By Robert Heide
A slight, shy, sensitive young man named Harris Glenn Milstead from Baltimore, had a loving mother named Frances who doted on him and wondered what might become of her boy as an adult, thinking, could he make it in the ‘real’ world? She needn’t have worried or pondered on his future. Under the tutelage of the slick, driven and ambitious writer and director of experimental films John Waters, Glenn, after gaining 300 pounds, became a ‘drag queen’ who eventually became a superstar, renamed “Divine” by Waters, in a series of outrageous Waters movies. Waters himself said he “was inspired to a life of cheap exhibitionism, exaggerated sexual desires and love for all that is trash-ridden in cinema.” This past summer on vacation at the Jersey shore in Bay Head, my niece Carol screened a documentary film made in 2013 entitled I Am Divine—The True Story of the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Jeffrey Schwarz whose many other films include Tab Hunter Confidential and Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story.
In the 60s and 70s ‘outsider’ shoestring budget films were plentiful and popular, including those made by John Waters, Kenneth Anger, Mike and George Kuchar, and several others. At one point in the 60s I was hanging out at Warhol’s ‘Factory’ where, in addition to his Pop Art, Andy also was making what he called ‘underground’ movies. Everyone at the Factory, including Andy, were on every kind of drug—coke, heroin, methamphetamines or whatever was being freely passed around. I only remembered in recent years after some images of me appeared on the internet that I had acted in two of Warhol’s films, entitled Camp and Batman/Dracula, opposite the great filmmaker and actor Jack Smith. I was also writing plays and in 1965 Warhol became fascinated by my play The Bed which starred two young handsome actors in their ‘undies’ in an existential stasis, drugging and bingeing on booze and not being able to make it in or out of a huge, big bed which comprised the entire stage at the pioneering tiny off-off Broadway theater the Caffe Cino on Cornelia Street. Andy, using the same actors, filmed my play at artist Richard Bernstein’s loft on the Bowery, and it subsequently premiered as a split-screen black and white film at Jonas Mekas Cinematheque which was located then at the 41st Street Theater. After the run at the Cinematheque Andy withdrew the film and deposited it in a vault where it has only recently been rediscovered and is being painstakingly digitized by the Warhol Museum in conjunction with MOMA and the Whitney.
Backtracking now and thinking of Divine who became a unique over-the-top zaftig star sensation in 1972 in the notorious smash hit John Waters Pink Flamingos which attracted stoned-out crowds at the Elgin Theater in Chelsea—now the Joyce—where it was shown at midnight for several years. Divine’s hair, make-up, costumes, and indeed her whole style as well as the design and look of the sets in most of Waters’ movies, were by Van Smith. All the actors were from Baltimore and they included blue-haired David Lockery, Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller and Edith Massey. Playing Divine’s mother, Miss Edie, the grossly overweight Massey sits in a baby crib in Divine’s trailer, wearing only a bra and girdle, obsessively consuming eggs brought to her by ‘Mister Egg Man’ who indulges her egg-eating addiction. If deprived of eggs she screams and cries like a two-year-old. The ridiculous plot of the movie involves Divine trying to defend her title of “the filthiest person alive” from being usurped by Connie and Raymond Marble, a couple who run an inner-city school drug business as well as a baby ring which sells illegitimate babies only to qualified Lesbian couples. Raymond also has a sideline where he exhibits himself in local parks, revealing a kielbasa or chicken neck tied to his penis, shocking women who run off screaming, leaving their purses behind. It is, however, the last scene in Pink Flamingos that made both Waters and Divine famous—to the tune of How Much Is That Doggie in the Window sung by Miss Patti Page, the director has his star picking up doggie poop from a newly made pile and scooping it into her mouth, showing as reality the famous phrase “shit eating grin” while Waters, also the narrator, stating that not only is “Divine the filthiest person alive, but she is also the filthiest actress alive!” In a film famous for its exhibitionism, nudity, voyeurism, sodomy, bestiality, masturbation, gluttony, vomiting, rape, and incest, the act of coprophagia seems to have topped them all in notorious outrageousness.
Divine made many movies for John Waters, including Multiple Maniacs where she is raped by a giant lobster and another where she plays both the victim in a rape as well as the perpetrator, a gross bus driver played by herself. Among my favorite moments on film is where she declares “who wants to die for art?” after which she starts firing bullets into a terrified audience. Other classic Divine films include Desperate Living, Female Trouble, and Cecil B. Demented. As time went on the movies became mainstream and they included Polyester which offered scratch n’ sniff cards, Lust in the Dust with Tab Hunter, and Hairspray, which also starred Ricki Lake, Debbie Harry, and Jerry Stiller. In addition to performing in disco clubs and launching a recording career, Divine also had a stage career before her untimely death at age 43 in 1988. A close friend of mine, Ron Link, who had directed two of my plays, Statue and Why Tuesday Never Has a Blue Monday both starring sultry, blonde Marilyn Roberts, invited me to have brunch at Elephant & Castle on Greenwich Avenue where he was meeting up with Divine who he was directing in a prison comedy satire written by Tom Eyen called Women Behind Bars. Divine ordered up a mushroom omelet dish with brown gravy and, staring at it for a moment, burst out laughing and mimicked eating her meal with her hands in imitation of her most famous ‘scoop-up’ scene in Pink Flamingos. After Ron gave Divine a makeover, as he had done for Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis earlier, turning her into a more glamorous version of herself with new gowns, hairstyling and makeup, Divine made a big splash in a play, also by Eyen, which Ron directed entitled Neon Woman. It had a successful, extended run at a midtown dance club named Hurrahs and co-starred Holly Woodlawn, William Duff-Griffin, Sweet William Edgar, Brenda Bergman, Lady Hope Stansbury, and Helen Hanft, who was tagged by Paris Match “the Queen of Off Off Broadway.” Helen, who starred in one of my plays, entitled Mother Suck, is also in the documentary I Am Divine, along with many other talking heads including Lisa Jane Persky, Tab Hunter, Divine’s mother Frances, John Waters, and Harris Glenn Milstead, aka Divine.
Robert Heide’s most recent publication, Robert Heide 25 Plays is for sale on Amazon. For more on Divine read Not Simply Divine! by Jay Bernard, from Virgin Books. I Am Divine—The True Story of the Most Beautiful Woman in the World is available on Prime Video—Amazon.com.