The education of John Waters

The eclectic director has many muses — from Johnny Mathis to Leslie Van Houten — but Baltimore may be his biggest

May 21, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

You might think you know John Waters, but until you read his latest book, "Role Models" — well, to quote Jeremy Irons' Claus von Bulow, "You have no idea."

Waters avidly links his "Baltimore heroes," like the lesbian stripper Lady Zorro ("My kind of burlesque queen"), to far-flung friends and influences. They include "genius fashion dictator" Rei Kawakubo, who once brought him to Paris to model her work, and "outsider pornographers" like David Hurles. They also include artists and entertainers as popular as Johnny Mathis and as widely acclaimed as the psychological novelist Lionel Shriver ("We Need to Talk About Kevin"). Their one common denominator is the encouragement or caution they or their work gave him as he developed and sustained a unique lifestyle and an improbable and enduring career.

Sitting in his North Baltimore house a couple of weeks before publication, Waters says "Role Models" started when the New Directions publishing house invited him to introduce the memoirs of Tennessee Williams, the most poetic of all American playwrights. Asking the auteur of "Pink Flamingos" and "Hairspray" to celebrate the author of "The Glass Menagerie" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" proved to be an inspired idea.

As Waters puts it in his essay, "Tennessee Williams saved my life." For the 12-year-old Waters, growing up in suburban Baltimore, Williams was more than a naughty writer whose books carried the ominous stamp "See Librarian" at the library. "Yes, Tennessee Williams was my childhood friend," writes Waters. "I yearned for a bad influence, and Tennessee was one in the best sense of the word: joyous, alarming, sexually confusing and dangerously funny."

Waters now says, "Once I wrote that piece, I knew that it was time to write a book." The idea of telling the story of his own life through the lives of role models like Williams took hold of his imagination. Waters found it elating to be frank about Williams' direct, even sweeping influence on Waters' life and sensibility. The playwright's work introduced Waters to a gay temperament that transcended stereotypes and embraced the excitement of "sexual ambiguity and turmoil."

Because "Tennessee Williams wasn't a gay cliché," Waters writes, he had "the confidence to try not to be one myself." He ended up spending his summers in Provincetown, Mass., where Williams wrote the line, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." In his own life, Waters would come to depend on close friends he's known for decades. Waters views role models as men and women to learn from, not necessarily to emulate or follow.

One of the greatest subjects in the book is Baltimore. He loves the time he spends in Provincetown. His doormen in New York's Greenwich Village and San Francisco's Nob Hill always tell him, "Welcome home." "But Baltimore is my home," he says, as well as the wellspring of his inspiration. It's here that he found his outrageous wit and established the work and play habits that he brings from city to city. ("An alcoholic one night of the week, a workaholic the other six," he notes.)

He pays tributes to Baltimore characters like irrepressible, foul-mouthed Esther Martin, owner of the "coolest bar" in town, the Club Charles (formerly the Wigwam), who ruled a clientele that shifted from "bums" to "artsy hillbillies, gay outcasts and cool gearheads." (Waters still adores the place. One of Martin's daughters, Joy, still runs it.) Waters says he knows where Baltimore got its creative ferment. "Poor whites came to work in the factories, blacks were already here, and so was old money, white money. That created a typhoon of style and gallows humor."

And not just gallows humor, but self-reflexive gallows humor. "This city has a great ability to laugh at itself." He notes that every time the city has come up with a positive slogan, like the current "Find Your Happy Place in Baltimore," Baltimoreans have made short work of it. " 'The City that Reads' became 'The City that Bleeds,' 'Believe' became 'Be Evil,' 'Charm City' became 'Harm City.' I made up a slogan, 'Come to Baltimore and Be Shocked,' and they finally put it out as a bumper sticker."

The best slogan for "Role Models" comes not from the Baltimore Chamber of Commerce, or from Tennessee Williams, but from another great American gay poet, Walt Whitman. It was Whitman who famously wrote, "I contain multitudes." The characters in "Role Models" reflect wildly different aspects of Waters' heart and mind. They include the impeccably wholesome and inscrutable Mathis and the wild-and-crazy Little Richard.

"I'm amazed by Mathis myself," says Waters; "he is so opposite [from me]." But Mathis the creamy pop singer turned out to be a lovely guy when Waters visited him in Los Angeles and then backstage, after a Christmas show, at Baltimore's Lyric Opera House. Waters fantasizes that Mathis understands the parallel lives they lead as happy single men: "He's a gentleman who lives alone, and he's from another era."

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