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Forever Divine: A Drag Diva Still Reigns

October 22, 2000|From Baltimore Sun

Even in death, Divine--the larger-than-life female impersonator made famous in John Waters' films--lives on.

His Towson, Md., grave site, on a tree-shaded knoll overlooking a suburban grocery store and a mega-mall, carries on the memory of the flamboyant 320-pound drag queen, born Harris Glenn Milstead 55 years ago this week in Baltimore.

On any given day at Prospect Hill Cemetery, final resting place of some of Towson's most upstanding citizens, a visitor might find lipstick kisses on Divine's tombstone, and passionate love notes, plastic pink flamingos, spike heels, dresses, cosmetics, even M&Ms and doughnuts, left nearby.

"It makes you feel good that people remember," says Frances Milstead, Divine's 80-year-old mother, who lives in Margate, Fla. "I guess they'll never let him die."

It's been 12 years since her son's death. Milstead is busy writing a book about the shy, overweight boy who was taunted by classmates about his size while growing up. It will be titled, appropriately, "My Son, Divine," and is expected to be released next year.

"I heard so many stories," she says. "I'm going to write the truth."

Milstead last saw her only son, whom she calls "Glennie," just a few months before he died, at the 1988 Baltimore premiere of "Hairspray."

Unlike Waters' previous films, "Hairspray"--in which Divine played a man and a woman--targeted a more mainstream audience. Earlier works, such as "Mondo Trasho" (1969), "Pink Flamingos" (1972) and "Female Trouble" (1974), which have achieved cult status over the years, were considered raunchy by most standards and drew the incessant ire of film censors. No one who's seen "Pink Flamingos" will ever forget Divine as Babs Johnson, the "world's filthiest person," snacking on dog droppings, among other debaucheries.

But the risque movies provided Milstead, a former hairdresser, with a vehicle for fame and notoriety. He went on to a successful cabaret career in Europe, and had begun playing more male roles when he died. He achieved some note as a gangster in "Trouble in Mind" (1985), with Kris Kristofferson and Genevieve Bujold. He also was preparing to play Uncle Otto on the TV sitcom "Married . . . With Children."

But before the segment was taped, Divine died of a heart attack, attributed to his obesity, in a Los Angeles hotel room March 7, 1988. He was 42.

One of the most recent missives left at Divine's grave ardently promises: "Smooches forever, Divi! I love you with all my heart and will forever."

"That must have been a real friend," says Baltimore filmmaker Steve Yeager, whose documentary "Divine Trash" memorialized Divine and film director Waters in their early years together. "He was Divi privately and Divine publicly."

Divine, whose birthday is Thursday, joins an elite cadre of celebrities whose fans take their hero worship to the graveyard, although his shrine is on a smaller scale than those of some legends.

James Fisher, a director at 110-year-old Prospect Hill Cemetery, wishes Divine's fans weren't so effusive in marking up his tombstone, using lipstick and markers to make such comments as "Make the Halls of Heaven Shine" and "Make Heaven Flashy."

"I don't like them," Fisher says of the visitors. "It's against the law. You can't go in and deface a stone." The grounds crew tries to clean Divine's tombstone on a regular basis, Fisher says.

Waters chuckles over the irony of Divine being buried at Prospect Hill, where such notables as Capt. Charles Ridgely, who was Robert E. Lee's commanding officer, are buried. "He used to steal flowers from there," he says with a laugh.

Waters himself is a regular visitor to the grave site, especially around the holidays, when he and Baltimore casting agent Pat Moran annually carry in a decorated tree. "Divine was a Christmas fanatic," he explains. He isn't surprised his film buddy and cohort is still garnering attention. There's a new generation watching his movies, Waters says. "They probably go there to party," he says. "Divine would love it."

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