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Shabby chic, the musical

Reclusive aristocrats, lost fortunes, dashed dreams, Kennedys and Bouviers. Who wouldn't stage this story?

October 29, 2006|Patrick Pacheco | Special to The Times

New York — FOR much of the summer, behind the manicured lawns and privets of the privileged, gossip insatiably centered on the distinguished Astor family as the grandson of Brooke Astor, the 104-year-old doyenne of American society, sued his father over his grandmother's alleged mistreatment. With front-page headlines blaring the claims of forged codicils and illegal transfers of property, jewels and art, the lawsuit drew the unsettling picture of a now-helpless old lady sleeping on a urine-soaked couch in her Park Avenue aerie because of her son's gross negligence. Many were left to wonder: How could American royalty fall so low, so fast?

That's precisely the question posed in a new Broadway musical, "Grey Gardens," which purports to tell of a social scandal that had tongues wagging in the early 1970s: the saga of the eccentric Beales -- 77-year-old Edith Bouvier Beale and her 56-year-old daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale, or "Little Edie," who were discovered to be living in squalor in a crumbling 28-room East Hampton, N.Y., mansion overrun by dozens of cats, raccoons and vermin. When the board of health threatened them with eviction, their famous niece and cousin, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, came to the rescue, paying for hundreds of bags of detritus to be removed and issuing a press release describing the situation as a "private family matter."

But while the Astor scandal is likely to recede into a footnote of social history, the tale of the Beales has proven resilient. A veritable cottage industry has sprung up, beginning with the 1975 documentary "Grey Gardens" by Albert and David Maysles, which established Edie as, yes, nutty, but also a fashion totem and philosopher. In its wake have come lavish Vogue fashion spreads, pop songs, cult screenings, numerous fan websites and camp parties a la "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" in which cross-dressing participants speak only lines from the documentary.

A renewed burst of interest has now brought forth the Broadway musical; a new documentary, "The Beales of Grey Gardens," comprising outtakes of the original film; and next year will bring a feature film and a coffee-table book of photographs.

Ode to opportunity lost

IN the original documentary, released on DVD in 2001, clouds of regret and recrimination hang over the manse as the women bicker in finishing-school accents amid the clatter of cat food cans and a constant parade of Little Edie's eccentric fashion choices. They break into old songs or listen, lying on stained mattresses surrounded by clutter, to scratchy recordings of Edith, a decaying memory of the show business aspirations that once afflicted both. "It's so difficult to draw the line between the past and the present," Edie says, memorably. The terrain is Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee crossed with Samuel Beckett as Edie threatens to move on but can't. Little wonder then that dramatists have been so attracted to the material. But why have the Beales continued to exert such a "staunch" -- to use their favorite word -- hold on the public, a fascination that made the musical one of last season's hottest tickets during its off-Broadway run earlier this year?

"It's a personal Rorschach test," says Michael Sucsy, who has written and will direct a feature film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore that is slated to begin shooting next summer. "Your response to the story really depends on your insecurities ... dreams deferred, mother-daughter issues, the fear of losing everything. There are so many complexities and contradictions to it. When I saw the [Maysles'] documentary, I just started writing down questions. I ended up with 30 or 40."

The musical, which opens this week on Broadway, purports to answer some of those questions with a first act that predates by about three decades the events of the documentary, which are covered in the second act. It establishes the Beales' competitive and at times monstrous relationship by imagining the circumstances surrounding the brief, real-life engagement in the summer of 1941 between Edie and Joseph Kennedy Jr., the scion of the famous political clan who was being groomed for the presidency but would be killed in combat three years later. Set on the day of a glamorous engagement party, the romantic elegance of this Grey Gardens, despite all the presentiments of rot setting into the timbers, makes its coming decline all the more vertiginous.

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