As It Happens

For sale: Grey Gardens. Film's caretaker takes us inside $20M mansion

The dilapidated mansion at the centre of the Maysle brothers famous documentary is ready to be sold for $20 million, but not before the man who maintained the house for Big and Little Edie heads back for one last look.
Jerry Torre (centre) with Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, (left) and her mother "Big Edie" (right). (Al Maysles/Courtesy of Jerry Torre and Ted O'Ryan Sheppard)

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Big and Little Edie and their giant mound of cat food tins are long gone. But Jerry Torre still can't believe Grey Gardens is being sold for $20 million US.

The Hamptons mansion that gave its name to the landmark 1970s documentary Grey Gardens is up for sale. When the film was made, the house was the home to the aging debutante Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, and her eccentric mother "Big Edie".

They were heiresses and relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who had withdrawn from society to live in exquisite squalor. One of their few companions was their teenage groundskeeper Jerry Torre, who they dubbed "The Marble Faun."

Torre is now a sculptor. But he we went back to Grey Gardens in anticipation of the sale and spoke with As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner.

Susan Bonner: Mr. Torre, what was it like to go back to Grey Gardens?

Jerry Torre: After the 45 years since, going back there, it's a tribute to my friendship with Mrs. Beale and Edie, that I can return to that very special mansion and share those emotions with people. It was overwhelming.
Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale (left), and her mother "Big Edie". (Al Maysles/Courtesy of Jerry Torre and Ted O'Ryan Sheppard)

SB: What made it so special and overwhelming?

JT: Well, shall I tell you the beginning of why it found so interesting and special?

SB: Please.

JT: It was one afternoon, I'd finished my chores and rode my bicycle down one strip of property and there were these hedges. But they were 30 feet tall, which drew me closer to them. There was the one peak of the boy's bedroom that could only be seen from the road. The rest of the mansion was encompassed with overgrowth, from years with no gardener.
Jerry Torre and Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale. (Al Maysles/Courtesy of Jerry Torre and Ted O'Ryan Sheppard)

SB: Did you know there were people living there?
JT: At the time, that afternoon, I did not. I rode back to the mansion and sure enough there was a light on, on the porch, and I remember saying to myself — "someone lives here" — and I was dumbstruck by that. I studied it a little bit, the moon was overhead. A raccoon had run across the pivot on the roof and then another one. There was a car in the driveway — a '37, I believe, Cadillac. That car had been driven into the driveway many years ago, before I arrived, like 30. The door, it was still ajar. It still had the keys in the ignition. With the vines growth over it, you couldn't even shut the door if you wanted to. 
Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale and"Big Edie"were heiresses and relatives of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (left). (National Archive/Newsmakers/Getty Images)
SB: Tell us about meeting Big and Little Edie?

JT: About maybe a month later, I decided to trespass. I went up to the porch. I cleared the little dirty diamond shaped window and I could not believe what I saw. There were cobwebs draped from the ceiling, from the mirror, all over the room in the dining room and all over the library. I knocked on the window and Edie quickly descended from the second floor. I'll remember this until the day I die. I saw her white shoes travelling underneath the banister. The cobwebs were ... literally, it looked like curtains, but they were cobwebs. She walked down the stairs through a tunnel of cobwebs that lead to the front door.

Of course, the smell of the mansion, it was quite overpowering. It smelt like wild animals. It smelt like fur, frankly, rotten wood smelling — pungent, to say the least. She literally looks at me and says, "Mother, The Marble Faun is here." Later, I found out by learning from Edie and Mrs. Beale, it was the character in a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel. The Marble Faun was a statue carved by a famous character in that book, who was a stone carver, which I am now. 

I said to Edie, I didn't even know her name. I said, "I don't know who that is but I work down the road [...] and if you need any help with the property I'm here, no charge. I'm glad to help you." She said to come back in the morning so we can meet mother, who, of course is Mrs. Beale. It began there with Edie. The next day, I met Mrs. Beale, god bless her. She was dynamite, very bright, very cultured. She was reclining on a chaise longue. I'm dusting cobwebs off of my hair and raccoons are looking at me from the ripped, torn up ceiling. Feral cats are racing away from me and ripping and tearing around. I just couldn't believe the scene in that room, the whole mansion ... time had stopped. The fact that I was invited in was really a milestone of an event.

SB: So many people have described these women as eccentric. How would you describe their lives?

JT: Devoted. Mrs. Beale and Edie were devoted to each other. Mrs. Beale was certainly an eccentric. It's fine to be an eccentric as long as you're not harming anyone or yourself. But she was seen as eccentric because of her love of music and theatre. At the time, I suppose the family was so conservative they ostracized her, for lack of a better word.



SB: One day you were there when their relative Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis came to offer help?

JT: Yeah. She walked right towards the house. I was the only person there. I remember a gesture, she took off these glasses with really round lenses. She looked around. Then she looked at me and extended her hand. She said, "You're Jerry?" I said, "Yes." Then Edie opened the window on the boys room and she's screaming not to let her in the house. I am so stressed out. I look like a dirt bomb and I'm wearing a sweatshirt that's filthy. I didn't look like I should be with this women who happens to be the president's wife. She said, "My aunt and my cousin, they like you, they trust you. It's amazing you're even a guest here." I was really star struck and up tight. Edie opened the main door, which in fact I was glad to get a break from the introduction because I was a nervous wreck.

In this 2009 photo, the "Grey Gardens" house is shown in East Hampton, N.Y. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

SB: Let me ask you this, Grey Gardens is now up for sale for $20 million US. It's beautifully renovated. What kind of person or people would you like to see living in what was once Big and Little Edie's home?

JT: I would be the person to live there if I had that kind of money, which I don't. But the person I'd like to see live there would be an artist — a person who loves music and/or paintings. I would like to see someone who understood the history of the mansion and respect it for the people who loved it, like myself.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more stories about Grey Gardens, listen to our full interview with Jerry Torre.

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