This restored 1897 shingle-clad East Hampton "cottage" known as Grey Gardens speaks of a quieter, less crowded, and less ostentatious era in the Hamptons. Future first lady Jacqueline Bouvier frolicked among its bushes and blooms as young girl visiting her relatives, the Beales.
However, Grey Gardens left a pungent impression in the 1975 documentary of the same name, when it was laid bare as the ramshackle home of Jackie O's eccentric aunt and cousin, Big Edie and Little Edie Beale. There, the two eccentric women passed their days in isolated squalor with around three dozen cats, a handful of raccoons in the attic, and zero cat litter boxes.
That infamously dilapidated version of Grey Gardens was left behind along with the 1970s. After the 1977 death of Big Edie, Little Edie sold the home with all of its contents (which included social registers, scrapbooks, photographs, letters, and Louis Vuitton trunks) for just $220,000—a bargain even then.
The owners are Washington Post "On Faith" columnist Sally Quinn and Benjamin C. Bradlee, the former executive editor of the Washington Post. The couple's primary residence is in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood, but they spend each August in the 10-bedroom, 6,000 square-foot home.
The rest of the year, Grey Gardens is available to rent, and it's now being offered for $125,000 from this coming Memorial Day through the end of July. The property's Corcoran listing agent, Gary DePersia, said that for the tony Georgica area, $125,000 is very reasonable, and he added that a recent off-season rent of the property worked out to about three grand a month. "You can't rent a studio in the city for that much."
Like "Grey Gardens" the cult hit documentary (and the Off Broadway play, and the 2009 HBO film), Grey Gardens the rental is not for everybody.
"It takes a certain type of person [to be a renter] because it's very comfortable, but not grand," Sally Quinn said. Faced with renovating years of decay and animal-inflicted damage, she says, "I wanted to keep the feeling that the house had in the '30s and have it look like an old East Hampton cottage. Anybody who wants a gym, screening room, marble entrance hall—this is not for them. It's not for Russian oligarchs."
Faced with such a daunting restoration, Quinn quotes her husband: "We threw money at it." Those bags of cash went toward new drywall, gutting and consolidating the kitchen into one room (there were several pantries and washrooms), and replacement of flooring. However, the molding and structure of the house were kept intact.
When Grey Gardens was ready for decoration, Quinn worked off of some fabric she found hanging in shreds in the living room, so the resulting dcor has an old-fashioned palette of chintzes and soft garden colors—pale greens, blues, and pinks. In addition, about 80 percent of the furnishings came with the house, such as two iron beds and (now re-covered) wicker chairs.
The titular gardens, hopelessly overgrown at the purchase time, were bulldozed, revealing a wall built by an Italian architect, and then replanted. Benjamin Bradlee wrote his memoir, "A Good Life," in the garden's one-room cottage.
"I always try to keep it just on the edge of looking overgrown," Quinn said. "I want that feeling of it being slightly wild and mysterious, and that's the way I want the house to feel. When you walk in you feel like it's a home. There's a place to flop down. It doesn't look like I hired the hot decorator in New York to come in. I don't like that look."
"There really is something magical," Quinn says, "sitting in the sunroom watching the sun go down in that garden and listening to the waves, you feel like you're in another century. We have houseguests, and we used to go out, but nobody ever wants to leave."
In addition to the magic and mystery, Quinn volunteered a detail especially unexpected for someone hoping to rent out a property: it's haunted. "There are two ghosts," she said, recounting waking up in her bedroom and seeing an apparition of turn-of-the-1900s resident Anna Gilman Hill. The other ghostly visitor is in Little Edie's former bedroom. "We've had guests who have said, 'I'm not sleeping in there.' Some people think it's a man, clomping around in boots. I'm pretty sure it's the sea captain [a rumored lover of Little Edie's]."
Quinn recounts the time Senator Barry Goldwater was staying in Little Edie's room, and in the morning, she discovered him sleeping on the sofa in the kitchen. "He said, 'There's a ghost in there.'" Fortunately for potential renters, the ghosts are benign.
Big Edie might have exerted some influence in saving Grey Gardens as well. Quinn recalls the day she went to close on buying the house. "I felt the presence of someone in the room, and there was this older woman standing there, who was close to the Beales. She said, 'I've got a message to you from Big Edie [who was dead two years at this point]. She wants you to have this house. You are the perfect person for this house because you will restore it. She will be watching over the restoration and everything's going to go perfectly.'" The prediction came true, according to Quinn, who said they were in Washington for most of the year-long restoration process, and the house was finished ahead of schedule and below the quoted cost.
So…about the legacy of those cats. Does it still smell like cat urine when it rains? "In one corner near the front door," Quinn says. "Ben always takes people over to the corner and makes them get down on their knees and smell the floor."