My best friend Tracey and I have been fans of the film Grey Gardens for years. Grey Gardens is a 1975 American documentary film that depicts the everyday lives of two reclusive, formerly upper class women, a mother and daughter both named Edith Beale, who lived in poverty at Grey Gardens, a derelict mansion at 3 West End Road in the wealthy Georgica Pond neighborhood of East Hampton, New York. Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (1895–1977), known as “Big Edie”, and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale (1917–2002), known as “Little Edie”, were the aunt and the first cousin, respectively, of former US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The two women lived together at the Grey Gardens estate for decades with limited funds in increasing squalor and isolation.
I had envisioned shooting Tracey as Little Edie for in front of the decaying house in Seven Mile Ford Virginia called Herondon. The former residents of Herondon, Lucy Crockett and her mother Nelly, lived in their giant decaying mansion for many years like Big and Little Edie in Grey Gardens.
Lucy Crockett’s Home, Herondon (Grey Gardens of Appalachia)
Lucy Crockett “once wrote a letter to the local newspaper editor, detailing her attempts to ‘keep heating costs down.’ She said that the ‘vast house, with its two-foot thick walls, harbored the cold, penetratingly.’ She and her mother had applied ‘an entirely new approach to indoor living. Or, perhaps, it [was] an old one, reinstated.’
Her letter says, ‘I have a cherished parent, nearly 100 years old. In this room, where we are, the temperature is now 41 degrees. I have no heat on in this house whatever. Yet, outside, in the sun, it is 24 degrees. We thrive! How do we do it? Well, we’re both old enough to remember other days, other ways, layers upon layers of light-weight clothing, for instance, of finely woven pure wool, preferably, plus, for the sedentary, hot water containers, held in the lap, even worn inside the clothing.
‘We use no heat in this house other than electric heaters turned on minimally at night in my mother’s suite, and an open fire, which we enjoy in full evening dress in our library every single night!'” (Quote from String of Pearls: Lucy Crockett at home at Herndon)
Shooting at Herondon
Once Tracey found a fur coat at a consignment shop in Chilhowie, Virginia for six dollars, the rest was easy. She just needed lipstick and something black wrapped around her head. No one is allowed on the property of the crumbling house, so parking on Route 81 and climbing down the ditch was the nearest we were going to get. We shot the photos the day after Thanksgiving around 4:45. The perfect amount of clean golden light was still pouring over the mountains but not creating shadows. My friend Ron, the victim of many crazy photo shoots, stood by the car on Interstate 81 in case someone needed to explain what we were doing to the police. But the shoot was fast and we escaped unscathed.