Here’s a topic I am intensely interested in: the early lives of people who are later viewed by society as “crazy.” What were these people like before they went over the edge? Were there obvious signs of mental illness that were somehow masked by youth, beauty, or wealth? What ultimately led to these people’s losing their grip on reality? Was it a long-standing chemical imbalance? Traumatic life event? Descent into poverty? Basic inability to cope? Dependency on drugs or alcohol? A combination of the above?
I admit I have some very personal reasons for being interested in this topic. Every time I see one of those crazy people on the street, the ones who are invisible to most passersby, there is a moment when I think to myself, “there but for the grace of God…” Let’s just say that there is a more-than-generous dollop of mental illness in my gene pool. I think I’ve written about my father’s mother who was institutionalized from the time he was a little boy until her death when I was 18. Because there was such shame around mental illness in those days, the very questionable decision was made to not tell me and my siblings about her until she died in the 1970s. My father told stories about her from his childhood and always said how much he loved her but I had assumed she died long before I was born. I saw her for the first time at her funeral and couldn’t help but wonder about her life and circumstances before she lost touch.
I’ve always had a strong attraction to the mentally ill. Without mentioning any names, I’d have to say that my favorite relatives growing up were the people who my more “normal” family members would say were a few cards short of a full deck. Let’s face it, crazy Auntie Mame-types are always more fun, especially for an uptight kid who had already learned to suppress most of his feelings. I would dutifully play my part of the “good little boy” at all family events while secretly envying my family members who were volatile enough to break from the rules and cause a “scene.” I saw being crazy as a kind of freedom, a liberation from the stifling norms, even though I simultaneously feared the loss of control it seemed to bring and I certainly didn’t envy the ramifications of such behavior, including, in some cases, being forcibly committed.
I’m on this bender today because I just downloaded the CD from the new musical “Grey Gardens” that opens on Broadway next week. It’s based on the 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles about the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy. In the film, now a cult classic, we meet Edith “Big Edie” Beale, sister of Jackie’s dad, “Black Jack” Bouvier, and her daughter “Little Edie” who was once one of the most sought after young socialites in New York. By 1975, elderly Edie and her middle-aged daughter were recluses living in a decaying 28-room mansion called Grey Gardens in East Hampton, New York along with 52 cats, several rabid raccoons, and an occasional rat. The Suffolk County Health Department had declared the home “unfit for human habitation” in the early 1970s which caused Jackie O. to step in and pay for a cleaning and partial renovation. By the time the Maysles brothers arrived a few years later, the mansion was once again in an appalling state.
Throughout the film, the love/hate relationship between Big Edie and Little Edie is apparent. While the filmmakers were later dogged by accusations that they were exploiting the Beales, it’s clear that they had a great affection for their subjects and that the women loved being in the spotlight. Seeing them living in such squalor after having once been the toasts of New York society, I couldn’t help but think of the social, physical, and mental freefalls experienced by other well-to-do American families, including my own. When I first heard that someone was writing a musical based on the documentary, I thought it was insane. How would that be possible? What was the point? I haven’t seen the play yet (which had a successful off-Broadway run earlier this year), but I was completely transfixed by the CD from the moment I played it. It’s rare for me to go that nuts for a score the first time I hear it but I was amazed at the way the emotions of these complex characters were so perfectly conveyed through the songs (written by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie). The fact that both Edies were intensely musical during their lives and were frustrated singers in their own right helps a lot. Big Edie died in 1977 but before her death in 2002, Little Edie gave her blessing to the planned musical of the film—she loved the idea.
“Grey Gardens” the musical is two plays in one. The first act takes place in 1941, during the heyday of the Beale family when their mansion was well staffed and boasted the finest gardens in the Hamptons. What a brilliant move to take the older Beales, as documented in the 1975 film and work backwards 30 years to a time when they were young, attractive, and accepted by society. While the first act plays like a high-spirited Cole Porter musical, it’s impossible to miss the heavy strands of dysfunction that crisscross the seemingly carefree lives of mother and daughter. Every hopeful moment in the first act is made all the more poignant because of our knowledge of how these dynamic characters ended up.
Jackie Kennedy and her sister Lee Radziwill are characters in the play, little girls, aged 12 and 8, who are in awe of their kooky, talented aunt and beautiful cousin. As the musical opens, the older Edie is busy preparing Grey Gardens for a glittering party honoring her daughter’s engagement to Joseph Kennedy, Jr., bright star of the Kennedy family and older brother to Jack and Bobby. Although the two dated back in the day, I’m not sure if they were ever really engaged, but Joe Kennedy is another poignant character, since we all know he will be cut down in his prime when his plane goes down towards the end of the war. Little Edie was a debutante and model in her youth, known by the nickname “Body Beautiful Beale,” and besides Kennedy, was supposedly courted by J. Paul Getty, Howard Hughes, and two of the Rockefellers. In the end, their eccentricities led both Edies into seclusion, dumped by the society families that once clamored for their attention. Little Edie was dropped by the Kennedys even before Joe’s death while Big Edie was abandoned by her husband and disowned by her own family, the Bouviers. Big Edie received no alimony from Mr. Beale but she was allowed to keep Grey Gardens, the palatial home that slowly withered around her since she could not afford to keep it up. In the early 1950s, Big Edie summoned her daughter to Grey Mansions to take care of her, thus beginning the co-dependent relationship that would comfort and torture both for the next two decades.
Can a Tony Award be given to an actress before a play opens on Broadway? Can it be awarded by someone who has never even seen the play? Christine Ebersole deserves all the honors that will come her way for this amazing career-altering tour de force. In Act 1 she plays Big Edie at the age of 45, at the height of her power as the Society Matron of Grey Gardens, just before it all goes terribly wrong. We see her embarrassing Little Edie with her outrageous songs (including a minstrel number called “Hominy Grits”) and irritating antics that eventually spell doom for the union with the Kennedys. In Act 2, Ebersole plays Little Edie at age 58, with all hopes for her glamorous life and well heeled suitors long gone.
The wonderful Mary Louise Wilson plays Big Edie at age 79 making a completely believable transition from Ebersole’s younger version in Act 1. A lot of the dialogue from the film is incorporated into the play and the words take on a special poignancy when we hear them coming out of the younger versions of the characters. In some cases, whole songs are created from the dialogue such as Little Edie’s explanation of her bizarre ensembles that included sweaters wrapped around her head and held in place with an ornate brooch. “This is the best thing to wear for today, you understand. Because I don't like women in skirts and the best thing is to wear pantyhose or some pants under a short skirt, I think. Then you have the pants under the skirt and then you can pull the stockings up over the pants underneath the skirt. And you can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape. So I think this is the best costume for today.”
A feature film version of “Grey Gardens” is now in pre-production with Jessica Lange as Big Edie and Drew Barrymore as Little Edie. Their life stories have become something of a cottage industry, Little Edie would be so thrilled. I am fascinated by these tales of lost potential, of people who are trapped in their circumstances and see no way out. The Beales of East Hampton were like two modern-day Miss Havishams, sitting in their faded, dusty finery and waiting for the crowds of admirers who would never come. Except now they have.
As I sit here pouring through boxes of old family memorabilia, spending hours researching obscure elements of L.A. history, or immersing myself in the brilliant hues of a technicolor fantasy, I wonder if I’m really all that different from Little Edie Beale and her quivering grasp on reality. What really separates me from the crazies of this world? My ability to limit most of my ramblings to my blog instead of accosting strangers on the street?