Jerry Torre has led an extraordinarily colorful life, but the hue he's known for is grey.
As in "Grey Gardens," the 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles. It introduced Big Edie and Little Edie Beale, aunt and cousin of Jackie Onassis, who lived in a decaying Long Island mansion. Torre, called "The Marble Faun" by Little Edie, was the sweet-faced caretaker who helped the pair manage their household.
And again as in "Grey Gardens - The Musical," which had a song about that Torre - "Jerry Likes My Corn" - and won three Tonys in 2007.
Now Torre has a local connection: He served as adviser to Queen City Theatre Company, whose Charlotte production of "Gardens" begins Thursday. The New Yorker will come down from Queens to see it and chat with the audience after shows Feb. 6 and 7.
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Today, he's a sculptor working in marble and limestone. "I went to the New York World's Fair in 1964, and I remember holding my mother's hand in the Vatican Pavilion," he says. "I saw the Virgin Mary with Christ and had my calling that day. I was amazed something so tender could be carved from something so difficult."
You could say the same of Torre's life. He had to come through the death of a partner by AIDS in 1989, then addictions to cocaine and heroin. He lost a profitable business moving art for galleries. He drove a New York cab for 20 years; his income now is mostly a small pension, earned in the days he cared for a Saudi Arabian garden owned by Prince Faisal.
These days, he lives in New York with a steady partner, and the garden that makes him happiest is in a backyard visited by birds and a raccoon. But he has no trouble recalling the Grey Gardens of another time.
The 16-year-old Torre had left an abusive home to stay with a godfather on Long Island, then been hired to work on a sprawling estate. "I earned $100 a week, room and board," he says. "There is no place in summer, winter or fall as magical as Georgica Pond.
"The Beales were a quarter-mile down a country road that was beautifully paved, with a split-rail fence and rosebushes on each side. I had bought a bicycle, and one day I rode past their house. My foot got caught between the pedal and the pavement, because my eyes were stuck on that property.
"It was completely overgrown. It had a car in the driveway, which was also overgrown, with the keys still in the ignition. It was among all these beautiful mansions, and time had just stopped. I thought, "'This house can't be here!'"
But it could. So could its inhabitants: Big Edie, Little Edie, two dozen cats and wild critters who'd chewed through much of the electrical wiring.
On the day of what he calls "the raid," he saw a firetruck, ambulance and police vehicle shoot down Lily Pond Lane. By the time he got to the Beales', "an EMT worker was telling Mrs. Beale she needed to go into the hospital for observation.
"They were saying, 'There's a dead animal here. It's filthy, it's in violation, there's no food." They finally cleared out, and I told the Beales, 'You've gotta clean up this place.' Soon I was shoveling 25 years' worth of cat cans into garbage bags."
He began to drop by and trim the yard, discouraging deer who ate neighbors' tulips. He moved in just before the Maysles started filming in 1974, when "you couldn't walk up the stairs, because the cobwebs were so thick. Rooms were clogged shut with them. Some rooms were habitable; some were ice cold, because the wiring was shot." He stayed until Big Edie died in 1977, then went to Maine to build a cabin.
But the story never died. Albert Maysles re-interviewed Torre for a 2006 follow-up documentary, "The Beales of Grey Gardens." Producer-director Jason Hay is shooting a documentary entirely about him, tentatively titled "Jerry Torre: The Marble Faun of Grey Gardens;" his crew will come to Charlotte to film Torre's visit.
And when Torre turned a skilled hand to limestone, one of the first things he made was "Pairs." It depicts the faces of the Beales, one atop the other.
"They were trapped in that mansion for so long that they could never be free of each other," he says. "They were always competing, though no one else was aware of them being alive. So this piece is a silent tribute to their lives. It's Mrs. Beale and Edie, trapped together in time and now in stone."
And that stone is grey.