Society & Culture

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Albert and David Maysles’s classic documentary Grey Gardens provided a disturbing snapshot of 1970’s American upper-class life, replete with mentally ill dowagers, feral cats, and a crumbling estate.  In early 1971, the Maysles brothers started filming the daily activities of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, “Big Edie,” and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale, “Little Edie,” the aunt and first cousin, respectively, of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, as they puttered around their decrepit 1897 eastern Long Island mansion, from which the film got its title.  Big Edie and her husband, Phelan Beale, had originally purchased Grey Gardens in 1923.  Phelan abandoned his wife and daughter shortly thereafter and took all his money with him.  With few options to support themselves other than the occasional sale from their Tiffany silver collection, the reclusive pair allowed their house—and their mental health—to putrefy for decades, all the while insisting they would never abandon Grey Gardens as Phelan had abandoned them.

By the time the Maysleses and their film crew arrived, the estate had become infested with fleas and overrun by raccoons.  Half a century’s worth of hoarded garbage covered almost every square inch of floor space and tabletop.  The film’s narrative arc documented the macabre race between the house’s...

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