For this month’s edition of Life is a Cabaret I’d like to shine a light on a lesser-known cabaret performer: the truly unique Edith Bouvier Beale, who was nicknamed “Little Edie”. Little Edie’s life really was a cabaret – she achieved fame by living a truly eccentric life which was broadcast to the world in 1976 in the documentary “Grey Gardens” filmed by Albert and David Maysles.
Little Edie was originally born in New York City in 1917, and was from a wealthy aristocratic family – she was the cousin of Jackie Kennedy and grew up living a lifestyle of upper-class luxury. Their family home was located in East Hampton – a 28 room mansion called “Grey Gardens”, where little Edie would dance soft shoe shuffles and sing with her mother in their home. Her mother, ‘Big Edie’ pursued an amateur singing career whilst being supported by her husband, Phelan Beale. After Edie finished her studies, blessed with Hollywood looks and dancing talent, she spent her youth from 1947 to 1952 pursuing a successful career as a model, dancer, and actress. However, her aspirations of being a star performer were put to a halt when in her late 30s she developed alopecia, causing her hair to fall out and wear her signature headscarf wrap on her head.
On July 29 1952, at her Mother’s insistence, Little Edie moved back home to Grey Gardens – where she would spend the next 25 years taking care of her mother and living in seclusion. The pair lived in squalor – surrounded by cat feces, a diet consisting of tinned pate and ice cream, and completely withdrawn from public life. It wasn’t until 1972 when Edie’s cousin, Lee Bouvier Radizwill, hired filmmakers to make a documentary about the pair’s obscure life that they would gain public attention.
In the documentary, we see that Edie has true star quality. Despite barely leaving the house for 25 years, her charisma and presence shine through the camera. The on-screen relationship between Little and Big Edie shows one of dysfunction – Edie feeling trapped by her mother, but also unable to leave her side to pursue her performing career. Both seem stuck in yesteryear, but there is an undeniable charm to them both and brutal honesty which makes you fall in love with them.
There are some important lessons that can be drawn from Little Edie’s unique, if bizarre life for a performer:
1. The power of being “Staunch”
Despite all the setbacks in her life, from feeling trapped and burdened for having to look after her elderly mother, Little Edie remained true to herself and never seemed to let her unusual situation get the better of her positive attitude. She kept her child-like sense of creativity – in the Grey Gardens documentary, there are many clips of Edie making up dance routines, bursting out into song, and performing for the cameramen. Even if she wasn’t performing on Broadway as she had dreamed, she treated her house as a stage and still persevered with her artistic career in her own way.
“I tell you if there’s anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman…
There’s nothing worse, I’m telling you. They don’t weaken, no matter what.”
2. You can look fabulous on a budget
Even though Little Edie lived below the poverty line for 25 years, caring for her mother in Grey Gardens and living off welfare checks, she still managed to maintain a sense of glamour. Because her funds were so limited, she invented her ‘costumes’ from scraps around the house and developed her own unmistakable style.
“This is the best thing to wear for today, you understand. Because I don’t like women in skirts and the best thing is to wear pantyhose or some pants under a short skirt, I think. Then you have the pants under the skirt and then you can pull the stockings up over the pants underneath the skirt. And you can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape. So I think this is the best costume for today.”
3. It’s never too late to follow your dreams
After 25 years of living in seclusion with her mother, Little Edie made the brave decision at 60 to finally pursue her dreams of being on the New York stage. She performed her own revue consisting of eight shows at the Reno Sweeney Club in New York. Whilst the reviews were negative, the audience loved her and she finally felt like she had achieved what she wanted in her life, saying to the press: “I’m finally beginning to live…at the end of 12 performances, I will know a little more about myself and what I should do in life.” On one hand, Little Edie lived a sad and reclusive life – but what I find inspiring about her, and for any performer, is that she never let go of her dreams even through her hardship. She persisted through the turmoil of her life to become a cult pop-culture icon – proving that you can shine and perform at any age and that perhaps sometimes it is your actual LIFE which is the cabaret act!