Essay - How I Fell in Love With Grey Gardens and Brought It Back to Life

By Sally Quinn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 16, 2009

It was in a cover story in New York magazine that I first became aware of Grey Gardens.

I'll never forget how appalled I was reading about the Beale women, Jackie Kennedy Onassis's aunt and first cousin, Big Edie and Little Edie, who are the subject of an HBO film premiering Saturday. They lived in a dilapidated ruin on Lily Pond Lane in East Hampton, N.Y., filled with raccoons and cats, sewage and garbage, that had been condemned by the sanitation department. There was minimal plumbing and electricity, there were holes in the roof, the gardens were so overgrown they reached the second-story windows and the back wall of the house flapped in the wind. It was so bad that when brothers Albert and David Maysles came to do the famous 1975 documentary about the house titled "Grey Gardens," they had to wear flea collars around their ankles to keep from being bitten. It was rumored that the house was haunted.

So you can imagine how excited I was when house-hunting the following summer in the Hamptons and the real estate agent mentioned Grey Gardens. Of course, buying it was unthinkable. But I was dying to see the inside, fleas or no fleas. I should have realized there might be a problem when the agent refused to go inside with me.

The house lived up to its billing. It was the most disgusting mess I had ever seen. I tripped over a cat skull walking in, the stench was beyond anything I had ever smelled, the floors were in such terrible condition that my foot went through one of the boards, and when I plunked on one of the keys of the piano, the whole thing collapsed.

It was also the most beautiful house I had ever seen. It had a grace and a charm that you rarely see in houses today: a lack of pretension, a feeling of openness and warmth, a luminous quality that made you want to stay forever despite everything. The rooms were beautifully proportioned; it was a happy house. Or could be. The elder Edie, Edith Beale, had died that year, and her daughter, also named Edith Beale, was forced to put the house on the market, even though Onassis and her sister, Lee Radziwill, had donated money to fix the roof and the plumbing. Little Edie was there to greet me, full of hope and expectations. She was horrified by all the other prospective buyers who wanted to tear down the house and build a new one. She had refused to sell to them. When she saw the look on my face, hers lit up. She began dancing and twirling around the living room, singing, "All it needs is a coat of paint." She didn't have to sell me. I was in love.

The real estate agent was astonished. It was the first time in her life she had tried to discourage anyone from buying a house. My friends were horrified. My husband, Ben Bradlee, a former executive editor of The Washington Post, is wildly allergic to cats and nearly collapsed after touring the house. He thought I was completely nuts.

We bought it. I was in heaven.

The first thing the contractor said was, "It would be a lot cheaper to tear it down and start all over than to restore it." Unthinkable. Besides, I had promised Little Edie. I had told her that she could either leave the house "broom clean" (ha!) or leave it exactly the way it was. I think the prospect of cleaning it up was too daunting for her, so she did what I had hoped and walked out leaving everything in it. I had no idea what I would find.

As it turned out, the attic was filled literally to the rafters, with broken but beautiful furniture, old wicker, antique tables, boxes of china and silver, trunks full of old letters, handmade lace baby pillows, figurines and crates of old books. It was like finding a shipwreck and discovering unimaginable treasures.

I was so overwhelmed and in such a state of excitement and agitation that I started smoking again. But discovering all these exquisite objects made the prospect of renovating and decorating so easy. It was all there. It just needed "a coat of paint."

We found the house at the end of August, we closed in November and I bet a friend a lot of money that we would be in it by the next summer. Then I went into a frenzy of finding fabrics and paint colors and antique fixtures and old stoves and wrought-iron staircases and lamps and beds. The amazing thing was that I had to buy very little furniture because so much of it had been left in the house. Scratching the walls, I uncovered original paint colors in soft pastels. The curtains in the living room were in shreds, but I salvaged enough of the hollyhock chintz to find others that were similar. I found craftsmen who would fix and polish the brass and silver, upholsterers who would redo the chaises and chairs, and refinishers, wicker people and seamstresses.

Then there was the garden, named by former owner Anna Gilman Hill, author of "Forty Years of Gardening." We had to take everyone's word that there was actually a garden there. Happily we found Hill's book and a cache of old photographs showing the garden as it originally was, surrounded by dunes, just a few yards from the sea. "It was truly a gray garden," Hill wrote in her book. "The soft gray of the dunes, cement walls and sea mists gave us our color scheme as well as our name." She allowed "only flowers in pale colors" inside the walls.

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