Betty Buckley and Rachel York Return to ‘Grey Gardens’

By Patrick Pacheo


The Beales will be returning to the Hamptons this summer.

That is, Betty Buckley and Rachel York will be playing the indestructible mother and daughter duo of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale in a musical revival of “Grey Gardens” at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor from August 4 through August 30.

The theater is not very far from the actual East Hampton house, Grey Gardens, whose eccentric inhabitants are the subject of the musical based on a legendary 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles.

While there are many oddballs in that neck of the woods, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, also named Edith, became national figures by virtue of their bloodlines: they were the aunt and cousin, respectively, of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, the former First Lady. In 1972, The National Enquirer and New York Magazine had a field day when the two women were discovered living in squalor in a decaying mansion filled with fleas, raccoons, dozens of cats, both feral and domesticated, and yellowing memories of debutante balls and blue-blooded courtships.

When the Maysles brothers came calling a couple of years later, both Ediths turned on their considerable charming personas for the cameras, and the documentary furthered their fame. Even though the film chartered their bickering amid breaks for songs, visitors, and ice cream, what also came through was an admiration for the Beales’ Yankee staunchness and maverick embrace of life. They became such pop cultural icons that a decade later they received the musical theater treatment from director Michael Greif, writer Douglas Wright, and songwriters Michael Korie and Scott Frankel. The musical was nominated for 10 Tony Awards that season, and won three, two for its stars, Mary Louise Wilson and Christine Ebersole, and another for costume designer William Ivey Long. Little Edie’s inventive ensembles of head wraps, layered shirts, and hiked up skirts inspired designers from Isaac Mizrahi to Marc Jacobs.

The Beales were delighted with the documentary — Little Edie was booked into a New York City cabaret on the basis of it — but neither woman lived to see the musical. Big Edie died in 1977 and her daughter followed in 2002. David Maysles died in 1987 and Albert just last March.

But the theatrical Beales — who were also resurrected in an Emmy-winning 2009 HBO feature film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore — appear to be eternal.

And the actual Grey Gardens has long since been returned to its former glory. In 1979, the house was sold for $220,000 to Sally Quinn and her husband Ben Bradlee, the former Washington Post editor. In a 1984 article in Architectural Digest, Quinn remarked that the house was so decrepit that when she played a key on the piano, the instrument collapsed and fell through the floor. Bradlee maintained that 52 dead cats were discovered among the cavernous rooms of the mansion.

Nonetheless, those walls inspired a great deal of mirth and music, which will be on display at the Bay Street Theatre in the revival to be directed by Michael Wilson. The casting is inspired — Buckley is one of Broadway’s most accomplished actresses and York is not far behind. There is also something of an inside joke to Buckley playing the feline-loving Edith Beale. Buckley won a Tony Award  for creating the role of Grizabella in, what else, “Cats.”