Little and Big Edie Beale are, of course, the inspiring stars of the Maysles brothers’ 1975 cult documentary Grey Gardens. As a 2006 Broadway show, 2009 television movie, and countless “inspired by” fashion collections and Vogue editorial features all attest, the real point of Grey Gardens is its mother and daughter song and dance team who burn like aggressive and affecting comets through every frame. And the Grey Gardens house itself – a fourteen-room estate in fancy, old East Hampton – is no more than the incidental scenery upon which the camera occasionally lingers.
In my book, however, the house is the real star of Grey Gardens. Even in multiple re-watchings, I find it hard to look away from the vistas of overgrown foliage and debris-filled vignettes. I can barely take in the noisy foreground, in which bath towels are worn as turbans and scarves as skirts. I’m too distracted by the silent, resilient scenery – the painted wainscoting and the open windows, piles of trash and leaves collecting at the foot of the stairs, and the raccoon eyes peeking through pee-stained floorboards.
Sally Quinn, who bought the house in 1979, says she still feels the magic and happiness of the Beales in Grey Gardens, all these years and renovations later. In a W Magazine interview from 2009, she says:
It *is* a magical place so I don’t feel the sadness there. I feel the magic they felt that kept them there. There’s something that makes you feel good being in the house.
And in fact I don’t doubt that there is happiness lingering there in Grey Gardens. Even amidst the true squalor shown in the film, you can sense there is a magic interred in the house: in the beams of the sun-drenched decks or the silent swing of darkened doors, rooting through those heaving, overgrown trees that shade the windows.
And I’m sure of this because, like cat pee, magic persists in a house long after its magical owners have departed. To be honest, I think homes are basically always haunted, for ill or for joy (though it’s possible I only think that because I live in Berlin, where it’s almost definitely true). I can’t help but think of all the wood and stone and plaster that make up our homes absorbing our breath, our long days alone, and our tapping, dance-routining feet. Our homes have the power to take up and store our happinesses, and they have the capacity to sponge up our saddnesses, too.
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I’ve had house spirits on my mind a lot these days because I recently moved to an old altbau apartment in Berlin. It sits at the top of a long, busy street that leads to a small park; the rooms are bright and big and empty. The solid interior doors close firmly with smooth brass handles and the floorboards have strange, creaking dips in them; the walls are tall and bare except for the painted-over decorative plaster.
To me, it is a new and empty house, but of course it is old and full of many vibrations. There was a lot of sage smudging that went on when I first moved in, but gradually I am feeling the transformation from house to home, and to my home in particular. As part of this process I spend endless amounts of time creeping myself out and thinking I see things in the hallway at night.
Anyway, what I mean to say with all of this is that I’ve been re-watching Grey Gardens recently, gathering inspiration on how to let the magical, happy spirit of a house be expressed. Or actually what I really mean to say that I’ve been re-watching Grey Gardens recently in order to learn how to decorate.
I’m not advocating letting your apartment fall into ruin (far from it: I often fantasize a redemptive mash-up of Martha Stewart in Grey Gardens in 1975, whipping everyone into shape). Rather, I would say that to decorate in the vein of Grey Gardens is simply to live by two slightly average principles:
The first is to have a different relationship to your belongings: namely, non-attachment. Stop styling your cupboards, start getting free. Grow everything wild. (In Grey Gardens there is no upkeep, only keeping).
The second is to live more flexibly, more magically, in your space. Sick days, lonely weekends, and general periods in which you don’t feel like seeing your friends or really doing much but ordering in and reading Wolf Hall, are ideal times for this. Because when you’re feverish or sullen or both and can’t be bothered to move much, you find that rooms can be infinitely expanded for various activities: putting on make-up, singing, crying, gardening, costuming, eating, dancing, parties for one (or, if you're feeling generous, two).
But, have comfort in this: whatever you do or don’t do at home, and however you decorate, your house is haunted by its spirits past and present. Your place is rich with vibrations you need only let exist. Live as above and they will provide a lot of atmosphere with absolutely no effort at all on your part. The past birthday celebrations and fights and misremembered song lyrics of everyone who was there before have been etched into the walls and windows and are sending out their own special magic into your home, for ever. Whether we are aware of it or not, our walls and floors and windows are speaking to themselves all day and forever in illegible, humming voices, for as long as they’re there, and sometimes even after.