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The Great Grey Gardens Garage Sale: hoards flock to the house of Jackie Onassis’ notoriously eccentric relatives for a shop

The property located in East Hampton, New York, was once the home of the Beales, affectionately known as Little Edie and Big Edie

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 November, 2017, 6:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 November, 2017, 6:02am

Grey Gardens was the home of Jackie Onassis’s eccentric Beale relatives, notorious for letting the 6,000 sq ft home devolve into an overgrown dump. Then it was the estate of Ben Bradlee, the former executive editor of The Washington Post, and his wife, the journalist Sally Quinn.

Now it’s a madhouse – in the best possible way.

The East Hampton, New York, property, which was listed for US$18 million and recently sold for an undisclosed amount, is the scene of a bustling estate sale being held on Friday and over the weekend. That’s the polite word for a garage sale among the high rollers of Long Island’s East End, and it is drawing hundreds of buyers. Susan Wexler, whose Bridgehampton company, Behind the Hedgerows, is managing the sale, declared it an “impressive” turnout.

People started lining up around 4am and were admitted to the house 40 at a time. The first space on the walk-through was an elegant porch with a hammock. Then came a foyer with grey and white striped wallpaper and crown mouldings. The eager visitors moved through the immaculate house in a kind of civilised stampede, shod in blue, hospital-style booties that Wexler issued to keep the place clean. 

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When the doors opened a few minutes before 10am on Friday morning, the crowd of well coiffed Hamptonites rushed in, buzzing with excitement, eager to get inside from the cold and even more so to shop the collection of the notorious Beale family.

“They came in here like locusts,” Wexler joked. “But pretty orderly!” 

Throughout the day, the crowd often remarked on how civilised the event was. Only one person was escorted from the premises for unruly behaviour.

On offer were the ordinary things of daily life – drinking glasses for US$2, cloth napkins for US$6 – and a raft of items from the Beale days. There were wicker furniture that Quinn found in the attic, pieces reupholstered to salvage them from ruin, and a silver hand-held mirror. The mirror appears in the 1975 documentary that immortalised the Beales, affectionately known as Little Edie and Big Edie, and the outrageous clutter in which they nested. Each item bore a little beige tag, with a gold sticker for pieces from the old days.

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“There’s a good deal of original stuff, plus a lot of possessions from Sally and Ben, too,” said Wexler. Though the house is no longer for sale, she had flagged certain rooms for shoppers. “We indicate one room where the Beales stayed after they trashed the rest of the house,” she said. “One room is reported to be haunted by the original owner and the sea captain lover of Big Edie.” 

Next to Bradlee’s desk, at US$675, was a convertible sofa for US$225. Items showed their age, especially those from the Beale years, with little dings in mirror frames, cracks in a desktop, and rust on the steel beds where the Edies dreamed their dreams. Four frayed pillows bordered in lace were snapped up for US$45 to US$75 apiece. 

Preparations for the sale began nearly a month ago, when Quinn, widowed in 2014, brought in Wexler. There was a lot to go through. Edith Bouvier Beale and her mother, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, had lived there for years. The Suffolk County Health Department raided the house in 1971 and found such horrors that it threatened to evict the charming pack rats. Jackie footed the bill for a massive scouring. Quinn and Bradlee bought Grey Gardens in 1979 for US$220,000 from Little Edie and restored the estate to its original grandeur. The downfall of both the home and the Ediths was chronicled in the documentary and later became the subject of a film and a musical. Wexler priced everything to move, at US$1 to US$795. 

The early shoppers, some of whom arrived before dawn, were hell-bent on taking home a piece of memorabilia. The more casual shoppers arrived later, breezing through the line in about an hour. No matter their shopping goals, the crowd at Grey Gardens was as interested in seeing the home as they were in seeing the sales inventory. Some even admitted to driving slowly past the house in the past because they so admired it.  

Betty and Maryann Dankowski, a mother daughter duo from East Hampton, attended the sale not just to shop; they have long been fascinated by the lore surrounding the house. East Hampton natives, the elder Dankowski remembers a young little Edie strolling about town, and a relative was once summoned to the home to fix a television while the Beales still owned it. This was their first opportunity to see inside the house. “If walls could talk!,” Betty said.

Drew B. James and Lisa Bettencourt drove from New York City on Thursday evening, and both described themselves as enormous fans of Grey Gardens, the documentary.

“I want to lick the walls, touch the floor!,” exclaimed James, who had cleared his schedule to attend the sale. Neither were on the hunt for anything in particular. “I just want a tchotchke from Grey Gardens,” Bettencourt said. 

Alex Rosenfield, an lawyer from New York City who attended the sale in pink velvet slippers, bought a US$495 chair owned by the Beales. It bore the claw marks of their many cats and Rosenfield, who frequents East Hampton, was unsure where he might keep it. He described his purchase as “sort of impulsive”, and said he initially sought to attend the sale to see the house. “It’s beautiful,” he said.

Items both the price and size of what Rosenfield bought were scarce. More common were household goods owned by Bradlee and Quinn. In one corner, there was a pile of home phones, with each one going for US$5, mens hats sold for US$2 each, and an Xbox sold for US$25.

Come afternoon, the sale had been nearly picked clean, as shoppers carried rolls of wallpaper, trinkets and linens to the lengthy cash register line. Wexler, the organiser, said so many items sold that she had to consolidate the remains on fewer tables. Despite the high volume of sales, enough items were left over that the event would continue on through the weekend as planned, she added.