The Unraveling Lives of the Rich and Famous

Audiences are perpetually fascinated by stories about the glamorous lives of the real-life rich.

When over-the-top affluence fails to cushion an individual from a descent into madness, the resulting tales often prove even more compelling.

"Grey Gardens," the new musical transfer from off-Broadway currently in residence at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre, is a prime example of the always-intriguing rich-but-crazy biographical genre.

In 1975, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis' sister, Lee Radziwill, invited documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles to create a movie about Radziwill and her family, the aristocratic, high-society Bouvier clan.

The Maysles brothers' research eventually led them to Jackie and Lee's eccentric aunt and first cousin, 81-year-old Edith Bouvier Beale ("Big Edie") and Edith's 58-year-old daughter, "Little Edie."

In their heyday, Edith and Little Edie reigned as fashionable and elegant society beauties.

But then was not now, and when the Maysleses encountered them, the mother and daughter, their 58 cats, and an occasional raccoon visitor were living in squalor in the Bouvier family beach house, a decaying, 28-room mansion known as Grey Gardens in East Hampton, Long Island.

Reflecting the madness of its inhabitants, the house was littered with five-foot-high mounds of garbage, running water flowed only from the faucets in the kitchen sink, and the toilets had ceased to function, leading Edith and Little Edie to use a bedroom as a latrine.

One thousand large bags of garbage would eventually be extracted from the premises.

Grey Gardens also had a severe flea infestation, forcing the Maysles brothers to wear flea collars around their ankles during filming.

Seemingly oblivious to the wretched living conditions and longing for show-business careers, Edith and Little Edie proved more than ready for their close-up.

While Edith trilled romantic songs of yesteryear in a slightly wobbly, but still rich voice; boiled corn for everyone on a Sterno stove on her bed; and berated her daughter for a variety of transgressions, Little Edie gleefully modeled her distinctive wardrobe, featuring black fishnet stockings, high heels, daringly short skirts, and turbans fashioned from towels, sweaters and old drapes.

Little Edie also performed her "famous" Virginia Military Institute dance.

Watching them in action, it was clear that mother and daughter had never stopped believing their Big Chance and Big Romance were just around the corner.

As hilarious as it is heartbreaking, the Maysleses' documentary remains one of the 25 most popular cult films of all time.

To transform this exotic material into a stage musical, book author Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel, and lyricist Michael Korie set the first act in 1941, allowing audiences to see mother and daughter at their prime.

The second act jumps forward to 1973 and sticks closely to the movie.

The limited off-Broadway run of "Grey Gardens" was entirely sold out before its first performance, provoking three extensions.

Even though some reviews found fault with the quality of the writing, Christine Ebersole, who portrays Edith in the first act and Little Edie in the second act, was hailed for delivering "one of the most gorgeous" performances "ever to grace a musical."

Prior to its official opening on Broadway, "Grey Gardens" had drawn audiences averaging around 85 percent capacity.

The drawing power of the show's popularity reflects an ongoing fascination with the Beales and their fierce independence and refusal to confirm, accompanied by an all-American hunger for celebrity.

That they belonged to America's version of royalty, and nevertheless, fell from grace provides additional fuel for onlookers.

Ultimately, Edith and Little Edie also reflect the best and worst about the mother-daughter relationship and its mix of love, rage and co-dependence.

The Beales have often been compared to Homer and Langley Collyer, the educated, wealthy, aristocratic brothers who were the subjects of Richard Greenburg's play, "The Dazzle."

Suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder and disposophobia, a fear of throwing anything away that eventually became known as Collyer Brothers Syndrome, Homer and Langley filled their Upper Fifth Avenue mansion with 136 tons of junk.

Of all the subjects that fit comfortably into the rich-but-crazy genre, Howard Hughes reigns as the leader of the pack.

At least five motion pictures, including Martin Scorsese's 2004 "The Aviator," starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a young Hughes, have dealt with the billionaire's stupendous achievements and struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder and long-term effects of syphilis.

The latest movie, "Hoax," inspired by Clifford Irving's memoir and scheduled for release on Thursday, reprises the story of the writer who wrote a 1971 fake autobiography of Hughes, never expecting the reclusive billionaire to conduct a telephone news conference to debunk the carefully calculated deception.

Richard Gere stars as Clifford Irving.