Heights of Glamour, Depths of Depravity in Bay Street’s “Grey Gardens”

Betty Buckley.
Betty Buckley.
Betty Buckley.

By Dawn Watson

Rife with rich fodder and interesting characters, countless tales have been told about the East End and its residents. But perhaps none have been as compelling as the true story of Big and Little Edie Beale and their East Hampton home, Grey Gardens.

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The mother and daughter—relatives of Southampton-born Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, née Bouvier—lived in squalor for decades at 3 West End Road in the Georgica Pond neighborhood of East Hampton. Conditions at the once-grand estate, which had been purchased for the former Edith Ewing Bouvier by her husband, Phelan Beale, in 1923, were so bad that by the early 1970s the Suffolk County Health Department initiated eviction proceedings with the intent to raze the garbage-filled and flea- and vermin-infested shingle-style house. The Beales vehemently refused to leave.

After the plight of Big and Little Edie was exposed by the National Enquirer and New York Magazine, the Beale family stepped in. In 1972, Ms. Onassis and her sister, Lee Radziwill, provided enough money to repair the house enough so that it could meet village codes. Three years later, in 1975, filmmakers Albert and David Maysles came to Grey Gardens—named for the color of the nearby dunes, ocean mist and the home’s cement garden walls—with the intent of filming the eccentric inhabitants at their home, which had already returned to its previous state of decay and neglect. The result was the documentary film “Grey Gardens.”

Now hailed as one of the best documentaries of all time, the movie took years to find an audience. But once it did, the mystique of the once-wealthy Beales and their crumbling house by the sea lived on and has since become part of the American cultural landscape. In 2006, the Maysles’ film became the first-ever doc to be adapted into a Broadway musical. The show, which went on to earn a multiple Tony Awards, will stage at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor from Tuesday, August 4, to Sunday, August 30.

Written by Doug Wright, with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, the Bay Street production of “Grey Gardens: The Musical” will star Tony Award-winner Betty Buckley as Big Edie and Drama Desk Award-winner Rachel York as Edith Bouvier Beale, aka “Little Edie.” Directed by Michael Wilson, the show also stars Broadway veteran Howard McGillin, Gracie Beardsley, Matt Doyle, James Harkness, Sarah Hunt, Simon Jones and East Hampton native Dakota Quackenbush.

Ms. Buckley, who has played such iconic Broadway roles as Grizabella in “Cats” and Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” says she is excited to sink her teeth into the role of Big Edie. Taking a short break between rehearsals on Sunday afternoon, she talked about what makes the former socialite and amateur singer—who was aunt to the former First Lady and sister to Jackie’s father, John “Black Jack” Bouvier—so fascinating.

“She was very fierce and independent, almost like a pioneer woman,” says Ms. Buckley of the woman who was nearly disinherited for showing up at her son’s wedding dressed as an opera star. “But she was thwarted as an artist, since that type of life was something that just wasn’t done by women of privilege at that time.”

Big Edie, who became increasingly reclusive until her death in 1977 at Southampton Hospital, passed her love of the arts on to her daughter, Little Edie. Before moving in with her mother at Grey Gardens, the stunning younger Beale had dipped her toes into the world of fashion modeling, dance and cabaret, performing in Manhattan, but never achieved the fame or acclaim she thought she deserved.

The lives of the tight-knit Beales is gripping, says Buckley, who reported that though she’s performed at Bay Street a number of times, this musical will be the first full production there for her. It will also be the first time she’s ever played a real-life person on stage, she reports. With rehearsals underway in Manhattan, and moving to Sag Harbor on Tuesday, the actress and singer is still doing as much research as she can fit in to her tight schedule on Big and Little Edie and their family.

“They were gypsies and rebels, but that kind of imploded. Their wealth disappeared and nobody in their family did much to help them, which is mystifying to me,” she says. “But different families have different issues. Even wealthy ones like theirs.”

It’s the family dynamics, and most especially the relationship between mother and daughter, that makes “Grey Gardens” so gripping, says Bay Street Theater Artistic Director Scott Schwartz.

“It’s complicated and rich, and funny and dark. It brings such humanity and depth in a delightful and surprising way,” he says of the play. “It’s the ultimate show about family, the things we need and the things we take from them.”

The ultimate message behind “Grey Gardens” is uncommonly endemic to the East End, where the specific landscape (socially as well as literally) shapes the storyline in a way that no other place on Earth could, he adds.

“It shows the heights of glamour and the depths of depravity,” he says. “It’s so uniquely Hamptons, it’s part of our social fabric. The source runs in the water and grows on the trees here.”

“Grey Gardens: The Musical” opens at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor on Tuesday, August 4, and stages through Sunday, August 30. For tickets and additional information, visit www.baystreet.org.