Entertainment & Arts

Song and dance of tragic Kennedy aunt

Sheila Hancock in Grey Gardens Image copyright Scott Rylance
Image caption Sheila Hancock plays Edith Bouvier who was born into wealth in 1895 but died almost penniless

Grey Gardens was a controversial film documentary released in America in 1975. It featured the unsettling world of the 79-year-old Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie who lived in near-squalor in a formerly grand mansion in the Hamptons on Long Island.

Some thought the film exploited the fragile mental state of the women, who were relatives of former US first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The film became a stage musical which is now getting its European premiere in London.

Scott Frankel, the composer of Grey Gardens the musical, which was first staged in New York in 2006, says telling its story was important as it threw light on a disappearing section of society.

"When Americans use the word aristocratic mainly they're talking about Europe but it's exactly the word for the world Edith Bouvier Beale grew up in just hours from Manhattan," says Frankel.

"She and her daughter became remnants of that world, which is why we wanted to write our show."

Edith Bouvier was born into wealth in 1895. She died almost penniless a couple of years after co-directors Albert and David Maysles released their film documentary about the wildly eccentric lifestyle she shared with her daughter Edie, who died in 2002. Albert Maysles died in March last year and David died in 1987.

Image copyright Scott Rylance
Image caption Jenna Russell plays Edith's daughter Edie who lived with her mother in the increasingly decaying mansion her deceased father left them

The fact that Edith's niece was Jackie Kennedy explains in part why journalists found her so fascinating. In the early 1970s reporters uncovered the destitution Edith and Edie faced in the decaying mansion in which Edith had lived since the 1920s.

Their fellow residents were limited to cats and the odd marauding raccoon.

Edith's marriage to lawyer Phelan Beale had ended after just a few years and she and their daughter Edie were left to subsist in the family home on a small monthly allowance.

Life on Long Island supplied both comedy and despair. In the film, mother and daughter alternate between mutual affection and protracted rows. They made an irresistible subject for the Maysles brothers, best known for their Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter.

Musicals had previously often been based on real people, such as Gypsy and The Sound of Music. But lyricist Michael Korie says a film documentary provided a different kind of starting point.

"We knew it was important to see the house in its glory days. So we set Act One back in 1941 with an engagement party going on.

"There's an air of promise still to the women's lives. It's the world of the privileged American upper crust you find in a play or movie like The Philadelphia Story.

Image copyright Scott Rylance
Image caption The complex mother and daughter relationship gave the musical's producers ample material of both comedy and despair

"Then Act Two is the 1970s and you see something more like what the Maysles brothers shot. But in London there will be a lot of people who don't know the documentary at all so the show has to work as drama in its own right.

"What Edith and Edie say on stage is basically new dialogue whereas in my lyrics I used actual quotations from the film."

At the Southwark Playhouse mother and daughter are played by Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell.

Watching the Maysles' film now is a little like watching a strange precursor to reality TV. The occupants of Grey Gardens play to camera shamelessly and at times Edie is highly flirtatious. Korie thinks the film shows a lifestyle that is "fascinating and voyeuristic and a bit of a trainwreck all at the same time".

Frankel acknowledges that when the film came out some people found it exploitative.

"But I've never found that true: the women were what they were and they were exhibitionists delighted to be on camera. Some said the Maysles were exploiting the Kennedy connection but in the film it's hardly mentioned.

Image copyright Scott Rylance
Image caption Lyricist Michael Korie: 'They were well-educated and knew what was happening - yet I also think there was a wilful disregard of the truth'

"Then in our research we found that Edie may have been engaged to Joseph Kennedy Jr, who was John F Kennedy's oldest brother and who was being groomed for the presidency," says Frankel.

"Had that marriage proceeded, Edie might even have become 'first lady' but the Bouviers' lives went awry and by the early 1970s Jackie Kennedy stepped in to finance enough work on Grey Gardens to at least stop the house falling down."

Joseph Kennedy died in a USAAF accident in England in 1944, during a secret trial of an early form of military drone.

Korie says a big part of the story is the two women's attitude to what was going on around them in a house built as a summer home but where in winter they almost froze.

"They were well-educated and knew what was happening - yet I also think there was a wilful disregard of the truth. It's a great bittersweet stew to write from.

"Edie says in the original film that it's awfully difficult to keep a line between the past and the present. At times our musical is a bit like a Tennessee Williams dream-play. I think in real life Long Island came to see Grey Gardens almost as a haunted house.

"There are elements of Grey Gardens which are extremely American. But there's also a universality to the relationship between a mother and her daughter.

"People in Britain will appreciate the mixture of love and resentment and envy there is between Edith and Edie. Not to mention you have this fantastic history in England of aristocrats running out of money totally and living in their mouldering country houses."

Grey Gardens is at the Southwark Playhouse in London until 6 February.

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