Journalist. Mother. Bunny enthusiast. Pop culture junkie.

Journalist. Mother. Bunny enthusiast. Pop culture junkie.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Jackie O's crazy relatives

Last night, I saw an amazing documentary.

Grey Gardens is a startling and mesmerizing peak into the lives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's aunt, Big Edie, and her first cousin, Little Edie.

The documentary, from 1975, reveals the mother and daughter lived in complete squalor in a filthy old mansion. They ate canned food in a garbage-covered room, while cats peed on the bed. They cackled over meaningless jokes. They sang songs nobody remembered. They fought over petty nonsense.

What makes this raw footage even more shocking is that these two women were once beautiful and dazzling society ladies.

Big Edie, who was the sister to Jackie O's father, married a prominent, wealthy lawyer.

Her only daughter, Little Edie, was born in 1917.

Big Edie was desperate to become a famous jazz singer and despite being a high society wife, she longed to have a Bohemian artistic lifestyle. Her inappropriate behavior and jazz lounge gigs humiliated her husband, who eventually left her, taking all his money with him.

On a whim, Big Edie took her daughter out of boarding school, forcing the child to attend musicals and movies with her every single day. After two years, Big Edie was forced to put her daughter back in school.

Little Edie grew up into the most gorgeous female in her family. Even her younger cousin (the future First Lady) would never even compare.

In the 1940s, Little Edie became a fashion model, but the career was shot down when her furious and embarrassed father found out.

She flirted and dated dozens of the most handsome and wealthiest bachelors in the world. Even John F. Kennedy's older brother fell madly in love with her after one night, begging for her hand in marriage after seeing her briefly at a dance.

But Little Edie brushed them all away, because she was holding out for someone spectacular. She just wasn't sure who yet.

In her late 20s, she moved to New York City to pursue her dream of being a star. She also secretly wanted to find that magical Mr. Right she had been dreaming about since girlhood.

By 1952, she had found neither yet. Her mother, Big Edie, called her, insisting she return to their East Hampton home, Grey Gardens, and keep her company. Immediately. She didn't want to be alone, and didn't think it was a good idea for Little Edie to pursue her dreams in the Big Apple anymore.

With her tail between her legs, Little Edie moved back into her childhood home and quickly sunk into madness. A skin condition caused her to lose all her hair, becoming bald and eyebrowless. She had to wear turbans every day. She spent years taking care of her mother, bitterly agonizing about "what might have been" if she had stayed in New York City, or married one of her wealthy girlhood suitors.

She wallowed most of her adult life in complete regret. She blamed her mother for it too.

As the years went by, they became poorer and poorer. They had to sell furniture, piece by piece, to survive in their decaying mansion.

And there they were, in 1975, two faded beauties lost in their own disappointments and swallowing their "what ifs." Big Edie spent hours listening to her old jazz records, wishing she had made it as a singing sensation during the 1930s. Little Edie longingly gazed at photographs of herself when she was a 20-something knockout and could stop traffic with her looks.

No money. No friends. No future.

But not forgotten.

Decades after the documentary was released, it inspired a musical about the mother and daughter in 2006, plus a television drama starring Drew Barrymore (playing Little Edie) last year.

Two spreads in Vogue have been dedicated to Little Edie's style, and in 2007, Marc Jacobs created the Little Edie bag for his collection.


Liv said...

I've only seem the Jessica Lange/Drew Barrymore film, which I loved, it was sad and mesmerizing and infuriating and charming. Definitely need to check out the documentary.

Shybiker said...

I saw both the documentary and Drew's movie. It's an amazing story. I live on Long Island so I feel extra-connected to it.

Antonella C'est moi said...

love it <3!! great post..if you want follow me on google friends and i will be happy to follow you back <3!!!enjoy the week-end
A_C'est moi

Tara said...

I've been wanting to watch Grey Gardens, but haven't gotten around to doing it. I need to see if it is on Netflix so I can watch it!

Sarah said...

I really want to see Grey Gardens!

Swarnali said...

Added to my must watch list :) Thanks Jenny :D

Vix said...

I saw both the docu and the Drew Barrymore film, absolutely fascinating stuff. x

Movies on my Mind said...

Seen neither the movies or the doc, but feel weird thinking about how much more attractive vintage women are to nowadays. (By vintage I don't mean old geriatric women, I mean old pictures of young women.)

Fashionopolis said...

I never really knew about them until your post. I am so going to watch the movie and documentary. I wonder why Jackie O did not help her aunt and cousin out?
Great post.

Bunny Moreno said...

I have had it on my queue forever now-I must see it-but it breaks my heart at the same time. I wonder also why no family helped out??? Their lives sounded so magical yet so dark...heartbreaking really. Great post!! xox

Meri said...

I knew a little tiny bit about this family, but not in so much detail. What a bizarre family/ mother to have. I'd like to see the documentary now!

Lemanie said...

I have to see that new movie. Wow...It's like the real life Miss Havisham from Great Expectations kind of. Sorta reminds me of that movie, "What ever happened to Baby Jane" too.

I had no idea about Jackie O's family...Yeesh!

Shannon said...

Such an amazing story. My mom is a big Jackie O enthusiast, so I've heard a lot about her and her family growing up.

Tights Lover said...

Wow, what an amazing story! And coming from up here I thought I had heard it all about the Kennedy's Onassis' etc.!

It definitely sounds like a fascinating documentary. I didn't even hear about the television drama when it came out...

Ocean Dreams said...

What a sad story. :( It just breaks my heart when I read stories like this, even though they are very fascinating. Well written love.

logic said...

I'm not sure what service you're intending to provide your 'readership' by authoring this OP-ED, perhaps the re-enforcement of their egocentric belief that they are, by right, superior to the majority of the poor-crazy-unfortunates with whom they share (let me guess) NYC? Not having read your source list, I am unsure where from you obtained your 'facts'. The liberty that one might take to editorialize on a film should, in my opinion, be used with a touch more delicacy - or at least awareness, when it is a true and real portrait of two EXTREMELY worldly and highly intelligent women. This is not a Barbie-mentary on Britney. I notice that you've placed quotation marks on your title "Jackie O's crazy relatives" - attributing (I assume) it to a newspaper article from the time period. But I was (conservatively) disturbed by your inability to glean from a beautifully made documentary the inherent dignity of these two women. They would never have wanted pity from the likes of you, or, most likely, for Jackie Onassis to swoop in with her AMEX to 'save the day'. Might I suggest that you watch the film again with a slightly more intellectual and open mindset, and have a list of the pitiful attributes that you slathered upon these amazing women (your, um, intellectual superiors by a distance which (if one cared enough to do so) could only be measured in galaxies. Here's a sample checklist for your next viewing (p.s. it's like "where's waldo"). Enjoy!
1. what was the "whim" that led B.E. to "take her daughter out of boarding school"
2. in regards to her (L.E.) modeling exactly what part of her "career" angered her father"?
3. which of the following was the first that you learned of the desperate financial situation of the Edies:
A. when B.E. was writing a check to Brooks on the balcony, and suddenly exclaimed, "that's it were destitute"
or B. when Little Edie was bringing inside the box of groceries that had just been delivered.

3. What - specifically led you to your belief that B.E. was "desperate to become a famous jazz singer" and for extra credit; name one of the "jazz lounges" in which Edie had performed.

Rest peacefully Edie and Edie. If only in small ways such as this I will do what I can to uphold the dignity of your lives whenever possible.

Thank you for your time Jennifer. MKC

Mrs V said...

Soooooo... U related to them Jen?

Mrs V said...

Soooooo... U related to them Jen?

noelani said...

I got to your site when I Googled Little Edie, after watching her expertly parodied on RuPaul's Drag Race, for the umpteenth time! The parody is hilarious, but the drag queen "Jinx Monsoon" also brought a sympathetic aspect to it. That inspired me to look for more information. So many things in Little Edie's life that could have led her where her life would have been wonderful! I think she and Joe Kennedy would have made a beautiful couple. Of course, he didn't live long.

Anyway,I think you have done a beautiful job telling about them, introducing them to people who hadn't heard of them before. The pictures are perfect.

Another thing caught my eye, and that's the spaghetti hot dogs! My grandchildren would LOVE them, so I will be making them for them, very soon!

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