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Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale

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Subject: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Christine Ebersole, 61st Primetime Emmy Awards, 67th Golden Globe Awards
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Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale

Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale
Born Edith Ewing Bouvier
(1895-10-05)October 5, 1895
Nutley, New Jersey
Died February 5, 1977(1977-02-05) (aged 81)
Southampton, New York
Other names Big Edie
Spouse(s) Phelan Beale (1917–1931)
Children Edith Bouvier Beale
Phelan Beale, Jr.
Bouvier Beale
Parents John Vernou Bouvier II
Maude Sergeant Bouvier
Relatives aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy and Lee Radziwill

Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (October 5, 1895 – February 5, 1977) was an American socialite and amateur singer, known for her eccentric lifestyle. She was a sister of John "Black Jack" Bouvier, the father of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Her life and relationship with her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale were highlighted in the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens.

Early life

She was the daughter of John Vernou Bouvier, Jr. and Maude Frances (Sergeant) Bouvier (the paternal grandparents of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis). Beale's mother was the daughter of a wealthy paper manufacturer, and her father was a successful attorney who was appointed Major in the Judge Advocate Corps for the United States Army during World War I. He liked to be addressed as Major Bouvier and later invented a faux royal mythos of his Bouvier lineage in the privately printed Our Forebears, which gave his grandchildren the following quote: "The hallmark of aristocracy is responsibility."

Beale enjoyed a privileged upbringing along with her brothers John Vernou Bouvier III, William Sergeant "Bud" Bouvier (1893–1929), who died at a young age from alcoholism, and her red-headed twin sisters Maude Reppelin Bouvier Davis (1905-1999), mother of writer John H. Davis, and Michelle Caroline Bouvier Scott Putman (1905-1987). Beale enjoyed photography, theatrical arts, and as a youth considered becoming a surgeon from her interest in physiology.

Marriage and children

Beale pursued an amateur singing career and in 1917 married lawyer/financier Phelan Beale (who worked at her father's law firm Bouvier and Beale) in a lavish ceremony at St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York. The couple lived at 987 Madison Avenue (now the site of the Carlyle Hotel). They had three children: daughter Edith (who was referred to as "Little Edie")—born November 7, 1917, and two sons (Phelan Beale, Jr.—born 1920, and Bouvier Beale—born 1922).

In 1923, Phelan Beale purchased the 28-room "East Hampton, a block from the Atlantic Ocean. The Beales separated in 1931 when Little Edie was 14, with "Big Edie" retaining the Grey Gardens house. Beale received child support, but no form of alimony. She continued to pursue her singing career, giving recitals in her home and at local functions. Her sons went off to college and World War II duty and had families of their own.

When she showed up at her son’s 1942 wedding dressed like an opera star, Edie's father, Major Bouvier, cut her mostly out of his will—leaving her only a small trust of $65,000 (Beale's mother Maude died in 1940 and Major Bouvier died in 1948). Beale became depressed and gained weight. She also had several eye operations in the 1940s. In 1946, Phelan Beale notified her of their divorce via telegram from Mexico. (Little Edie referred to it as a "fake Mexican divorce" because it was not recognized by the Catholic Church.)

Major Bouvier and her son Bouvier "Buddy" Beale urged Beale for many years to sell her "white elephant" Grey Gardens, but she refused.

Life at Grey Gardens

Beale had two live-in male companions at various times at Grey Gardens: her accompanist George "Gould" Strong and handyman Tom "Tex" Logan. In July 1952, her daughter Little Edie returned after five years in Manhattan to live permanently at Grey Gardens when Beale was age 57. In 1960, when Beale was 65, her niece Jacqueline Kennedy became First Lady. After a 1968 theft of antiques while Beale was at a party in East Hampton, she began to leave the house less frequently.

In the 1970s, Jacqueline Onassis's sister Lee Radziwill discussed creating a documentary with Albert and David Maysles about her and Jacqueline's childhood in East Hampton. At about the same time, the Edies received national attention when the National Enquirer ran an exposé on the deplorable conditions in which they lived. The Suffolk County, New York, Board of Health made an inspection, ordering them to clean up the property, which was falling into disrepair and contained various cats, raccoons, an opossum, et cetera. The once-elegant grounds were a tangled jungle; 25 of the 28 rooms were unused; in the dining room, they found a three-foot mountain of empty cans; in the upstairs bedrooms, it was said they saw human waste; and the fleas were so thick that the filmmakers wore flea collars around their ankles during the filming. After the publicity, Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis donated $32,000 to clean the house, install a new furnace and plumbing system, and cart away 1,000 bags of garbage. Beale did not have the funds for trash removal and house repairs. Beale's sons agreed to pay the back taxes on the property, which they had hoped for decades their mother would sell. After the stressful raids by county officials, Beale never left her home again in fear that she would lose permanent legal access to her house.

In 1973, the Maysles Brothers accompanied Lee Radziwill on a visit to the Edies, and David Maysles decided that the women would make better subjects for a film than the ex-First Lady's childhood friends. Maysles and Susan Froemke quickly edited the footage of the women and showed it to Radziwill, who balked and ultimately confiscated the film. The Maysleses returned, however, and the focus of their documentary was the Edies, instead of Jacqueline Onassis. Beale and her daughter were each paid $5,000 for the documentary, which featured their daily lives, songs and dances included. The film was screened for the two Edies in the upstairs hall of Grey Gardens in 1975. Little Edie declared it "a classic!"

The Grey Gardens documentary was met with critical acclaim. The film also inspired a Tony-award winning stage musical and a 2009 Emmy-award winning HBO film by the same name, starring Jessica Lange as "Big" Edie and Drew Barrymore as "Little" Edie.


Beale died of pneumonia at Southampton Hospital in Southampton, New York, following a fall at her home. Her body is buried in the Bouvier family plot at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Cemetery in East Hampton.[1]

As she neared her death, Beale reportedly told her daughter that she had left nothing unsaid, as it was "all in the film."


  1. ^ Saxon, Wolfgang (February 7, 1977). "Edith Bouvier Beale, Recluse, Dead at 81; Aunt of Mrs. Onassis Was Subject of the Documentary Movie 'Grey Gardens' in 1973".  

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