Grey Gardens, in the estate section of East Hampton, may be one of the great turn-of-the-century summer homes in the Hamptons (28 rooms), but it is not the largest—and is not even oceanfront. However, it surely is the most famous. Ultimately, the saga surrounding it became the plot of a 1975 Academy Award-winning documentary, a 2006 Tony-winning Broadway show, a celebrated movie, a made-for-TV movie and even a children’s book.
In the bitter cold of last Friday morning at 4 a.m., people began to line up for an estate sale at this house. The lines soon went down the street. At 10 a.m. the estate sale began and continued through Saturday and Sunday. Thousands attended. They were there for a piece of history.
A wealthy New York businessman built this grand and spacious home in the late 1800s. By 1924, Phelan Beale, a prominent New York lawyer, bought it. But then came the Crash of 1929, a divorce in 1946, and by 1970 all that remained was a falling-down wreck of a house amidst tangled foliage. Most passersby at that time thought it was abandoned, but there were those who knew that living in it, under just a few bare lightbulbs, were Beale’s bitter ex-wife, Big Edie Beale, now about 75 years old, her wistful and obedient daughter, Little Edie, age 50, numerous rats, several raccoons and at least 21 cats. They had been there for 25 years, alone, broke but for some modest generosity from the wayward Mr. Beale and soon the rest of the family—which included Jackie Onassis Kennedy—in this sordid, filthy time warp.
In 1971, after a series of complaints, the Suffolk County Health Department was called in and other authorities got involved. An eviction order was issued. But the mother and daughter wouldn’t budge.
Soon, a celebrated documentary was made by the Maysles brothers, who interviewed the ladies, met their cats and exposed the situation to the general public. With that, Jackie and others paid major money to fix it all up, and there the two ladies lived for the next several years until, as it happened, Big Edie died. Little Edie, after some persuasion, moved to live with friends in Palm Beach and sold the house to Ben Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn—he the longtime managing editor of The Washington Post and she a prominent reporter and author—and they fixed it up beautifully and lived there with their family in the summertime for a generation.
I had driven by the house when it was a shambles. And I was there on several occasions for Bradlee parties when it was fixed up. It was a warm, friendly, wonderful home. I once attended a garden party fundraiser there for the New York City Chamber Orchestra, hosted by George Plimpton. We sat in the garden on iron lawn furniture to listen to Mozart while waiters in formal attire and white gloves wove through the garden, serving Champagne, hors d’oeuvres and bug spray to the attendees from silver trays. There, I met author Cleveland Amory. He was a chronicler of high society in the Hamptons during the 1920s and 1930s and was quite elderly. But I had loved the books he wrote and told him so.
After Ben Bradlee died in 2014, his wife rented the house out during the summers but listed it for sale for $20 million. This fall, it got sold. Thus the estate sale of all the contents last weekend.
We stood on the long line to get in on Saturday at about noon. Two beautiful wooden lawn chairs, with carved birds atop them, sat side by side on the porch. Sold signs adorned them. A woman coming out carried a blender, another a dinner plate. Inside, there were few furnishings left. The gardens were overgrown, the pool was full, but the tennis court was awash in leaves. But there were surfboards and garden chairs for sale, even some tennis balls. It was sad to see this place in such a state. But the home is solid and good and it will just need a cleaning. We wound up not buying anything. But it was quite something to see this bit of history about to be reborn anew.