Guy’s Return to Grey Gardens –
to disinter my piece on Grey Gardens - in touch again with a brilliant
cherished friend Betsy Beckmann who’s now living in San Antonio and has joined
forces with her mother working in a family business ‘cackling together like the
two Edie's in Grey Gardens’. This brought back the context in 2002 of my life
with my own mother - and the unexpected occasion it afforded to write my Grey
Gardens piece. As I explained it to Betsy:
When my life imploded, which I suppose one must say it did
back in January 2002 when I left Nyc tail between legs to live with my mother
in Amityville Long Island, it turned out to be a golden oasis. I was sentient
and dimensionally alive enough to actually really BE with my mother who I did
not then have any suspicion would be dead in a year and a half at the age of 85
of congestive heart failure — but whom in that calendar year of 2002 I grew to
know as a friend in absolutely unexpected ways. She was a beautiful woman, an
accomplished water color artist who sat down in fact to paint every afternoon
of her life including that year and from whom I caught the bug of what Auden I
think called ‘the habit of art.’ Anyway we became a kind of working unit during
that year, I went back (I was then 51) to my kid chores of shoveling snow ----
and weeding the grounds and mowing the lawn and raking the leaves and
discovering that my mother was incredibly smart and funny (which she also found
me to be: our dna was aligned: we both laughed at the same stuff etc): kind of
us not against the world but creating a new one and liking it. My father had
died of/with Alzheimer’s in 2000, my episcopal priest brother of AIDS in 1989,
so we were kind of it and oh it was fun! Anyway, at the beginning of my tenure
there someone who’d read my book Dancing Around the Volcano about gay men &
sex contacted me from Seattle and, praising my writing (How to Make a Writer
Fall in Love with You: praise his book), asked me if I would be willing to
write a piece on Grey Gardens for which he’d not long before hatched a fan
site. I said fuck yeah! & procured a vhs tape of it from the Amityville
library and watched it 4 times and wrote this little bit of business. Truth to
tell my life with my mother had less outward wackadoobydoo in it than the Edies
but our love and off to the side experience of pretty much everything made for
a sweet context in which to dive into what came out. Hope you enjoy it!
To Grey Gardens fans, 2002 will forever be
significant for one reason: the passing, at 84, in Bal Harbour, Florida, on
January 14, of Edie Beale -- one year after the 25th anniversary of the
premiere of the film that she said was for her and her mama 'a breakthrough to
something beautiful and precious called life.'
Author Guy Kettelhack here scratches his head
over Edie's and GG's impact on us all...
"Raccoons and cats become a little bit boring," sighs Edie
Beale towards the end of Grey Gardens. "I mean for too long a time."
the time she utters this, Ms. Beale has made so many pronouncements, most of
them of a completely equal lack of portent, that I'm surprised I notice this
one. But the animals, yes -- something about the animals. All I can tell her,
and I do, continuing an unwitting policy of talking at the TV screen that I
began during my fourth viewing of the film -- all I can tell her is, "Edie
honey, they haven't started to bore me." It amazes me, sort of, that they
haven't, but they haven't.
have now watched Grey Gardens four times. I'd seen it when it first came out in
the mid-70s when I was a 20-something ultra-sophisticate (I was so
sophisticated back then! Seems like I've regressed in sophistication every year
since, to the point where now I feel about five naïve years old) -- feeling
jaded in the relatively fresh wake (for me) of Fellini, Godard, and Warhol
(Paul Morrissey) flicks, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and a general
pot-saturated anything-goes gestalt that made One Think One Had Seen and Done
It All. All I remember of the film from that time (a vagueness surely partly
the product of having been, like everyone else who saw it with me, stoned) was
that Edie and her mom were a campy holiday,
and who'd-a-thunk their cousin Mrs. (you had to
remember not to call her Kennedy) Onassis would have had anything to do with
them. I remember the news clips about Jackie saving the Hamptons house from
being condemned, and my mother tut-tutting over the scandal of it.
These were the days when Liz Smith was
reporting on parties at The Anvil (Avis to the Hertz of The Mineshaft) in her
gossip column and coke spoons floated down from the ceiling at Studio 54 to hit
Liza, Marisa and Truman on their heads. There were something like twelve gay
bathhouses in New York City -- and one straight one. I, hip thang that I was,
therefore did not tut-tut at the Beales. (I don't think I knew how to tut-tut.)
They induced in me one of my insouciant ironic 20-something aren't-they-a-hoot
hmmphs. In fact, that's what it all was -- the "scandal," the movie,
the time: a hoot. Grey Gardens fit perfectly into the mid-70s version of po-mo.
Ya hadda love Edie, maybe, but you forgot about her the morning after. Or I
The prospect of seeing the film again after nearly thirty years was not
alluring. Hearing from an acquaintance that she'd recently died -- a publicist
who had known Edie on and off since the '70s and emailed me with the idea of
maybe doing a book about her -- left me surprised to hear that Edie hadn't died
already. Edie Beale was no Ruth Draper (fantastically witty lady from ancient
times who did incredible monologues) or Tallulah B: I mean, it was the Maysle
brothers who'd managed somehow to bring her the little glimmer of fame she'd
enjoyed -- not (I thought) any specially intrinsic compelling interest in the
loopy lady herself. (Who'd heard of her since the '70s?) And my vague memory of
the Maysle brothers' arty camera angles and bleak cinema verite (all those
house eaves, close-ups of Big Edie's decaying splay of breast tissue, little
Edie's wrapped bald head and badly made-up face, hungry cats and dirty tin
would, I thought, now surely seem dated and
strained. So I sighed when I shoved in the VHS GG tape to watch it again.
And then proceeded to spend whatever time the thing took to play gaping
at the screen, hands limp and dangling between my knees.
"Oh, it's a sea of leaves. If you lose something you can't find it
again. It drops to the bottom…"
The thing was an amazing slow psychic
train wreck that never quite entirely wrecked. A surreal sleight-of-hand
turning nothing into -- well, visual nothing. It spooked me. Edie's lunatic
confidences & scarves & flesh & animals & old eerie debutante
photographs all seemed like broken shards of a psyche gaily tossing itself bit
by bit into psychosis. I looked for something, anything to guide, ground me.
Some sane Dorothy in Oz, someone to reassure me I wouldn't lose my own mind if
I spent too much time with these people. But there was no one reliable enough
for that. Big Mama Edie sometimes helped out a bit (kind of like the Red Queen
when for a brief moment here or there she says something congruent to Alice and
seduces her, falsely, into thinking she's not in hell) -- by contrast to the
imploding people and house surrounding her she seemed to offer an iota or two
of clear-eyed commentary -- but basically it was a coupla nut jobs flopping
around and breaking down happily in front of us. My dangling palms began to
sweat. "When am I gonna get out of here?" Edie asked in one of her
many frazzled moments. I wondered the same thing.
wasn't so much that these ladies needed help -- I was beginning to feel like I
did. Blurry memories of the few years I'd spent at shrink school came back --
my psychoanalytic institute's collective assertion that you had to be real wary
working with schizophrenics because they were very canny people and after a
while, if you weren't careful with your counter-transference, they might suck
you into ending up as cracked as they were. I remembered Freud's
"economic" theory of the mind -- his idea of a
"preconscious" gatekeeper keeping the crazy lunatics in the asylum of
the Unconscious at bay on the left, letting in only those lunatics that the
better-behaved Conscious city of The (comparatively) Sane wanted him to let in
and could accommodate on the right. The Maysles were clearly the gate-keepers
-- that single deadpan reflection of them with their handheld video equipment
in a Grey Garden mirror certainly revealed them at their gate-keeping work.
Only what sides of the gate were we, they and the two Edies on? The asylum's
fumes had leaked out all over the place: id was seeping in like immanent
mildew; the Bastille had long been stormed. I wondered (as my hair prickled
while little Edie conspiratorially whispered: "What I felt was in the
cards, the Marble Faun moving in – he just gave us a washing machine -- that
cements the deal -- I can't spend the rest of my life washing clothes -- I'm
pulverized by this latest thing") what heavy medication all these schizoid
symptoms, looked up in the DSM4, might have indicated. (Arrgh!) Sodium
Pentathol maybe, or Haldol? (Shrinks, help me!)
second time at Grey Gardens, in other words, freaked the effing hiccups out of
"Mother wanted me to come out in a kimono & we had quite a
not long after, I saw it a third time. My courage and determination to do so
somehow revived. Maybe I was just in a better mood. I'd eaten something good
for dinner, I was relaxed, I was more willing to watch the Edies play without
anticipating wanting to tie several of little Edie's scarves around their
alternately fluty and shrieking throats. So I watched it again, and it was as
if I'd never seen it before. Instead of a movie about nothing, it seemed to be
a movie about everything. The lines (which for some reason I just hadn't
noticed, much less savored, before) I now found myself compulsively scribbling
down on scrap paper. Everything that popped out of their mouths seemed
symbolically rich. The movie -- which had formerly seemed so bleak, unpeopled
and barren -- now featured a cast of thousands. The cats were like a Greek
chorus on a night off -- Big Mama Edie's breasts and straw hats were like
separate characters in a play of their own. I hooted for real now, and it
didn't take being stoned to feel delight: "Do you think my costume looked
all right to Brooks? I think he was a little amazed."
was more than a little amazed. The Marble Faun, for instance -- what a
wonderfully wackily apt metaphor, that precious Hawthorne story about a beautiful
naïve Italian boy, as sensual as the Praxiteles statue after which he was
named, falling like Adam into sin: lunky handyboy Jerry as the Praxitelean
stand-in, chosen for the part as if Edie were Blanche DuBois, determined to see
romance in the squalid. This was source material for Tennessee Williams.
The birthday party was out of Dickens. The
faded portraits of the Beale women captured an almost Jamesian beauty: there
was drama and mystery here (how did then become now?), along with the comedy
(how did then become now?). "She likes everything without girdles,"
Edie confides about her mother -- equally descriptive of the whole Maysle/Beale
Sure, the ladies -- especially "good little daughter" Edie --
ladled on labile emotions right out of some abnormal psychology text, but it
all seemed to flow with real purpose from beginning to end -- an all-singing,
all-dancing extravaganza more gratifying than Moulin Rouge. "I have to
think these things up," Edie tells us about her sweater skirt outfits and
brightly swathed skull -- a bozo bravado that the Maysles simply, brilliantly
allowed to erupt out of her, up and down stairs, in and out of bed, back and
forth between the ocean and the beach. (The tears welling up in Mama Edith's
eyes as she listens to Norman Vincent Peale on their little robin's egg blue
radio prod his audience to look into a mirror and ask themselves "Who am
I?") And Edie swam so well.
other words, I liked it. It was growing on me. Unsettling thoughts of
schizophrenia no longer plagued me. The last frames -- Edie dancing in filmy
black -- seemed like a brave vindication of all slightly off-kilter women.
Zelda Fitzgerald would have understood -- and joined in the dance.
"Who's been dropping books around here is what I want to
Then I watched it a fourth time.
The context now was, it was early morning and I'd drunk a lot of coffee.
I mean a lot. I'd had three deadlines to meet (the happiest of which was
writing this piece), and I guess I hoped the caffeine would goose me into
overdrive: prod me into the quick progress and completion of my appointed
tasks. What the coffee goosed me into, however (and repeatedly), was the
bathroom. I wanted one last taste of Edie before I had to return the tape to my
local library -- one day more and it would be overdue -- and this was the only
time I had to lap said taste up. So, en route back and forth to the toilet to
pee, the Edies performed their lives for me again. Which meant I heard them
from afar (falling piss added a nice little plashy soundtrack) as much as
watched them on the screen when I returned to my bedroom.
was the coziest experience. Big Mama's voice calling from her bed (or was it
mine?), squealing for her daughter (while Edie mused in her
"decorated" room, attempting to affix that silver mask to the painted
plaster, "I can't get the thumb tack in the wall -- I've got the saddest
life") seemed to be squealing for me, too.
I sat back down on my bed and rejoined them at
now familiar times -- seeming to walk in and out of the same rooms they entered
and exited, all of us following our easy whims and urgencies, confiding to each
other as we glided by. I was part of the Beale family! "We come like water
and we go like wind," Edie recited from what she'd once lettered onto the
wall of that private little room -- there was a real but gentle poignancy now
to her off-hand little mots. Funny sweet nothings you half-listen to from a
dear eccentric friend: "I want to hang the bird cage, but I haven't gotten
to that." (Yes, it's hard to get to everything you want to do, Edie. We
know what that's like.) Overhearing Mama Edith at her birthday party -- talking
graciously on the phone, praising her "beautiful" cake -- ah, there's
nothing to be afraid of in this house. Just have to go with the loopy flow.
"Let the kitties in. Give them luncheon."
"Are you absolutely crazy? There isn't anything I can't do,"
Edie says before she launches into an American-flagged marching dance to the
strains of a Virginia Military Institute Band record. Suddenly I want to
believe her. And I think her audience of animals already does -- that
warm-blooded Greek chorus lolling about in the wings, waiting for a cue. The
raccoon scaling the wall back to the attic with a slice of Wonder Bread, neatly
eaten out from the center, so that only an empty square frame of crust dangles
from its meticulous little mouth. The single sparrow the Maysles' camera
focuses on at the very top of one of Grey Garden's highest peaks. The cats,
sleeping or shitting or pleading wide-eyed for luncheon. Liver pate and cat
food: makes me wonder, how different is what sustains you, Mme &
Mademoiselle Beale, from what sustains your cats -- and us?
Life may turn out not to be so bad in the lunatic asylum.
course, I may think differently when I see Grey Gardens for the fifth time.
Guy Kettelhack has contributed to, authored or
co-authored more than thirty nonfiction books, including Dancing Around the
Volcano -- Decoding the Enigma of Gay Men and Sex: Freeing Our Erotic Lives.
Guy's authority is varied, and enthusiastic: He
has been frequently interviewed (and written) about Quentin Crisp, and speaking
appearances have ranged from a talk at Middlebury College about
"alcoholism, recovery and the college student," to a presentation as
part of the Sexuality Series at New York's Lesbian and Gay Center (topic:
"Why Does That Turn Me on? The Iconography of Sexual Fantasy) in which he
appeared in jockstrap, black leather jacket, playing Czardas on the violin --
to demonstrate one of his animating premises, expressed in E.M. Forster's famous
line: "Only connect".
A graduate of Middlebury College, he has done
graduate work in English literature at the Bread Loaf School of English and
Oxford University, graduate work in psychoanalysis at the New York and Boston
Centers for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies and studied violin at the Juilliard
School of Music and New England Conservatory. Mr. Kettelhack lives in New York
Email the author: GuyBlakeKett@aol.com
© 2007 Guy Kettelhack and Nightcharm, Inc. All
All screencaps within text by David K.
Graphic design © 2007 Nightcharm, Inc. All