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Edith "Big Edie" Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale were the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. The two women lived together at Grey Gardens for decades with limited funds, resulting in squalor and almost total isolation.
The house was designed by Joseph Greenleaf Thorpe in 1897, and purchased in 1923 by Phelan Beale and Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale. After Phelan left his wife, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale lived there for decades more, over 50 years in total for each woman. The house was called Grey Gardens because of the color of the dunes, the cement garden walls, and the sea mist.
In the fall of 1971 and throughout 1972, their living conditions—their house was infested by fleas, inhabited by numerous cats and raccoons, deprived of running water, and filled with garbage and decay—were exposed as the result of an article in the National Enquirer and a cover story in New York Magazine after a series of inspections (which the Beales called "raids") by the Suffolk County Health Department. With the Beale women facing eviction and the razing of their home, in the summer of 1972 Jacqueline Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill provided the necessary funds to stabilize and repair the dilapidated house so that it would meet Village codes.
Albert and David Maysles became interested in their story and received permission to film a documentary about the women, which was released in 1976 to wide critical acclaim. Their direct cinema technique left the women to tell their own stories.
"Big Edie" died in 1977 and "Little Edie" sold the house in 1979 to former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his wife Sally Quinn. "Little Edie" died in 2002 at the age of 84.