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Watching himself on stage

As a teen, Jerry Torre befriended two eccentric women living in a decaying mansion. On Friday, he watched an actor portraying him in "Grey Gardens."

Joe Torre, on watching a stage version of yourself, and of characters who are fictions to the audience but who, in fact, were real people who helped shape your early life in "Grey Gardens": "It was a tender moment in my life, so dear to me." (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)
Joe Torre, on watching a stage version of yourself, and of characters who are fictions to the audience but who, in fact, were real people who helped shape your early life in "Grey Gardens": "It was a tender moment in my life, so dear to me." (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)Read more

What's it like to sit in a theater and watch a stage version of yourself - and of others who are only characters to the audience but are very real to you? For 54-year-old Jerry Torre, on Friday night at Philadelphia Theatre Company's Grey Gardens, it clearly was touching, a revisit to a treasured part of his formative years.

It also was a way to share that time with the people seated around him, people he didn't even know, people who in their anonymity came into his world because of what they were watching and how they were responding.

"It just blows me away," Torre said after the show, that the people he knew as a kid "are still living, in these actors. It's mysterious, isn't it, all these years later? God bless them."

Torre, in from New York City, was quiet for a few moments as the house lights came up and the audience began to file out. He looked slightly downward, focusing almost nowhere, contemplative, coming back to the present. "It was a tender moment in my life, so dear to me."

He sat to the rear of the orchestra at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, watching as the musical unfolded and as, in the second half, actor Cole Burden appeared, playing the young Jerry Torre, at age 17 the only real friend of two broke, eccentric, codependent women, Edith Bouvier Beale and her middle-aged daughter, "Little Edie."

In Grey Gardens, the women - relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis - are living in their once-magnificent East Hamptons mansion, now a ramshackle mess they share with scores of cats and, in real life, feral families of raccoons and swarms of fleas, in a world of mold, stuffed thick with cobwebs.

Many of the lines spoken in the second act by Jerry and the women come directly from real conversations captured in the 1975 film Grey Gardens, by documentarians Albert and David Maysles. The story, which obviously resonates with audiences, is also told as an HBO drama this season, and in the 2006 musical, which played for a time on Broadway.

The original documentary captures the women - once socialites in a world of debutante balls and Manhattan salons - long after the household's husband has extracted himself and two sons have left. Only the elderly Edith Beale and "Little Edie" remain.

Edith was the aunt of Jackie O and Lee Radziwill, who stepped in to clean up and stave off the Beales' eviction after the National Enquirer reported in the early '70s that their kin were living a squalid existence in the middle of one of America's toniest towns.

Jerry Torre, who'd been hired at age 16 as the gardener in the mansion next door, already had befriended the women. But he had no idea who they were until he found Jackie Onassis on the property trying to do some damage control after the Enquirer story. "She was very polite," he remembers, "and I was, too."

(She was not wearing the flea collars he attached to his own arms and legs so he could visit and sleep over when he felt like it, next to the grand piano that figures so prominently in the musical's first half, when the Beale family is a pillar of Hamptons society.)

Torre appears in the documentary and the musical without introduction - he just shows up from the neighborhood. There's no mention that he's a Brooklyn runaway fleeing a tyrannical dad, that he's been hired to keep the garden next door - a job he did so well he went on to Saudi Arabia to tend the royal family's personal gardens for a while. Or that he discovered the two women one night when he rode his bike onto the overgrown property to peek inside what he thought was an abandoned mansion.

Mrs. Beale became a mother figure to him, and Torre kept an eye on the reclusive pair, especially the elder woman. "They cooked on the bed. I said, 'Whenever you cook, tell me.' I was worried that Mrs. Beale would knock the Sterno over.

"I'll be honest with you," he says, "I wasn't crazy about eating over there. But I loved her enough to be strong, to say, 'Yes, this corn is delicious.' I was so worried about her setting fire to the bed."

Torre (a cousin of baseball's Joe Torre) was not as close to Little Edie, who in the documentary seems both suspicious and jealous of him at times.

"I didn't know it as a kid, but I think I was a sounding board for Edie," he says. "Mrs. Beale had a grip on Edie's personality - it was almost like Edie was a puppet. They argued till they were exhausted - and the next morning they'd wake up and continue. Mrs. Beale was so strong-minded, and I respect Edie. You get caught up, caring for your parents."

Mrs. Beale - sometimes called "Big Edie" but never by Torre, he says - had had aspirations to become a singer but was held back by her husband, a Wall Street financier who abandoned the family in 1931.

When she died at Grey Gardens in 1977, Torre moved on. Edie sold the house two years later, to former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his wife, the writer Sally Quinn, who restored it meticulously. Edie moved to New York, Montreal, and Bal Harbour, Fla., where she died in 2002, in her early 80s.

Torre says that after he left the Hamptons, he saw Edie only once. He'd returned to New York from a lonely life in Saudi Arabia, and had moved on from his business transporting fine art to become a New York City cabbie.

He was driving past the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue at Central Park when a passenger pointed out a woman on the sidewalk who was oddly dressed and wearing gold snake jewelry. "I turned and looked right into Edie Beale's eyes and she looked into mine. It was the last time I saw her."

One day a few years back, Torre picked up a passenger; she said she was a filmmaker, and he told her he'd been in a documentary. As it turned out, she worked with Albert Maysle and told Torre that Maysle had been searching for him to see how he was doing. The two reconnected and eventually followed the trajectory of the musical.

Torre also has followed his own dream, in what he and his partner, Ted Sheppard, call Torre's Grey Gardens renaissance: He is now a full-time scholarship student at the Art Students League of New York, focusing on a passion - stone carving and sculpture.

He's seen several productions of the musical and counts Philadelphia's as the 25th performance he's attended. "The artistic interpretation of that moment of my life is so tender to me," he told the actors after Friday's show.

As he and Burden, his stage counterpart, hugged, the real Jerry Torre thanked the stage Jerry Torre for a thoughtful portrayal.

"I just think of Mrs. Beale and Edie sitting with me. They would be so thrilled," the real Jerry Torre said.