Before the 1950s, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale were members of an affluent family. But it all came crashing down after a divorce tore them apart. Known as Big Edie and Little Edie, the two were incredibly attached to one another. When Big Edie fell ill in 1952, Little Edie, age 35, moved in with her - sealing their fates.
The pair owned a lavish estate called Grey Gardens, which fell into disrepair when they could no longer afford the upkeep. The mother-daughter duo barely scraped together enough money to feed themselves, much less the hundreds of stray animals occupying their home. The Beales relied on financial help from close relative and former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy to avoid eviction, but the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens revealed their wretched living conditions.
The tale of Big Edie and Little Edie serves as yet another dark chapter in the Kennedy family's story.
The Mother And Daughter Always Possessed An Unhealthy Relationship
Journalist Gail Sheehy reports that as a child, Little Edie was "attached to Mother’s hand at all times," accompanying her everywhere, including luncheons. Big Edie took Little Edie out of school for two years due to a "vague respiratory illness." The pair traveled and went to the movies or theater nearly every day.
Eva Beale, a relative of the pair, says, "I think it was a safe haven for her always to be with her mother. They had such a wonderful bond that nobody could break." Little Edie ended all of her letters to her mother with the sign off, "With ladles and ladles of kisses, loves & hugs - your ever precious, ever loving and ever darling and kissable Edes."
The bond between Big Edie and Little Edie was so intense Little Edie prioritized her love for her mother over romance. When she was 11 years old, Little Edie wrote in her diary:
I have two great loves in my life. First, I love my mother, which will always go on, never be forgotten or forsaken. Most children think that mother love is a thing taken for granted, isn’t it? Second, my buzzing love for a boy, no mere crush, but a true, steady love.
- Photo: Grey Gardens / Pictorial Films
Before She Lived In Squalor, Big Edie Was A Wealthy Child Prodigy
Born into a wealthy family, Big Edie's father worked as an attorney and judge, making his fortune on Wall Street. Her mother's side of the family, meanwhile, became rich in the pulp and paper industry.
Big Edie was a very talented singer and pianist when she was just 10 years old - some even call her a child prodigy. As she got older, she was a socialite who often attended parties. She married attorney Phelan Beale in 1917, and gave birth to Little Edie that same year. Shortly after two sons arrived in 1920 and 1922, the family moved to their estate in the Hamptons, Grey Gardens.
Phelan Beale Ran Off With A Younger Woman, Leaving Big Edie Without Money
Big Edie's husband, Phelan Beale, worked for his father-in-law at the Wall Street law firm Bouvier, Caffey and Beale. He survived the 1929 market crash, but eventually lost all of his money. Big Edie behaved in a way that Beale found unbecoming - he wanted her to attend garden parties and maintain their social status, while she remained more interested in the arts.
The Beales held a membership at the Maidstone Club, and Big Edie often shocked patrons with her operatic singing. Phelan Beale divorced Big Edie in the '40s, leaving her for a younger woman. He told his wife before they split not to let their daughter, Little Edie, know about their financial situation. He wrote, "She will think we’re at the poorhouse. It will rob all her joy."
Big Edie's Father Significantly Reduced Her Inheritance
Big Edie received Grey Gardens in her and Phelan Beale's divorce settlement, along with a small amount of child support. The money wasn't enough, however, to sustain their formerly lavish lifestyle, and Big Edie struggled to maintain the property. Big Edie relied on her father, Major Bouvier, for financial assistance.
Bouvier disapproved of Big Edie's lifestyle - he told her to sell Grey Gardens and stop pursuing her singing career. The final straw came for Bouvier when Big Edie arrived at her son's wedding dressed as a star of the opera. Bouvier reduced Big Edie's inheritance of his $825,000 estate to $65,000. She became depressed and could no longer afford to send money to Little Edie, who was living in New York at the time.