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JERRY TORRE: It’s an old room. It smells like an old room, cause it is. This is the inner sanctum of the Arts Students League. We’re in New York City, west 57th Street. This is where Lichtenstein and Pollock and everyone– where Georgia O’Keeffe as well, came to school. This particular room is for heavy duty stone carving. I’ve carved several pieces right here. You know what? I’m gonna knock this son of a gun out.
I’m gonna do this piece soon, like tomorrow. Can you see where I’m going with this? It’s simply matter of freeing this girl. If you look at my life, other people who struggle with everything, you actually can overcome these problems and make something flourish. I’m a testament to that. From a ridiculously difficult childhood to running away to drug addiction, that nearly buried me. It’s a wonder I’m even here.
I learned my trade of stone carving by horsing around in the Greenwood Cemetery. I was young and happy go lucky, and I was in a group of friends. Most of us were Italian. We would go under the rest of fence. We were young, thin, moved quickly, once beyond the fence, it was like paradise for us kids. It was like, wow, green trees and chipmunks.
You know what interested me first about the cemetery were the sculptures. Sculpture of a woman, a side of a bathtub in marble, and said, why would anyone carve a bathtub? And that started my interest, well, did someone drowned in this bathtub? What is the story? What interested me was the divide between life and death, and that was the way the dead rested.
I’ll tell you macarbe story. My brother’s friends once broke into a mausoleum in that cemetery and opened a casket, took out a corpse’s head, and took it home, and cleaned it in bathtub, painted it gold. Carried around the streets of Brooklyn.
CREDITS: You are listening to Everything is Stories. This episode is part one of a two part series and we’re calling it The Marble Faun.
JERRY TORRE: My name is Jerry Torre. I’m the Marble Faun of Gray Gardens. I was born 55 in Brooklyn, New York.
My parents are real origin of Italian nature, all Italians. I got my head handed to me a lot. My father was rough. He was an angry man after the war. Really hotheaded impatient. Boom. He’d punched me out. I was like 16, say 15. My old man decided for some odd unknown reason, punched me and he hit me hard. I said, you know what? Fuck you.
I’ve had it. I’m so sick of you beating me up and knew I had to survive it. I couldn’t do it there. And I grabbed my coat and I ran out the door, and I never went home. I lived in the woods in Long Island. I had no way of living. I didn’t even know my social security number. But I was sort of happy with it. I liked it. I liked learning how to live like that. I built a shelter in wooded area of twigs and leaves and a debris house sort of, of stuff in the woods.
Because it was the country no longer in Brooklyn. There were rabbits, there was tomato plants, pear trees, vegetables. I would run after squirrels, and I was the happiest kid. I loved it. And I could actually escape everything and just walk through the woods, and it was dynamite.
I loved it. It all got better. How was it like for me? It was like, freedom land. I was actually free and able to learn about myself without getting my head handed to me and also learn about life. And I was a runaway from Brooklyn. I didn’t have a lot of start.
But the point is, is that I had to learn by myself. I was hitchhiking in the country at the time. It’s all you did to get around. And this policeman pulled me over. I got in the car, front seat, and then he looked and he said, You’re not supposed to hitchhike. You know it’s dangerous. I said, I’m hitchhiking cuz I got no transportation. I got less than a dollar on me.
I thought I was going to get arrested for hitchhiking, but he didn’t arrest me. He took kindness to me. He was Stephen Calibacker, policeman from New York City. He was German descent. He was stocky. Great looking, just great looking. I had a crush on him quick, fast.
That was around 1972. He found me a job in town on the paper, an assistant gardener needed. What do I do? He goes, I’ll drive you to the meet these people. And sure enough, it was Mr. Gerald Getty’s property.
The woman who interviewed me was named Charlotte, straightforward woman. Said, here’s your duties. This is what you do when the the owner of Mr. Getty’s drives in the driveway, you’re not to be seen. I say, well, what do you mean not seen? How do I do that?
He doesn’t like his employees. So whenever you see him disappear, get out of his line of vision. I got fired several times from being on the lawn when he would pull into the driveway. He was such a power craze guy. The only way he got off was to humiliate people around him. He was like the king. These million billionaires, they were so stupid.
They don’t enjoy anything. All they wanna do is be powerful. I worked for him from 1973 to 75. I have roof over my head, kitchen. Two refrigerators, a bicycle. A swimming pool, no one used but me at night. I’d go pedaling around the swimming pool and nobody cared or knew really, cause nobody else used it. I wanted to live and to learn, and I wanted to do things
I liked. And to learn what I liked that included art gardening and to be free, as a gay homosexual guy. Call me homosexual. Hate gay. Gay is like happy people. I’m not that happy.
There’s a gay bar called the Out of This World Inn. I went there after working a few days and had some money. And we’d just bicycle down to the bar. I was alone. It was dark. It was dimly lit. Two guys here, a few kids there. No girls. This is another step up in my exposure to gay homosexual life. There I met Terry Wallace. Terry was the first guy I made out with, and I thought that was the most exciting thing I ever did in my life.
I couldn’t believe the affection and the feeling I had. Felt really passionate about it. I really dug it. When I was at the Out of This World Inn, and began that relationship with Terry. That was all fine and good. Terry wanted to take me to Maine, but I wasn’t really sure about going to Maine because I just got happy in East Hampton.
It was great. Anyway, that was that. I did not go to Maine, but one day I dropped on my blue Pugeot bicycle and I rode down a country road that I had not yet ridden. It was all flat, country, summer. The road got really narrow. Then it made a lift and lost my footing on the bicycle. It fell down cause I wasn’t paying attention as I was falling to the ground. I said, what did you just see? What is that house you just saw? I mean it. And I got my footing.
I threw the bike in the bushes. And I studied the mansion as much as I could see under the growth. I thought the house was abandoned. It was daytime. There was no light in there. I couldn’t see any. When I did look at the mansion, it was hard to make out, which was which end.
The growth on the house had found its way into the attic. Isn’t that amazing? The way that vines has pulled that shutter apart. It looked like a banister. Some of it was yellow and some of it was dry, but it went right through. It was lifting the frigging ceiling of the attic right off the building. That didn’t happen in the summer, this has been going on for some time. And the lawn was completely overgrown with wild roses, thorns, bushes, poison ivy, sumac, everything that was natural to the region.
And I just studied it and studied it for quite some time that day. It was the natural succession of life around it that just drew me in more. Went back the next day and the day after for some time, at least a month. I didn’t go up to the property for that month. I didn’t wanna get in trouble. These are private properties.
You know what? I went up to the porch, I got some courage, and I said, okay, you either get arrested for trespassing or they just ask you to leave the property. I remember stepping foot on the porch, it went (sound). And I looked at the ceiling of the porch and it had been wet and rotting away. Then I went up to the front door, before I knocked, I cleared the dirt from the window and I went and I looked in.
Gray and dark and covered with white silhouette. It was cobwebs, cobwebs sitting, and it was filthy. Really. Ceiling was cracked. Plaster, it was hanging in shreds. The moment I finished the knocking. White shoes, I could see them just below the railing. And I’m watching her travel, only her shoes behind a curtain, silhouette of cobwebs. One landing, two landings, three landings. This woman dressed– it looks like a shower curtain and a, I don’t know, scarf. Like it was fancy looking, and she dressed it well.
That she had it wrapped around her head and got traveling around her body like a drape, but it was actually like a cape. The moment you opened the door, the mildew and the presence of cats smell feral. You could smell time had moved in and stayed. She opens the screen door, touches my hair, and says Mother, the marble faun is here.
AUDIO CLIP: Jerry, you, uh, you are Aquarius, aren’t you? That’s what I saw when I met you, Jerry. Remember I said the marble faun? Yeah. That was terrible. Terrible. But tragedy connected with the marble faun.
JERRY TORRE: And I said, I don’t know who that is, but if you need any help with the property, I’ll be glad to help you. She said, come back in the morning. That’s just all I needed to hear. I was at least not thrown off the porch and I was accepted as a possible helping hand here.
And said, okay, I’ll be back. I think she said nine and I was there. But here’s the house with two occupants. I didn’t know their names. I find out sometime after my discovery, the Mrs. Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith Beale.
Edie walked me up the main staircase I seen behind her, like the cobwebs. There was a tunnel. She would travel through those cobwebs to the front door. It was obviously a path worn from years of collection. Dirt dust, and cobwebs. There were raccoons looking at me through the torn up ceiling and cats. meow, loud anxiety filled cats.
The echoing throughout the house, I mean, to be invited in, it was fascinating. It was filthy, it was nutty. I was the only one allowed in that house for 40 years. Mrs. Beale, her mother was in the sunroom. I don’t know what I said. I know what she told me. She said, I need to eat a vegetable, salad and potato and chicken to maintain the beautiful face.
That’s her words, not mine. And I just said, yeah, okay, yeah. And I looked at her and I said, I’m gonna help you with anything you need, anything. I would do anything to make this better.
She didn’t understand what that meant, but she liked me there and we became, we famously friendly from that point on. Our relationship, our friendship was built on trust. I was honored to be trusted, and Mrs. Beale trusted me to help in any way I could. Mrs. Beale, Mrs. Bouvier. Came from a line of aristocrats from the French Parliament way back when she was in France. During Hitler’s invasion. They fled.
She left France became American society. They lived in New York City. Mrs. Beale had her own way of thinking and living, and theatrics and arts were not accepted easily. But it wasn’t accepted at all by her husband, a banker. He gave her a stipend of money to live on. Mrs. Beale could not afford a gardener, so the vines took over and grew everywhere.
The roof started getting compromised, the house fell apart. She couldn’t afford the maintenance on such a place, so the rooms slowly got worse. The house slowly got poor condition. And from one room to the other, they traveled and live.
Edie was unpredictable, ran the emotional gamut every day. Was devoted to her mother, and stood by her all the years and no one else would. And I don’t mean maybe Edie was a lovely, kind, devoted daughter.
Gave the besties of her life to protect her mother even while things deteriorated and funds were limited. And I would just sit back and just say, it is freezing in the hallway. The wind of the beach is tearing apart the wood. It’s just unbearable outside this room. And here they are. steadfast on their convictions to be happy in doing what they want.
And I know they’re eccentric. I know that they’re not regular people, but they’re struggling through a winter night with the greatest optimism. And I used to bring me to tears to hear them.
When you hear a person singing and wanting to be alive, enjoying the moment. Under to those conditions, it was quite moving. But there was a day, this was a trip– I was on the lawn at Mr. Getty’s and fire truck and an ambulance comes down Lilly Pond Lane. Going to Mrs. Beal’s house.
I got on my bicycle and I followed– I went right back to the mansion. They were indeed there and they were harassing Edie into letting them in. And she was being told what to do to pass the inspection. Eventually it happened that they were told this house is unsafe, it was. So the burden turned a little bit to where. I was responsible for their safety and the 10 days in which to clean up the house.
All of this transpired when I was a teenager and I didn’t realize the weight I took it on myself. I didn’t know that it would be like a major thing to watch and care for these elderly people.
AUDIO CLIP: I know, but he did a little bit of work in No, no. He’s the greatest worker I ever had in my house. She’s mad about the little jar and I don’t dunno why I not, I think he’s very handsome.
Jery, I feel terribly sorry for him. I have a terrible feeling that something terrible’s gonna happen to him. Cause he looks so much like the marble faun. And that had a very, that had quite a disastrous, ending of something terrible.
JERRY TORRE: Yeah, I did frequent Manhattan. I did go out. Maybe I go for a night or day and a night. I never let Mrs. Beale know my private life. There were three bars that were substantial, historic, in a sense, The Anvil, The Eagle, and The Spike. They were gay bars. And I would go into Manhattan to have myself a good time. You find trouble or you find a place to stay a few nights, pick up a trick. It was really freedom land. It was dangerous. It was all of these things.
The Anvil was an after hours club on 14th and 12th Avenue and it was a dance floor up there. You could dance around. There was ropes hanging and trapezes and everything. It was a trip. But there was a stage too, up in the corner, diamond shape and spotlights, broken mirrors, mirror ball. I learned about my own sexuality there.
My friends would draw a pencil mustache in on me, put a baseball hat on. I would hide my face sort of with the crowd and get right into the music hall. Downstairs, there was a hallway back around,, the place was dirty, cigarette smoke and everything. And everything went on down there. I had never seen anything of like this that really took my body and made me feel faint.
I went, whoa. It was a funny thing cuz I’d go there and get myself off and then go upstairs and I’d dance care free, in my jock strap, on the stage. I became pretty good at it. Had a following. It was that summer day. I was having a cigarette on the front porch at Mrs. Beale’s house. So I put the cigarette out in the grass and I would never forget this moment.
I looked up and said, this can’t be, this isn’t happening. I mean, how in the world is the first lady of the United States walking alone towards me in this rubble and this overgrowth? I look like a dirt bomb. I’m wearing a dirty sweatshirt and jeans. And sure enough, I look again and it sure is the first lady of the United States.
She’s got her glasses and her kerchief and she’s walking towards me and I’m starstruck big time. And I’m trying to like keep my cool. And Mrs. Onassis looks up at the mansion in complete disbelief. You can see her– I watched every movement of her face. Edie’s opened the window saying don’t let her in here. Don’t do it. My mother and I will not have her in all this crazy talk.
Then Mrs. Onassis moved her glasses, extended her hand, and said, my aunt and my cousin, they’ve grown fond of you. They trust you. In fact, I am unsure of why exactly they invited you into their lives in the house. But you’re here and they trust you. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was born jacqueline Bouvier. Her father, Mr. Bouvier was Mrs. Beale’s brother.
Mrs. Onassis did not go in the mansion. She did speak with Edie. It was heated, I could tell. Then she was leaving and she said, well, you’ve done so much here and know this sort of thing. I’d like to take you out to a restaurant, have a nice dinner with you. And I said, I know we could go out in New York City.
I made an arrangement to get picked up by her chauffer, but I didn’t look like I belonged with her and I really wasn’t in her league. So she and I, with the chauffer of course, drove around the city, went through Central Park once on a loop, and she went back to her 10 85th Avenue apartment, but graciously extended herself to me. Would you like to come in for a drink? I knew she– I wouldn’t. She offered that to me because she’s just being gracious, and that was our relationship.
The last year was really the worst year we had run out of oils, so the pipes froze in the house. They burst in the walls. Mrs. Beale was in bed so sick. Oh, she got weaker and thinner and lighter, and she was dying. The last few days, it was very sad. I placed Mrs. Beale in the rolling chair wheelchair. She was all but 90 pounds. I lifted her up no problem.
And she was in linens, like a white blanket, and I remember this so well. We rolled her out, towards the sunroom, but it was really not safe to go out the wind– now she was very delicate. I lowered myself to gaze into the face of Mrs. Beale and her little blue eyes were like just staring at me. They just looked at her eyes and we just communicated like something I’ve never– I really never experienced that type of friendship before.
Not with my parents, not with anyone. And I knew she knew it, and I did too. That would be the last time I would see her alive. I didn’t cry, it was really powerful.
Two days later, the ambulance took her to the hospital and she passed away. Edie never was that emotional. She was broken up. She said, my mother, my mother, and all this drama. She was very sincere though. I said, Edie, what are you gonna do now? She said, well, I’m gonna go back home. I’m gonna go to Grey Gardens. I didn’t invite myself and I really don’t feel I wanted to go back there. It wouldn’t have been the same, and I went back to New York City.
I met Robert in the brambles in Central Park. The brambles used to be part of the park that is actually untouched. It’s as it would’ve been. It was a natural portion of Central Park. I went there cruising. Cruising is going out to meet somebody usually for a sexual one night thing. One night stand.
Simple as pie, except it’s with men and not with pie. Robert’s on his bicycle and I’m walking and he gets– he puts his foot up on the bench and waits for me to get to the bench. And he and I hit it off like famously. He was good looking. He was interested in me sexually and I was interested in him.
Yeah, we had an open relationship. At first I wasn’t, but then he said, there’s no way I’m gonna settle down to having you as a one time person. He was too good looking to settle down. But he and I had a special interest in each other, and I moved in. We were together a good year before I went off to Riyadh.
Mr. Onassis had been in contact with me through the mail, and he said, Mrs. Beale passed and he’s selling the house and all this stuff. And I have a chance for you to take the job opportunity. He spoke heavy duty Greek accent, so hot on the telephone. I loved him. When I went for the interview and they- -I met this one guy, an Arab, a very bright, good looking man. He said, we have an opportunity for you to work with in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
And I said, um, where’s Saudi Arabia. I didn’t know Saudi Arabia. He asked me, well, what do you, can you do? I said, well, I’m a gardener. I can tell you that confidently. I’m a good worker. Frankly, I can paint and take directions and how to work. I didn’t have any skills besides gardening. And they told me the salary, which was out– more than I’ve ever earned in my life. And I said, oh, good. I’ll take the job. I’m happy.
Next morning they called me ,they hired me to work in Riyadh for the royal family of Saudi Arabia. The King of Saudi Arabia, King Faisel’s family, the Fahds. And I didn’t even grasp the intensity of this opportunity. My interpretation of the Middle East was the genie and the lamp and the flying carpets. That’s it. I was from Brooklyn, what do I know?
But I went, I was thrilled, changed my life. It did. We landed in the middle of the night and at Riyadh Airport. And plane lands they opened the door and boom, it’s 90 degrees. It’s hot as an oven. I mean it, it’s dry. It’s good heat. I don’t mind it. It was hot.
We go down the stairs, I look, and then they’re praying to Allah. When I get closer to the terminal, there’s a fellow there wearing– he looked like he just walked out of the Old Testament with a sword and a robe. An old timer. He was big white belt. I said, is this Hollywood? What is this guy? He was a real dude. He was a police officer. With a swords in Saudi’s airport.
I look around at, in the customs line, and I say, wow, I’m really in a foreign country. This didn’t feel like any place on earth to me. I didn’t– it was hard to absorb where I was. The palace was enormous. It took me about a few days to get even affiliated with working around. I couldn’t believe this. The palace was the following. It had corridors with paintings of guests who all the royal family portraits. Tapestries from Italy, sculptures everywhere.
A room for theater. Big auditoriums, a bowling alley. I lived in a brown building. It was like I had the best set up. I had 21 gold carrot sink in my bathroom. Really, hand– I mean it. I honestly did not see all of it in the 13 months I lived there. It was so immense that– and it– so many areas were forbidden taboo for westerners to go into.
After I got acclimated with the palace, I was– what did I do? They had a greenhouse big as this building, really nice one. And they had a garden, but nobody knew how to keep it. I mean, they didn’t know how to water it.
They didn’t know what temperature, they didn’t know how to adjust the lighting on the sunday– when the sun come through the blinds. And my only forte was gardening. That was very simple for me cuz the plants were basically tropical. There wasn’t that difficult. Some died, but most of them lived and that was my duty in the greenhouse. That was fun. I loved it.
I was– I still, it took me time to get used to it. I had my own chef. He didn’t cook a lot. He wasn’t good. He was not a good cook. And actually I had a tailor who made my shirts. They were that kind of expenses no spare. Everything was not spared. I got my own chauffeur, Ahmed from Lebanon, Beirut, Lebanon. And I had this one Turkish fellow made me Turkish coffee in the morning.
Well, they gave a breakdown of the customs, basically. It was really basically the customs. Well, don’t use profanity. Don’t take your shirt off. Do not wear shorts. Don’t look at the women more than a glance. There’s no meat. You can’t eat any meat over there. It’s all, it’s difficult to get good food. The customs are so strict. Five times a day, including three o’clock and six in the morning there’s prayer.
And I can’t recite it, but it’s macabre, it’s old. And that’s really haunting. It wakes you up and you reminded that you’re still in the desert and living under strict rules. The culture was a real big shock. Nobody knew my scene there. I wouldn’t let them do know about my scene. One, I’d probably get jail or put to death. Two, I was working with really– construction worker types, real rednecks.
I don’t want nobody to know my business, nobody. I appreciated what they looked like, but I would never blow my cover. I knew better. Enjoyed the novelty of being there for about, oh, maybe a month. Yeah, I lasted about a month before I started getting really sad. And it started naturally for me because when the sun would go down I got really upset. I’d go to the roof and ball. And I’d see the sunset and I said, I gotta get outta here. I wanna go home.
There was no communication with anybody, cause nobody spoke fluent English. Which really leaves you a lonely feeling. You are in a world where no one can talk to you, even about a drink, a Coca-Cola. And everything was wrong. I wasn’t eating right, I wasn’t getting laid. I was not happy.
I wasn’t doing anything I liked except making money, which got tired fast. My, my friend would– he would mail me flat joints in a letter. Every once in a while I’d get a letter with a joint, thank God. Smitty and I, this American Indian dude who had a crush on, of course.
We made pizzas one day and he and I went to the souk out of in town, that’s a marketplace, on a Friday, the only day off. Went there to collect ingredients and we made pizza pies. And after we made the pies, we went to a neighbor’s building.
There’s all these little fenced in residences. He went into one, offered women, Arabian women pizzas, and we got arrested. It was really– that was scary cause I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know who to talk to about it. I didn’t know what we did. We were in trouble.
They were in handcuffs for two days. But I immediately realized how absolutely dangerous it was to be there. That’s when it really turned the page. So I want to get outta here. Man, I got all this bruising. I didn’t relate to their customs. It got worse. So I wanted to go home. My boss said, we can give you a vacation. I said, great, let me outta here. Where do you want to go? I said, I want to go to Greece.
I landed in Athens and went to the docks. Took the first boat to an island called Mykanos. Where I was told by someone at the dock, that’s where you’ll have a good time. There’s liquor, there’s chicks, and all this sillieness. And I rented a room there on the dock side and I lived there for about two weeks.
And then I came back from Greece. They raised my salary 2,400 from 19. And after a few days, I got back to being sad. And I started really– it was noticeable that I was withdrawing. What did I do? Just went back to the routine, up to the roof, every sunset. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to eat. I was not cranky or hostile. I was just lonely sad. They could tell. So they said, why don’t you go another vacation? I said, great, where. I said, I’d like to go to Egypt. It’s only three hours away. They have hashish there.
The first day I arrived, they threw my luggage in the hotel room and I went to the lobby and I got in the cab and I said, take me to the pyramids please. And that was the most memorable ride. The window in the cab was all broken. It was a real shebang-ey car. Then I went back to work, and guess what? They raised me another few bucks. Like I went about 2,500 that time, and I was making that a week. It wasn’t long before I went back into that state of loneliness.
I have made a lot of money and I’ve seen the greatest things I ever wanted to see. I want to go home with it and play party, so I want to go home. So little time passed. You know what they offered me? They offered me a contract of four more years. That would’ve been five full years if I’d stayed, full pension for the rest of my life. I don’t know, a pension for like 1100 bucks a week forever, I swear.
Sometimes I wish I had done that. I mean it, sometimes I look down, I’m like, oh, I’m 60 something years old. I was 20 and I wish I had, honest to God toughed it out. I should have. It was like November and I had to get to December to come home. And I was determined this time to get my exit visa. And I knew I could make it now because I had to get to 12 months.
So, they wouldn’t let me out in December, so they said you have to wait till January. And that really freaked me out and I definitely got so determined now I have to get outta here. They’re pushing me around a lot with this visa shit. Then they gave me this huge piece of paper with all this Arabic writing and it was my ticket home.