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Much was made recently, particularly around the time of the Commonwealth games in Canada, of the canonisation of Leonard Cohen’s classic song “Hallelujah”. This may be sacreligious, but I came to the song via a circuitous route and didn’t even realise for some time that it was by Cohen. I first heard Rufus Wainwright’s version.

I hadn’t heard of Rufus before I heard his cover “One Man Guy”, an incredible song by his father, Loudon Wainwright III, which the openly gay Rufus brought a whole new meaning to. The song was also my first introduction to his sister Martha Wainwright, a star in her own right, when she sang backing vocals. Radio National was playing a radio tribute to Nick Hornby’s book 31 Songs, which in a rather self-explanatory way explored Hornby’s critical and personal responses to 31 random tracks of different eras and styles.

People will know
When they see this show
The kind of a guy I am
They’ll recognise just what I stand for
And what I just can’t stand
They’ll percieve what I believe in
And what I know is true
They’ll recognise that I’m a one man guy
Always was, through and through.
People meditate,
Hey, that’s just great
Tryin’ to find the inner you
People depend on
Family and friends
And other folks to pull them through
I don’t know why I’m a one man guy
Or why this is a one man show.
But these three cubic feet
Of bone and blood and meat
Are all I love and know
Cos I’m a one man guy in the morning
Same in the afternoon
A one man guy when the sun goes down
I whistle me a one man tune
One man guy, a one man guy
Only kinda guy to be
I’m a one man guy, I’m a one man guy
I’m a one man guy is me.
I’m gonna bathe
And shave
And dress myself
and eat solo every night
Unplug the phone,
Sleep alone,
Stay away out of sight.
Sure it’s kinda lonely
Yeah, it’s sorta sick
Being your own one and only
Is a selfish dirty trick.

From “One Man Guy” I discovered Rufus Wainwright’s album Poses, which included his quite faithful piano cover of “Hallelujah”. (Soon after I would happen upon Jeff Buckley’s idiosyncratic version of the song, perhaps the best known among my generation.) Poses was a fitting introduction to Rufus, swelling with cinematic strings and showtime choruses. Nestled mid-album was a song which I never quite understood but loved nonetheless, called “Grey Gardens”.

And with segue number four (or possibly five), we come to the real reason for this post. Because, again, sacreligious as it seems, I’ve only just discovered what I suspect will be a long-term obsession in the form of Grey Gardens and its unique inhabitants.

Here’s the original Grey Gardens trailer:

I’m criminally late to this phenomenon, most recently revived with Drew Barrymore’s 2009 HBO television movie of the same name, which I watched last night. It’s weird, I never thought much of Drew but between Donnie Darko and this I’m totally fan-girl crushing on her. For the uninitiated, Grey Gardens was the East Hampton estate of Little and Big Edie Beale Bouvier, the first cousin and aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis.

There they lived in a mansion near the sea, high-bred socialites who tuned out of the scene to be “artists”. “Big Edie” was a well-known singer whose ill-fated marriage turned out two sons and the gorgeous “Little Edie”, a frustrated dancer and actress. The major theme of the original documentary and 2009 dramatisation was Little Edie’s thwarted dreams of stardom, and the state of squalour the two eventually lived in in the dilapidated mansion. Overrun with feral cats and raccoons, their home was eventually raided in the early 1970s by Suffolk County authorities for health and safety issues. Only after a New York Magazine article by Gail Sheehy did their plight become viral and capture the attention of their well-to-do relatives.

After their story became news the documentary film-makers the Maysle brothers approached the Edies to make their seminal film Grey Gardens. Little Edie clearly saw the documentary as her opportunity to finally find stardom as a still-stunning middle-aged woman. The way the two women coquettishly played to the camera despite their surroundings – a five-foot pile of empty cans, opossum and raccoons and wild cats prowling the decrepit architecture crumbling around them – is testament to their eccentric socialite instincts. It’s the stuff of Tennessee Williams, these ill-fated bohemiennes beset by lost loves, misspent youth and the modern authorities.

I’m desperately keen to see the original doco and can only urge you to do the same. The film I watched was beautifully pitched, climaxing with a fight between Little and Big Edie on the eve of the documentary’s launch. Little Edie was desperate to attend the New York premiere of the Maysle’s film, but Big Edie taunted her that for all her talk about leaving Grey Gardens she’d never left her. There was a tumultous scene where Little Edie fled, leaving Big Edie wracked with sobs. Later they made up and Little Edie proudly wore the family wedding jewels to the premiere. Big Edie went on to die at Grey Gardens, which she refused to sell, before Little Edie moved around, settling in Florida before her death a few years ago. The HBO film closed with faux footage of Little Edie performing a cabaret in the East Village, a middle-aged woman still intoxicated by her own vitality in the 80s.

It got me thinking to the fraught relationships between daughters and mothers. The tension between “you wouldn’t let me leave here” and “you could have left any time, but you didn’t”. And for all the magnificence of these two wonderful women, I thought only of the generosity of my own mother. Who, for all her own difficulties, never stopped me from leaving, from making my own spectacular mistakes.

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