East Hampton mansion known as “Grey Gardens,” located in the estate section of Georgica Beach, became world-famous with the filming of the 1976 documentary film by Albert and David Maysles.
This film, about Jackie Bouvier Kennedy’s eccentric aunt, Big Edie Beale, and cousin, Little Edie Beale, showed how they went from wealth to squalor in a deteriorating house with 30 cats. It became a Broadway show starring Christine Ebersole, and then a movie starring Jessica Lange as Big Edie, and Drew Barrymore as Little Edie. It was also the subject of numerous books.
On Saturday, October 19, “Grey Gardens” was the theme of a new art exhibit at 73 Main Boutique and Gallery in Riverhead. Owners Michael Mahon and Danielle Gisiger decided to tie this show in with a Halloween theme, since the former run-down mansion was sometimes referred to as a “haunted house” by local residents.
They chose the work of five artists from the East End and New Jersey, who portrayed “Grey Gardens” in their own ways. Richard LaRovere, of Jersey City, New Jersey, actually painted a Halloween scene of the house at night, with a full moon outside.
“I liked the romantic quality of the darkness and the ruins,” he said, adding that he painted his pictures from photographs. “I have not been to the house, but I saw the movie and found it such an interesting commentary on this eccentric mother and daughter.”
In the exhibit, LaRovere also had several paintings of the gardens surrounding the mansion, which went from unkempt to lush and beautiful after Washington Post publisher Ben Bradley bought this house in the 1980s and totally renovated and restored it to its present pristine condition.
Riverhead artist and animator Don Duga, famous for being part of a team that created Frosty the Snowman, has about 10 of his paintings for sale in the exhibit. One shows Big and Little Edie lounging in their bedroom, while they are being interviewed and filmed by the Maysles brothers. Another large painting depicts the 50th anniversary party at Grey Gardens, which Duga attended and drew onsite.
“I’ve visited Grey Gardens several times, at different events in recent years, and it was gorgeous and well put together, unlike the way it was in the original documentary,” said Duga, who drew free souvenir sketches of the guests next to portraits of Big and Little Edie.
A.F. Wargo, another Riverhead artist, and a friend of Albert Maysles, who is now 86 and owns Maysles Films in New York City, said, “When I saw his original film I found it haunting and shocking—the way these women lived, and with all their cats. When I saw the Broadway show, I decided to do some drawings around it.”
Wargo said he considers Lois Wright, another artist in the show, “The Grandma Moses of Grey Gardens, since she knew the Beales for 30 years and captured them in her paintings.”
Wright, of East Hampton, visited the Beales while growing up in East Hampton, since her family and theirs were close friends. She spent many summers painting and writing, while Little Edie, 10 years her senior, wrote poetry, danced and sang around the house.
At the reception at 73 Main on Saturday, Wright spoke to the crowd about her memories at Grey Gardens, which later became a book.
“The Beales were so entertaining and fun,” said Wright, who has had her own TV show on LTV in East Hampton for 30 years. “I still miss them. Little Edie always wanted to become famous, and she finally did, through the Maysles brothers’ movie.”
Wright’s whimsical portraits of the Beales and their cats are done in a primitive, naïve style of simplicity. Her mother was friends with Big Edie, and when Big Edie died, Wright attended her East Hampton funeral with her relatives, including the former First Lady.
“Later we all went to a private dinner at John Duck’s Restaurant in Southampton,” said Wright. “Jackie Kennedy was pleasant, and she adored her aunt, Big Edie.”
Artist Frank LaTorre, of Mastic Beach, had some of his large portraits of the Beales in the show. “I was fascinated by their story, and I wanted to capture their craziness and colorfulness, by using bold colors and showing their haphazard, eccentric nature,” said LaTorre, who also painted the large mural inside “Cody’s Barbecue” next door to the art show.
The exhibit and reception drew visitors throughout the day, from Noon to 5 p.m. Michael Dickerson, a 13th generation native of East Hampton, came because of his interest in the history of this area.
“This house came to be known as “Grey Gardens” over years of neglect, from the ocean’s salt water petrifying the overgrown forest, and the tree lichen growing on the house,” he said. “It looked like a horror movie—sort of bleak, dark and gray.”
Mahon said the “Grey Gardens” exhibit will be up for the next two weeks at 73 Main Boutique and Gallery, at 73 East Main Street in Riverhead.
RiverheadLOCAL photos by Debbie Tuma