Edith Ewing Beale

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Edith Ewing Beale (Bouvier)

Death: February 05, 1977 (81)
Place of Burial: East Hampton, Suffolk, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of John Vernou Bouvier, II and Maude Frances Bouvier
Wife of Phelan Beale, Sr.
Mother of Edith Bouvier Beale; Phelan Beale, Jr. and Bouvier Beale
Sister of John Vernou Bouvier, III; William Sergeant Bouvier; Michelle Caroline Putnam; Maude Repellin Davis and J Lee Bouvier

Managed by: Noah Tutak
Last Updated:

About Edith Ewing Beale


Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (October 5, 1895 – February 5, 1977) was an American socialite and amateur singer, known for her eccentric lifestyle. She was a sister of John "Black Jack" Bouvier, the father of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Her life and relationship with her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale were highlighted in the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens.

Born in New Jersey in 1895, Edith Ewing Beale was a musical prodigy from a young age, however her father disapproved of her singing and her hopes to pursue a career with her music in the extreme and later left her destitute by disinherting her because of her non conformity to the strict Victorian standards of the time for so-called society women. Edith did manage to record several records. Her husband decided to pursue a life with a younger woman, to who he left everything, and other than child support and her home, left her nothing to live on or maintain the house with. After her divorce, Beale retained her home, the mansion known as Grey Gardens, where she lived with her beloved daughter "Little Edie", who also loved to sing and hoped to become an actress in New York, where she lived for many years. Finally Little Edie returned home to care for her ailing near bedridden mother and together they lived in aggregious poverty. The women were the focus of a 1975 film by the Maysles Brothers, who had initally been working with Lee Radziwill, documenting the lives of residents of Southampton. When Lee decided to drop out, the Maysles, who had found Big and Little Edie's life story worthy of what would later become a documentry classic, their lives in the decrepit mansion, overrun by cats and raccoons, unfolded, until their famous cousins were shamed by the media attention into helping pay the back taxes on the home, clean it and make it safe for habitation. Viewers were fascinated by their joie de vivre in spite of the neglect they had been subjected to. Their story has since been turned into a Broadway musical and a TV movie. Beale died in New York in 1977. Little Edie sold the family home after big Edie died with the caveat it not be demolished. Her home was later completely and lovingly restored by Washington Post editor Ben Crowninshield Bradlee and his wife Sally Quinn to its original elegance and is a popular landmark.

Early Life

Born Edith Ewing Bouvier on October 5, 1895, in Nutley, New Jersey, Edith Ewing Beale (best known as "Big Edie" or, simply, "Edie") was the aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and one of five children born to "Major" John Vernou Bouvier Jr. and his wife, Maude.

Edie's life was a study in contrasts. While her later years were marked by poverty, her childhood and early adult life had known nothing but affluence. Her paternal great uncle, Michael Charles (M.C.) Bouvier, made a fortune on Wall Street. Edie's father, an attorney and judge, followed in his uncle's footsteps. It didn't hurt that Edie's English-born mother was the daughter of a wealthy pulp merchant and paper producer, or that they were related to John C. David, another very wealthy Wall Street stockbroker.

By the age of 10, Edie was already known for her artistic talent and was considered to be somewhat of a singer/pianist prodigy. When her family relocated from Nutley to an expansive 24-room apartment on Park Avenue in Manhattan, Edie began frequenting the social scene. Her father resented the "wasted" time she spent attending to her voice and appearance.

Eccentric Lifestyle

In 1917, Edie married Phelan Beale, an attorney who would later make partner at his father-in-law's firm, and the couple settled into high-society life in Manhattan. Their first child, daughter Edie Bouvier Beal (nicknamed "Little Edie") was born that same year. Two sons, Phelan Jr. (b. 1920) and Bouvier (b. 1922), followed. Not long after the boys were born, Edie and Phelan purchased a spectacular 28-room mansion, now known as Grey Gardens, situated on a dead-end road, not far from the ocean.

Edie's husband, like her father, was not a fan of Edie's musical aspirations. But that hardly deterred her. Edie's preference was to bang away on the grand piano and sing, rather than venture to the cocktail parties her husband enjoyed attending. "Since she was likely to wear a sweater over her evening gown and discuss Christian Science, the family became less and less insistent that Big Edie come along," wrote Gail Sheehy, in an early 1970s profile of Edie and her daughter, for New York Magazine.

Edie's eccentricities also extended into her parenting. Claiming that her daughter had a respiratory illness, she pulled Little Edie out of school at the age 11 and kept the girl at her side for the next two years, bringing her along to movies and the theater on a regular basis.

By the mid-1930s, Phelan Beale had left Edie for a younger woman. The couple's eventual divorce led Edie to acquire Grey Gardens and some compensation for child support, but little else. To keep the household going, Edie leaned on her father for financial assistance and sold family heirlooms.


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Edith Ewing Beale's Timeline

October 5, 1895
November 7, 1917
June 16, 1920
New York, New York County, New York, United States
February 13, 1922
New York, New York County, New York, United States
February 5, 1977
Age 81
East Hampton, Suffolk, New York, United States