Edith Bouvier Beale

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Edith Bouvier Beale
Edith Bouvier Beale (1975 Grey Gardens poster portrait).jpg
Beale c. 1975, in front of the Grey Gardens estate. Photo by Herb Goro during the filming of Grey Gardens (1976)
Born(1917-11-07)November 7, 1917
DiedJanuary 14, 2002(2002-01-14) (aged 84)[a]
Resting placeLocust Valley Cemetery, Locust Valley, New York, U.S.
Other namesLittle Edie
  • Socialite
  • fashion model
  • Cabaret performer
Known forGrey Gardens
Parent(s)Phelan Beale
Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale
RelativesPhelan Beale Jr. (brother)
Bouvier Beale (brother)

Edith Bouvier Beale (November 7, 1917 – January 14, 2002), nicknamed Little Edie, was an American socialite, fashion model, and cabaret performer. She was a first cousin of Jacqueline Onassis and Lee Bouvier Radziwill. She is best known for her participation (along with her mother, with whom she lived) in the 1975 documentary film Grey Gardens by Albert and David Maysles.[1]

Early life[edit]

Beale was born in New York City, the only daughter of Phelan Beale, a lawyer, and Edith Ewing Bouvier (known as "Big Edie"), the daughter of Phelan’s law partner, John Vernou Bouvier Jr. She was born at 1917 Madison Avenue (now the site of the Carlyle Hotel). She had two brothers, Phelan Beale Jr. and Bouvier Beale, and had a lavish upbringing as part of America's "Catholic aristocracy".[2] Beale attended The Spence School and graduated from Miss Porter's School in 1935.[3]

Known as "Little Edie," Beale was a member of the Maidstone Country Club of East Hampton. A debutante, she was presented to society during a ball at the Pierre Hotel on New Year's Day 1936. The New York Times reported on the event, where she wore a gown of white net appliqued in silver with a wreath of gardenias in her hair.[1]

While Beale was young, her mother pursued a singing career, hiring an accompanist and playing at small venues and private parties. In the summer of 1931, Phelan Beale separated from his wife, leaving Big Edie, then 35 years old, dependent on the Bouviers for the care of herself and children.[citation needed] In 1946, he finally obtained a divorce, notifying his family by telegram from Mexico.[4]

In her youth, Little Edie was a clothes model at Macy's in New York[3] and Palm Beach, Florida. She later claimed to have dated J. Paul Getty and to have once been engaged to Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (although in reality she only met him once).[5] During the 1961 inauguration of John F. Kennedy, she told Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. that, if young Joe had lived, she would have been First Lady instead of Jackie. Once, Beale ran away to Palm Beach, where she was found by her father and brought home.[3]

From 1947 to 1952, she lived in the Barbizon Hotel for Women and worked as a model, dancer, and actress.[1] When she was in her late 30s, Beale developed alopecia totalis[5] which caused her body hair to fall out and prompted her to wear her signature headscarves. Beale's cousin, John Davis, claims Beale once climbed a tree at the house and set her hair on fire, suggesting Beale might have contributed to her own baldness.[3]

Grey Gardens[edit]

Grey Gardens, Joseph Greenleaf Thorp, architect, 1897. Landscape by Anna Gilman (Mrs. Robert C.) Hill.

On July 29, 1952, Beale returned to live with her mother in the East Hampton estate Grey Gardens.[6]

In October 1971, police raided Grey Gardens and found the house "full of litter, rife with the odor of cats and in violation of various local ordinances". The Suffolk County, New York, Board of Health prepared to evict Beale and "Big Edie" due to the unsafe condition of the property. Following the publicity, Beale's family paid a reported $30,000 to refurbish the property, settle back taxes, and give Beale and "Big Edie" a stipend (the two women's trust fund income had run out some years before). The eviction proceedings were dropped.[7]

Beale's cousin Lee Radziwill hired documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles in 1972 to work on a film about the Bouvier family. At the outset, the brothers filmed Beale and "Big Edie".[8] The original film project was not completed, and Radziwill kept the footage that had been shot of the Beales. However, the Maysles brothers were fascinated by the strange life the two women led. After raising funds for film and equipment on their own they returned and filmed 70 more hours of footage with Beale and Big Edie. The resulting 1975 film Grey Gardens is widely considered a masterpiece of the documentary genre. It was later adapted as a 2006 musical of the same name, where the characters Lee and Jackie Bouvier appear as visiting children in retrospect. An HBO television movie based upon the documentary and surrounding story of the Beales' lives, also called Grey Gardens, appeared in 2009.[9]

The original 1972 footage featuring Radziwill visiting the Beales was released in 2017 as That Summer.[10]

Later life[edit]

After her mother's death in February 1977, Beale attempted to start a cabaret career at age 60 with eight shows (January 10–14, 1978) at Reno Sweeney, a Manhattan night spot at 126 W. 13th Street. The club kept the bad reviews from her (The New York Times, on January 12, 1978, called it "a public display of ineptitude"), and she faced two new audiences per night, even through a fever and recent cataract surgery.[citation needed] She continued to live in Grey Gardens for about two years, according to her mother's wishes, holding out against selling the house as a teardown.[citation needed] In 1979, she sold the mansion to Ben Bradlee, then the executive editor of The Washington Post.[11]

Beale moved to Bal Harbour, Florida, in late 1997.[citation needed] She was found dead in her apartment on January 14, 2002, aged 84; it is believed she died about five days earlier, either from a stroke or heart attack.[1] The inscription on her grave marker reads: "I came from God. I belong to God. In the end—I shall return to God."[12]


Interest in the Beales' story resulted in a variety of publishing and media projects as well as various mentions in popular culture.


  1. ^ Beale was found dead on January 14, 2002, and this is recorded as her date of death on her tombstone. However, an article published at the time of her death, citing a relative, reported that she may have died about "five days" before her body was found.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e Douglas Martin (January 25, 2002). "Edith Bouvier Beale, 84, 'Little Edie', Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2016. Edith Bouvier Beale, once a successful model and aspiring actress who later lived a Gothic life in Grey Gardens, a dilapidated 28-room house in East Hampton, New York, with her mother and dozens of cats, raccoons, and opossums, was found dead in her small apartment in Bal Harbour, Florida, on January 14. She was 84. Her nephew Bouvier Beale Jr. said the Dade County coroner attributed the death to a heart attack or stroke resulting from arteriosclerosis. Her cousin John H. Davis said she appeared to have been dead for five days.
  2. ^ O'Hehir, Andrew (March 6, 2015). ""Grey Gardens": The lost world of Little Edie, still amazing after 40 years". Salon. Retrieved April 13, 2021.
  3. ^ a b c d Sheehy, Gail (October 26, 2006). "'Grey Gardens' and the Remaining Secrets of Little Edie Beale". New York Magazine. Retrieved December 6, 2019.
  4. ^ "A Return to Grey Gardens". New York Magazine.
  5. ^ a b Grey Gardens DVD (2009). HBO. Audio commentary with executive producers Michael Sucsy, Lucy Barzun Donnelly and Rachael Horovitz.
  6. ^ Goodman, Walter (February 22, 1976). "'Grey Gardens': Cinéma Verité or Sideshow?". The New York Times. Retrieved April 13, 2021.
  7. ^ Wolfgang Saxon (February 7, 1977). "Edith Bouvier Beale, Recluse, Dead at 81. Aunt of Mrs. Onassis Was Subject of the Documentary Movie 'Grey Gardens' in 1973". The New York Times. Retrieved October 11, 2008.
  8. ^ Woodman, Sue (February 9, 2002). "Obituary: Edith Bouvier Beale". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved February 18, 2019.
  9. ^ Rohter, Larry (April 7, 2009). "'Grey Gardens,' Back Story Included, on HBO With Drew Barrymore". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 18, 2019.
  10. ^ a b Weissberg, Jay (March 30, 2018). "Film Review: That Summer". Variety.
  11. ^ Judith Mead (May 7, 2006). "Big and Little Edie Lived Here". The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2016.
  12. ^ Mank, Gregory William (August 22, 2016). Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. p. 48. ISBN 0786479922.
  13. ^ Ku, Andrew (June 11, 2007). "Just the Facts: List of 2007 Tony Award Winners and Nominees". Playbill. Retrieved September 15, 2021.
  14. ^ "the rivers of it, abridged". BigCityLit.com. Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved May 16, 2016.
  15. ^ "So How Good Is Tina Fey's Grey Gardens Impression?". Vulture. Retrieved May 16, 2016.
  16. ^ "Jinkx Monsoon To Star In 'Return To Grey Gardens' With Peaches Christ".
  17. ^ "Watch: Bill Hader and Fred Armisen Hilariously Parody 'Grey Gardens'". IndieWire. Retrieved May 26, 2019.

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