Beginning in the fall of 1971, reports -- first in the "National Enquirer" -- began appearing in the New York City press about a dilapidated mansion in an exclusive oceanfront section of East Hampton, the Long Island enclave some 114 miles from New York City. Grey Gardens was the Beale family's 28-room estate, then inhabited by Edith Bouvier Beale, Sr. ("Big Edie") and her 55-year-old daughter Edith, Jr. ("Little Edie"), plus a large number of cats and raccoons. Because Big Edie owned the property, her estranged husband had been powerless to sell it, as had her two sons, although they administered the small trust left to her after his death, which had by then run out. The media sensation -- first the tabloids, then the mainstream dailies and Gail Sheehy's article "Paradise Lost" in "New York Magazine" -- stemmed partly from the estate's extreme disrepair and its inhabitants' bizarre theatricality.
Neighbors complaining of the stench had led the Suffolk County Health Department to threaten eviction. Without running water or heat, the house had many windows broken, was overgrown with vines and underbrush, filthy and trash-filled. Big Edie was John "Blackjack" Bouvier's sister; his daughters, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill, were Little Edie's first cousins. In the summer of 1972, Mrs. Onassis visited Grey Gardens, where she had spent much time as a child, while she was visiting her sister, who was visiting Andy Warhol in Montauk. When Big Edie insisted she would not leave, her two nieces arranged for a massive cleaning and refurbishing. During this project, Mrs. Radziwill brought the brothers Albert and David Maysles around. The Maysles, already acclaimed for their Rolling Stones cinema v (c)rit (c) documentary "Gimme Shelter," hoped to film Lee and Jackie. A year later they showed up again -- Mrs. Onassis had "lost interest" in their movie -- asking to film Big and Little Edie.