A beautiful youth, dark days, and redemption for the gardener of ‘Grey Gardens’

Young Jerry Torre and the Beales ()
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When Jerry Torre met the Beales he was a kid looking for some work.

He’d fled an abusive father to tend to the neatly manicured lawns of socialite mansions in East Hampton, New York. He rode his bike a different way than usual one day and approached a house where the hedges in front were so overgrown that only two peaks of the gabled roof beyond it were visible. This house belonged to Mrs. Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale, aunt and first cousin, respectively, of Jacqueline Kennedy; descendants of a well-bred New York family, whose names were found in the Social Register and on invitations for coming out parties and debutante balls.

Today, of course, Mrs. Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale are more commonly known as Big Edie and Little Edie. And they are known not for being in society, but rather for shunning all of society when high society wouldn’t accept their eccentricities. They chose instead to hole up in a neglected East Hampton mansion for more than twenty-five years, only opening to door to a few guests, one of whom was Torre. They were made famous, along with Jerry, and that rotting mansion called Grey Gardens, by the 1975 Albert and David Maysles documentary of the same name that became a cult sensation.

Torre was on hand on Friday night, along with Albert Maysles and filmmakers Jason Hay and Steven Pelizza, to discuss another documentary that's sprouted out of that overgrown estate. Hay and Pelizza’s new documentary, The Marble Faun of Grey Gardens, tells the story of what happened to Torre after he left the Beales' world. The film's premiere was part of the annual Staunch! event, held at the Maysles Institute on 127th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem to celebrate Grey Gardens, the Beales, and all who love them. (Hay, Torre, and Pelizza pictured at left, courtesy Giusti Photos.)

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It took a couple visits, Torre explained, to muster the courage to knock on the Beales’ front door. He was scared but also fascinated by the house.

“I got to the porch and then I thought, ‘Well you’re on the porch so you might as well knock.’” Torre said. “First I looked into the vestibule. The scene was out of a book. There were cobwebs touching the wall to the chandelier and there was a little tunnel where Edie would travel to the door—it looked like a cave and I knocked,” Torres said, “I see [Edie] walking down the stairs and she came right to the door, opened up the door and she said “Ahh, the Marble Faun is here.” Of meeting Big Edie, he said: “Mrs. Beale was in the sunroom and … reclining on the chaise lounge and looks at me and says that I need to eat a boiled potato salad and a chicken to maintain that beautiful face I had,” he said, “And I was so flattered by her kindness. And there were raccoons looking at me from the ceiling."

Torre was instantly endearing, talking with a slight lisp and a childlike enthusiasm.

“Time had stopped in that mansion,” he said. “It was an honor to be a guest. And no one had been in that house for a long, long time.“ Torre spoke as if he and the Beales were kindred spirits—they were all lost in their previous lives and escaped to a world where they were free to be themselves, the world of Grey Gardens.

Albert Maysles said that when Little Edie asked her mother, laying on her deathbed, if she had any last words, she replied, “Why—just watch the film.”

Now Torre's got his own film. It follows his life after Grey Gardens to a cabin in Canada, a job in Saudi Arabia, and a cheap apartment in New York City, where he worked as a cab driver and settled into a long-term relationship with a boyfriend, Robert. When Robert died of AIDS, Torre entered a dark period characterized by heavy drug use and dangerous sex. Sick with Hepatitis C and HIV (that he'd left untreated for years), Torre finally decided to get sober. He took up sculpting professionally and hasn't looked back since. Today he is at work on a memoir of his days as a young handyman for the Beales and, at least in person, he is a natural storyteller, disarmingly upfront about his life—with and without the Beales.

All these years later, Torre sees something deeply prophetic in Little Edie's appellation of him as the "Marble Faun." One of the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel's central characters goes from a mystical youth to a dark and troubled adulthood, all wrapped up in a mysterious sculpture.

“She gave me the name based on the image of the Marble Faun in that book," Torre said, still astounded that his life would indeed reflect those words through the decades. “And oddly enough she was quite accurate when she said ‘I’m afraid that Jerry may fulfill his destiny.’”