The other day we were watching a promo for the newest iteration of “Grey Gardens” on HBO when Alan asked, “Am I the only person in the world who doesn’t think that movie was a masterpiece?” I assured him he was sitting next to another one. In fact, I thought, we’d watched it together, just a year or two previous, on DVD from the library, and we’d turned it off midway through. It was during the feed-the-raccoons scene, as I recall.
If you haven’t been backgrounded: “Grey Gardens” started life as a National Enquirer story and became a documentary film, and that’s where it stayed for the longest time — a cult classic, as the phrase goes. It’s about a mother-daughter team of lunatics, both named Edie Beale, who lived in an enormous, ramshackle house in an exclusive nook of the Hamptons. If you’ve known a crazy cat lady in your life, you’ve known the Beales, except the Beales were crazy with a twist — they were aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (the elder Edie was Edie Bouvier Beale, sister of Jackie’s no-good father). They lived in this huge, crumbling pile together, filth and decay forcing them into one or two rooms, where they spent their days talking crazy to one another in these upper-class accents. I guess that made them irresistible to the Maysles brothers, who made the original documentary.
Eventually, in the days of home video, “Grey Gardens” emerged from midnight-screening-at-the-art-house obscurity and into pop culture, and then there was a Broadway musical and now a dramatic remake of the doc, with the story of their early, pre-crazy lives folded in. I’ll probably watch it at some point, but I watch with a cold eye. “Eccentric” may be the polite word for insanity, but ultimately finding entertainment in a portrait of two mentally ill women just doesn’t feel right to me. Whatever floats your boat — I don’t judge. But it creeps me out.
All over this country are people like the Beales, living in less picturesque but very similar surroundings. Once I had this idea for a reporting project — to do a profile of every single person who filed to run in the city election in Fort Wayne in 1995, for council and mayor. The idea was not to look at their positions on the issues, but at them as people, on the grounds these are the politicians you’re most likely to meet in the supermarket, and you might want to know about them. My editors like the idea, and when the filing deadline passed, we made up a list and I divided it with another reporter.
I thought the project was, on balance, a success, but I hadn’t accounted for the Crazy factor, and so we found ourselves obligated to profile at least two people who were not only hopeless candidates, but, frankly, a little nuts. One was borderline and ran for mayor; the other was all the way there and was up for a council seat. Both were on my half of the list.
I walked into the latter’s apartment, a much less picturesque version of Grey Gardens, to find the furniture had been turned upside down. “Spring cleaning,” the candidate said by way of explanation. Two chairs were righted, I was served tea in a filthy cup, and the interview commenced. An hour later I made my escape, having been led on a magical mystery tour of his personal crazytown. I was advised that I should never leave appliances not in use plugged in. I was told that my subject had been caught in a crossfire with the Purple Gang and another band of gangsters, and that’s why he was physically disabled. I was told he had several advanced degrees, but didn’t possess the diplomas because of administrative persecution. And so on.
The next day, just for the hell of it, I went spelunking in our ancient, non-digitized clip files and in nothing short of a miracle, turned up a brief story that mentioned the would-be council candidate. Decades earlier, he had opened an unsecured fire door of a hospital under renovation and stepped into thin air, falling two floors and seriously injuring his back and legs. I was not particularly surprised to learn it had been a plain old accident (likely an attempted suicide) and not Purple-Gang thugs who left him a physical wreck, nor was I shocked to hear the door he’d used was on the mental ward.
I might still have the story in my files, but I like to think I walked a careful line in my reporting, enough to let the readers know who was living in the apartment with the upside-down furniture without holding him up for unnecessary ridicule. Ditto with the other candidate, who lived in a house with a front door about 15 feet from a major thoroughfare, one of those places you wonder why anyone would stay in. He served me coffee from an elaborate china service, added a big dollop of Cool Whip, and we struggled through an interview while every passing truck rattled all the cups and filled the room with its roar. (This, I’m convinced, is what drove him around the bend. I was only there an hour, and it nearly did it to me.)
When one of your names isn’t Bouvier, this is what being nuts is like. No arty documentarians, just a third-rate columnist wondering how she’s going to tell your story without bringing the authorities into your life.
I wrote a lot about mental illness when I was a columnist. The mother of a schizophrenic said something to me I’ll never forget, describing her son: “He’s sick. He’s in pain. Why can’t anybody see that?”
Good question. I guess part of it was that fashionable attitude that flowered in the ’60s, the in-a-crazy-world-who’s-to-say-what’s-sane wave of the hand. Part of it were the revelations of what institutionalization was really like for people who couldn’t afford the best care. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” played a part. And mental illness, like most illness, is a continuum, and one doctor’s judgment of who needs help imposed upon them and who doesn’t isn’t the same as the next doctor’s. Of my two candidates, the guy in the loud house was firmly in the “eccentric” range, the other edging into intervention territory, but neither was a danger to himself or others, as the legal standard goes. But I also don’t think either was happy, nor healthy.
I see the publicity surrounding the new “Grey Gardens,” and that’s what bugs me about it — this idea that the Beales should be celebrated, because Little Edie liked to wrap sweaters around her head. That their tumbledown house should somehow still encompass their legacy of illness, maybe in the famous gardens. Sally Quinn, the journalist who bought the house from Little Edie and restored it, gets it, although she’s too polite by half:
What do you recall of Little Edie that day?
Well, I thought she was nuts. I thought she had serious psychological and emotional problems. There was no question about it. She had just escaped into her own fantasy world. I didn’t know the story that much and so honestly, I feel bad about Edie. Your reaction was just to laugh at her because she was such a character and so crazy, dancing in the hall, saying isn’t it beautiful and this incredible outfit she had with safety pins and a turban and all that—and later when I saw the Maysles documentary and then the Broadway play and now the HBO movie, it’s so heartbreaking. I wanted to rewind and go back to that moment and just put my arms around her. I wanted to help her, do something for her.
Putting your arms around Edie wouldn’t have helped. She needed something a lot stronger.
The weekend looms! Any bloggage?
What is it about the gays and “Grey Gardens.” With YouTube.
And that’s it. Add your own if you like. And have a good weekend.