice for Little Edie. Beginning in her 20s, she suffered from alopecia which is the medical term for hair loss. The hair loss accelerated rapidly in her 30s, causing her to begin wearing head coverings at all time to hide the loss of her previously beautiful blonde hair.

Alopecia is a relatively common condition, affecting about 2% of all people at some point in their lives, and can be a result of numerous issues. While it is not clear why Little Edie suffered from alopecia initially, psychological stress can both cause and exacerbate alopecia. It wouldn’t be hard to see how the dramatic loss of both her life in New York and the security of her family’s wealth could have caused the acceleration of her hair loss.

16 Facts About Jackie Kennedy’s Infamous Cousin and Aunt’s Downfall
Little Edie Beale in her debutante dress. Photo credit: Edith Bouvier Beale of Grey Gardens: A Life in Pictures. Courtesy of the Estate of Edith Bouvier Beale

8. The Two Edies Survived on $300 a Month

After Big Edie was, in essence, disinherited from her father’s will, she and Little Edie had to rely on the child support from Phelan Beale to survive. The support amounted to around $300 per month, which would be almost $2,000 per month today. While this may seem like a decent amount, the upkeep on a mansion the size of Grey Gardens is immense. Imagine heating 23 rooms during winter in the northeast!

In addition to paying for the upkeep of a large mansion, the two women had to take care of themselves and their pets as well. Given that $24,000 per year is well under the poverty level for two people in a home, their small amount of income must have felt especially hollow for two women raised in wealth and privilege.

To get by on the meager support from Beale, the two Edies took to selling off family heirlooms for the extra money needed to take care of themselves and the mansion. Big Edie would invite guests to the Grey Gardens and allow them to purchase the very art of the walls. Some of the items sold included original paintings and Tiffany silver. Small valuable things would be hidden under Little Edie’s mattress for safekeeping until the time came to sell them.

16 Facts About Jackie Kennedy’s Infamous Cousin and Aunt’s Downfall
Little Edie and Big Edie, circa 1972. paradigmchange.me

9. Big Edie Feared They’d Be Evicted

Despite owning the Grey Gardens as part of her divorce settlement from Phelan Beale, Big Edie was always afraid of being evicted from the property. After the documentary Grey Gardens premiered in 1975, Big Edie’s fear only increased as the world became aware of the squalor of her home and lifestyle. Her already reclusive behavior risen more in the last two years preceding her death from pneumonia.

In 1977, Big Edie died from pneumonia. She reportedly said anything barely to Little Edie on her deathbed, saying that she had said everything she wanted to say in the documentary. One can imagine how Big Edie’s fear of losing her property developed after a lifetime of being told to sell the property compounded with her own loss of all her wealth and privilege.

It’s a rather sad picture to imagine Big Edie spending the last years of her life shut away behind the overgrown wilds and crumbling walls of Grey Gardens. Too afraid to leave and too poor to fix up her surroundings, she must have had a rather dark final chapter of her life. One wonders why none of her wealthy relatives stepped in after the documentary, or if she perhaps refused their help out of fear of losing her last piece of luxury.

16 Facts About Jackie Kennedy’s Infamous Cousin and Aunt’s Downfall
Little Edie and Big Edie, 1938. Pinterest

10. Big and Little Edie Always Had an Unhealthy Relationship

Journalist Gail Sheehy who wrote extensively about the Bouvier women documented the unhealthily co-dependent relationship that existed between Big and Little Edie. Sheehy reported that, as a child, Little Edie and her mother were inseparable. Big Edie even took Little Edie out of school for two entire years due to an undocumented respiratory illness. In those years, the two Edies traveled extensively together with Little Edie often accompanying her mother to clubs or the movies.

Eva Beale, a relative of the Edies, said of their bond, “I think it was a safe haven for her always to be with her mother. They had such a wonderful bond that nobody could break.” Little Edie signed all of her letters to her mother with the closing, “With ladles and ladles of kisses, loves & hugs – your ever precious, ever loving and ever darling and kissable Edes.”

When Little Edie was only 11, she penned a diary entry in which she even put her mother above her budding romantic interest in boys. She wrote, “I have two great loves in my life. First, I love my mother, which will always go on, never be forgotten or forsaken. Most children think that mother love is a thing taken for granted, isn’t it? Second, my buzzing love for a boy, no mere crush, but a true, steady love.”

16 Facts About Jackie Kennedy’s Infamous Cousin and Aunt’s Downfall
A picture of Little Edie Beale taken by Andy Warhol. Photo courtesy of Estate of Edith Bouvier Beale

11. Little Edie Tried To Escape The Grey Gardens

Big Edie feared that if the popular socialite Little Edie married, she would have no one to take care of her since only daughters typically cared for ailing parents at the time. Luckily for Big Edie, Little Edie’s overwhelming love for her mother led her to drop everything literally in 1952 to move home and take care of her mother. She gave up a rapidly rising fame and possibly even a movie career to care for her mother.

Unsurprisingly, it is reported that Little Edie quickly felt trapped and stifled by her new arrangements. In addition to lighting her own hair on fire in the act of protest or desperation shortly after moving to the Grey Gardens, Little Edie also revealed in the documentary Grey Gardens that she had attempted to escape and run away from her mother three times.

Little Edie often lamented in Grey Gardens that she wanted to take her mother and move to a busy city like New York City or Paris. Her mother coldly responded, “You’ve had enough fun in your life.” Little Edie following up this exchange by remarking to the documentarian that she had “been a subterranean prisoner [at Grey Gardens] for 20 years.”

16 Facts About Jackie Kennedy’s Infamous Cousin and Aunt’s Downfall
Lee Radziwill (left) and her sister Jacqueline Onassis in Montauk, NY, in 1972. Photo credit: Peter Beard

12. Jackie Kennedy Gave The Edies Money to Clean The House

In 1971, the Suffolk County Health Department visited Grey Gardens after reports from the neighbors describing the Edies’ horrifying living conditions. The Health Department found countless violations. The state of the home was so extreme that the Health Department threatened to evict the two women if they didn’t bring the house up to code.

Despite the apparent reality that the home was unlivable, the Beale women complained to the press about the actions of the Health Department. The Edies denounced the investigation as “the most disgusting, atrocious thing ever to happen in America,” and claimed the inspectors were part of “a mean, nasty Republican town.” Due to the close familial relationship between the Edies and the beloved First Lady of President John F. Kennedy, the state of the property made the national news circuit.

As the news of the incident with Grey Gardens continued to make national headlines, the Edies’ cousin, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, stepped in and gave the women $25,000 to clean up the property and bring it back up to code. That gift would be almost $160,000 today. One can only imagine the degenerated condition of the home to require that much money to repair. It is reported that over 40 gallons of disinfectant were needed to make the home safe for human habitation again.

16 Facts About Jackie Kennedy’s Infamous Cousin and Aunt’s Downfall
‘Little Edie’ and ‘Big Edie’ resided with 58 cats in the ramshackle home by the time they met Albert and David Maysles, who directed the documentary Grey Gardens circa 1975 photo. Getty Images

13. Raccoons Fell Through the Roof, and One Room Had Human Feces

It would be hard to overstate the level of filth the documentarian’s crews found when they began filming Grey Gardens in the early 1970s, around the time of the Suffolk County Health Department’s inspection. The team had to wear flea collars during the duration of the filming due to an infestation of rodents and insects in the home.

There were so many holes in the roof and between floors that raccoons were seen freely moving between the outdoors and inside. The entire property was covered in garbage, which attracted mice, rats, and raccoons into the inside of the property. The property had lacked running water for an unknown length of time, and human feces were found in one bedroom. It is entirely possible the women had selected a bedroom to use as a toilet in the absence of running water.

When a private buyer purchased the Grey Gardens mansion in 1979, they reported that the walls were so rotten they would swing when touched as though on a hinge. The floor was covered in a thick layer of dirt, and the smell of cat urine permeated the entire house. A piano left behind literally crumbled when a single key was pressed.

16 Facts About Jackie Kennedy’s Infamous Cousin and Aunt’s Downfall
Big and Little Edie (mother and daughter) in Gray Gardens circa 1975. Getty Images

14. The Edies Lived With Hundreds of Stray Animals

In the 25 years that the Edies lived together in Grey Gardens, they became incredibly reclusive with neither of them leaving the estate often. As the gardens began to overtake the properties and the walls started to crumble around them, the two women began taking in an increasing number of stray cats. One report states they lived with as many as 75 cats! The numerous cats had free reign of their house, including using any room they wished as a litter box.

Cat feces were found in nearly every room in the massive mansion. During a scene in Grey Gardens, Little Edie can be seen laughing as a cat urinates behind a portrait of herself as a young girl. The private buyers that purchased the home in 1979 reported finding 52 dead cats throughout the property.

When the Suffolk County Health Department inspected the property in 1971, the professionals found garbage strewn throughout the entire home. Unsurprisingly, with the vast filth and cat feces, wild animals also began to invade the house. The dirty space, combined with the numerous holes in the roof, allowed raccoons, possums, and rodents to make a home of the Grey Gardens. It is believed the two women were aware of the raccoons and possums and peacefully coexisted with them.

16 Facts About Jackie Kennedy’s Infamous Cousin and Aunt’s Downfall
Longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his journalist wife, Sally Quinn, bought the home from ‘Little Edie’ in 1979 following the 1977 death of her mother Big Edie. WireImage

15. Little Edie Sold Grey Gardens In 1979

Little Edie remained living at Grey Gardens for roughly two years after her mother’s death in 1977, from pneumonia. In 1979, Little Edie sold the home to private buyers Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn. The buyers paid $220,000, which is well over $800,000 today, despite the horrifying condition of the home. Bradlee and Quinn had to completely renovate the house to restore it to a safe and habitable condition.

They reported many unsafe and disgusting conditions, including dead cats and walls that collapsed at a touch.
After selling the home, Little Edie attempted to follow in her mother’s footsteps by embarking on a singing career. She performed in several New York City cabarets. The journalist Gail Sheehy reported that Edie called her before her move to New York and “sounded 19 again” talking about her newfound freedom from her prison in Grey Gardens.

Little Edie eventually settled down in Florida. She lived the rest of her life on the proceeds of the sale of Grey Gardens. Little Edie reportedly swam daily and greatly enjoyed her time in Florida. She died on January 14, 2002, in Florida at the age of 84. Her death was caused by either a heart attack or stroke, as she suffered from a hardening of the arteries known as arteriosclerosis.

16 Facts About Jackie Kennedy’s Infamous Cousin and Aunt’s Downfall
The last picture taken of Little Edie Beale (left), in her eighties, with her niece Eva Beale. Photo credit: Edith Bouvier Beale of Grey Gardens: A Life in Pictures. Courtesy of Grey Gardens Official

16. The Edies Were Largely Unknown Until the Documentary in 1975

Had it not been for filmmakers David and Albert Maysles, the world may never have learned about the reclusive Edies. The pair were in the process of making a documentary about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ daughter, Lee Radziwill, when they traveled to the East Hamptons on research and met the Beale women. They quickly realized that the Beales would make for a much more exciting documentary than Radziwill.

Radziwill was reportedly furious about the decision to switch subjects to the Beales and withdrew her financial support of the documentary. She also seized all of their footage of her and her family. Due to their reclusive nature, few outside of their immediate family had ever heard of Big and Little Edie and their desperate living conditions. They may well have seen the 1971 headlines about the misery of the manor, but that likely didn’t stick in the minds of many beyond a passing read.

In 1975, the Maysles debuted their documentary Grey Gardens to the world, where it immediately generated a great deal of interest. The riveting scenes of the two dramatic women, with memories of their former glory, galavanting around a squalid home full of garbage and cat feces were not easy to forget. The pair became cultural icons and Little Edie’s constant head wrappings due to alopecia-inspired fashion houses and magazines. In 2009, HBO resurrected the legacy of the Edies with a miniseries starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Jackie Kennedy’s Cousins Went From Wealth To Squalor In The Biggest Fall From Grace Ever” Noelle Talmon, Ranker. n.d.

“About Big Edie” Staff author, Grey Gardens Online. n.d.

“A Return to Grey Gardens” Gail Sheehy, New York Magazine. October 2006.

“A Debutante Delayed: Little Edie Beale’s Life After Grey Gardens”, ADRIENNE GAFFNEY, Town & Country, SEP 2, 2020

“G’night Forever, Little Edie! Grey Gardens Is Empty at Last”, Penelope Green, New York Magazine, Nov. 22, 2017

“16 Examples of the Kennedy Curse”, Trista, History Collection, November 11, 2018

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