Jerry Torre graduated from Sachem High School in 1974 and
found a summer job as a gardener at an East Hampton mansion. The owner, a
member of the New York Stock Exchange, set up Torre in a room above the garage
and put him to work.
One afternoon, the long-haired teen rode his bicycle down Lily Pond Lane
and made note of a property with a car in the driveway. The car windows were
down, the keys were in the ignition, and vines were snaking through the
interior. Torre returned later that week, his curiosity piqued, to knock on the
front door of the cobweb-covered home.
The middle-aged woman who answered took one look at him and said, "Oh, it's
the Marble Faun," a reference to a Nathaniel Hawthorne story about a Greek
sculpture - not that Torre knew it. But he could tell from the tone of her
voice that it was a compliment. "I was enthralled," Torre recalled last week at
a restaurant near his home in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens. "I said, 'I'd be
really glad to help you with the property if you need any work done.'"
The woman was Edith Bouvier Beale, a former Park Avenue debutante who lived
in the decaying, raccoon-infested house with her mother, also named Edith
Bouvier Beale, an aunt of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. "Little Edie," as
she was called, asked Torre to come back to meet "Mrs. Beale," who was mostly
confined to a room on the top floor. The next day, the elder woman welcomed him
with a lecture about the benefits of a balanced diet and an offer of corn on
the cob - cooked on a Sterno she kept at her bedside.
That same summer, the Beales and their volunteer handyman were filmed by
brothers David and Albert Maysles as the subject of their 1975 documentary
"Grey Gardens," named for the Beales' crumbling home. The film became a cult
sensation, and 31 years later, an Off-Broadway musical, winning accolades last
spring for star Christine Ebersole. She reprises her double role as Mrs. Beale
in the first act and Little Edie in the second when "Grey Gardens" opens
Thursday on Broadway.
Albert Mayles' long search
Torre, now 51, has lived in Sunnyside for 12 years and driven a cab for the
past 19. About a year ago, he picked up a fare at Ninth Avenue and 43rd
Street. The passenger had a tripod, so he asked if she was in the film
industry. "I said, 'Oh, have you heard of the movie "Grey Gardens"? I'm Jerry
the Marble Faun.'" The woman said, "Albert Maysles has been looking for you for
33 years. You've got to call his studio."
The next day, Maysles was waiting for Torre with a video camera. The pair
drove around for two hours, with the legendary documentarian ("Gimme Shelter")
filming the entire time. Says Maysles, "Seeing Jerry again brought me right
back to the time when we were all in the same little bedroom together and he
was eating corn cooked by Mrs. Beale."
During the making of "Grey Gardens," Maysles gravitated to the kid with the
"funny kind of Long Island accent," he recalls. "He was very young, and he had
a peculiar way of speaking."
On their cab ride, Maysles told Torre that Playwrights Horizons was
developing a musical based on "Grey Gardens." He gave Torre the phone number of
the socialite who rents the estate most of the year from former Washington
Post editor Ben Bradlee and his wife, writer Sally Quinn. Torre made
arrangements for him and Maysles to drive out to the place with a film crew.
Torre had spent two summers living in the library at Grey Gardens, where he
recalls mother and daughter arguing over "ridiculous" subjects, like Little
Edie's choice of clothing. (A popular song in the musical is Little Edie's "The
Revolutionary Costume for Today.")
He remembered how the shingles had been bored through by raccoons. Cat-food
cans were scattered everywhere; the women did not take out their garbage for
years. The Suffolk County Board of Health tried to evict the Beales until
Onassis intervened, helping to get repairs going. When Torre returned there
last year with Maysles, "the house finally looked like it should," he says.
Torre is "really honored" that his adolescence has been immortalized in
what is now a Broadway musical. He saw "Grey Gardens" five times at Playwrights
Horizons, listening intently to the new music. One of the songs is called
"Jerry Likes My Corn." Actually, he didn't. He admits, "I was polite and just
told her I did."
He appreciates how the creative team behind "Grey Gardens" has portrayed
the "tenderness" of his relationship with the women. "Mrs. Beale was like a
second mother to me," he says. "My mother and Mrs. Beale couldn't see eye to
eye, and my mother would come and try to get me out of there, but Mrs. Beale
was always like, 'Stay here.' She became very protective over me."
After Mrs. Beale died in 1977, Torre helped Little Edie out with a cabaret
act. Little Edie stayed in the East Hampton house less than a year, eventually
seen her since she left New York.
His last memory of Maysles, until their reunion, was of declining an
invitation to join the director and Edie Beale at Lincoln Center for the
premiere of "Grey Gardens" in 1975, because he didn't think the elder Mrs.
Beale should be left home alone. Maysles still kvells about that screening,
where Little Edie dramatically tossed a bouquet of flowers from their loge
A former delivery boy
When Torre was coming of age in Holbrook, he worked as a delivery boy for
Newsday. Actor Matt Cavenaugh, who will reprise his role as Jerry in the "Grey
Gardens" transfer, plays the young man as he might have dressed then, wearing a
Newsday T-shirt and a painter's cap.
Cavenaugh's interpretation of Torre falls somewhere between hunk and
doofus. Sighs the cabbie, "They have me looking a little dim-witted, and I
don't understand why. I'm not a Harvard graduate, but I'm not a dopey man. I'm
like, 'C'mon, let's bring this up a few notches.' But that's theatrical
Torre says other parts of the musical take liberties with the facts. The
script refers to how Jerry "ripped a washing machine out of the McAllister
Mansion," essentially stealing it for the Beales. Actually, he says, it was the
Geddes mansion, where he worked in 1974. "And I didn't 'rip' it out. It was
given to me as a gift."
Not that Torre's holding a grudge. He says he's flattered by the attention
he's received since the musical was launched. He's writing a book about his
life, which also will cover his time working for the Saudi royal family in
Riyadh, and a summer in Provincetown he spent in the employ of puppeteer
On the Web, too
Eight months ago, Torre joined an Internet message board dedicated to "Grey
Gardens," presumably becoming the site's most authoritative source. He'll soon
head to San Francisco to address a group about the saga. With Maysles soon to
debut "The Beales of Grey Gardens," a 90-minute film culled from unused "Grey
Gardens" footage, and a cinematic update in the works, starring Jessica Lange
and Drew Barrymore, Torre is likely to be reveling in his youth for some time
Many nights of late, Torre trolls for fares outside the Walter Kerr
Theater, where "Grey Gardens" is in previews. Once he made eye contact with
Cavenaugh, who was signing autographs. "I don't want to push myself on him. I
just want to say, 'Do you want to talk to me so you know what I'm like a little
Two weeks ago, a woman who got into his taxi figured out who he was. "I
said, 'What did you think of the show?' She said, 'It was a little bit of
everything. A little sad, a little happy.' I dropped her over at Penn Station."
Another evening, he picked up composer Scott Frankel, playwright Doug Wright
and director Michael Greif.
Torre hasn't seen their pumped-up Broadway version of "Grey Gardens" yet,
but he'll be in the audience when it opens Thursday night. He wants to
represent Mrs. Beale and Little Edie and the people who knew him back when.
"I'm a little scared, a little nervous," he says. "I'm also thrilled. I'm
honored. How could you not be honored? My mother would be proud. It's so
personal. When I go to see the show, I'm watching them explain something I know
a lot about."
WHEN & WHERE
"Grey Gardens," on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St.,
Manhattan. Tickets, $86.25-$111.25. Call 212-239-6200, or online at
broadway.com. Opening night curtain is 8 p.m. Thursday.