Saturday, July 07, 2007

Travel Journal (2)--Grey Gardens

I enjoy the company of eccentrics. Most of my friends--certainly the ones who have stuck with me through thick and thin--fall into this category. And by the sometimes narrow standards of my community, I fit the description myself. One of my extended in-laws once let it slip about me--"Well, you know how strange he is." And they didn't know the half of it! So, it should be no surprise that Grey Gardens was the one play I had to see while in NYC.

The documentary from which the play is taken is now something of a cult classic. I was curious to see how it could be adapted to a musical format. But adapt it they did. And very well, I might add. The story concerns the near relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Her aunt, Edith Bouvier Beale (known as "Big Edie") and cousin, also Edith Bouvier Beale (known as "Little Edie") lived at Grey Gardens, a rambling 28-room mansion on Long Island. Nieces Jackie and Lee, as well as Grandfather Bouvier, are portrayed in the play. The movie alternates between 1941 and 1973. Even in 1941, the Bouvier money was beginning to run thin. By 1973, it was long gone, and the two still inhabited the old house, now squalid and filthy and overrun with cats and racoons. Their plight caused some embarrassing publicity for the Kennedy family, and led to the now classic documentary.

The 1941 plot involved the prospective marriage of Little Edie to Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Old money families like the Bouviers, past their first bloom, were still useful to up-and-coming families like the Kennedys, with their eye on the main chance. Before the family alliance could be cemented, however, young Kennedy was spooked by both mother and daughter. While entertaining, they were hardly ready for prime time. The disappointed Grandfather Bouvier, put his arm around the actress playing the young cousin Jackie, and told her that it is now up to her to rescue the family.

The 1973 scenes of the wildly eccentric and bickering mother and daughter reminded me of a somewhat similar situation from 25 years ago. In our little town, two sisters lived in adjoining, somewhat tumbledown houses on my block. At the time, we were the only couple in the neighborhood under Social Security age. The pair took an especial interest in us, giving us a silver service as a wedding present, which to this day we still refer to as the S______ silver. They were old, even then, daughters of a once respected family that had more or less petered out. Both had sought fame elsewhere, only returning later in life. One was a show-girl, and disappointed actress. The they say, was "in business" in Dallas. While checking on her one day, she told me that "she had had a lot of men come to her back door in her day, but none as handsome as me." I was uncomfortable with this, to say the least. As their disabilities and paranoia increased, my in-laws and I stepped in to help care for them. I was the one who often carried the food to them at night. I have vivid memories of the houses: a baby grand piano, a naked mannequin, their own bizarre artwork on the walls, a poodle with orange-painted toenails to match the orange lipstick preferred by one sister. In time, we moved them into one house, and conducted an estate sale in the other to raise money to allow them to remain at home. During the sale, I was sickened to find someone rummaging through the closet, stuffing old pictures into a sack. But the sisters declined rapidly and died within a short time of one another. A relative materialized from Las Vegas to quickly sell the houses and depart with the money. In the final estate sale, I purchased the armchair in which I am now sitting. Another chair in my study came from the other sister's house. On the wall next to me is a portrait--in one of those old curved-glass frames--of one of the sisters during her youth. And finally, stored away in a box, is a snapshot I copied from the pile of pictures in the closet. One of the sisters is sitting on a curb in Boston in to a very young Bette Davis.

In retrospect, Grey Gardens was an absolute delight. Despite their self-absorption, I found myself profoundly sympathetic to these two gals who never quite learned to play by the rules of society. Eccentricity knows no regional or societal bounds. For me, it was almost like going home.


Mimi said...

I just heard about this play within the past week, and look forward to seeing it some day! Thank you, this sounds fascinating.

Anonymous said...

It does sound like an interesting play indeed.

Welcome back, and I look forward to reading more of your travels.

D.I. Dalrymple said...

A wonderful post. I heard about the play/musical on NPR maybe a year ago. I haven't seen the documentary. I'm going to have to see if I can find a copy.