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Summer job of a lifetime

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.

"Really honored"

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

moving to Canada, then to Miami Beach, where she died in 2002. Torre had not

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

license, right?"

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

Wayland Flowers.

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

to come.

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

bit more?'"

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."


"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 Opening night curtain is 8 p.m. Thursday.

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