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How Ben Bradlee and his wife restored Grey Gardens

The process was an "archeological expedition”

Grey Gardens estate Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Ben Bradlee, the former executive editor of the Washington Post who died in 2014 at age 93, has a long list of accomplishments to his name. He fought the federal government over the publication of the Pentagon Papers and oversaw the Post's exposure of the Watergate scandal, to name a few. A lesser-known, but still pretty amazing fact about Bradlee: He and his wife, journalist Sally Quinn, were the ones who restored East Hampton's famously decrepit Grey Gardens estate.

Built in 1897, Grey Gardens was made famous by the 1975 documentary of the same name starring then-owners Edith "Big Edie" Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, who were the aunt and first cousin, respectively, of former U.S. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. After the squalor and isolation they lived in was exposed in the early '70s, Jackie O made a famous visit to the house to clean it up, and to save her relatives from eviction.

The film, which took place a few years later, found the incorrigible Edies living still-impoverished lives in their once again filthy mansion. Flirting openly with the cameramen while handling dozens of indoor-outdoor cats in various stages of non-domestication, they became America's first and most fabulous cat ladies. The documentary was later adapted into an acclaimed Broadway musical, and after that, an HBO film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as the Edies.

Edith “Big Edie” sits in front of her portrait at Grey Gardens (1971)
Harry Benson via nymag.com

Bradlee and Quinn bought the house in 1979, after Big Edie's death, for $220K, promising to restore the estate (the sale forbade the razing of it, anyhow). The state of the home after they purchased it, documented in a 2009 photo essay in the New York Times, was aptly summarized by Quinn in a 1984 Architectural Digest piece:

"Inside, the cat smell was overpowering. The floor was part dirt. The ceiling was caving in. Raccoons peered at me through the rafters. Some twenty cats scurried as we entered each room. Still I thought it was the prettiest house I had ever seen."

On their first visit, Little Edie invited the couple in, pirouetted, and said "all it needs is a little paint."

Bradlee, who was a friend of the Kennedys, told Quinn she was out of her mind to want to buy the place, but she found herself "obsessed." Eventually he toured it once more with her, despite an extreme cat allergy. By that point, Edie's "coat of paint" line had become a kind of mantra for them. It took some coaxing, but Bradlee was on board.

Bradlee once reported finding 52 dead cats in the home after purchasing it, along with fixtures that were so rotted "you'd go into the living room, touch the wall, and it would move out 12 inches, as if it were on a hinge from the second floor." Quinn recalled to the New York Times that, on an early walkthrough, she touched a key on a grand piano in the living room and it collapsed and fell through the floor.

Other items weren't completely beyond saving, though. They found a "treasure trove" of furniture in the attic. Quinn describes the restoration of these pieces—the beds, sofas, lamps, chaises, and wicker chairs pictured in the AD photographs—as an "archeological expedition." The couple also had Big Edie's glass menagerie restored after finding it in a cabinet in one of the bedrooms.

Photo by Peter Vitale via Architectural Digest

Their restoration of the turn-of-the-century house, which involved gutting and replacing most of the materials, was done with the help of architect E. L. Futterman and builder Robert Langman. (During her visit, Jackie had the roof and some of the plumbing replaced.) The project lasted over a year. Quinn's "archeological expedition" comment also applies to how they restored the decorated the interior:

"I took bits of torn chintz and pieces of old slipcovers and found fabrics that had the same feeling of summer and beauty and unstudied style. I scratched the walls until the original paint came through, the old East Hampton blues and greens and soft pinks."

Hence the colors they chose for the walls, and the exultantly WASP-ish and chintz-filled appointment they settled upon.

Photo by Peter Vitale via Architectural Digest

Rehabilitating the gardens was also crucial to the couple. Quinn described the gardener they chose, Amagansett-based garden designer Victoria Fensterer, as someone who "understood what we wanted," which was for the gardens to be "sort of mysterious and slightly overgrown," as if in tribute to the way the Edies kept it.

Since completing the revamp of Grey Gardens, Bradlee and Quinn used the property as a summer home, and also rented it out. In the most recent set of rental photos, a Grey Gardens movie poster is displayed proudly. Nora Ephron, a friend of the couple, once remarked to the Times that "all the grace of the original house is exactly as it was."

Photo by Peter Vitale via Architectural Digest
Photo by Peter Vitale via Architectural Digest

This story was originally published on October 23, 2014. In February 2017, Grey Gardens went on the market for the first time since 1979. The original asking price was just under $20 million. In April, that price was chopped to just under $18 million. See the listing photos here.