My Son Divine, by Frances Milstead, with Kevin Heffernan and Steve Yeager. New York: Alyson Books, 2001. 256 pages, $18.95. ISBN 1555835945
Divine has been dead for 13 years, and let’s face it, his film legacy is skimpy. With his 300 pounds forever squeezed into one or another fashion debacle, he should be tiresome by now. Why, then, do periodic visits to his vaults bring pleasure? Was there some underlying star quality that may be revealed with a peek at his early years? Now you can find out with My Son Divine by Frances Milstead, whose relationship to the book’s subject is evident in the title.
This is not a book for anyone looking to savor the Divine mystique. His trademark humor is in short supply on these pages. My Son Divine is rather a mother’s account of her unusual son, né Harris Glenn Milstead on October 19, 1945 in (where else?) Baltimore. Through her we see her only child grow from healthy baby to choirboy, later retreating for fear of family rejection, and finally enjoying his career and the unconditional love of his parents. Unconditional is right — mother claims to enjoyFemale Trouble (1974), though one suspects for different reasons than most others who have ever gazed upon the cautionary saga of Dawn Davenport.
When Glenn was still a child, Frances noticed he showed little or no interest in sports, but instead gravitated toward stuffed animals. In time he exhibited a desire to be every cliché in the book — florist, hair stylist, interior decorator. Surely the gay panic alarms were flashing in the Milstead home when Glenn developed obsessions with Marilyn Monroe and, in particular, Elizabeth Taylor. He gained weight, avoided gym class, and loved being in school plays. He was the object of the bully’s attention, and regularly came home with bruises and swollen lips. What more evidence is needed of the boy’s divinity?
In time he turned away from the interests of respectable young homosexuals and met with John Waters, Baltimore’s reigning queen of underground movies. The Divine persona was created, and by the late 1960s Glenn was in such no budget sagas as Roman Candles, Eat Your Makeup, Multiple Maniacs,and Mondo Trasho. Then came Pink Flamingos (1972). All of Divine’s wicked and self-possessed screen presence as filthy Babs Johnson is forgotten the moment he eats a steaming dog turd. Ever the uncomplaining trouper, Divine said he did it because it was in the script. “It’s a first, and it’s a last in cinema history,” said Waters. “There’s no law against it, because no one’s ever going to do it again. It’s not even in the Bible.” Another early Waters effort, Female Trouble, showcases Divine more respectfully, as Dawn Davenport evolves from juvenile delinquent to death row harpie, with ample tributes to scrappy gals Susan Hayward,Ida Lupino, and Gloria Grahame along the way. Divine loved playing multiple characters in a single movie, and one can marvel at his ability, in a remarkable scene in Female Trouble, to rape him/herself.
Boosted by disco singles “Born to be Cheap” and “Shoot Your Shot,” Divine had a thriving cabaret career, especially in Europe. Audiences ate up his gelatinous interpretations of dance crazes such as the Dirty Boogie, the Pony, and the Bodie Green accompanied by lyrics like “You wimp! You wimp! Who you callin’ a blimp? I ain’t your Aunt Jemima, and honey, you ain’t my pimp.” Ever the professional, Divine always gave large and small crowds a good show.
In time he stopped looking like Elizabeth Taylor in the Richard Burton years and started looking like Totie Fields in the Ed Sullivan years. By then his comic skills were put to good use in Polyester (1981), Waters’ first big-budget crossover movie. That led to Lust in the Dust (1985), featuring an unforgettable catfight between Divine’s spitfire saloon girl Rosie Velez and Lainie Kazan’s Madame Marguerita Ventura. Then came Hairspray (1988), where he was positively inspired as Edna Turnblad, long-suffering Baltimore housewife turned business manager for her dancing daughter, played by a pre-madeover Ricki Lake. The promise of more was there — Divine was being readied for a regular spot on Married With Children when the end came. He died in his sleep of a heart attack just days after Hairspray opened to ecstatic reviews.
My Son Divine has a somewhat schizoid quality. When covering Glenn’s early years, it reads like a mother’s fond remembrances. During the years of estrangement, the book takes on the tone of a sociological critique, with a cursory examination of drag, Waters, and gay liberation. One suspects this is where co-contributors Kevin Heffernan and Steve Yeager stepped in. The two have fine credentials, most notably as the makers of Divine Trash, the smart 1998 documentary on the early career of John Waters. Then mother comes back, using a spare, friendly, and conversational style. Frances and others overstress that Divine was an uncommonly sweet man, albeit cursed with an inordinate interest in marijuana and fancy clothes. You can almost hear her talking from across a formica breakfast table somewhere in suburban Baltimore, coffee and cigarettes at the ready.
There was always a little something extra to Divine, and I’m not talking girth. The husky voice, the delivery, the winking humor, and the sly references to acting conventions gone by all suggested a bona-fide artiste, not just a painted gorgon. While others around him in Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and even the more palatablePolyester were strange, puerile, or demented, he rose to a higher calling. Any glance at an early John Waters movie will reveal just how much they rely on Divine to sustain our interest. To his everlasting credit, he didn’t overstay his welcome and he never sank into self-parody. He made fun all right, but it was always on his terms. Thank you lord, we have been spared the sight of Divine occupying center square, singing a mawkish ballad on behalf of New York firefighters, or essaying Mama Rose in Gypsy.
At his most heroic, Harris Glenn Milstead could be seen as a freedom fighter, emancipating baby queers everywhere. His means to liberation was satire. Immediately beneath the grotesque impersonation was a devastatingly good send-up on the obscenities of American consumerism. With big hair, make-up, and attitude, Divine was the nightmare result of too many trips to the mall. His was a subversive humor, void of polemics but rich in observation.
John Waters gets the last line: “Divine was a dear friend and my star. He was my Elizabeth Taylor. I could never replace him, and I would never try. I never thought of Divine as a female impersonator. I thought of him as a great character actor that started his career playing a homicidal maniac and ended it playing a loving mother. Which is a pretty good stretch, especially when you’re a 300-pound man. Divine and I will be linked together forever, and I’m glad of that.”