Family History Lives On

“I will always remember how lovely a person she was,” says Mill Valley resident Eva Beale of her husband’s famous aunt Edith. The women first met when Edith was in her 60s, long after the days of gilded society parties and a starring role in a shocking documentary.

Edith was born in 1917, the only daughter of Phelan Beale and Edith Ewing Bouvier. To distinguish between her and her mother, people called her Little Edie. The first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, she grew up as part of New York’s privileged high society and a social scene that included outings at the private Maidstone Club, prestigious schools, a debut at the Pierre Hotel and dates with wealthy bachelors. But in the summer of 1931 it all changed. Her father, Phelan, left the family, leaving Little Edie’s mother without money to care for herself, her home or her family.

Even with the money gone, the two women refused to give up their East Hampton home, Grey Gardens. The mansion and its once magnificent grounds became decrepit, housing the two Edies and, some have said, 75 cats. The National Enquirer exposed the squalor in 1972, prompting Jackie Onassis to give money to help fix the home’s innumerable health code violations; that same year, Albert and David Maysles began filming the now cult classic documentary Grey Gardens, which later inspired a hit 2006 Broadway musical and an upcoming movie starring Drew Barrymore. In earlier years the two Edies dreamed of being performers; in the documentary’s intimate portrait they are two women who found the freedom to be as eccentric as they wanted.

After her mother’s death, Little Edie sold the house reportedly for a below-market $220,000 in 1979 to Ben Bradlee of Washington Post fame and his wife Sally Quinn, whose relatives live in Marin. The next year Eva Beale, engaged to marry Little Edie’s nephew Bouvier Beale, met Edie for the first time, at the rehearsal dinner at Gurney’s Inn in Montauk. “She was so sweet; I even found my wedding announcement in her collected items after she died,” Eva recalls. She also found a Long Island newspaper article in which Edie had underlined a passage mentioning the couple had met on a blind date; “I think she found that to be so romantic.” At the wedding reception, “I will never forget, she asked the band to stop playing and she said that our wedding gift (from her) was a song she would sing for us. The song was ‘Toujours L’Amour’ and she wished us well. The band stopped, there was  silence and everyone listened to her sing.”

After the wedding, Eva and Edie kept in touch by mail and phone. “Both her letters and conversations were always so interesting. She came to California and visited us. She was so intrigued by Mill Valley. Edie called our Mill Valley home a ‘tree house’ because of its hillside location. She also came to our Stinson house at the time and she absolutely loved it there.”

When Edie passed away in 2002, Eva started perusing her journals, poetry and photographs. “I felt like I was living [in] her era and I was enjoying her lifestyle through the items she left behind.” She wrote a book, recently released, called Edith Bouvier Beale of Grey Gardens: A Life in Pictures, and started the Grey Gardens Collection, a line of one-of-a-kind jewelry and other items, styled after vintage estate sale and flea market finds, that remind her of her aunt.

A passionate appreciator of antiques and decor, Eva wanted to evoke Edie’s glory days, to hark back beyond the last years at Grey Gardens and recall the beautiful model who would frequent the Stork Club and fend off proposals from Joe Kennedy Jr. and J. Paul Getty. “When Edie passed away she told me about a box of jewels in a safe deposit box,” Eva recalls. “When I received them I was amazed how beautiful the pieces were, and they made a real statement.” These inspired the collection’s colorful velvet and satin cuff bracelets with rhinestones and ivory satin-and-rhinestone bracelets for brides-to-be. Eva’s website includes both a Grey Gardens Past section, purveying authentic vintage pieces and antiques, and a Grey Gardens Present section, offering costume jewelry and replicas of opera glasses and other items Edie typically wore, as well as paintings, home decor pieces, and handmade journals and photo albums. “And it is only the beginning. I am working on some beautiful fabrics for pillows and also a china pattern that will be coming in the next year or so,” Eva adds.

Eva Beale has been able to link both past and present, something Edie found hard to do—beautifully emulating the style her aunt staunchly held on to despite everything else life threw her way.