The Many Shades of Grey Gardens

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A view of the south side of the house from inside the ring garden — so named by Sally Quinn’s friend, Nora Ephron, because of its circular shape. Robert Ekholm photo

By Annette Hinkle

In August 1979, author and journalist Sally Quinn set out on a quest for the perfect home.

At the time, she and husband Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post, owned a small cottage in Amagansett. But it had become too cramped to accommodate family and friends so Quinn was on the hunt for something near the ocean that would be suitable for entertaining guests.

What she found is truly the stuff of legends.

In a recent interview, Quinn recalled that her real estate agent showed her virtually everything between Montauk and Southampton, but nothing quite fit the bill.

Then in desperation, the agent said, “Well, there’s always Grey Gardens.”

“I had read Gail Sheehy’s Grey Gardens story in New York magazine and thought, ‘That’s fabulous,’” said Quinn. “I approached it with the idea of being a sightseer. It was a gorgeous sunny day, you could hear the ocean and here was this incredible ruin.

“I love ruins. I got excited.”

The house at 3 West End Avenue sits on just under two acres. Situated near the ocean in the Georgica section of East Hampton, it’s a graceful arts-and-crafts style cottage that traces its origins to an 1879 design by architect Joseph Greenleaf Thorpe.

“Little Edie” Beale at Grey Gardens. Albert Maysles photo

But to the masses, it will forever be Grey Gardens, the infamous former residence of Edith Bouvier Beale (aka “Big Edie”) and her daughter, “Little Edie,” the blue blood duo who lived there in squalor for decades despite being the aunt and first cousin, respectively, of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

The home and its eccentric occupants were the subjects of Albert and David Maysles’ 1976 documentary “Grey Gardens,” which detailed the hermit-like existence of the Edies, along with the holes in the roof, broken windows, collapsing floors and many feral animals that shared the space with them. In 2009, the story of the Beales was retold again in an HBO film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, and it was also the subject of a Broadway musical in 2006.

But in 1979 when Quinn first laid eyes on Grey Gardens, Little Edie still lived there (Big Edie had passed away two years earlier) — and the real estate agent was not eager to show her the place.

“She said, ‘I’ll do anything to sell a house, but I’m not going in there,’” recalled Quinn, noting that the Maysles’ crew wore flea collars while making the documentary.

So Quinn ventured forth alone.

The agent sat in the car.

“Edie greeted me in the hallway and said everyone who had seen the house — it was $220,000 which even then was low for that location — said they’d buy it and tear it down,” Quinn said. “I couldn’t see the garden. The vines and weeds and branches were 12 feet high and they completely covered the walls and the sunroom. I had to take Little Edie’s word for it that there was a garden wall there.”

“It was the house I fell in love with … which was completely falling down,” she added. “I walked in and told her it was the most beautiful house I’d ever seen.

“She said, ‘It’s yours then.’”

Though Quinn was thrilled by the massive restoration challenge posed by Grey Gardens, her husband was not.

“I was so excited I could hardly stand it,” said Quinn. “Ben was wildly allergic to cats. I told him I found my dream house, took him over there and within 10 minutes, his eyes were puffing up and he couldn’t breathe.”

“He got in the yard and said ‘You gotta be out of your f—ing mind.’ He didn’t want to do it. But I had my book money and I said I’m buying it,” explained Quinn. “Of course, once I bought it he got totally into it.”

The second floor landing with the steamer trunk with initials “P.B.” for Phelan Beale, Big Edie’s husband. Michael Heller photo

The couple closed on Grey Gardens that November and that’s when Quinn finally realized what she had purchased.

“You could see the dead vines and part of the walls. That’s when I got really excited,” she said. “When we bought it, there were 36 cats there, not to mention the raccoons. The smell was beyond anything you can imagine. It was so vile.”

“There was a grand piano in the living room, I went over and went ‘plink, plink, plink’ on it and it collapsed,” she added.

Like others who had seen the property before her, Quinn’s contractor advised tearing it down and starting over. But Quinn refused. She didn’t want a new house — she wanted to restore Grey Gardens. And restore it she did — taking three years and upwards of three times the purchase price to bring the place back to life.

“We kept it all exactly the same, except the kitchen which was squirrely with a pantry and little rooms,” Quinn explained. “We knocked out everything to make it a sitting room and kitchen. We also added French doors around the side of the house.”

“We also had to take out all the dry wall and the floors were falling in anyway,” she continued. “All the trim is original.”

The current enclosed sunroom was originally open to the elements, but because Quinn and her guests found it was often too breezy, buggy or damp to sit there, the decision was made to enclose it.

“We lived in that room. It’s all glass with mullioned windows,” said Quinn. “I had the doors made so they would fold open all the way. You could sit there in the daytime and feel like you were in the garden. It was magical.”

What Grey Gardens is not, despite the way it’s been portrayed in various stories over the years, is a sprawling mansion.

“It’s a shingle cottage. Downstairs you have the living room, dining room, kitchen and sunroom — that’s it,” said Quinn. “There’s an incredible sense of light and openness and airiness. It’s a very welcoming, embracing and joyful house.’

The entrance hall. Michael Heller photo

Today when you walk through Grey Gardens, the vision is complete and it’s hard to picture the decay of half a century ago. Though both Edie’s are now long gone (Little Edie died in Florida in 2002), Quinn notes that 75 percent of the furnishings are original to the home and were found in the attic after the purchase.

“It was a treasure trove of fabulous stuff — antique tables, desks and chairs and screens and wicker, trunks, china, mirrors, lace pillow cases and it was extraordinary,” Quinn said. “I had everything restored — lamps, chaise lounges, over stuffed chairs that had to be redone.”

When asked to describe her personal favorite features of Grey Gardens, Quinn points to the entrance hallway with its wonderful molding as well as the built-in cabinetry off the kitchen and the Juliet balcony in one of the upstairs bedrooms.

“One of the most attractive things is the stairway and the railing that goes all the way around at the top of the stairs,” she added. “It’s a great big square filled with windows and light. All the bedrooms go off the square.”

And the home was a great place to entertain — just like Quinn had hoped it would be.

“We always had lots of house guests, family and friends over. We had this great dinner table and were always laughing and drinking wine,” Quinn recalled. “We’d sit in the sunroom at twilight and look at the garden — and every August I’d have a big birthday party for Ben. We had a really good time, it was just a magical time.”

While Grey Gardens is filled with happy memories for Quinn, she notes the time has come for her to sell it. Bradlee died in 2014 and in February, Quinn put Grey Gardens on the market. The property is listed for $19,995,000 with agent Michael Schultz of Corcoran.

“Last year was the first summer without Ben, and I was miserable,” admitted Quinn.

So while the next story in the life of Grey Gardens has yet to be written, for Quinn, that chapter of her life is now coming to an end.

“It’s over. So many of our friends have died, a lot of them were Ben’s age. Then my closest friend Nora Ephron died five years ago,” said Quinn. “She organized my summers for me when I came up there. It isn’t the same for me now.”

“There’s too many places I want to go and see, adventures I want to have. Now I’m free to go where I want to go. That part of my life is done.”

When asked who she envisions as the next owner of Grey Gardens, Quinn responded, “Someone who gets it — the house and the history — and will cherish it the way we did. It will take a very unusual person, because now people enjoy the mega-mansions with screening rooms and gyms.”

“This is not that,” she said. “This is for somebody who really understands the beauty of this kind of house.”

… And, we imagine, the eccentric notoriety that comes along with it as well.

A view of the gardens from the second floor. Robert Ekholm photo

The Not So Grey Gardens

The original gardens at Grey Gardens were created after the home was purchased by Robert C. Hill in 1913. The property originally encompassed four acres (today, it’s just under two) and the famous moniker came from his wife, Anna Gilman Hill, who designed the gardens with landscape architect Ruth Bramley Dean.

“Anna Gillman Hill named it Grey Gardens after the gray mists that would come over the ocean,” said Sally Quinn, who bought the property from Little Edie Beale in 1979. “I had fabulous pictures of the original garden and thatch roofed cottage.”

Gray also described the color of the original cement wall that encloses the garden, as well as the shade of the ocean dunes beyond on certain days. But by the time Quinn and Bradlee took possession of Grey Gardens, decades of neglect had taken its toll and the property was a tangle of overgrown bittersweet vines. A few years earlier, there had even been a rusted 1937 Cadillac fully engulfed by foliage in the driveway.

After stories surfaced in the early ‘70s detailing the deplorable conditions in which the Beales were living and the Suffolk County Health Department threatened to condemn the property, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwell purportedly paid to have the property cleaned up somewhat and the car was removed.

But still, Quinn recalls that once she and Bradlee took possession of Grey Gardens, before a new garden could take shape, the old one had to go completely.

Hand-colored images of the gardens when they were first installed, circa 1913. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

“We had to get a crane and lift a bulldozer over the wall to bulldoze the garden,” recalls Quinn. “We bulldozed everything — except one cherry tree which is still there being propped up. There we were with a blank garden.”

In the early years, Quinn notes they planted roses and small trees that “looked pretty good.”

“The soil is very lush there. Everything grows like you can’t believe,” she says. “But I wanted it to look like a wild English garden, not manicured.”

That’s where East Hampton landscape designer Victoria Fensterer came in. In 1986 she was hired to create the current iteration of Grey Gardens after Quinn and Bradlee saw the garden she had made for their neighbor and good friend Nora Ephron.

“At first, seeing the property I knew that I wanted to create an old fashioned classically romantic garden gone slightly wild — and having some of the overgrown Grey Gardens feeling of the Big and Little Edie Beale days,” explains Fensterer. “To their credit they wanted to keep some of the vines.”

Fensterer envisioned a lush garden with lots of green, depth and layers that integrated with the architecture of the house, the cement walls, the pool and the thatched gardener’s cottage on the property.

She achieved that look by adding large trees and evergreens to anchor the space and provide structure. Then she softened and defined the property by creating various outdoor “rooms” to add a sense of mystery, age and intimacy.

A look into the ring garden. Robert Ekholm photo

“I wanted to create an evocative and sensuous environment and an experience of immersion into the sights, sounds, smells and textures of nature,” explains Fensterer. “I wanted a garden that led one to discovery and surprise rather than laying it all out at your feet or allowing your eyes to take it all in at once.”

Inside the wall, there was a circular bed of flowers, which Fensterer redesigned by creating a larger bed with a lawn on the inside so that visitors could literally find themselves surrounded by color. Some of the species included in the garden were lavender hollyhocks, Joe Pye weed, roses, hosta, bee balm, lambs ears and mugwort. She also placed two Adirondack chairs inside the ring of flowers.

“It’s quite an experience in immersion,” says Fensterer. “Sliding down into those chairs on a warm summer’s day brought you into a world of colors, scents and shapes with blossoms, buzzing bees and birdsong all around you.”

“Even without a glass of wine, it is an intoxicating experience,” she adds.

Another lovely space is an intimate herb garden enclosed by hedges off the kitchen. Bradlee had laid out a path of bluestone pavers and Fensterer built upon the idea by laying them out in a new pattern to create a space for lingering. She added a small French café table with old fashioned wire chairs, brought in dark green hollies and tall Hydrangea paniculata to enhance the hedge and create mass and depth. An old pedestal fountain was placed at the end of the walkway as a focal point.

“I added roses, morning glories, honeysuckle and other flowers in with the herbs — fennel, lavender, rosemary, dill, basil and even some Queen Ann’s lace,” says Fensterer. “Then I cut two arches through the privet to allow glimpses of the pool through the veil of herbs and flowers.”

“The light was lovely and the scents most delicious in the cool morning air,” she adds.

Over the years that Bradlee and Quinn lived there, the gardens became a favorite space for entertaining. Guests who visited the property include the likes of Norman Lear and Lauren Bacall, and the annual birthday celebrations Quinn threw for Bradlee each August remain legendary.

“The garden is so beautiful,” says Quinn. “What’s magical is it really is a secret garden — you can’t get in without going through little doors that lead into it.”

“It was really fantastic.”

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