Y’all, both my heart AND my Twitter feed exploded during last night’s episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, when a majority of the queens said they had never heard of Little Edie Bouvier. (That’s who Jinkx Monsoon chose to play in the Snatch Game.)
As Julianne Smolinski says in her excellent recap of this week’s episode: “Friends, I don’t want to live in a world where we all know a person famous for not washing her underpants and spelling her name with a dollar sign but not Edith Bouvier Beale.”
But in the clear light of day, I realize it’s not fair to be mad at someone for not knowing something. That just breeds shame. There are plenty of things I don’t know—even about my chosen fields of pop music, theatre, and Southern-inflected sass—and I’m sure that someone, somewhere would be horrified by my ignorance.
The problem last night wasn’t that queens didn’t know Little Edie: It’s that they made fun of Jinx Monsoon because she did know. Nothing makes you look stupider than being proud of your own ignorance.
Like… maybe you feel insecure because you don’t know something? I get that. But the grown-up response is to learn more, to be curious. Protecting your ego by making fun of people who know more than you is some serious schoolyard bullshit. (And don’t even get me started on mocking Jinkx because she’s funny, Alyssa. If you think the next drag superstar doesn’t need to be a comedian, then you haven’t paid attention to RuPaul’s career.)
Anyway: If you don’t know Little Edie Bouvier, that’s fine. This is a great time to learn! After all, she’s one of the most fascinating, heartbreaking queer icons in recent history.
Here are the basics: Edith Bouvier was a cousin of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, who was of course the glamorous and beloved first lady that set the template for Michelle Obama. The irony, though, is that Edith and her mother, Big Edie, were basically the inverse of Jackie: As classy as the first lady was, the Bouviers were disheveled, disgruntled, and disgraced. Eventually, they wound up living like shut-ins in Grey Gardens, their dilapidated mansion.
Yet Big and Little Edie were also weirdly noble as they lived in their cracked little world. Little Edie, especially, may have been plagued by disappointment, but she also developed a unique style and point of view. She is the personification of camp: all tragedy and confidence and utter disregard for what’s appropriate. That’s what makes her such a powerful gay icon. A lot of gay people know what it feels like to be pushed away from the glamorous center of things, so we have to make a kingdom of our own… even if we never forget the sting of rejection.
And how did gay people get to know Big and Little Edie? It all started with the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, which takes you directly into the Bouviers’ lives. And as it happens, the ENTIRE FILM is on YouTube. Take a look:
After the documentary came the 2006 Broadway musical, which earned Christine Ebersole a Tony Award for her transcendent performance. (She played Big Edie in the first act, which takes place when everything is great, and she played Little Edie in the second act, which zips ahead several decades to the dilapidated world from the documentary.)
The musical is one of the best I’ve seen since I became a theatre journalist in 2003. It’s delicate and powerful and heartbreaking. And its success was followed by the 2009 Grey Gardens movie on HBO, which starred Jessica Lange as Big Edie and a never-better Drew Barrymore as Little Edie.
There you go. That’s why all drag queens and all people should know who Little Edie is. She’s been inspiring incredible art for almost 40 years, and her life is a bizarre, unsettling saga that must be seen. As Julianne suggests in her recap, she may also be an uncomfortable example of mental illness being warped into entertainment, but that’s worth grappling with, too.
So the next time someone throws shade about Little Edie, run and tell that.