A Sea of Leaves—Grey Gardens from a gardener's perspective

"It was truly a gray garden. The soft gray of the dunes, cement walls and sea mists gave us our color scheme as well as our name....nepeta, stachys, and pinks....clipped bunches of santolina, lavender and rosemary made gray mounds here and there. Only flowers in pale colors were allowed inside the walls, yet the effect was far from insipid....I close my eyes and sense again the scent of those wild roses, the caress of the hot sun on our backs as we sauntered to and fro from our bath and lazy mornings on the beach."—Anna Gilman Hill, former owner of Grey Gardens in her book Forty Years of Gardening

The walled garden at Grey Gardens (circa late teens or early 1920s) from Forty Years of Gardening

Talk about your hardy perennials. The eccentric and sentimental media phenomenon known as Grey Gardens continues with a new HBO movie starring Drew Barrymore as Little Edie Beale and Jessica Lange as her mother Edith Beale that premieres on April 18th. 

It looks like it might hold some promise. Let's hope that it adequately captures the wistful beauty of the relationship of these two reclusive women who spent decades on the verge of poverty in a crumbling beachside mansion in East Hampton, singing, dancing, and reciting poetry—"Bed in Summer" by Robert Louis Stevenson being my favorite number of Big Edie's.

Not much has been said of the garden of Grey Gardens though. In the more recent Maysles Brothers' film, The Beales of Grey Gardens, Little Edie merely remarks:

"That's why Mrs. Hill sold it....She was one of the world's greatest feminine horticulturalists. She was a landscape gardener and a very famous horticulturalist...Mrs. Robert C. Hill. And she said to mother, 'I can't grow my delphiniums on account of the northeast wind. And the hurricanes...storms have ruined my garden every year, you know, in the fall.' And that's why they named this Grey Gardens....Eventually everything will grow back."

The archival photographs show a place that is never seen under The Beales' self-described "sea of leaves." The fairly expansive walled flower garden is pictured in Mrs. Hill's 1938 book Forty Years of Gardening and also another book from 1924, Beautiful Gardens in America by Louise Shelton. Who knows what the property actually looked like at the time of the documentary? But the current owners Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn restored the garden to flower-filled perfection after buying the property from Little Edie in the 1979, judging from an article in an old House & Garden and a scattering of images on the internet: here, and also here on Grey Garden News, an avid fan's website.

Some think the whole Grey Gardens thing is just an exercise in camp, maybe even a cruel exploitative one. But newly released outtakes from the 1976 documentary show Little Edie, a failed professional singer and dancer, even more endearing in the new footage and an especially willing participant in the theatricality of it all. For her, brimming with ever-enthusiastic costume changes, the whole affair seems like homemade performance art—and lots of fun. "Mother! The Maysles are here!" she cheerfully announces as she scurries into a darkened doorway.

I don't like to think of Little Edie as the trapped, frustrated creature seen stalking the gloomy halls of 70s-era Grey Gardens. I prefer to picture her living as she did later in life, by the sea in Bal Harbour, Florida. Up until the weeks before her death in 2002 at the age of 84, she reportedly swam in the ocean every day. Edith Bouvier Beale was truly a staunch character.

"I realize...whenever I say my garden I mean that small walled garden opening out of the sun-room at Easthampton. In 1913, we bought a gray shingled cottage and four acres of land on Lily Pond Lane,...what a name to conjure with!"—Anna Gilman Hill in Forty Years of Gardening

The first year I tried to grow my plants in an open field. They flourished like Jonah's gourd, but the first nor'easter laid them flat. No amount of tying and staking could hold them upright against the scudding sea-spume. A windbreak is the sine qua non of seashore gardening."—Forty Years of Gardening

Photographs of Grey Gardens appear in Forty Years of Gardening by Anna Gilman Hill (Stokes, 1938) and Beautiful Gardens in America by Louise Shelton (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1924)

Grey Gardens from Beautiful Gardens in America

Grey Gardens from Beautiful Gardens in America

The house in the opening credits (top) and on a postcard when it was newly built

Little and Big Edie at home (top). A fit Little Edie models swimwear in the garden during the filming of the documentary (above left). Little Edie modeling in the garden, decades earlier (above right)

Stills of Drew Barrymore as Little Edie and Jessica Lange as Big Edie in the upcoming HBO film 


xxxxx said...

I have all these same funny old books, too, and seeing them here reminds me to take them down from the shelf and have a look (and a laugh). They are so delightfully dated, particularly at points of history such as the moment we find ourselves in right now. Thanks.

Jerry Patrick said...

Wow! What a treasure!
Who knew that all that was under the "Sea of Leaves"

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the updates! What a joy that the new owners were willing to restore (resurrect) the place and then share it with us!

(Fans of Little Edie)

Melody Ambler said...

Hi. I just discovered your blog and find it beautiful and very interesting. I know this isn't really a comment, but I was wondering if there would be any way I could subscribe through email. If not possible, I understand, but if any possibility I am Melody, at melpekarek@sbcglobal.net. Thank you very much for your beautiful blog!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing all this great info on Grey Gardens, I especially love the excerpts from the old books. I've never seen that info before!