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Back to the Garden

by Steve Desroches

Most of the world knows that Jerry Torre likes corn on the cob. Or, more specifically, Big Edie’s corn. Fresh out of high school, Torre was riding his bicycle down Lily Pond Lane in the tony town of East Hampton in the summer of 1974. He had landed a job as a gardener at a nearby estate and he was looking for extra work when he spotted an overgrown yard and a decrepit mansion. He knocked on the door to offer his services and Edith “Little Edie” Beale opened the door and exclaimed, “Oh, it’s the Marble Faun,” a reference to the Nathanial Hawthorne novel about a classical Greek sculpture.

So began an adventure that propelled the young kid from Brooklyn into a world he never imagined as he arrived just in time for the filming of the documentary Grey Gardens, a film by Albert and David Maysles about the reclusive aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. It also captured the sweet moment when he shared some fresh summer corn with the mother and daughter, a snippet of their relationship that ended up as a song in the Broadway musical Grey Gardens. It’s all the more evidence that Torre’s life was destined to be full of surprises, a journey he details in his new book The Marble Faun of Grey Gardens: A Memoir of the Beales, The Maysles Brothers, and Jacqueline Kennedy, which he co-wrote with Tony Maietta.

In this memoir, Torre tells his story about a life he describes as “varied” and “unplanned” that found him traveling the world, meeting interesting people, and having incredible experiences, a trip to the light fantastic that spun through Provincetown. While the documentary was a big hit when it came out in 1975, in those pre-VCR days the film quickly fell out of the mindset of many, except for gay men, says Torre. It often made him quite popular at the gay clubs and bathhouses of New York. Having left the Hamptons for New York City after the death of Big Edie (whom he affectionately calls Mrs. Beale), he landed a gig at the Bon Soir, a New York hot spot where Barbra Streisand got her start, and where Torre met female impersonator Lynne Carter. The famed drag performer invited him to Provincetown for the summer of 1978, hiring him to be his dresser for the season.

Jerry and Madame in Provincetown. Summer of 1978

“It was great,” says Torre from his home in New York. “I didn’t know anything about Provincetown. It was great. It was wild.”

As a young gay man in the seventies, Torre reveled in the sexual freedom of the times. In 1977 he won the title of Mr. Club Baths at a contest held at the bathhouse near Houston Street and First Avenue in New York. The bacchanalian ways of the era were in full effect in Provincetown, and he laughs when he remembers living and working at the Pilgrim House, where all the men would leave their hotel doors open at night and “strut their stuff.” Eager to pick up any extra work, Torre began operating the spotlight for other shows at the Pilgrim House, which included cabaret singer Julie Wilson and the legendary Wayland Flowers and Madame.

Perhaps it was his experiences at Grey Gardens, but Torre felt right at home surrounded by so many big personalities and eccentrics in Provincetown. However, his first introduction to Wayland Flowers was a bit rocky. At their first tech rehearsal Flowers barked at him for putting the spotlight on him and not Madame, insisting it always be on the puppet. At first, Torre found Flowers temperamental and aloof, and from the initial run through thought the show was going to bomb. But come opening night, Torre says the show was pure magic, with Madame coming alive. Eventually, he and Flowers grew to be good friends. But being friends with Flowers meant being friends with Madame, as he always carried her wherever he went. Ultimately a shy person, Flowers communicated to the world through Madame. One day, while Torre was swimming at the Boatslip, Flowers and Madame were entertaining a gaggle of gay men and Madame made a quip about the tiny size of Torre’s Speedo, followed by a proposition. What followed was one of the most interesting ménage à trois, as Torre, Flowers, and Madame retreated to a room upstairs for the first of several trysts with the puppet intimately involved. It was the seventies after all.

Jerry Torre today

“That’s just how it was back then,” says Torre. “Everyone was promiscuous in those days. But Wayland was just a genius. He really was. He trusted me with Madame. I was one of the very few people he would let touch her. He trusted me with his prized Madame. I became one of her caretakers. The show…it was just magic, I tell you.”

After that summer he never saw Flowers and Madame, or Carter, again. And he’s not been back to Provincetown since, either. He bumped into Little Edie once in New York, but never saw her again before she died in 2002. He never came out to either of the Beales, being only 17 and afraid of what their reaction might have been. But now, as an adult, he says he knows it wouldn’t have been an issue with either of them, particularly Little Edie who went on to do a cabaret act at Reno Sweeney’s in New York for audiences of almost all gay men. Now, at 66, Torre lives in New York with his partner Ted O’Ryan Sheppard. While just a couple of weeks ago he had a major heart attack, he says he’s happy and resting to regain his strength. When he does get healthy again he’ll return to his work as a sculptor, having studied at the Art Student League of New York 12 years ago—fitting that the Marble Faun has come full circle.

“Nothing about it makes any sense,” says Torre about his life. “I’ve gotten through it with a strong faith in Jesus. I was no saint. I was a son of a gun. But my life, I still don’t understand it. Art, love, and travel; all the things I asked for happened. I’m honored to still be here. It’s been a toss of the coin, my life.”

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Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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