EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. — Grey Gardens gave up the last of its ghosts over the weekend.
The once-squalid home of the most notorious mother-daughter dyad since Tennessee Williams poured his own family into “The Glass Menagerie” went into contract last month, and its contents were unloaded in a three-day estate sale.
For decades, Grey Gardens has belonged to Sally Quinn, the journalist, and Ben Bradlee, the longtime executive editor of The Washington Post who died in 2014. But despite the media couple’s 1980s-era salon luster, the house drew much of its fame — or infamy — from earlier stewards.
Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her only daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale, aunt and cousin to Jacqueline Kennedy and otherwise known as Big and Little Edie, spent half a century there enveloped in gothic scurf, attended by an army of cats and raccoons, and surrounded by the decaying accouterments of the social class from which they had exiled themselves.
Their cloister was lovingly, appalling captured by Albert and David Maysles, the cinéma vérité filmmakers whose 1975 documentary about them became a cult classic. Afterward, Little Edie, with her upside-down outfits, florid, looping drawl and naïf-savant proclamations, emerged as a campy philosopher and gay idol.
Devotees began reciting her choicest aperçus — “They can get you in East Hampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday” is one treasure — which appeared on posters, T-shirts and other vehicles. The merchandising of Beale-abilia is still robust. Little Edie’s niece is selling Grey Gardens rosé; a #staunch T-shirt is $19.89 online; and a shower curtain printed with a photographic montage of both Edies and a raccoon, with a border of paté cans, is $60 on eBay. You can buy reproductions of Little Edie’s signature brooch at all prices.
Grey Gardens as an idea — of the tenderness between monster mothers and thwarted daughters; of atmospheric decay and upper-class fetishism; of plucky élan and gorgeous optimism — has waxed and waned over the years, gaining or leaking fuel as the times decried.
In 2006, “Grey Gardens,” the musical, opened on Broadway: “It’s a big house, the house we live in,” Christine Ebersole warbled, miming Little Edie’s flag dance, a particular favorite of YouTube drag queens. Three years later, “Grey Gardens,” the HBO movie, debuted on television; in it, Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore provide an overture and back story to the documentary, with the Maysles brothers appearing as characters.
The musical’s merits and flaws were being discussed with vigor and scholarship early on the morning of November 17, when devout fans had begun to line up in the predawn hours. They were there for mementos, to be sure, but more urgently to walk in the Beales’ footsteps.
“You should watch the HBO film before the documentary,” said Rob Younkers, 39, a fashion designer, stomping his feet in the cold and rubbing gloved hands together. “To ease you in, so you know what you’re in for.” Mr. Younkers, who said he’d seen the documentary 400 times, had flown in from Los Angeles with his partner, Joe Zee, 48, a fashion editor and producer formerly of Elle magazine.
“I’m the supportive spouse,” Mr. Zee said. “He’s the superfan.”
Mr. Younkers, whose blue baseball cap was pinned at the brim with a Little Edie brooch, recalled how on one of their first dates, Mr. Zee drove him by Grey Gardens, and when Mr. Zee photographed Kristen Wiig there, in a story for Elle in 2014, he brought Mr. Younkers as a surprise. “We enacted the flag dance,” Mr. Younkers said. “It was chilling.”
Behind him, Scotty Vanhoozier, 43, an I.T. specialist from Charlotte, N.C., showed off photographs of his license plate, stored on his phone, which reads, “STAUNCH,” a piquant Little Edie-ism; the Big and Little Edie dolls he’d had commissioned; and the many contemporary Beale portraits he’d bought over the years. The sale and this visit was a bucket-list item for him, said his partner, Ben Collins, 56. “I’m married to an obsessive collector,” he said
“We have the last letter Edie wrote,” Mr. Vanhoozier said, bought on eBay for $350. “She’s writing a friend about the sale of the house.”
Mr. Younkers said, “Don’t you just love her handwriting?”
“It’s beautiful,” Mr. Vanhoozier said.
Mr. Zee grinned at Mr. Vanhoozier. “You definitely win superfan,” he said.
When Ms. Quinn bought the house in 1979, she promised Little Edie that she wouldn’t tear it down. Big Edie had died in 1977, and would-be buyers all wanted to raze the place. “All it needs is a coat of paint,” Little Edie told her airily. The price tag was $220,000.
Mr. Bradlee, who was allergic to cats, was horrified by the house’s deep feline funk and its decrepitude, as were their friends. Carl Bernstein bet $100 they wouldn’t be able to make the place habitable by the next summer. “He had to pay up,” Ms. Quinn said.
Grey Gardens tourists never stopped stalking the place.
“Someone was always ringing the doorbell,” Ms. Quinn said. “Ben, much to my dismay, was always very welcoming. One day I was sitting in the sunroom, and he walks in with this couple. ‘This is Sven and Ingrid from Finland.’ I thought maybe he knew them. But he says, ‘They’ve come all the way from Finland and asked if they could have a tour.’ I had to read him the riot act afterward.”
John Perry-Miller, 18, a high school senior in Dallas, had flown up the night before so as to be on the line by 7 a.m. (The doors would open at 10.) He had an interview at American University in Washington, D.C., the next day, and was hoping to make a flight out of Islip by 1 p.m.
“They really lived on their own terms,” Mr. Perry-Miller said of the Beales. “I think they’re incredible role models. Their discourse, their arguments, always ended in mutual respect. They lived in the moment, which is a good thing and a bad thing. As Little Edie said, ‘It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.’”
“My parents said: ‘When are you ever going to get a chance to see Grey Gardens?’”
Tom Preston, an antiques dealer from Washington, D.C., said, “I consider it a cautionary tale and love story. They were mentally ill, but they were happy.”
Mr. Preston and David Bell, both 51, had arrived at 4 a.m., hoping to beat a crowd that didn’t materialize until well past dawn. They had bonded with two other early birds, Astrelle Johnquest, 36, a gallerist, and Josh Klinghoffer, 38, the guitarist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who had flown in from Los Angeles. They had arrived at 5:15, with a bag of snacks and fresh coffee they shared with Mr. Bell and Mr. Preston. “There is something kind of sacred here,” Mr. Bell said. “You feel bad taking things away.”
Mr. Klinghoffer said, “But we’ll give them a reverent shrine.”
Susan Wexler, a former fashion designer and executive whose company, Behind the Hedgerows, runs estate sales on the East End of Long Island, had hired a security guard for the night before the sale, and a security crew for the day, just in case there were unruly crowds. Her last blockbuster was in 2014, when she sold the contents of the writer Peter Matthiessen’s Sagaponack house. Hundreds had lined up along the driveway, and a few fights broke out.
“People were buying pebbles,” Ms. Wexler said. “Everyone wanted a piece of him.”
Ms. Wexler and her team, former colleagues from the fashion industry, prepared for the Grey Gardens sale with special care. They watched the documentary over and over, to absorb the Beale lore and to highlight pieces that appeared in the film, like a ladder-back chair with a rush seat you can see during Little Edie’s flag dance ($495), or a curio cabinet filled with tchotchkes ($695). Pricing was a challenge: what to charge for provenance like this? A small bergère chair, scuffed, stained and cat-scratched was priced at $495. “No extra charge for the cat pee,” Ms. Wexler said.
Ms. Quinn had restored most of the Beale-era items, which came with the house. Wooden and wicker furniture had been repainted; sofas and chairs reupholstered. Original pieces were marked with a gold star on their tags, which were stamped with Ms. Wexler’s logo and tied with twine. It had taken her three weeks to clear, catalog and stage the house. It shone on this chilly morning; the pale winter sun poured into the rooms.
Built in 1897, the airy Arts and Crafts style-house bears little resemblance to the gloomy fortress seen in the documentary, when the privet loomed like a green tidal wave. The stairs, however, were unmistakable. At the base sat a porcelain vase Ms. Wexler had filled with American flags.
By 9 a.m., there were about 50 people lining the driveway, shivering but cheerful despite the cold. Security guards handed out pale blue construction booties. Ms. Wexler’s crew capped the crowd inside at 40; as the checkout line swelled and slowed to a crawl, fewer folks were allowed in. By midday, those on the growing line outside had become restive. There were calls for blankets, and an elderly man nearly fainted.
Alex Rosenfield, 31, scored the scratched bergère chair, though he almost lost it on the staircase when he skipped a step in his eagerness and dropped it. An estate manager from New York City grabbed the ladder back chair. He was beaming. “Someone else had their hand on it, too,” he said, “but they released it without a fuss. Everyone is civil.”
Mr. Younkers had secured the curio cabinet and all its contents, 58 items, for a total of $1,051. “My heart is racing,” he said.
Mr. Vanhoozier was more subdued. “I got this box and an oil lamp,” he said ruefully. “And everybody got everything else, though Rob said he was going to be nice and give me something from the cabinet.”
Not everyone was there for Beale-abilia. Bill and Carol Snee bought a few Revere Ware saucepans for under $10. Their son, they said, had lately learned to cook and had ruined more than a few pans in their collection, they said, so they’ve been replenishing at local tag sales. Mr. Snee shook his head: “I had to go to Grey Gardens to buy Revere Ware.”
Mr. Perry-Miller bought a pair of Adirondack chairs ($295 each); an original slipcovered armchair ($350), and a set of plastic cups printed with the words “Grey Gardens” ($25). While waiting in line to pay, he did miss his flight, but was sanguine about the setback. “It was well worth it for those extra minutes at the sale,” he said later. “I felt like I got to really take my time and have my moment with the house that has meant so much to me for most of my life.”
He said his college interview seemed to go well, too.
Back in Los Angeles, Mr. Klinghoffer was also feeling philosophical. What made him fly across the country for an estate sale? he asked himself. He had bought iron garden furniture, and Mr. Bradlee’s desk ($675); Ms. Johnquest bought a Victorian wicker rocking chair ($395).
Grey Gardens, he wrote in text to me, was “an amazing study in potential and expectation. Living a certain way, or not. The notion of fame, infamy, happiness and misery. All of it. It’s all there in this story. Glory, heartbreak, love, sickness. It’s beautiful. It’s life.”
Little Edie died in 2002. She was 84 and living alone in a small apartment in Bal Harbour, Fla.
For his part, Mr. Younkers was overwhelmed by his get: the curio cabinet and all its tiny figures. He had worried that if the pieces were sold separately, “it would be as if a little family had been torn apart.”
Friday evening, he and Mr. Zee came back to pick up their purchases. The sun had set, and Ms. Wexler and her crew had turned off all the lights save one in the living room, an iron, Beale-era standing lamp with a pleated shade that Mr. Younkers had also bought ($175). In a tour of the gardens, he had found a single blooming pink rose and clipped it — with permission, he said.
Armed with this final memento, Mr. Younkers unplugged his lamp, and the room went dark.