Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Cat Ladies

It was sometime between 1972 and 1973. I had always wanted to go to East Hampton. Of course I had been to the working class beaches on Long Island closer to the city. But I had only read about The Hamptons.
So I got a job as a waitress for the summer at a place on Main Beach in East Hampton called the Sea Spray Inn. It was a grueling job, because they made us use old style large trays to service the tables. The staff lived in a two story Dickensonian shack behind the restaurant, something they called The Help House.
Early in the season it was cold and damp, and the huge restaurant smelled of damp and fish.
I didn't last the summer. I was fired for not wearing a bra, told I was too Greenwich Village.
But I was in love with The Hamptons. I had bought a junky beach bicylce, and rode up and down those towering hedge row lanes for hours and hours.
So I found another job, and crashed on some other kids' couch for the rest of the summer.

One of the places I stumbled upon was this ramshackle house on Lily Pond Lane, right on the ocean near Georgica Beach. It looked abandoned, and I loved to go inside abandoned houses, to poke around.
I pulled into the driveway on my bike, and straddled it for a long ten minutes, trying to feel the vibe of the house, like was it empty, were there critters in there, etc. I sang and hollered a couple of you-hoos. When I was convinced no one was living in the house, human or otherwise, I climbed off my bike.

"Hey you there! What are you doing here?!"
A woman's voice! I nearly peed myself.
I yelled back, that I was sorry to intrude, that I thought the house was abandoned and just wanted to explore.
"Does this look like an abandoned house?!" she screeched.
Why yes ma'm it does. I apologized again, and started to back my bike away from the house.
"Wait a minute!" she yelled.
And then she came out.
A crazy looking woman with a scarf tied on her head.
"I'm Valorie ma'm."
"I'm litte Edie and I live here with my mother."

We talked some more, and I commented on all the cats, that they must be huge cat lovers. You could smell cat pee from the road.

All that summer I visited little Edie. I didn't see her mother, because little Edie said her mother was bed ridden, but I heard her! She often yelled for little Edie to come in and do something, get something.
What did we talk about? I bitched about getting fired. Edie said I had great tits and should never wear a bra. We talked about being in show business. She sang and danced around. I told her I was a show business kid, and she would egg me on to sing and dance with her. I told her about this guy who played the piano at my new job, at a bar and restaurant called Stephan's Talkhouse in Amagansett. The guy played alot of show tunes, and was super sweet. His name was Peter Allen. I told her she should come and hang out there with me, and she laughed and said goodness no, she could never leave her mother alone for one minute.

The summer passed too quickly for me. I stayed on until after Labor Day. I often brought cat food for little Edie's cats, because they looked like two poor old ladies living in this shit hole. I asked them if they had enough to eat, that they better not to be eating cat food for Gods sake, that I'd bring them some groceries.
Near the time I was getting ready to go back to the city, I met the mother. She was out on the back deck, and little Edie introduced me. Mother looked like a witch, all crazy white hair flying. And she didn't smell very good either. She bossed little Edie around alot, and after a while I felt uncomfortable, and said my goodbyes. I asked little Edie if they stayed at the beach all winter, and she said where else would they go. I said God you must freeze your asses off. Little Edie said they stayed in bed for most of the winter, and they had their fur coats.
I gave her a scarf, and I gave the mother a hat, and said I'd see them next summer. I didn't get back to East Hampton until nearly ten years later, and by that time everything had changed.

I got a menial job at The Museum of Modern Art once I was back in the city. I started as a clerk typist in the Film Department, The Circulating Collection to be exact. I was low girl on the totem pole, hand maiden to the curators and egg heads. I liked the job well enough, if only to go to work at MOMA everyday. They also paid for my tutuion to film school, and I did advance my position.

One day one of the egg heads brought in a couple of hippie dippie guys in to meet me at my typewriter. They had just made a documentary about two old ladies in East Hampton.
I had often talked about the remarkable mother and daughter and their dilapidated cat house. Well those hippies turned out to be the Maysles brothers, and those ladies turned out to be in their movie Grey Gardens. They asked me alot of questions, and I kind of felt weird taliking about my friends. I told the brothers I hoped they didn't make the ladies look stupid and freakish in the movie. They assured me they loved them as much as I did.

Of course I found out all about Grey Gardens then, there was so much press. I felt kind of stupid that I didn't know that little Edie was Jackie O's cousin! Like many others I thought it odd that little Edie and her mother came from wealth and society. How could their family let them live that way? Of course I knew that little Edie was kooky, and the mother was senile, and you couldn't tell them what to do, but still, I would have sent a cleaning lady over there.

Now Grey Gardens is in the news again. HBO has a movie premiering this Saturday April 18. Drew Barrymore plays little Edie, and Jessica Lange plays her mother, co starring with that fabulous house.

Little Eddie sold Grey Gardens when her mother died. She sold it to Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee. Sadly there are no magazine photo spreads of the inside of the house. Sally Quinn purchased it from little Edie for $220,000, a steal of deal even back then. Little Edie sold it to Sally Quinn because Sally remarked on the beauty of the house.

I'm showing photos of the Quinn-Bradley home in Washington DC. It's how I imagine they would furnish Grey Gardens.

The premiere of the HBO movie happened a few days ago in East Hampton, and the party was held at Grey Gardens. I saw some photos on a site where you have to buy them from the photogrpaher, and they are mostly party people shots.

But he had a few shots he labeled "atmosphere" that gave you a glimpse of the interior of the house.

It was very plain, very under decorated. Still I'd love to style a photo shoot there.

The Bradleys tell a funny story about the house. A few years ago there was about ten days of rain in August in East Hampton. And guess what? The renovated house reeked of cat pee! They had to leave! Once the wood dried out again, it stopped smelling.

I feel so tender towards the two Edies and towards Grey Gardens. The summer I found them was my first summer love affair with East Hampton. And you never forget your first.

I always wanted to go back to that cat house.
By the time I bought my own little house in East Hampton, the ladies were gone, and the house was repaired.

But I swear you could still smell cat pee from Lily Pond Lane as you rode by on your bike.

I lived around the corner from a club called Reno Sweeney, and I saw a poster there after Grey Gardens the documentary came out, with little Edie headlining a cabaret act! I saw the poster after the fact, so I didn't get to see her. I really would have loved to see her show, and tell her I was sorry about her mother dying.


GinaLamour said...

I loved reading this story. Just fabulous. You were so blessed and lucky to have met two such eccentric women. I love women like that whether they are a bit mad or not :)
The house is incredible and the lady who owns it now is damn lucky.

MaryBeth said...

What an amazing story. It just shows what a brave person you are. I never would have spoken to Edie, I would have raced away on my bike.
I never heard of Grey Gardens until I saw Sally Quinn on TV walking through the house explaining the story of how she was going to fix the house, even though everyone told her to tear it down and start over. I never saw the play in NY but I will see the movie.

Karen said...

Oh Valorie - I was just reading about this in the Times yesterday. I will be at a wedding Saturday and I have no Tivo! Surely they will do a rerun or two. How wonderful for you that you knew them "before" they were discovered and had the chance to form your own relationship with them instead of reading about what everyone else thinks they were!
You are such a treasure trove of enchantment and wonder!

Linda in AZ * said...

*** As I started to drop you a note here, I happened to see the last line of Karen's comments (above), and YES! She got it 100% right~~~ you A-R-E, Valorie, you ARE!!!~~~ (And coming here is "like a box o' chocolates.......", & you know the REST of THAT sentence!).***** Oh, how I'd love to "do lunch" with you!!! What fun!!!
THANKS, kiddo! Linda *

Linda in AZ * said...

(And BTW, this was one of your most INTERESTING and DELIGHTFUL EVER!!!!!! Thanks again!!!)

Rebecca Corvese said...

Oh my gosh.... that is so great that you knew them! What characters they both were! I married into a family of characters too and it's been quite the experience. I can't wait to see the movie. I love both of those acresses (Drew and Jessica) and since the first trailer, I've been looking for its premiere.

Linda@ Lime in the Coconut said...

WHAT an alluring, compelling post. Some people are magnets for the Don Quixotes. I imagine it is your trust, faith and love of human nature.... and love of the obscure and beautiful.

You have stories to tell...and tell it like no other. I bow to you...

I loved this post. LOVED it.

Karen said...

Amazing story. Thanks for sharing! I can't wait to see the movie.

Linda Merrill said...

What a FUN story - you've lead the coolest life! Drew Barrymore (who's playing Little Edie in the HBO production) was on NPR tonight. Fascinating. Now, I have a question - they said on NPR that Jackie O fixed up the house when it became known the squalor that the Edie's were living in. But here it seems that It was fixed up by Sally Quinn. Do you know if Jackie O had a hand in anything?

Jan said...

Wonderful, brilliant post V.

carolineinbethesda said...

I saw a sneak preview of the HBO film last night.
Drew Barrymore's performance was amazing.
I smell Emmy!
Great post!

The Blushing Hostess said...

My reactions went like this: "eeeew," then "pretty", then "wow, I wasn't even born yet!"
:) be well, Vamp!

kathleen said...

This is such an intriguing post. What a fascinating experience. Thanks for sharing it.

ArchitectDesign™ said...

no way!!! I've loved grey gardens since I was in high school and discovered it and I've had screenings many times over the years for friends who had never heard of it. I've been looking forward to this movie this weekend on HBO for over a year now and am having a big party with a bunch of friends saturday to watch it! I can't wait! And now I have a 'connection' of sorts through you :-)

Rebecca said...

You are my new blog discovery. I will get to the end/beginning in a day or two.

I started to blog for the fun and because I always wanted to journal but could never keep it up for more than a week.

Have a fun life. I loved the Gray Garden connection. Life does turn in interesting directions.

In the past couple of weeks I have discovered the world of decorating blogging. What fun. I may do some myself on a new blog. But many of those doing it do it so well that I am a bit intimidated.

Unknown said...

Valorie, Thanks so much for that.How fun! The story of the Beales keeps growing (with a little Peter Allen thrown in).

P.s I loved the Tango scenes in Happy Go Lucky. I hope you have as much fun in yours.

Best regards,


Unknown said...

Such stories are the best! What a history you've got. Just think about that! You should write a book, but then since I don't know you , you maybe have....: )

Velvet and Linen said...

Thank you for sharing your story, Valorie.
I am not surprised that Little Edie opened up to you. Your openness and kind heart were the first things that I noticed about you. I'm sure Little Edie felt the same way. It takes a unique person to look past the "cat pee" and see the soul of a person.



Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Gracious mercy!! What a tale! How remarkable to have actually met them. And the House!! I have often wondered about the smell. How could they stand it? I do hope you will write all this down in detail for your personal archives. Truly wonderful, thanks so much for sharing!

Sparrow King said...

Thank you for sharing your story. A truly wonderful memory.
I think you are fortunate to have met such now iconic characters and they had an impact on you long before the documentry was even made.

My Notting Hill said...

What an incredible story and an interesting time in your life! I spent a summer in the Hamptons waitressing ('85) too but although my time was memorable - it's nowhere near as interesting as your story.

Anonymous said...

We're all standing at the backside of the tapestry of your life, Miz V. We tug on a knot and find it is attached to one heck of an adventure on the front. I also am not surprised you gained the trust of the Edies, as all of the positive sentiments expressed about you by the others are echoed by me. I saw the documentary several years ago, about the time the stage play came out. I won't even begin to try and explain what I thought about it, because there's an awful lot to think about such a story. But I am looking forward to the movie, and am pleased to hear that Drew Barrymore is playing Little Edie. I like DB's acting more all the time, and I'll bet she does a smashing job.

The Down East Dilettante said...

Interesting post. Actually, there has been a spread about Grey Gardens in the mags. House and Garden, about 20 years ago, I think. Sally Quinn wrote the article. Lots of pale blues and flowered chintz and wicker. I'll try to find the issue in the attic, where I know I have it, and send you the date.

Room Service ~ Decorating 101 said...

I will admit I rarely read long blog post. I am mostly looking at the pictures... but I so much enjoyed this post and read every word. I knew nothing of this interesting story and will now be going to see the movie. thanks Now I am off to google grey gardens!

ArchitectDesign™ said...

I hope you don't mind, I just posted about the movie and linked to your post here (and used 2 of your pictures). Thanks again for all of your 'grey gardens' work on your blog! So fascinating!

ALL THE BEST said...

Wow, wow, wow! What a great story. Thank you for sharing!!!

Unknown said...

This is incredible! It is amazing to think that you had a personal connection with them. Did you ever go inside of the house? I can only imagine how awful everything must have smelled. Thank you so much for sharing your story!!

Irina said...

Thank you for sharing your story! I loved to read it!!
Hong Kong

Renae Moore said...

Oh Valorie.. I love so much learning about people and where they have been and what makes them who they are. This is just a fabulous story...I want to email you because I knew Peter Allen for a short time before he died. Small world.
Interesting story, great post., thanks so very much for sharing.

Kwana said...

Oh my, what a wonderful story. I'm so happy reading you very touching and loving connection to little and Big Edit. Something about them pulls at my heart. I can somehow understand their strange dreaming crazy quality. Thanks so much for this.

###### said...

Great story..love that you offered details to us in your experience with them. You just never know who you run into sometimes...just never know.

Kwana said...

I wanted to let you know that I put a link from my blog post on Grey Gardens to this post I was just so touched by this story. Loved it.


alison giese Interiors said...

By far the week's best post about Grey Gardens - Thank you!

Courtney said...

this was such a fabulous read! And I love how the vivid memories and smells have stayed with you.

Summer is a Verb said...

Utterly fascinating...thank you so much!

My Galveston Cottage said...

I was just mesmerized with your story. What an experience! Thanks for sharing it. I did watch HBO the other evening and thought the actresses probably assumed the characters of the women pretty accurately and impressively. What did you think? cheers, -susan

Julia @ Hooked on Houses said...

Came over to look at your photos from Grey Gardens again and realized I hadn't seen this post yet. I had missed your stories of meeting the ladies! WOW. That is so amazing. Wish they had put YOU and your bike in the movie! :-)

Bonnie said...

Good heavens! I just re-read your whole post again (first time just kinda looked at the pics and skimmed it) and this time I was hanging on the edge of my seat reading word for word of your adventures with the Eddies! WOW!!!! Actually the story from your point of view would also make a great movie! And amazing how the filmmakers found you at MOCA! Wow.... I'm speechless with amazement!

erika said...

Oh my goodness. What an awesome story you have to tell. I am about to go crazy, no HBO and all this talk about Grey Gardens with no way for me to watch it. I'm headed to HBO.com to see if I can buy it... or maybe on iTunes.
What a wonderful, well-written post... I was mesmerized!

Brigitte said...

I am thrilled to find your post! I have seen the documentary and the HBO show. I love the Beales, they are both tragic and inspiring to me. How wonderful that you knew them. Thank you so much for sharing. oxoxo