Almost every family has skeletons in the closet and relatives they wish would recede into the woodwork. Such was true of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill. As girls, their Aunt Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (Big Edie) and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale (Little Edie), their cousin, were equally part of the upper crust and Jackie and her sister enjoyed summer visits to their beautiful home and estate Grey Gardens in the wealthy Georgica Pond neighborhood of East Hampton. In those days, life was good. But when Big Edie’s husband left her in 1931 for another woman, their lives were to undergo a desperate change.
Without the funds or ability to keep up the huge property, Grey Gardens began to fall into ruin. Eventually the two women became very reclusive, barely hanging on to survival. Exposed by the Enquirer and a cover story in New York Magazine about the filth, fleas, cats and raccoons sharing the home with the women, the health department intervened and gave the women the ultimatum of cleaning up or getting out. Unable to afford repairs and cleanup, it was at this point that Jackie O and Lee came to their aid. They went in together and had repairs made to the house, the overgrown vegetation cut back, and hundreds of bags of trash removed. The house passed health department inspection and the mother and daughter were allowed to stay – still reclusive, and still in a somewhat altered relationship with reality.
Harlem-based Filmmakers Albert and his brother David Maysles heard about their story when engaged by Lee Radziwill to do a documentary about her and Jackie’s childhood. They found the Grey Garden women so interesting they filmed over an hour at the location with the mother and daughter. Lee was not happy at the direction the film had taken and ended the arrangement with the Maysles and destroyed the film. But that didn’t stop Albert and David and they went back to Grey Gardens to make a documentary in 1975 that may have been the first reality, unscripted film ever. It was recognized in 2010 by the Library of Congress for its cultural and historical significance. In 2014, film critics named it the ninth best documentary film of all time. Although not entered, it was also shown at the Cannes Film Festival to much acclaim. It was a sad riches-to-rags story that drew attention around the world.
Big Edie died in 1977 and her daughter sold the house in 1979 for $220,000 to author and journalist Sally Quinn and her husband, Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee. After the sale, Little Edie moved to Florida where she died in 2002.
When Sally and Ben purchased the dilapidated mansion, Sally went up to the attic for the first time and found a treasure trove of the home’s original furnishings and samples of fabrics that had been used in the once glamorous home. She scratched away old paint and found the original beachy colors. The couple began the year-long restoration that would bring the home back to its original glory, adapted to today’s lifestyle. A special feature they added were French doors in the back to open a view to the ocean across the restored original gardens. After the estate was completed, the couple spent every August there until Ben’s death in 2014. Quinn then started renting the house out for the summer at $250,000. Sally has recently put the estate up for sale.
Sited on just under two acres, the house contains approximately 6,000 square feet of living space with nine bedrooms, six baths and multiple venues for entertaining. Grounds contain a guest house nestled in the lush garden, a heated pool and a Har-Tru Tennis court. Listing agents are Michael Schultz and Susan Ryan of The Corcoran Group.
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Filled with history and visited by Jackie Kennedy Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill, the star of an award-winning documentary, a featurette on the HBO original film Grey Gardens, a Broadway play and mentioned in song, Grey Gardens is priced at $19.995 million.