Jackie Kennedy’s aunt and cousin came from a wealthy family and grew up in the lap of luxury. Eventually, however, it all came crashing down in a spectacular fall from grace. And the First Lady’s relatives would go on to become subjects of fascination because of their unusual lifestyles.
Born by the name of Jacqueline Lee Bouvier on July 28, 1929, Jackie Kennedy originally came from Southampton, New York. Her mother worked with horses, while her father was a successful share broker. Jackie herself went to Vassar College before transferring to George Washington University, where she achieved a degree in French literature in 1951.
Having completing her studies, Jackie obtained a job interviewing and photographing inhabitants of Washington. But it was one year after her graduation that everything changed. You see, in May 1952 Jackie attended a dinner party where she met John F. Kennedy, a congressman who had grown up in Massachusetts.
Romance quickly blossomed, and on September 12, 1953, Jackie Bouvier and John F. Kennedy exchanged vows in Newport, Rhode Island, joined by over 800 guests. Then – after Jackie had sadly suffered a stillbirth and a miscarriage – the couple welcomed their daughter Caroline into the world four years later. And following her husband’s announcement that he was running for president in 1960, Jackie diligently campaigned for him.
On November 8, 1960, Kennedy narrowly beat opponent Richard Nixon to the presidency. Then less than three weeks after that, Jackie delivered their son, John F. Kennedy Jr. The couple later had a son named Patrick, too, but he tragically died at just two days old following a premature birth.
But what about the wider Kennedy clan? President JFK was, of course, not the first one of his family to be involved in politics. Indeed, at least one of their members was in public office at any given time over 64 consecutive years. But such status has arguably come at a price for the Kennedys, whom many people argue are victims of a curse – due to the multiple misfortunes that have befallen them.
Surely the most memorable of the tragedies linked to what has been dubbed the “Kennedy curse” occurred in 1963, when JFK was assassinated. The President was infamously killed by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas, and Jackie was of course in the car with him at the time. As First Lady, she had spent much of her efforts restoring the White House, making it almost worthy of a museum. And yet her time there was tragically cut short.
Following her husband’s death, Jackie Kennedy largely withdrew from the public eye. She went on to wed Aristotle Onassis, a Greek businessman, in 1968 – but just seven years later he, too, died. And JFK’s younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy, an attorney general-turned-senator, was also assassinated in 1968.
Compounding the tragedy, two more of JFK’s siblings – Joseph and sister Kathleen – were both killed in separate plane crashes. And John’s son JFK Jr. and his wife Carolyn Bessette died similarly when their plane – which JFK Jr. was piloting at the time – plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean. On top of that, Robert F. Kennedy’s sons David and Michael also died prematurely – as a result of an overdose and a skiing accident, respectively.
The Kennedys, however, are not the only family with a gloomy history. Jackie – who, following her second marriage, took the surname Onassis – had an aunt and a cousin who incidentally also suffered epic downfalls. And the pair became notorious as a result.
Born into a wealthy family on October 5, 1895, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale – Jackie’s aunt – came from Nutley, New Jersey. Her father – Jackie’s paternal grandfather – was an attorney before going on to become a judge. And Big Edie, as she would later come to be known, herself enjoyed music and theater.
So, when the family relocated to New York, Big Edie wasted no time in getting stuck into the social milieu. When she got married in 1917, for example, it was an elaborate affair. She tied the knot with Phelan Beale, an attorney and business partner of her father’s from Alabama.
Big Edie and her husband subsequently had three children together: Edith Jr. – also known as Little Edie – Phelan Jr. and Bouvier. And in the early 1920s, the married couple bought Grey Gardens – a massive oceanfront house with 28 rooms in East Hampton, Long Island.
It was there at Grey Gardens that artistic Big Edie began to embrace her eccentric side. For one thing, she stood out because she refused to dress in a manner that matched the other residents of the East Hampton area. Big Edie followed her dream of becoming a musician, too, attempting to master her operatic voice and piano skills.
And while Big Edie performed at modest events, she seemingly had no desire to fit in with or please others either. She rejected the inclusion of her name in the Social Register, for instance, and her husband reportedly began to feel humiliated by her.
Eventually, in 1934, Beale left Big Edie. Then 12 years later, he filed for divorce from Mexico by way of a telegram. And although Big Edie was given Grey Gardens as well as child support, she didn’t receive any alimony payments from her ex-husband.
Meanwhile, Little Edie – Jackie Kennedy’s cousin – was making her own mark on society. The first of John Vernou Bouvier Jr.’s ten grandchildren, Little Edie came into the world on November 7, 1917, in Manhattan, New York. Then, following private schooling, the socialite attended finishing school and made her appearance as a debutante.
Considered naturally beautiful, the younger Edith reportedly attracted plenty of suitors. And in his book, Bouviers: Portrait of an American Family, her cousin John Davis went as far as to claim that her allure surpassed “even the dark charm of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.” Little Edie tried out modeling, too – something of which her father apparently did not approve.
According to reports, J. Paul Getty and Joe Kennedy Jr. both proposed to Little Edie, while she is also believed to have had relationships with Howard Hughes and onetime Secretary of Interior Julius Krug – who had a wife at the time. Yet it has been claimed that her mother, Big Edie, would ward off potential partners for her daughter because she herself didn’t want to end up alone.
Then in 1952 it looked as though Little Edie’s dreams of becoming a star might have been about to turn into a reality. Apparently, Broadway producer Max Gordon believed she had talent, and she was asked to try out for the Theatre Guild. It was, though, an opportunity that the younger Edith would have to miss. But why?
Well, that summer, Big Edie informed her daughter that she would need to return to live at Grey Gardens. She was reportedly unwell, you see, and no longer had the funds to provide for Little Edie in New York. In fact, Big Edie’s fortunes had drastically changed a few years prior.
After Big Edie’s husband had left her back in 1934, her father had provided her with $3,500 annually to help maintain her Hamptons mansion. However, the two had an argument in 1942 following her son Bouvier’s wedding. Eccentric Big Edie had apparently shown up late and dressed as an opera singer – and her father was furious.
Just two days later, then, Big Edie’s father altered his will – and thus her inheritance. This meant that she would receive only $65,000 of his $825,000 fortune. And without sufficient money to sustain their glamorous lifestyles, the two Ediths’ worlds soon began to slip into disarray.
So it was that although mother and daughter sold their possessions in a bid to muster some money, their once-stunning mansion nonetheless became squalid. As a result, neighbors grew frustrated and called the police, who raided the home in 1971 and found that it broke multiple ordinances. After that, Big Edie feared that the estate would be taken from her and barely ventured from it.
Big Edie and Little Edie also reportedly shared their home with multiple cats – estimates have been as high as 300 – as well as opossums and raccoons. And when health inspectors arrived, they found human waste in the bedrooms and a stack of empty cans that reached five feet high in the dining room. Former handyman Jerry Torre explained that the pair couldn’t afford the private sanitation in East Hampton.
In a 2018 interview with Fox News, Torre also remembered the moment when Jackie Kennedy Onassis had seen Grey Gardens for herself. “She had her round, dark glasses concealing her face,” he said. “She took off her glasses in disbelief. I watched her face as she pondered over what she was looking at.”
Meanwhile, Jackie’s personal assistant, Kathy McKeon, recalled the time when she had taken a care package to the house at her boss’ instruction. “Several years after Madam married Onassis, she came to me one day with a list of things to go buy at Gimbels,” McKeon wrote in the book Jackie’s Girl. “The list was long, full of bed linens, comforters, towels and other household items. Mostly things to stay warm.”
And of course, because of the Ediths’ connections to Jackie, the police raid that they’d had inevitably turned into a major media story – and Big Edie and her daughter faced eviction. Fortunately, though, the women ultimately managed to avoid losing their home – albeit with a little help from their famous family.
Together, Jackie and her younger sister, Lee Radziwill, reportedly contributed $30,000 towards cleaning up and renovating Grey Gardens – as well as providing an income for their aunt and cousin, who had exhausted their Bouvier trust fund. The benefactresses used part of the sum to pay off some taxes that were owed, too.
Around the same time, meanwhile, Jackie and Lee had been working with filmmaker brothers Albert and David Maysles on a movie about their lives. And when interviewing the two Ediths for the project, the filmmakers became utterly fascinated by their unorthodox existences. So it transpired that while Jackie and Lee’s movie never came to fruition, Albert and David decided to create a documentary about the two Ediths instead.
The film, entitled Grey Gardens, was released in 1975 and lifted the lid on the surprising lives of Jackie’s aunt and cousin and their unusual relationship. One scene, for example, shows Little Edie leaving out cat treats for the raccoons, declaring, “I’ve been a subterranean prisoner here for 20 years.” Then, at another point, Big Edie tells her, “You’ve had enough fun in your life.”
Made up of monologues from both Ediths, the documentary became a cult favorite, particularly as far as Little Edie’s style was concerned. In fact, Grey Gardens has inspired many fashion shoots, and celebrity fans have apparently included Greta Garbo and Calvin Klein.
That said, upon the documentary’s release, some people criticized it as being exploitative for showing Big Edie and Little Edie in such an intrusive manner. Big Edie seemingly didn’t feel the same way, mind you. In 1976 she told an interviewer that the filmmakers were “very nice people.”
And while Big Edie and her daughter were never paid for the documentary, they seem to have benefited from the film in other ways. The former, for instance, once said, “[Grey Gardens] is the greatest thing that ever happened to me in my old age. You know, I’ll be 81 in October. Nobody else wanted to take my picture. I’m thrilled.”
In 1977, having apparently remained a recluse since the release of Grey Gardens, Big Edie passed away at the age of 81. It seems that one year before her death, she’d had a fall that in turn had resulted in her declining health. But what about Little Edie?
Well, for two more years, the bereaved daughter continued to live at Grey Gardens. Then, however, she sold the property for $220,000 – and the new owners, journalists Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn, reportedly agreed not to demolish the house. Meanwhile, shortly after her mother’s death, she’d also had a spell in the spotlight with eight cabaret performances at the Paradise Room in New York.
Jackie, for her part, had savored a successful career following the death of her husbands. Specifically, she’d worked as an editor at Viking Press and then Doubleday – right up until her passing in 1994 at the age of 64. She was buried directly beside President Kennedy, and the couple are survived by their daughter Caroline – an author and attorney.
Meanwhile, Little Edie eventually settled in Florida in 1977, living off her modest savings. And it was in Bal Harbour, FL, that she was found dead in January 2002 at the age of 84. The onetime socialite is thought to have passed away five days before her body was discovered. Her two brothers had died previously.
Today, then, despite the fact that the Ediths are no longer with us, their memories live on. Grey Gardens went on to inspire a Broadway musical and an HBO movie, the latter starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. Meanwhile, the storied estate was sold again in December 2017, this time for $15.5 million. And while the couple who bought the iconic home have remained anonymous, the estate agent who dealt with the sale confirmed to WWD that they were intending to fix it up.
Tony Maietta, who co-wrote a book about the Ediths with Jerry Torre, says that they will be remembered for living life on their terms – no matter what anyone else thought of them. “They refused to live a life that was a lie,” he told Fox News in 2018. “Even though they were living in squalor, to them they didn’t see that. The women just felt like they could finally do what they want. They weren’t forced to be debutantes and society matrons.”