Just Before the Dawn of AIDS, Jerry Torre Accidentally Encountered Fame, Followed By Addiction, Depression, HIV, and Finally—Redemption
by Dann Dulin, with Mark Rebernik
In 1973, Jerry Torre, then seventeen, met the Beales quite by chance. He was working as an assistant gardener at the nearby estate of industrialist Gerald Geddes, when the Beales hired him to be their handyman at Grey Gardens. It was the kismet of kindred spirits. An exceptional relationship quickly developed, which he recounts in his recent memoir, co-written with Tony Maietta and published by Querelle Press, The Marble Faun of Grey Gardens: A Memoir of the Beales, the Maysles Brothers, and Jacqueline Kennedy. (I might add “…And A Personal Journey Of The Early Days Of AIDS.”)
He stumbled upon Grey Gardens one day while riding his bicycle on a quiet East Hampton road. Before him lay an unkempt expanse of land overgrown with bushes and dead brush. In the distance he spotted a gabled roof, an apparently abandoned house. He was determined to explore this strange dwelling. Approaching the house, he discerned a woman at the top of a staircase through a torn screen door. It was Little Edie, Edith Bouvier Beale, daughter of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (“Big Edie”), aunt of former First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.
“She seemed to float down the stairs, through cobwebs, like some sort of strange goddess,” Jerry recounts in his memoir. “She was wearing around her body what looked like a cloth shower curtain with a floral print…she was wearing torn fishnet stockings with white high-heeled pumps on her feet, and on the top of her head she wore a white chef’s apron wrapped around and tied in the back with a knot…I just stared at this exotic creature standing in front of me.”
Little Edie approached Jerry and as she ran her fingers through his long scruffy head of hair, she exclaimed, “Well for goodness sake, the Marble Faun is here,” referring to a character in a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel. Edie meant it as an endearment.
Jerry was entering a world far removed from the rough Italian-American Brooklyn neighborhood where he was raised. His father had been a rage-aholic who drank too much and beat Jerry and his brothers savagely. “We were living in a war zone, always on our guard for the next attack,” he recalls.
As a teen he became involved with street gangs, committing minor criminal acts. As danger loomed in his neighborhood, gripped by the turbulent sixties of civil and social unrest, Jerry’s family moved to the suburban Long Island town of Holbrook.
A few miles up the road from his parent’s new home was Jerry’s safe haven, his Uncle Freddy, who was constructing his own house. During Jerry’s frequent visits he learned how to garden and build, and immerse himself in nature and the earth’s soil. This provided therapy and refuge for him through the brutal times in his life.
Grey Gardens was propelled into the public consciousness in 1975, with the release of an award-winning documentary of the same name, directed by brothers Albert and David Maysles. The film chronicles the daily lives of the Beales. Once glamorous socialites, the two over-the-top eccentrics had become recluses, reduced to living in squalor in a sprawling dilapidated mansion in the affluent Long Island beach town of East Hampton, New York.
The film became a popular cult favorite, and was adapted into a Tony award-winning Broadway musical, with Christine Ebersole [A&U, February 2005] and Mary Louise Wilson. An HBO production followed, starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. It garnered an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and a Screen Actor’s Guild award. In 2010, the Library of Congress selected the “culturally significant” documentary for preservation in the National Film Registry.
And though the documentary beautifully captures its haunted environs, Grey Gardens is more than a place. It’s a metaphor for the complex vagaries of life. It’s the final destination for a life in decline, and became the launching pad for a new life in transition.
“Mrs. Beale and her devoted daughter honored my entire life by their trust,” Jerry explains. “I had been introduced into their very private lives, in their most remote home. It became my duty to honor and respect my family. To outsiders, it was a run down, filthy horror of a house, but to me it was paradise.” Jerry lived and worked at Grey Gardens for four years and he appeared in the Maysles’ documentary. (It’s fascinating to note that Addams Family Values is Jerry’s preferred film.)
In the next chapter of his life, Jerry met his partner, Robert James Hays, in New York’s Central Park. However, after a personal introduction by Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis, Jacqueline Kennedy’s second husband, Jerry landed the job of palace gardener and caretaker of priceless art for the Saudi royal family. For eighteen months, he lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Jerry earned a substantial amount of money overseas, which Robert invested wisely. When he returned to New York, Jerry’s and Robert’s bond deepened and they forged a new business together, AAA All Boro Trucking. In less than a year, the business was running non-stop.
Then, in the mid-1980s, their lives were upended by the specter of AIDS. Robert got sick and his health declined rapidly. “His state was horrifying,” Jerry reveals, adding that he had lesions all over his brain. “Those images of him are forever ingrained in my head.” Jerry cared for his partner until his death in 1987.
“After Robert passed, I went into a deep depression. I was alone. Just about everyone we knew had also died. I became a drug addict and isolated myself in my East Village apartment. Then I was diagnosed with HIV and hep C. I resigned myself to accept my fate—as I had all my life.
“I could see no way out except to die. My savings were gone. I was six months behind in my rent. I was alone,” recalls Jerry in his memoir. “As I stood in my bathroom and looked at someone in the mirror who was literally unrecognizable to me, I was convinced that my last days of life were upon me.…”
Jerry became flushed with nausea and drenched in sweat. He thought he was having a heart attack. He collapsed, but managed to crawl out onto the sidewalk, crying out in pain to pedestrians. He lay there motionless. An ambulance arrived, and Jerry remembers his words to the paramedics before he passed out again…. “I want my life back.”
In the midst of these darkest days, Jerry knew that he was going to survive. “I’ve always had strong faith,” he says. “My faith guided my soul.”
Jerry has a powerful sense of self, which he attributes to his optimistic outlook and positive thoughts. It was a common bond he had with the Beales, who were enormous advocates of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. This belief system enabled all three to be survivors who faced challenges head-on.
Jerry entered the Smithers Rehabilitation Center for treatment. “I came to realize that I had destroyed my own world. Little by little I grew stronger. I joined a gym and began to eat healthy.” (Today, Jerry is in good health and his viral load is undetectable.)
For the past twenty-five years, Jerry has worked off and on as a New York City cab driver. When he was in his fifties, he established himself as a sculptor, holding his first exhibition in 2014 in New York. His artistic journey however, began much earlier. In 1964, at the New York World’s Fair, nine-year-old Jerry was holding his mother’s hand and was in awe as they viewed Michelangelo’s Pietà, on loan from the Vatican. That day, Jerry was overwhelmed with inspiration.
He continues to create art today and has donated works to raise money for GMHC, God’s Love We Deliver and other AIDS-related organizations. Jerry lives in Sunnyside, Queens, New York with his partner of twelve years, Genesis Mannequins USA regional sales manager Ted O’Ryan Sheppard.
Jerry is an active member of the HIV and LGBT communities. “When the virus brought so many deaths to my door, I counteracted the pain by volunteering at various AIDS and LGBT organizations.” As a public speaker he shares his most important message: educate oneself and maintain a healthy lifestyle. “I don’t shy away from being direct. There’s no time for that,” he warns. “I address the issue of IV drugs and their impact on unsafe sex. When it comes to this virus, awareness is paramount, as the heated moment is short-lived. I realize this is easier said than done, but one bad decision can cause lifelong difficulties. HIV still kills.”
“Be aware of what’s in front of you,” cautions the Marble Faun, a moniker Jerry treasures. “One fine summer day, fate took me to the front door of a seemingly abandoned mansion off an untraveled country road. There, I stumbled upon the rest of my life.”
Mark Rebernik is a lawyer, writer, and college instructor in Los Angeles.
Senior Editor Dann Dulin interviewed Wilson Cruz for the June cover story.