Because the majority of the film’s action takes place in the Yellow Bedroom, this is where we learn most about the Beale women— as individuals and in their relationship with each other. Confined to her bed, Big Edie is still the matriarch and head of the house— she does not let her age or her failing health deter her from carrying herself like the beautiful, charming woman she was in the days of her wealth and youth. With no hired help to serve her, she is forced to turn to her daughter, who begrudgingly follows her every command. Feeling it her duty as the oldest and most responsible of her siblings, Little Edie obeys her mother’s orders whilst singing, dancing, and adjusting her costume— infusing a bit of light into her dreary situation. Big Edie’s bed is littered with every piece of garbage imaginable— food, papers, photographs. Her world at her fingertips, this is Big Edie’s way of remaining in control of her life, no matter how unsanitary it may seem to others. Aware of how unhealthy and unappealing it is, Little Edie tries in vain to convince her mother to change her ways. This is the basis of the Beale’s relationship— both women know the other will never change, but they spend much of their time attempting to get the other to do so.
I understand where you’re coming from, but I don’t think Big Edie looked at all in pain in the documentary— in fact, I think she looks extremely comfortable and “at home:” one of the reasons why she refused to leave Grey Gardens in the first place.
I know this comparison has been made before, but she sits on her bed like a Queen on her throne. If she needed anything, there is no doubt she would ask/demand that Edie get it for her as soon as possible. And, on closer inspection, there is always a space between her back and the headboard, and she occasionally leans behind herself to adjust something several times throughout the film, which leads me to believe that there is something to support her, after all. You can see a glimpse of something in this screencap:
Big Edie was well taken care of at Grey Gardens— Little Edie was the one who was uncomfortable most of the time!
“Yes, his name was Gould. Mr. Beale chose him originally for my sons to learn French. You see, my nurse went to Ireland, to the Congress of Ireland that summer, and there was nobody to take the boys bathing or teach them French, or put them to bed at night or anything. So Mr. Beale received one hundred letters from all the young people who wanted to take the job.
Gould was a gentleman about twenty-five years old when I met him. He didn’t drink and he was particularly gifted with the piano. Also composition. He wrote me hundreds of songs— French songs and American songs.
We were very religious together. We had the same ideas about the divine cosmos, the afterworld. We agreed about everything. Nicest person that ever breathed. I think he was nicer than anybody I’ve ever known in my whole life. Never disappointed me, never kept me waiting, never lied to me. I was beautifully taken care of by the greatest pianist. I had the best man in America. I did not suffer once. I spent the nights alone but I didn’t suffer.” -Edith Bouvier Beale
April 2, 1940 marks the death of Maude Sergeant Bouvier— Big Edie’s mother and Little Edie’s grandmother. Big Edie’s final familial ally, other than her daughter, this was a huge loss and marked the beginning of the end for the Beales’ relationship with the Bouvier family.
“This is the most comfortable house you could possibly imagine— dumbwaiters, three telephones, children’s dining room, laundry. We had a gorgeous kitchen with six gorgeous windows— all the cooks never wanted to leave. They wanted to stay for the rest of their lives, they were so comfortable. Maids’ quarters. Two beautiful bedrooms on the third floor. A beautiful view of the ocean and a very nice dry cellar that never had a drop of water in it. It was beautifully built.” -Edith Bouvier Beale
On a blustery East Hampton day like this one, Big Edie is shown shoveling snow on the second floor deck of Grey Gardens, c. 1940.
“I sent Brigid Berlin to the funeral in East Hampton. It was a cold sunny winter day. The ground was covered with snow. They had a mass at the Catholic church. The whole town was there: the butcher, the grocer, the real estate agent, the coffee shop people from under the bridge where Little Edie used to go with her friends Lois and Doris for a cup of coffee.
The priest made a speech about how unique Big Edie was. He said the Beales were good people, just a little bit different, and the Lord watched over all of his sheep. The priest announced that Big Edie had made a final request. He took out a tape recorder and pushed the button. Big Edie was singing ‘Together’ but in an opera voice.
Jackie and Lee were there. They received communion with everyone else. Jackie was in all black. Lee was wearing a grey fox coat. Jackie’s lips were swollen from too much sun in Switzerland. She had flown in the night before and driven out with Lee early in the morning. After the mass, Jackie and Lee drove off to the cemetery in a limousine. Little Edie was sitting between them. The butcher, the grocer, the real estate agent, the coffee shop people were all watching. The whole town was watching. Little Edie waved.”
“Anyone who’s ever been marginalized or disenfranchised can identify with the Beales. They’re the ultimate rebel divas.” -Scott Frankel
Little Edie’s debutante supper dance occurred seventy-seven years ago today. On January 1st 1936, at the Pierre Hotel in the main ballroom on the second floor, Edie was presented to the world and was officially able to begin to accept engagements for marriage.
The event cost upwards of $10,000, and though Phelan, Sr. attended, he hardly spoke a word to his wife.
Big Edie said, “I looked younger than any of the debutantes. Listen, you know - everybody came up and shook hands and they thought I was the debutante. Don’t you love that?”
As depicted in the HBO film Grey Gardens (2009), Little Edie did indeed run away before the party began. Edie said,
“So, came the debut and guess where I was. Came the time I was supposed to be in the Pierre Ballroom on the seating line for the goddamn debut - guess where I was? Sitting in the Stork Club with Francis Hodge! Fran Hodge turns to me and said, ‘Hey, Edith, I think it’s time you got dressed for the party, don’t you?’ “
In this photo from July of 1936, Little Edie is seen modeling the Bergdorf Goodman gown she wore to her debut.