January 24, 2002

Peering through the banisters of a staircase, the camera fixes its eye on Edith Bouvier Beale as she dances alone in the front hall of Grey Gardens, a 28-room house near the ocean in East Hampton. She is wearing black fishnet stockings and white high heels, with a pair of tights secured around her head with a jeweled pin. She is not young.

Upstairs, her mother lies on a bed strewn with newspapers, eating liver pate from a can with a knife. She sings "Tea for Two" in a quavering but sweet voice. Cats prowl the rooms. A raccoon plays a cameo role, sneaking through a hole in the decaying wainscot to grab a slice of white bread from the floor.

Perhaps it wasn't the starring role that Little Edie, who died on Jan. 13 in Miami Beach, had in mind, it being her conviction that only a series of mishaps had kept her from the stage, but her role in the classic Maysles brothers documentary "Grey Gardens" was certainly fame of a kind.

It would be hard to say which of the two, who squabble and fantasize and free associate their way through the film, was more beautiful as a young woman, Little Edie (or Body Beautiful Beale, as she was said to have been known at the Maidstone Club) or her mother, Big Edie, a member of the aristocratic Catholic Bouvier family and an aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her sister, Lee Radziwill. Photographs show them as society beauties, immaculately dressed, fashionable, and elegant.

In both their cases, however, a certain acceptable eccentricity became something more. Phelan Beale, Edith Bouvier's husband and Miss Beale's father, became increasingly disturbed by his wife's devotion to singing, wearing plus fours to the Maidstone Club, and saying things he thought outrageous. He eventually left her.

She raised Miss Beale and two younger boys, Phelan and Bouvier Beale, at Grey Gardens, on the corner of Lily Pond Lane and West End Road in the village. The brothers, both now deceased, moved on, but Little Edie, who graduated from Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Conn., and spent a short time in New York hoping to be a dancer, returned to live with her mother. She was in her early 30s at the time, having been born in November 1917.

With only a small allowance for child support from Mr. Beale and her own money running out, Mrs. Beale's circumstances declined. Servants left, and the two women led an increasingly lonely life in the decaying mansion, which became the talk of the town.

In 1971 the Suffolk County Health Department raided the house several times and issued an eviction notice, declaring it unfit for human habitation and citing illness among some of the 58 cats, piles of cat feces, heaps of empty cans and garbage in the house, holes in the roof, exposed wiring, no functioning toilets, and running water only in the kitchen sink. Little Edie claimed the raids were prompted by "relatives" or unknown persons interested in real estate.

Mrs. Beale, who refused to leave and filed a million-dollar invasion-of-privacy suit in return, was saved by her nieces, or, more specifically, Aristotle Onassis, who had married Mrs. Kennedy. He paid $32,000 to clean up the house and overgrown grounds and install a new furnace and plumbing system. It took over 1,000 large bags to contain all the garbage from the house. The story made headlines almost everywhere.

Mrs. Radziwill was inadvertently responsible for the "Grey Gardens" documentary. She had called Albert and David Maysles with an idea of making a film about her childhood and the set of upper-class families who summered in East Hampton. Agreeing, the Maysles eventually showed Mrs. Radziwill an hour and a half of footage, mainly of her eccentric aunt and cousin, which she confiscated immediately. They had, however, won the Beales' confidence and were invited back.

By 1974, when the film was made, the house was almost as bad as it had been before the renovation - it was so infested with fleas that the Maysles brothers wore flea collars around their ankles. But the Beales, bound together by mutual dependence and recrimination, eagerly unleashed 20 years of pent-up self-expression in scenes that provided one of the most complete descriptions of a relationship ever captured on film. The Maysles were to explain that both women had yearned to be performers and welcomed the opportunity.

"Grey Gardens" quickly became a cult classic, in part because of Little Edie's costumes, which, as recently as 1997, inspired an eight-page layout in Harper's Bazaar. Aware that what she wore was unusual, in the film she describes the best way to dress for daytime. For the most part, she wrapped sweaters around her waist as skirts and also covered her head with sweaters, the sleeves flowing down her back. Perry Ellis and Todd Oldham were among her fans and gave "Grey Gardens" fancy dress parties.

Some reviewers cried exploitation, but while the movie creates the feeling of voyeurism, the Beales themselves professed to be delighted. Most of the time. Little Edie said she was objective. "I said to myself, now who is this girl? She's odd and she dances. But the rest of the time it seems to me she's a disappointed dame. That was the fourth time. The second time I cried and cried."

In an interview with Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, Miss Beale said that her brothers and cousins refused to see the movie, although how she would have known that is unknown.

Her mother died in February 1977 as a result of a fall when one of the wheels of her mobile commode fell off. Little Edie lived in the house for about two years, as her mother, who was always dominant, had told her to do, and then moved to Southampton. Shortly afterward, she got her chance in cabaret, appearing for eight nights at Reno Sweeney, a Manhattan night spot.

Although she saw it as her long-deserved breakthrough, this time the critics came down almost unanimously on the side of exploitation. The club kept the bad reviews from her, and she bravely faced two new audiences a night, even through a fever and although she recently had undergone cataract surgery.

She sold Grey Gardens in 1979 to Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn (again of The Washington Post). They restored the house and the gardens, making them one of East Hampton's finest showplaces. Little Edie spent the next 20 years moving from Southampton to Montreal to California to Manhattan before settling in Florida.

She died in her small apartment in Miami Beach. Her body was found face down in the bathroom. She had been dead for five days.

Mrs. Radziwill's East Hampton house, on East Dune Lane, was sold in May for $16.2 million. The only Bouvier who still has a house here, Bouvier Beale Jr. of Amagansett, was to bring Miss Beale's ashes from Florida to the Bouvier family plot at the Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church Cemetery on Cedar Street in East Hampton.