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July 18, 2018

A Q&A with the Marble Faun of Grey Gardens legend

Jerry Torre remembers meeting Jackie O and tells of the real women behind the documentary that became a cult classic

Screenings Odd News
01112019_Grey_Gardens Taber Andrew Bain /via Flickr Creative Commons

The Grey Gardens estate on Georgica Pond in East Hampton, New York, was photographed in January 2009.

When he was just 16, Jerry Torre knocked on the front door of Grey Gardens, the legendary East Hamptons mansion belonging to Big and Little Edie Beale, and his life changed overnight. To hear him tell it, Torre was a runaway kid from Brooklyn who ended up becoming caretaker at the decrepit, 28-room mansion, working for one of the most eccentric families ever captured on celluloid. Known as “The Marble Faun,” so named by Edie Beale, Torre will be in Philly tonight, July 19, for a one-night-only screening of Albert and David Maysles documentary from 1975, "Grey Gardens," at the Ritz East.

In his new book, The Marble Faun of Grey Gardens: A Memoir of the Beales, the Maysles Brothers and Jacqueline Kennedy (Querelle, 2018), Torre, now 61, looks back on his time with the Beales as nothing short of life changing. While audiences may best know the Beale women as the black sheep of the Bouvier family – eccentrics who cozied up to wild raccoons and ate the occasional can of cat food – Torre got to know the pair very well and considered them as family. Co-written with Tony Maietta, the memoir chronicles what really happened behind the doors of the broken-down mansion where Torre still swears a ghost haunts the halls.

Because Torre, who called the matriarch “mother,” was the first person in 40 years to walk into the decaying manse, he collected a lot of surprising stories about life inside Grey Gardens. Over the years, Torre had many memorable encounters with the rich and famous, like Chevy Chase (who once rented the guest cottage), J. Paul Getty (who owned an estate across the way) and Jackie Kennedy (who showed up with a construction crew to patch the holes in the roof and trap the wild animals living in her cousin’s shocking home).

Today, as a successful sculptor who makes his home in New York City, Torre opened up about the Beales, the book, and what it was really like mixing gin gimlets for Lee Radziwill and listening in on phone calls from Aristotle Onassis.

PV: In your book, you say that Big and Little Edie Beale saved your life. How did that happen?

JT: I had a ridiculous, non-existent childhood. I was sexually abused before I even had a pubic hair. This was 55 years ago. I was groomed by a relative, and [the abuse] went on for years. Between that and my father’s heavy hand, I just ran from my life. I ran and I found a place to work and that led to me East Hampton...I had been through hell and high water. I ran from my family, and then I was homeless and then I found Edie and Mrs. Beale.

PV: How did you end up meeting the Beales during such a tough time?

JT: I rode my bicycle down Lily Pond Lane…The road grew narrow and I first saw the peaks of Mrs. Beales’ mansion and I was dumbfounded. I literally fell off my bicycle.

It was more interesting to me than the property I was working on [which belonged to J. Paul Getty of Getty Oil fame]. Grey Gardens captured my imagination, which is why I trespassed onto the property. I had to. I’d lay awake at night looking at the ceiling and smoking cigarettes, and I said, “I’ve got to go back to that house.” So the next day, I rode my bike back and discovered two lights on. I mustered up the courage to trespass further.

I cleared the diamond windowpane and looked in. I saw a forest of cobwebs and saw litter and debris everywhere. I knocked and Edie descended the stairs. When she got there she said, “Mother, the Marble Faun is here.” I was so curious. It was fascinating. I told her I didn’t know what that was but that I was happy to help with the house. I tried not to let her see that I was looking past her. I was looking into the house, a place where time had stopped and nature moved in.

But that introduction saved my life. Edie told me to come back at nine the next morning, which was funny because she didn’t have a clock at all. She had a grandfather clock that hadn’t operated in 50 years.

PV: What happened when you got there the next day?

JT: I was escorted up to the second floor. The cobwebs were hitting me in the face, and the stench was very bad and made my eyes water. I could hear cats meowing and scattering everywhere around me. It was chaotic. I stepped into what I call the sunroom. Big Edie was there and told me that I need to eat one boiled potato and chicken to keep my beautiful face. The raccoons were looking down at me from the upstairs. It was off the wall.

PV: But she hired you to do odd jobs. And you seem to have had a very special relationship with Mrs. Beale.

JT: As time passed, Mrs. Beale grew very dear to me and I started feeling very responsible for their safety. One morning, Mrs. Beale was cooking oatmeal on the sterno on her mattress. She’s fumbling with the lid to close the flame down, and the lid on the sterno flipped over and so did the sterno. The blue flame traveled through the mattress and tissue boxes, cats sleeping and newspapers and everything nearby. I quickly stomped it out.

After that, I asked her if she would promise me that whenever she decided to cook that she will let me know, and I will dine with her. She was a very elegant woman...And thus began the true relationship. The house was deplorable, yes – but it was still their home.

PV: You met Jackie Kennedy Onassis while working there, yes?

JT: I was having a cigarette on the front porch and the car pulled up on the roadside…and it’s Mrs. Kennedy Onassis. Of course, I knew who she was [she was cousins with the Beales]. She had a kerchief [around her hair] and the big round glasses and I just froze. I looked like a dirt bomb. I was a mess. I had a dirty sweatshirt and dirty jeans on with paint all over them. What an impression I was making on the First Lady of the United States!

She took her glasses off…and gazed across the front of the mansion, and I could see the disbelief in her face. And I didn’t say a word; I was too nervous. She extended her arm and said, “You must be Jerry. My aunt and cousin have grown very fond of you. They trust you.” I was a dry-mouthed, nervous kid. Edie opened the window, screaming like a kid, saying, “Don’t let her in here, Jerry! Mother will be very angry with you!”

PV: I understand Mrs. Kennedy actually paid to have the mansion fixed at some point.

JT: She asked me if I was willing to let contractors into the mansion through the kitchen. The contractors showed up, began cleaning the first floor, and then the roofers came.

PV: In your book, you delve into stories about Mrs. Kennedy and the chaotic attempt to fix the house that was falling apart. You also provide very personal glimpses into the Beales that few – if any – people have ever seen. After all of these years, what prompted you to write a book about this time in your life?

JT: It began in 2005 when I used to be a New York City taxi driver. I was driving down Ninth Avenue and a customer was waiting at the red light with a camera and tripod...After she gets in the back seat and we’re on our way, I ask her, “Are you in the film industry?” The woman chuckled a bit. She was [in the film industry], and she was very nice. I asked her, “Do you know of the film 'Grey Gardens?'” She said she did, that it received an award in Cannes, France. I said, “I’m Jerry from that film.”

She stopped talking, and said, “You know Albert Maysles has been looking for you for 40 years?”

PV: You ended up reconnecting with Albert Maysles who, by then, had become famous for his shocking documentary about your former bosses. What do you think still makes Big and Little Edie Beale so fascinating to people even today?

JT: It was absolutely magic, and I’m still, to this day, confounded that their legacy is still so paramount. It was their personalities. It was their individualism and uniqueness. Mrs. Beale and Edie were ostracized for the idea of wanting to sing and be active in the theater. Mr. Beale was a real stick in the mud. It was a man’s world then, but Mrs. Beale said, “No, I don’t think so. I’m going to do what I want in life.”

Yes, they were contrarians and they were eccentric, but they were true to their belief in the arts...I think their story really appeals to free spirits, and to the gay population for its campiness, Edie’s flare and her costuming, and her song and dance. They were so devoted to their convictions...They were ostracized by their family for that.

PV: What’s a particularly fond memory you have of the Beales?

JT: One winter night, Mrs. Beale asked me to collect some LPs to play on the record player. I plugged in the portable heater and sat down on the lawn chair with my hands under my lap – it was so cold. And [with the record playing] Mrs. Beale and Edie began singing opera. I don’t remember the song, but I remember I didn’t let them see me crying. Their convictions were so powerful. There are icicles right outside the door hanging off the banister. We had, frankly, very little to eat and these woman were oblivious to their environment and decided to keep up their love of music. They just sang.

PV: You said that Aristotle Onassis used to call the mansion frequently and you would sometimes listen in on the conversations, yes?

JT: During my years at Grey Gardens, the phone would ring and it was Mr. Aristotle Onassis. He had a real, heavy-duty accent and I was immediately intrigued by him. His son had died in an airplane accident. He called and Mrs. Beale would console him sometimes up to three hours. I know he loved her because he helped so much with the mansion. After Mrs. Beale’s wake…Ari found me and his secretary set up an interview for me...I was hired to work in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for $1,900 bucks a week [tending the Saudi Royal Family’s gardens].

PV: That’s a far cry from the raccoons that ran amok at Grey Gardens.

JT: Well, the female raccoon [Buster] was very domesticated. Mrs. Beale used to ask me to feed Buster Fudge Royale ice cream. [As I would get the ice cream ready] the raccoon would be waiting at the threshold at the door.

PV: That raccoon also started a fire in the house?

JT: We used stick matches to light the sterno. Buster got a hold of them and included them in her nest, and they ignited from the heat of the sun.

PV: You say Grey Gardens is haunted and is to this day.

JT: There’s a spirit in the mansion. One summer morning, I was in the kitchen cleaning up, and I felt a person in the kitchen with me. I definitely felt someone in the kitchen standing near me.

I went upstairs after that and I told Mrs. Beale that I had a really strange feeling in the kitchen. Mrs. Beale said that Tom Logan died in the kitchen and his anniversary was that very day. “And he died on the army cot that you sleep on,” she said.

[Many years later, Torre spoke to the new owners of the mansion who say they, too, have experienced strange incidents, like lights going on and off in the library. When Torre worked for Mrs. Beale, he recalls her referring to the alleged spirit as “the Captain,” in reference to the man who originally built the summer home. He was a sea captain who lived there in the 18th century.]

PV: Did you ever find out what prompted Edie Beale to give you your famous nickname, The Marble Faun?

JT: The Marble Faun was written by Nathanial Hawthorne. In this novel, there’s actually a sculptor who sculpts a young man who happened to look like me. The sculpture does exist in Italy, and it does resemble me!

PV: What did you think of the Grey Gardens documentary when you first saw it?

JT: I was hurt. I went back to the mansion and asked Edie, “What did you mean that there were books taken from the attic?” [Edie Beale blamed Jerry Torre for stealing books during the film.] Edie turned to me and said, “Do you think I look nice in this outfit?” Edie was always dismissive of my feelings.

PV: What did Beales think of the film?

JT: I asked Mrs. Beale and Al [Maysles] did, too...She was quite pleased. But Edie thought it should have more singing and dancing.

"Grey Gardens" film screening with the Marble Faun happens tonight, July 19, 7 to 10: 30 p.m., including film screening and book signing by Jerry Torre at the Ritz East (125 S. 2nd St.).