Dan Rattiner's Stories

Grey Gardens Legend Endures: Alleged Burglary and a Painting of Jackie

The long and extraordinary legend of the East Hampton mansion called Grey Gardens continues with a lawsuit filed last week. The suit claims that an oil painting made of Jackie Bouvier (Onassis) when she was 19 years old was stolen from that house and today is in the Wallace Art Gallery in East Hampton.

Terry Wallace, the defendant in the lawsuit, says he does legitimately own the painting. He says he bought the painting in the late 1980s and, as he does with all his paintings, he studied its provenance, was satisfied with it, and, according to The New York Times, if anyone can show that this painting was stolen, he would return it.

The painting was commissioned in 1948 by Jackie Kennedy’s father, John Vernou “Black Jack” Bouvier III, painted by Irwin Hoffman and later, according to the Beale family, given to his sister Big Edie Bouvier before his death and it remained with her at her home until a burglary about 20 years later.

Grey Gardens is the East Hampton mansion where Big Edie and her daughter Little Edie lived when, in 1971, filmmakers Albert and David Maysles were brought to the house by Jackie Kennedy’s sister and knocked on the front door of what looked like a decrepit, nearly abandoned and filthy mansion. More than two dozen cats roamed the premises. The two ladies invited the filmmakers in, gave them a house tour and talked about how the house got in such a bad condition—Big Edie’s husband had divorced her during the 1930s and abandoned them.

Now the County Board of Health wanted them evicted. The town hadn’t done it. And the family, many still in East Hampton, did not do anything for them because until this meeting, it seemed, the Beales never asked.

Jackie, who had summered in East Hampton growing up, met Jack Kennedy two years after the painting was made and soon married the man who became the 35th President of the United States.

The mother and daughter remained in that house for a number of years, until Big Edie died at 81 and a few years later, about 1980, her daughter was enticed to go live with relatives in Palm Beach and sold the house to Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn. She died in 2002.

It was in the late 1960s, the lawsuit says, that the alleged burglary likely happened. No, there was no report of it made to the police. Things were chaotic and the Beales didn’t trust the town.

The New York Times says that an heir of the Beales claims to have seen the painting “around 2004” at the gallery, asked about it and was told the owner had bought it legally.

Wallace seems amazed at the lawsuit. He said he has many wealthy clients, has a reputation to protect and would never engage in stolen goods. He’s had his gallery in the same spot for a quarter of a century.

Wallace will present the provenance he has for the painting in court if need be. If it turns out it was stolen, he said he will give the painting to its rightful owner.

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