Entering Grey Gardens, Exploring Queer Identifications with the Beales

Carlo, Rosanne

I want to take a pilgrimage to East Hampton in the summer. Note the use of the word “pilgrimage,” its medieval roots conjure the act of wandering to a sacred place where the holy relics of some saint’s bones are buried under a church altar. Travelers kneel and light incense in veneration. Unlike those who travel long distances over many months in search of spiritual renewal, or at least indulgence, I will travel in a car with my best friend, Luke. He proposed that we take this journey several years ago, but we have yet to make it. I imagine, though, that some day we will pile into Luke’s hatchback, perhaps pack a lunch, and head South two hours until we hit that “mean, nasty Republican town.”1 We will not be in search of a church, what we seek is a mansion. We want to chase ghosts, not saints. We want to return to The Beales’s Grey Gardens.

There certainly is no place to commemorate The Beales, and definitely no altar to kneel before to worship the two Goddesses of Absurdity. Luke and I built the altar to mother and daughter Beale in our minds. We’ve spent years quoting the famous pair from the Maysles’s Brothers 1975 documentary, imitating their endearing New York accents: “Here’s your pate, Mother Darling,” “You’re in this world, Lukie, you’re not out of the world,” “I’m pulverized by this latest thing.” These two women resonate with us; they make us want to go in search of their traces and tracks to East Hampton, to make a pilgrimage to find what we might find.

This is a story about identification, about queer identifications. The kind of crossing over the lines of difference that we each make to recognize the “other” as subject, to recognize the “other” in ourselves. The Maysles brothers, the directors of Grey Gardens, understood this idea intimately. In fact, Albert Maysles states in an interview that if you “move the audience that much further away from what their original impression was, then you’ve taken the audience on a long journey. You’ve taken yourself on a long journey” (Pryluck 9). I want to illustrate, through a reflection of my and others’ identifications with the Beales, that queer identification is a long journey past essentialisms. 

Teaching Grey Gardens for several semesters now, I have heard many theories from students as to why the Beales are odious, terrible people and why they are fascinating, loveable women. One student aptly called the love, or identification, that some viewers have “The Appeal of the Beale,” explaining that it is those who are on the outside of society or those that have a high tolerance for difference who worship the reclusive pair, dubbing Little Edie Beale “a Goddess.” There is certainly enough to scoff at in terms of the Beales’s lifestyle—two women shut off from the outside world, living in a decaying mansion infested by fleas, overrun by cats and raccoons, without running water. The constant bickering and blame over missed opportunities, the shouting matches and name-calling, the isolation of the pair who allow very few visitors into their chaos except for the filmmaking brothers, Albert and David Maysles. On the other hand, there is certainly enough to celebrate—two women who love and care for each other, their warm hospitality, their talent at singing and dancing, and their unique costumes.

Perhaps the “fictional” construction of Big Edie from the HBO version of Grey Gardens (2009) describes the ability to identify with Little Edie best. In one scene,Big Edie tries to dissuade Little Edie from attending the premiere of the Grey Gardens documentary in New York City. Big Edie says to her daughter, “I don’t think you see yourself the way others see you. You’re . . . you’re an acquired taste, babe.” In some ways, appreciating Grey Gardens and the Beales requires an “acquired taste,” if you will. Perhaps this taste is one that is developed through multiple viewings of the film, a sort of fandom that borders on the cultish.2 The Beales are indeed people that I am drawn to, feel imitate with, and yes, love,3 even though I only know them as the people who emerge in the Maysles’s documentary, and through later representations of them played by actors on a Broadway stage and an HBO film. And yet, I identify with them—I have made the long journey.

Queer acts of identification are moments of recognition—sometimes inspired by the flick of a wrist, the swish of a hip, the voice cracking—all those tells that signal a sort of excess, a way of being that is a step away from the norm. As José Muñoz writes, queers disidentify with normative ways of being and seeing and so they look for those “identities-in-difference” which “emerge from a failed interprellation within the dominant public sphere” (Disidentification 7). Failed interprellation—the tightness that comes into your chest when you realize that you can’t zip the store model bridesmaid’s dress all the way up or when you remember the time your scout leader did not invite you to continue as an Eagle Scout. Perhaps this condition, the experience of failing to meet normative expectations, is a prerequisite for queer identification(s)—I don’t know. I do know that queer failure should not create a sense of overwhelming shame; rather, it must also—and more forcefully—inspire feelings of solidarity among queers and provide the facility of leveraging critiques and challenges to oppressive norms. Muñoz describes queer failure as having the potential to allow a person or group to fashion “a modality of being off script, off page, which is not so much a failure to succeed as it is a failure to participate in a system of valuation that is predicated on exploitation and conformity” (Cruising 174). There’s a way of laughing at failure, of turning the failure on its head, of finding beauty in being off script. I am trying to imagine this group of “queer failures” to include gay men and fat women and The Beales of Grey Gardens. I want to keep asking: Why does Grey Gardens attract queer audiences? And more broadly, how and why does identification happen across difference?

Little Edie Beale is the poster child for nonconformity. When we first meet Little Edie in the documentary she is dressed in what she terms a “Revolutionary Costume,” one of many costumes we will see her invent throughout the film and one that from the outset establishes her as an “outsider.” Her eccentric costume includes a headscarf fashioned from an old sweater and pinned by a broach, a functional piece because Little Edie suffers from hair loss. She wears high heels, fishnet stockings, shorts, and a safety-pinned skirt. She explains her choice of outfit to the Maysles as they greet her in the estate’s garden:

This is the best thing to wear for today, you understand. Because I don’t like women in skirts, and the best thing is to wear pantyhose under a short skirt, I think. Then you have the pants under the skirt, and then you can pull the stockings up over the pants underneath the skirt. And, you can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape. So, I think this is the best costume for today. I have to think these things up, you know. Mother wanted me to come out in a kimono so we had quite a fight.

I am interested in how Edie frames the discussion of the outfit. She knows the Maysles are coming to film her, and rather than opting for the conventional presentation of self that is expected of someone of her age and class status, Little Edie defies normative convention. You have to have a lot of guts to wear a sweater on your head earnestly! And right away, I am drawn to her larger than life personality. I cannot look away. Edie is mesmerizing.  She seems to be appealing to the Maysles—as well as the audience she imagines for the Maysles’ film—through her use of qualifiers: “you understand,” “I think,” “you know.” There is an interlocutor that she is responding to here, and she may feel that she has to justify such an outfit choice to this imagined (and “real”) audience. We know Little Edie has already defended this choice of costume to her mother off-camera, who wishes she would wear a kimono. Little Edie’s need to cope with her current situation is revealed to me most when she giggles and says, “I have to think these things up, you know.” Edie’s loud, fun, colorful outfits are thrifty-chic, they are imaginative, and they are certainly a way to get attention, but also they provide her a creative outlet, a way to express herself and her inner struggles. Underneath her skirt-cape and towel-head wraps, Little Edie is really someone who has had to overcome a lot of adversity, and she carries an enormous amount of regret over missed opportunities she did not take in her life. Aging, without a marriage or the career she desires (singing, dancing, or otherwise), Little Edie has very little prospect of either dream materializing the longer she stays with her elderly mother at Grey Gardens.

Although Big Edie seems less regretful than her daughter (in one fight she claims “I lead a happy, satisfying life”), she still continues to live in her past, preferring nostalgia to her present situation. As Big Edie recounts her narrative of her past, Little Edie has a look of disbelief and rolls her eyes at the camera, suggesting that her mother may be exaggerating the successfulness of her marriage and the glamour of her life. Indeed, one of the first times we meet Big Edie, she appears to be transported to Grey Gardens in its heyday when she was the hostess entertaining guests with a musical concert. Only rather than performing in evening gown with her accompanist, Gould, she is sitting on her bed wearing a floppy, straw, red, white and blue hat and mismatched clothing as she listens to a record of an evening from a distant past. She begins to sing along to the tune of “Tea for Two” from the 30s Broadway musical, “No, No Nannette.” Her voice is full of bravado and cracking as she insists that she will train her voice to be as good as it was forty years earlier. When Little Edie expresses doubt of this transformation, Big Edie replies, “Oh, yes I can!” Big Edie’s obstinate tone suggests that she is unable to recognize the reality of her given situation in terms of her physical limitation and the squalid surroundings of Grey Gardens. Having failed to live up to the norms of their aristocratic society, Little and Big Edie chose to live far outside the mainstream. Is it their resistance to those norms that perhaps allows queer audiences to identify with them?

“Jerry doesn’t want any sex with you, Jerry isn’t crazy!” the cast recording of the Grey Gardens musical plays on the car stereo. Luke sings along with his best Big Edie bravado. We’ve loved the Beales for years, before their re-emergence into popular culture again by the drag interpretations of Jynx Monsoon. Luke is one of those people who will always look youthful, a choirboy with cherub-blond hair, pale white skin, fleshy. He wears a diamond stud in his left ear, and his hair is short now, a style that he playfully admits makes him look like a lesbian. He always drives us. We ride down back roads and lost places of our small, suburban Connecticut town. We usually eat late at night at a Greek Diner with retro counter-stools and booths, the kind of diner where nothing on the menu is over $10 and where it still smells like smoke from years past. We will remember those nights of conversation, musings of where we have been, where we will go, what we have missed about each other along the way, what we secretly don’t want anyone else to know. It was one night in the diner when we decided to go on the East Hampton pilgrimage—over my tea and his coffee and shared chicken tenders and calamari rings. It was winter then, my hands wrapped around the hot cup, white fingers shaking.

“There’s something about her exuberance,” I said.
“I know! That flag dance. Holy Shit.”
“It’s like she’s smiling right at you. Or winking, rather.”
“Yeah.” He agreed. “We all march together for love!”

The flag-dance happens mid-documentary, a scene reenacted in the later adaptations of the musical and the HBO film, perhaps because it is so honest, so memorable, so happy. The VMI marching song plays from a recording on the turntable in the next room. The poor sound quality of the recording serves as a reminder to viewers that the music comes from a time that is distant, garbled, and lost. Little Edie comes down the staircase in a blue leotard, black panty hose, and high-heel white shoes. She, like the record, is still playing, but she is lost, believing she is a young girl in a middle-aged woman’s body. A miniature flag out-stretched in her hand, she waves it at the Maysles brothers. Demurely gazing into the camera, she dares us to be spectators. She whirls around the foyer, lost in the music; breathing from the exercise, she disappears behind a curtain in the next room and reemerges to be in the camera’s eye. “David, darling,” she says. “Where have you been all my life? Where have you been? All I needed was this man, David. All I needed was an audience!” I wonder why and how I have become Little Edie’s audience, and Luke, too? Maybe I am allured by the “Appeal of the Beale” because of my own outsider status or high tolerance for difference?

My writing cannot reveal who I am; you can hear my voice, a part of myself, but you cannot see what I look like or understand who I am. Let me come out to you. I am a fat woman. Two hundred pounds of curves and flesh.  

Being fat is an open secret that you carry around with you, quite literally. Your body is read by all: a two-hundred-pound symbol of neglectful parents, of psychological illness, of trauma, of low self-esteem, of laziness, of capitalistic greed, of whatever else the viewing subject can narrate on to your fat rolls. It is the inevitable, often false, correlation of emotional baggage to literal junk in the trunk. When you are fat, there is no unveiling a part of yourself. There is no shock or surprise from friends and family members when you tell them. Everyone knows. Except in the medium of writing: You can’t come out as a fat woman.

Eve Sedgwick uses the term “queer” to describe those outside of heteronormative societal values: sexually, politically, intellectually, bodily. Queer, in part, because as a fat woman—two-hundred-and-fifty pounds—she lived the same kind of open secret that I do. In her co-written article with Michael Moon in Tendencies, Sedgwick describes shopping in a department store, finding no clothing that would fit her; she thought of her body then as “a kind of cul-de-sac blockage or clot in the circulation of economic value” (217). In other words, she failed to meet expectations in a normative system of value. But she met her failure with a specific brand of abjection and an overwhelming sense of defiance. For example, in a subsequent dream sequence about the department store experience, she is lead by an employee to a section with a pink triangle above the dressing room—this is where she is told that she will find clothes in her size, and that makes her “extremely cheerful.” She wants those queer clothes, those “luscious-looking clothes” (215) because, to her, they are an escape from the constant policing of bodies—particularly women’s bodies—in our society. What is most striking to me in this piece is its assertion that identifications in this instance are created at the crossroads of fat and queer by the imposition and scrutiny of the gaze.

Little Edie comes out to greet the visitors wearing a sweater on her head.

Reading Moon and Sedgwick’s words, I begin to further understand the affinity between gay men and fat women. It is not hard to hear the love and understanding Eve and Michael have for each other. The flamboyant, physical nature of homosexuality and the fat body meet the normative gaze in similar ways. Moon writes:

The closet, that is, seems to function as a closet to the degree that it’s a glass closet, the secret to the degree that it’s an open one. Nonsensically, fat people [like gay people] now live under the same divisive dispensation; incredibly, in this society everyone who sees a fat woman feels they know something about her that she doesn’t know herself. (229)

One idea lurking in the open secret is that of outside scrutiny, the object and the subject—the gaze, a knowing gaze. Like gay and/or fat people, Little Edie and her mother felt scrutiny from their aristocratic family ties—the Bouviers and the Kennedys, their East Hampton neighbors, and from the media that invaded their lives. People thought they knew the Beales, or knew something about them that the Beales themselves didn’t know. There were accusations of mental illness, of schizophrenia. In fact, many critics at the time of the film’s release were in favor of censoring the reclusive pair, as Maysles describes:

There’s a censorship that people exercise by refusing to accept the unconventional forms of behavior. It seems to me that there are elements of the human spirit that people don't want to know about, and to which they are very sensitive. For example, one reviewer, Molly Haskell of the Village Voice, said at the end of an article on Grey Gardens that ‘There are some people we should close our eyes to.’ She wanted us not to make movies of these two women. Something had offended her, made her anxious and disturbed her. (Naficy 171)

What disturbs this critic—and perhaps others who have watched the film—is what delights many queer viewers. The Beales become odd compatriots in a defiance of normativity. It’s Little and Big Edie’s ability to take risks—to put themselves out there, to laugh at themselves—that makes them so endearing. I see beyond the intense emotions and fighting of the pair to appreciate their expressions of nostalgia, lost dreams, and tender feeling; I see beyond the filth of the Beales’s current situation to value the meaningful clutter, the collection of memorabilia. I also see the wisdom of the pair and appreciate especially the quotable words coming out of Big Edie’s mouth: “You’re in the world, Edie, you’re not out of the world,” and “Everything was good that you didn’t do,” and “I’d rather have a dog than a man any day.”  And I consider the women’s outfits not simply as weird, but as weirdly fabulous! They are, like Sedgwick and Moon describe, defiant—as Little Edie insists she is a “staunch character” that “never weaken[s],” despite the strong opposition of many of her relatives to her lifestyle.

The Beales yearn for an audience that would understand them, and I think in Little Edie’s case, she wants to be adored, even loved. The audience that understands, Luke and I and perhaps other queer people, are moved to take a long journey toward identification with the two women as they unfold their narratives and selves before us. There is recognition of vulnerability. There is understanding of failure. There is a coming out that fat women and gay men know, that Luke and I know. We both crossed lines of essentialism to identify with each other and the Beales. This finding the self in the other, the non-normative other, especially across difference, as well as the non-normative other in the self, may be what’s at the heart of queer identifications.

Little Edie comes out to greet the visitors wearing a sweater on her head.

The last scene of Grey Gardens is an aerial shot from a staircase, watching Little Edie in the foyer below, dancing. She is unaware of the camera, then, its eye looking through the banister bars, quietly capturing the reverie of Edie’s private universe. She spins and spins and spins like a whirling dervish, humming a tune from a time long past, a young girl, dancing.


1These are the words Little Edie Beale uses during the filming of Grey Gardens in relation to the town of East Hampton. She goes on to explain how the townspeople persecuted her and her mother by threatening to evict them from their home. She attributes their actions to a hatred for those who are different.

2See Guy Kettlehack’s essay, “Hole in the Wonderbread: The Unnervingly Cozy Legacy of Edie Beale” as he offers an example of someone who develops an “acquired taste” for the Beales through his multiple viewings of the film. His essay is a queer reflection of how he now feels “cozy” in Grey Gardens, a guest of the Beales.

3One article that I look to as a model for this paper is Ann Pellegrini’s “Unnatual Affinities: Me and Judy and the Lesbian Bar,” where she reflects on her identification with gay icon Judy Garland and addresses the crisscrossings of her desire for Judy as a lesbian with gay men’s identification with the diva.

Works Cited

Grey Gardens.  Dir. Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Muffie Meyer, Ellen Hovde.  Perf. Edith Bouvier Beale, Edith ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale. Portrait Films, 1976.  DVD.

HBO: Grey Gardens. Dir. Michael Suscy. Perf. Drew Berrymore and Jessica Lange. HBO, 2009. DVD.

Kettlehack, Guy. “Hole in the Wonderbread: The Unnerving Cozy Legacy of Edie Beale.” Grey Gardens.Com (2003) 29 April 2014. Web.

Muñoz, Josè. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: NYUP, 2009. Print.

—. “Introduction: Performing Dissidentification.” Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1999: 1-36. Print.

Naficy, Hamid. “‘Truthful witness’: An interview with Albert Maysles.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 6.2 (1981): 155-79. Print.

Pellegrini, Ann. “Unnatural Affinities: Me and Judy at the Lesbian Bar.” Camera Obscura. 22.2 (2007): 127-33. Print.

Pryluck, Calvin, and Albert Maysles. “Seeking to Take the Longest Journey: A Conversation with Albert Maysles.” Journal of the University Film Association 28.2 (1976): 9-16.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, and Michael Moon. “Divinity: A Dossier A Performance Piece A Little-Understood Emotion.”  Tendencies. By Sedgwick. Durham, North Carolina: Duke UP, 1993. 215-51. Print.

This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.
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