David Lewis shared with me his interesting experience with Little Edie.  He was Edie’s accompanist at Reno Sweeney and today is one of New York’s foremost musical directors and arrangers.  He recently released “Patti LuPone at Les Mouches,” a digitally restored recording of the iconic 1980 club act that was co-created and co-written by Lewis.  The CD is available for purchase online at Amazon.com.

ONSTAGE WITH “LITTLE” EDIE BEALE by DAVID LEWIS
Pianists and musical accompanists always try to form a musical as well as emotional collaboration with the singer with whom they are performing.  Nothing, however, could have prepared me for my first encounter with Edie Beale, with whom I was to create a cabaret act for her New York debut at the Greenwich Village club, Reno Sweeney, in 1977.

I did in fact have a few clues about Edie Beale.  For many years I had bicycled past Grey Gardens, the decrepit and decaying mansion in East Hampton surrounded by the most expensive real estate in the country.  I had seen the Maysles brothers’ documentary about “Little” Edie and her mother living in virtual squalor with their dreams and fantasies.  I knew that her famous relative, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, had financially saved the Beales and their home from eviction just before the death of “Big” Edie.  And as I had also accompanied and arranged for diverse personalities such as Diane Keaton, Joan Hackett, Holly Woodlawn and Butterfly McQueen at the club, I thought I would be able to handle and understand this intriguing woman.

Our first meeting was shocking and a bit disturbing.  She met me in a darkened village living room dressed completely in black with no makeup and an expressionless visage.  I could hardly get her to speak and she avoided eye-to-eye contact completely.  Desperate to continue, I tried to start a conversation about her cats, of which I knew she had many.  She finally looked at me and began a strange and muddled conversation graphically detailing feline sexual proclivities. The room suddenly seemed smaller and I was beginning to sense that either this woman was quite damaged or that she was testing me in some way.  I didn’t see how this could ever be presented on a stage.

It was then that I spotted on the piano a ragged stack of sheet music which looked as if it had spent one too many East Hampton winters by the ocean.  When I opened the music, I recognized songs written by the best of the era – George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Vincent Youmans, and Jerome Kern.  Edie told me that she knew all the lyrics to the songs and that her two favorites were Porter and Noel Coward.  A dialogue had finally begun between us through music, and we began to rehearse. If some of the pitches in higher registers were approximated at best, I decided to overlook them.  She seemed painfully vulnerable and I could only imagine the courage it had taken her to get this far.

     
Opening night at Reno Sweeney’s was packed with a few fashionistas, a few people from the theatre, and many of the very curious.  I sensed a strange, nervous vibe from the audience.  I knew they were trying to suppress their laughter in anticipation of an eccentric freak show.  I was unnerved and rushed back to the dressing room to find a very calm Edie putting the final touches to her makeup.  I resolved to do everything I could to prevent Edie from becoming a laughingstock and the evening from turning into a debacle.

 

As I stepped to the stage and played the overture, I could feel the tension building.  “Ladies and Gentleman, the cabaret debut of Edie Beale” was announced and Edie slowly stepped into the spotlight.  The audience gasped.  Through her original outfit, blazing red with a died-rust bouquet of silk leaves complimenting her turbaned face, and an inner beauty, she appeared to be either a soft romantic specter from the past, or a portend from the future.  Something very original was happening.  In a very soft, patrician voice she began the verse of “Tea For Two.”

I’m discontented with homes that are rented so I have invented my own.

With that first line, Edie Beale had captivated the audience, and had transported them into her own “invented” fantasy.  They were nothing short of spellbound.  During the question and answer section in the middle of the show, she convulsed the audience with her frankness and her slightly self-deprecating humor.  “What is your favorite department store?” “Mays!” “What do you think of television?” “It’s very good for national emergencies.” “What’s your opinion of pre-marital sex?” “I think it’s very economical.”

She answered all questions about the Kennedy’s and her romantic relationships, especially with Joe Kennedy, Jr.  She speculated that if she had married him, she would probably have become First Lady, not Jackie.  One night she spotted Jackie’s sister and also her cousin, Lee Radziwill, in the audience and asked Lee to stand up and acknowledge the crowd.  Lee nervously stood to the applause of the audience.  I looked at Edie and noticed a slight glimmer of satisfaction on her face.

At the end of the evening she sang what I felt was the high point of the show, Noel Cowards’ beautiful and tender song, “Zigeuner.”  The audience cheered her at the finale of the show and no one was laughing.  At the end of the week’s engagement, we toasted to her success.

I never saw her again.  She didn’t seem to have any friends or a social life. A possible future as a singer or performer wasn’t even brought up.  I was quite upset when I heard she had died in 2002 in Florida.  I only wished she could have seen and participated in her resurgence as a fashion and theatrical icon thanks to the musical “Grey Gardens” and the new Maysles documentary.  Even after 30 years, I still remember a beautiful otherworldly woman softly singing Noel Coward’s lyrics to a hushed audience:


All I ask of life is just to listen to the songs that you sing,
My spirit like a bird on the wing
Your melodies adoring — soaring,
Call to me with some barbaric tune,
Now you hold me in your power,
Play to me for just an hour,
Zigeuner!

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