REMEMBERING ALBERT MAYSLES
A Conversation with the “Marble Faun” of Grey Gardens: JERRY TORRE
By Tyler Malone
I was one of the lucky few invited to Film Forum”s premiere screening of Albert Maysles” final film, The Love We Make. Shot in Maysles” classic cinéma vérité style, the film chronicled the experiences of Beatle Paul McCartney in NYC in the wake of the attacks on 9/11. The film got its title from the Beatles song, “The End,” with its lyric, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
At a bar after the screening, I spoke with the filmmaker about his life and work. He was as kind and generous in conversation as his subjects had always claimed he was in filming them. When a friend offered to take our picture, he kept directing her to “get closer.” More than once he ordered, “Just the heads! Just the heads!” It somehow made sense that he wanted an extreme close-up. He dealt with his material in the same way. He wanted to examine it closely and see it for what it was: good and bad, beautiful and ugly. But his lens was never judgmental; with that closeness always came compassion.
Cinéma vérité as a style may be sometimes labelled as cold and distant, but anyone who has seen any of the Maysles” documentaries can attest to the empathy each frame evokes within us towards the filmed subjects. In looking at the Beales in Grey Gardens, one could see how easy it would have been to make a mockery of these women–to make the kind of exploitative take-down that is all too common on reality TV these days. That”s not the Mayslesian way. For them, truth comes in understanding, and there”s no understanding without compassion.
If the Beatles lyric is to be taken as a truism, then Albert Maysles must have received a lot of love in his lifetime, because he sure brought a lot of love into the world through his life and work. Grey Gardens, arguably the most famous of his films, is still worshiped by countless adoring fans to this day. I spoke with Jerry Torre, who appears in Grey Gardens–he”s the boy Edie calls the “Marble Faun”–as he remembers Albert Maysles as a filmmaker and a friend.
Tyler Malone: How did you first get involved with the Beales?
Jerry Torre: I was working at a nearby estate as an assistant gardener. My chores were very routine, so I usually found my work complete by midday. I had the rest of my days open to enjoy. Each afternoon, weather permitting, I would ride my blue Puegot cycle. This one afternoon I decided to take a different road I had never been down before. The hedges were the tallest I had ever seen, the country road grew narrow. Turning left onto a one-lane country road, my eye caught glimpse of one peak of this hidden mansion. I had in my excitement lost my footing on my bicycle pedal, clumsily falling onto the pavement. That day and night I had begun a pilgrimage to the exact spot where I studied the mansion from the edge of the property. Our introduction was begun on my trespassing onto the grounds, then to the car, and finally up to the front porch.
TM: What do you think it is about the Beales that allows them to continue to intrigue viewers of Grey Gardens even to this day?
JT: The isolation of the mansion and the reclusive nature of Mrs. Beale and Edie was one element of mystery. Their very unique personalities, manor of speaking, and rich history attract many. In Mrs. Beale and Edie, I had learned to admire their devotion to themselves, and the lifestyles they chose to live. Their passion to sing and to perform in the arts was shunned. The independence they exhibited–a drive to be who a person is born to be–seems to be understood by many in our world.
TM: For you, was Grey Gardens as Edie says, “oozing with romance, ghosts, and other things”?
JT: Each day at Mrs. Beale”s home, Grey Gardens, was unlike any other. The topics discussed were very stimulating, the very house had a presence all of its own. One morning walking through the kitchen for the first time in my life, I felt a presence, yet I was completely alone. I did bring up my experience with Mrs. Beale, who told me, “It was T. Logan who was watching you, he passed away in the kitchen.” I had been using his cot as my bed in the library!
TM: The Maysles were already known as documentarians when they came to Grey Gardens. What were the thoughts behind the scenes before they came? What did the Beales think would come of the documentary?
JT: Al and David had arrived earlier that year with Edie”s cousin, Lee Radzill. She had hired them to make a film based on her childhood that would be a sort of “home movie.” But, after seeing the footage, she decided she didn”t want to go through with it and shelved it. Al and David were so intrigued by Mrs. Beale and Edie, however, that they returned to shoot their own film, which became Grey Gardens. Neither Edie nor Mrs. Beale had ever heard of the Maysles before this. Me neither! Mrs. Beale was quite comfortable with Al and David. For Edie, it was “showtime.” The nights before the new day Edie would prepare clothes for the next day of filming. In the beginning the mansion was virtually unknown except for some locals. The overgrowth did drape all over most of the mansion, further hiding it from the road. I felt very safe at home, and my world was private. A certain peace, a certain mystery lived at Mrs. Beale”s home. Once the filming began just after the great raid, which was quite intrusive, the tone began to change. A certain climate of competitive nature began between Mrs. Beale and Edie. Mrs. Beale really didn”t talk about the film once it was done; it just didn”t matter to her. Edie, of course, thought it would launch her to stardom–which, in a funny way, it did.
TM: Grey Gardens is now considered one of the great documentaries. I wonder what it was like when the Maysles were shooting it. How would you describe the shoot?
JT: So much went on! A lot of which never made it on film. Al and David were very respectful of Edie and Mrs. Beale. It was new for everyone including Mrs. Beale, Edie, and me since no one had been inside the house for many years but the three of us.
TM: When you first saw the film were you hurt by Edie”s responses to your presence when you were off camera?
JT: I talk about this a lot in the book I am writing. Yes, I had very mixed feelings about all of it. I was very hurt and surprised, and I did attempt to talk to Edie about this after the film, but she ignored the question. Her response was “How do I look in this costume?”
TM: How would you describe Albert Maysles as a person and as an artist?
JT: He was a man of many talents. Insightful, worldly, and very kind to me.
TM: How did your friendship with him develop over the years?
JT: I had been out of touch with him for many years, and it was through sheer chance that we reconnected. (I believe a higher power was at work, however.) It was about the time of the musical, and it was because of that and the renewed interest in his film that we resumed our friendship. I also want to say he was very supportive of my artwork and in my decision to tell my story. It was because of his encouragement that I finally decided to write my own book about my experiences at Grey Gardens, which I have been working on for a while now with my co-author, Tony Maietta. (It should be out later this year.) I want to mention that Albert wrote the introduction to the book shortly before he died, which was such a blessing!
TM: What memory of him have you kept coming back to in the days since his passing?
JT: His unique outlook on life: completely accepting and non-judgmental. I keep thinking about our reunion, all those years later, and going back out with him to see the house after all those years. It was very special to be out there again with him.
TM: One of my favorite lines from Grey Gardens is “It”s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.” It always felt to me as though that line gives the documentary its backbone, its throughline, which is why I think the Maysles put it at the beginning of the film. Now, in the context of his death, I”m curious what you think about the idea of keeping the line between the past and the present?
JT: Well, that is a theme that I am finding very personal at the moment, particularly since I have been working on my book. So “the line between the past & the present” is very blurry right now. And the idea is so much more relevant dealing with my own past in my current reality. It is a very thin line, and one that gets thinner as the years go by. I am so grateful for my past–the film–for how on earth would I have explained the complex nature of what I had witnessed in my life if it weren”t for Grey Gardens? No one would have ever believed me!
Jerry Torre is an artist and writer in his own right, but is perhaps best known as the “Marble Faun” in the Maysles” iconic documentary Grey Gardens.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Clint Spaulding for PatrickMcMullan.com
Design by Mina Darius
Albert Maysles and Jerry Torre, Photography by Clint Spaulding for PatrickMcMullan.com