This 2017 documentary shows Andy Warhol, Mick and Bianca Jagger, Truman Capote, Lee Radziwill, photographer Peter Beard, and others, enjoying themselves at an ocean-front home in Montauk, and at Lee’s Aunt Edie’s house in East Hampton. Beard is the main narrator. Some of the surviving participants and their contemporaries gave interviews for the documentary. There are no put-ons in the vintage film footage. No one is on stage or playing to an audience. The footage is akin to home movies of a group of friends having fun away from the city, taking pictures, and indulging their creative propensities. That is, except for Lee’s part in helping to bring her aunt’s house up to code. That part gave the impression of being professionally filmed, but was no less interesting.
About Lee’s Aunt Edie and her house:
If you have seen the 1975 documentary, Grey Gardens, then you know of Edie and the house, and that the two ladies who lived there are famous. If you haven’t seen the original Grey Gardens, that is the place to start.
[This video is labeled ‘trailer’, but it’s the entire 2+ hour Grey Gardens documentary on Youtube.]
Grey Gardens is the story of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (“Big Edie”) and Edith Bouvier Beale (“Little Edie”), mother and daughter, who lived together on their East Hampton estate, as their 1890s mansion they couldn’t afford to maintain deteriorated around them. Big Edie was the aunt of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill; Little Edie was their cousin. Big Edie was sister to Jackie and Lee’s father.
The two Edies became increasingly reclusive and eccentric during their time living together at Grey Gardens. They never left the property. They had their groceries delivered. By the 1970s, the house had deteriorated to a point where they didn’t have proper plumbing, heat or garbage service. The local code enforcement authorities stepped in like bulls in a china shop, did further damage to the house, and tried to remove the Edies from their home and property. The Bouvier-Onassis-Radziwill sisters sprung into action to save the Edies’ home without usurping their chosen lifestyle.
In 2009, a Grey Gardens movie was released. Drew Barrymore did a great job portraying Little Edie, and Jessica Lange was great as Big Edie. The movie told the poignant backstory of the Edies growing up, and how they ended up living together in their old home. The movie can be streamed for free right now with a Prime subscription. https://smile.amazon.com/Grey-Gardens-Drew-Barrymore/dp/B007Q34WIK
In 2015, the spoof series Documentary Now!, did an eerily likable episode on Grey Gardens, with Fred Armisen playing Big Edie and Bill Hader playing Little Edie. The episode is called ‘Sandy Passage’. Definitely a fun watch.
More about Big Edie and Little Edie:
Big Edie was beautiful, spirited and talented. She loved singing, dancing and performing for others. Her lawyer-husband left her in 1931, when their three children were still young. Once the children were grown, he divorced and disinherited her, which left her only the Grey Gardens property and a $65,000 trust fund.
- Big Edie’s Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edith_Ewing_Bouvier_Beale
Little Edie was also beautiful, spirited and talented. She spent her young adult years in New York City, but never married. At some point in her life she became bald. There are conflicting stories about how she came to be bald. To cover her baldness, she wears a variety of headscarves in the documentary, sometimes adorned with jewelry.
- Little Edie’s Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edith_Bouvier_Beale
Little Edie has so many great moments in the documentary, but this has to be my fave. Here she is, showing off her self-designed practical outfit for the day–upcycling and repurposing long before those concepts were cool.
The rest of the Grey Gardens story.
I can envision two more potential documentaries to be made out of the Grey Gardens story:
- One is about Little Edie’s life after Grey Gardens. She left the home after her mother died in 1977, returned to the stage for awhile, and had other projects, until passing away in 2002.
- The other potential movie, is about what happened to the house. There was a time when it looked like it might be torn down, but it was saved and renovated and is now habitable by even the snobbiest standards. It sold in 2017 for $15.5 million, according to this article in Town and Country magazine. This blog post has some nice views of the house interior and gardens: https://hookedonhouses.net/2015/01/26/a-look-inside-grey-gardens-in-the-hamptons-today/
To say Grey Gardens is an awkward documentary to watch is an understatement. Somewhere at any given moment, viewers are easing the awkwardness by making jokes about crazy cat ladies and hoarders; and scoffing about rich people who can’t take care of themselves. But looking past the easy jokes, the story comes through about how individual all human beings are, and how each person chooses in what ways to conform, and not conform, in the community and society. I’m captivated by these stories, and so glad for Big Edie and Little Edie and the Grey Gardens documentary, and for the inspiration for creativity and delightful individualism.
IMDB links: (Put together these four films, and you have a superb binge-watch.)
- Grey Gardens the original documentary (1975) https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073076
- Grey Gardens the movie (2009) https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0758751
- Documentary Now! the Sandy Passage episode (2015) https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4943628
- That Summer the documentary (2017) https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7057306
And now, back to ‘That Summer’ and what makes it special. The footage in this 2017 indie documentary precedes the Grey Gardens documentary, and brings together the Edies and Grey Gardens at its most delapidated, with those most famous Warhol-Studio 54 denizens when they escaped the city to the quiet Hamptons. It is truly unique. If binge watching, I think you can either start or end the series with “That Summer”. “That Summer” can be streamed from the usual sources, and can be viewed free on Hulu with a subscription. https://www.hulu.com/movie/that-summer-6c7dd4c4-49cd-4666-b794-e00ae5ab311a