It seems that most neighborhoods have a “haunted house” or at least an abandoned one with a sketchy past. Perhaps it is occupied by a recluse, or a cranky old man, or maybe this house is simply unloved and over-grown. But during Halloween this house becomes a dare. Who is brave enough to mount the porch with the missing steps? And would you eat that candy bar anyway? These houses become urban legends, with stories that grow exaggerated with each generation. But children love that slice of fear especially when there is a “No Trespassing” sign. An abandoned house entices exploration and promises a scary fright. Knee high grass and creaky stairs beckon to intruders while bordered up windows hide interior secrets.
I thought an abandoned miniature garden would make a fun fall project. September heat turned some of my plants a little crispy. Instead of tossing them, I saved them for my “Grey Gardens”. I think it has a sort of weathered elegance. Why is it abandoned? What drove the occupants away? Every house has a story to tell, some more than others. The “real” Grey Gardens certainly has a history that is unique and tragic.
Though not a haunted place, Grey Gardens is known for being famously decrepit. Its occupants were socialites Edith Bouvier Beale, aunt to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, and her daughter, “Little Edie”, first cousin to the former First Lady. The mother and daughter society outcasts lived in the once beautiful Grey Gardens for 50 years. But as their financial situation grew perilous, so did their home.
They made a sanctuary of one room where they slept and ate canned food. The remainder of the house was given over to marauding cats and inquisitive raccoons. Vines and branches invited themselves in through broken windows and missing floor boards. Rats danced in the decay and scampered across the piano now silent after years of entertainment.
The Beale ladies became isolated in this ravaged home. In 1972 this once inspired mansion in East Hampton, New York, named for its grey garden walls and the color of the mist from the sea, became under investigation from the health department. The mother and daughter faced eviction and the razing of their beloved home.
Enter Jacqueline Onassis and her sister, Lee Radziwill, who provided the finances to repair and clean out the condemned mess after much embarrassment. During this time a documentary by Albert and David Maysles filmed the fascinating Beale ladies telling their story in their own words. (You can rent this from your local library.)
After “Big Edie”, the mother, died in 1977, “Little Edie” sold the house and moved to Florida after a brief singing stint in New York City. She sold the house to Ben Bradlee, former Washington Post editor and his wife, Sally Quinn on condition that the house would not be torn down. True to their agreement, the house and grounds have been restored to their former grandeur. Now the sea mist winds through tended gardens as the sunlight gently washes across the grey garden walls.
Grey Gardens is restored and so is its reputation. It is no longer the scary house on the street that beckons trick or treaters to dare to ring the bell.
Do you have a frightful house in your neighborhood?