The artist Claude Cahun and the film Grey Gardens starring little and big Edie seem unlikely subjects for a comparison, but strangely I found myself thinking of the artist whilst watching the film in our film club. The following week we watched the re make dramatisation film starring Drew Barrimore and Jessica Lange also called Grey Gardens, which whilst based on the true story told more of the background to the two ladies and how they came to live in absolute poverty.
Claude Cahun lived in Jersey with her half sister in a lesbian relationship in the late 1930’s, and lived the isolated life of an artist exploring her modernist interpretation to the world around her. When the Nazi army invaded the island Claude’s lifestyle would single her out as the kind of women Hitler wanted to remove from society. They tolerated her though and she began to push her luck, posting leaflets trying to persuade the Nazi soldiers to rebel against their officers. Arrested and put on trial she was found guilty on two charges and sentenced to life imprisonment and firing squad. She defiantly replied, “which one do I do first?”
Big Edie in Grey Gardens fought her own battle with authority. Penniless her house had fallen into a terrible state. Fleas, wild animals and decades of rubbish made the house a health hazard not just for the women but the community. The local authority wanted to demolish the house and she defiantly refused to budge. The attention this caused ignited the community behind her and her daughter and their right to live their lives the way they wished.
In comparing the two pairs of women living thousands of miles apart there are a number of similarities. Both pairs lived in relative isolation and shunned interference. Both Claude and Little Edie were performers, the latter relishing the attention given her by the film crew, the former an exhibitionist who delighted in bathing nude in public. When the time came both pairs stood defiant against the authorities, Claude with the Nazi invasion, Big Edie with the public health department. Claude Cahun cropped her hair to the point that in some images of her she appears almost bald. Little Edie suffered from alopecia and lost all her hair forcing her to wear a scarf. Claude was in a lesbian relationship with her half sister where as Big and Little Edie’s mother and daughter relationship seemed also as intense. Both ‘couples’ closely depended and supported each other and drew from the relationship elements that they needed.