Although Jacqueline Onassis is often seen about New York these evenings, she did not attend. “I told Jackie not to come because she would disturb the whole nightclub,” her cousin Edith Bouvier Beale II explains. “She said, ‘I know you’ll be very good.’ ”
At 60, Edie Beale is making her showbiz debut. “I wanted to do nightclub work all my life, but I was terrified of my father,” she confides. “And then my mother stood in the way.”
Edith and her mother came to public attention in 1971 when East Hampton, L.I. authorities denounced their 28-room seaside mansion as a health menace. Their prominent relatives were embarrassed again in 1976 when a documentary film, Grey Gardens (the name of the estate), created new sympathy for the recluses. For 25 years they had lived in squalor with an army of cats and raccoons, bickering and singing away their idle days.
Once upon a time Edie Beale was best of breed: a ravishing Bouvier debutante courted by Joe Kennedy Jr. and Howard Hughes. She and her younger cousins, Jackie and Lee (now Radzi-will), were the toasts of Eastern society. The Bouvier fortune was decimated in the Depression, but Jackie and Lee found wealthy husbands. Their divorced aunt and unmarried cousin were left to poverty-stricken independence.
When her mother died last winter at 81, Edie’s savings and the $5,000 she received for the film were wiped out by legal fees and inheritance taxes. She gave away 20 of her cats, lost 25 pounds, cleaned up the mansion and put it up for sale at $500,000. There were no takers. “You can’t have a nervous breakdown if you have to keep going,” Edie says.
Then a friend arranged her appearance at New York’s Reno Sweeney, a club where Diane Keaton, Captain & Tennille and Odetta have showcased their talents. Though her mother observed in Grey Gardens, “She sings so badly that she has to wiggle 20 times for every line to distract people,” Edie ignored the appraisal. “I’m doing this because I need the money,” she says.
The Greenwich Village nightspot holds 200; it was SRO. Edie was paid $7 a head and returns this week for 10 more performances. The crowd—many of them gay—cheered as she vamped uncertainly through Tea for Two, As Time Goes By and two songs she wrote herself. She padded her act to a half hour by answering written questions from the audience (What do you think of television? “It’s wonderful for national emergencies!”). Worried about her eccentricities, club owner Jim Maxcy warned Edie during rehearsal: “If you don’t behave, I’m going to make you wear your clothes right side up.”
Swathed in crimson and crowned with red-painted plastic leaves, Edie told the audience that she had made her costume from remnants of her mother’s wardrobe. (“I like blue much better.”)
When not performing, Edie lives at Grey Gardens. As she rambles alone through its once-elegant halls and rooms, she has visions of converting it into a nightclub—the best of both her worlds. “People think I’ve lived, and I haven’t,” she whispers. “It’s very cruel. I’m not old—I don’t know anything. I’m so immature.” If her life sounds like the lyrics to a cabaret song, well…sing it, Edie.