Divine, in death as in life

Forget the makeup and fierce dresses. Harris Glenn Milstead was a talented star who was loved by many.

Baltimore ... Or Less

October 15, 2000|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff

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

His Towson grave site, on a tree-shaded knoll overlooking a suburban grocery store and a mega-mall, carries on the flamboyant memory of the 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 his 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 Lutherville 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."

A budding career

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

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 before 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 on March 7, 1988. He was 42.

People from all over the world gathered at Ruck's Funeral Home in Towson to mourn the outrageous transvestite, who paved the way for such cross-dressing performers as Ru Paul and Dame Edna. And they have never forgotten the man described by family and friends as gentle, generous and funny.

"We had a lot of laughs together," recalls his aunt, Nancy Milstead, 68, who lives in Towson. "He was the kindest person I knew. Most people saw the flamboyant side."

She compares Divine to James Dean and Marilyn Monroe in attracting continuing devotion from fans.

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."

Popular in death

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.

The Paris grave of Jim Morrison, lead singer of the rock group the Doors, who died in 1971, draws thousands of devoted fans a day. They constantly cover the rocker's tomb with graffiti and send up wafts of marijuana smoke in his memory.

Comedian-actor John Belushi's burial plot quickly became a tourist attraction after he died in 1982. The memorial stone at a small cemetery on Martha's Vineyard had to be moved from one location to another to prevent damage to other graves by numerous visitors.

James Fisher, a director at 110-year-old Prospect Hill Cemetery, wishes Divine's fans weren't quite so effusive in marking up his tombstone, using lipstick and black ink 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."

Joyful thoughts

The cemetery's grounds crew tries to clean Divine's tombstone on a regular basis, Fisher says. "I guess he had a following," he says, sighing.

He says he regularly gets calls from people asking where Divine's grave is located in the cemetery. A guy from Florida, who said he had been Divine's lover, called to ask him to close the cemetery so he could bid Divine a private goodbye, for "closure."

Fisher refused the request.

Longtime friend John Waters chuckles over the irony of Divine being buried at Prospect Hill, located off the 600 block of busy York Road, 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. "I think it's funny he overlooks the Hecht Co. [at nearby Towson Town Center]."

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.

"It's like Lourdes," the French shrine where Christian pilgrims flock, Waters adds. "It's a special place."

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