When people die there is usually an element of shock to the news, but when I heard Jean Hill passed away this week (8/21/13) I wasn’t shocked, since her health struggles had long been documented. But it was tragic nonetheless — I knew her well in the ’80s and considered her a friend.
She was originally best known to the public as a John Waters “discovery.” When John met her she already had acting experience in local theater productions, but it was simply her presence and projection that convinced him to sign her for Desperate Living in 1977. She was earthy, outrageous, hilarious and somehow regal while still being “street” long before the term was coined. Their first meeting was memorable for other reasons too. Both were nervous. In his book Shock Value, he claims she “goosed him,” but apparently even the master of bad taste was too embarrassed to admit she grabbed his dick or at least made a serious feint for his crotch (she claims the former — “He made me so nervous I went to grab for his hand and grabbed for his dick and shook it.”) One wonders how this could be possible if John was fully clothed, and maybe she was just being rhetorical, but in any case it was the kind of typically outlandish and irreverent gesture that was her calling card.
But still . . . nervous? Could the mighty Jean Hill in her very heart have been a deeply sincere, vulnerable and perhaps even a (gasp!) shy person? Actually, I think she was, and her outrageous persona was a way to compensate for this and connect with people and get them to drop the bullshit, prejudice and affectation and deal with her person-to-person. She refused to be labeled. She was fat, she was black, and her health problems forced her to become a kind of permanent “patient,” and she was sometimes on welfare so she was also filed as a “charity case,” but she refused to be put in any of these boxes or to be looked down upon. She was forged in defiance. There is nothing unique about that — the ghetto is full of defiant people, but it becomes special when that defiance is coupled with intelligence, wit, humor, compassion and a flair for the absurd, and that’s what made Jean stand out in any crowd.
Her participation in Desperate Living took a lot of courage, if that’s the word, for a black woman since the black community never related to John’s work and her mom hated him (and according to Jean most other white people). Previous to her arrival, the only blacks you saw in his films were awestruck pedestrians being filmed secretly to catch their reaction as Divine sashayed down the sidewalk, but now he had his own soul diva. And yet even though her style and attitude was 100% urban black Baltimore, she never specifically played to a black audience, and many didn’t think of her primarily as a black performer. And despite the X-rated bombast, she was described by those who really knew her as a classy woman. Amen.
Although closely associated with Waters through the ’70s and ’80s, she never really had a film acting career, partly because of ongoing heath problems. And unlike some of his other stars, she never worked for other directors and was in fact in only in three of his films: the aforementioned Desperate Living as well as Polyester and later in the 90s A Dirty Shame. In the mid-’80s she followed Edith Massey’s lead and went on to gain a certain celebrity as a greeting card model, exposing her bulk in a series of campy photo-plays, and became a gay icon of some note, and in the late ’80s made a few appearances in soft-core porn magazines that catered to chubby chasers. Other offers came her way, and there was talk she would play the “love judge” in a sex-advice TV series, and that TWA would cast her in a commercial for wide-body airliners.
In 1983, I was in Baltimore to attend John Waters’ Christmas party. As I was to learn, her entrances at these events always caused a stir, leaving the quieter likes of fellow attendees such as David Byrne in the shadows. While Divine could be reticent to the point of invisibility at times, and Edith Massey’s eccentricity was always in a lower key, Jean Hill was ever larger than life. She didn’t suffer pretension easily, and her verbal blasts cut through the cocktail chatter like a blowtorch.
I made her acquaintance that night, and as the party drew to a close we both caught a ride home with a Liberace impersonator who drove a gold Cadillac. I gave him the address of the dive hotel where I was staying, and I was charmed when Jean remarked that the next time I came to Baltimore I should stay with her in the ghetto instead of some raggedy-ass old flophouse.
In March 1988, I did a phone interview with her for a magazine I was self-publishing called Pandemonium. She was in fine fettle that day and raved on for almost three hours in her animated, bellicose style that was punctuated throughout by fits of laughter, even though she also trod upon deeply personal and at times tragic territory. It was laced with sexual advice that would have made a sailor blush and peppered with philosophical ruminations on death, racism, how obesity is culturally conditioned, why alcoholics are better lovers than drug addicts, and just about every other subject under the sun. She told of her early days as a teenage groupie down at the Royal Theater (Baltimore’s equivalent of the Apollo where the biggest stars in black entertainment performed), and of her combustible relationship with Divine, who had just died and whom she had known long before she met Waters when they both hung out at Eddie’s drag bar. She had just gotten out of the hospital and explained how she had won over a horde of hostile doctors and nurses with equal parts attitude, feistiness and sweet talk. It was an epic monologue that left me in a state of amazement and chagrin, and it took me a full week to transcribe as I painstakingly sought to capture the rhythm and cadence of her verbal style with slang and laughter intact. (The edited version appeared in Pandemonium 3 and later in Desperate Visions, both out of print.)
In 1988, I returned to Baltimore for another one of John’s Christmas parties, and again checked into the meanest flop I could find. I got settled in and that afternoon cabbed over to Jean’s apartment. She made coffee and we chatted. She was tired out and expressed the need to take a nap, but first she showed me the piles and stacks of letters people had recently sent her, all of it the fruit of her appearance in a chubby-chasing glossy called Jumbo. While she dozed off, I sat on the couch for an hour or two and read them. It was an amazing assortment of marriage proposals, sexual come-ons and surreal confessionals penned by fetishists, semi-literate hillbillies, prisoners, soldiers and guys scribbling away for hours on hotel stationary. All the lonely hearts of America. She was thrilled by it. They lusted after her, they worshipped her, they respected her and they wanted more! The other models had engaged in penetration shots, but her pictorials were basically what you saw in the greeting cards, very chaste stuff, and this really drove their imaginations. They confided their problems and poured out their souls on page after page of carefully handwritten script to this woman who “lights the fire that isn’t supposed to be lit,” as one put it. (She allowed me to borrow a selection of them, and I later made copies and mailed her back the originals, and that formed the content of a fanzine I published called Jean Hill We Love You.)
After she awoke she cooked us up a mess of soul food, and then she dressed up and I got into my suit and it was time to go to John’s. She had also invited her landlord to come along because he had a car and could give us a ride. It was an old station wagon full of junk, and the suspension was shot. He and Jean squeezed into the front, and since there was no back seat I was obliged to crawl into the rear space and assumed the only position that was possible, lying flat out on my back. As soon as he pulled away from the curb, they started arguing about the best route to take to get to John’s new house. Every time he made a hard swing on Jean’s instructions, I got tossed around with the empty oil cans and beer bottles. But I started thinking to myself, “How great is this?” Jean and her landlord were engaged in some hilarious back-and-forth and we were on the way to John Waters’ annual never-never land, and this would really be arriving in style. I never wanted this ride to end. And it almost never did end … I think we criss-crossed the city several times. John hated the landlord and the fact that Jean had been bringing him to the Christmas parties in recent years. He was an old white codger with coke bottle glasses and a poker face, and when he started grinning he looked downright sinister. In other circumstances he was exactly the kind of guy John would have cast in a film, but when we arrived he took Jean aside and gave her a serious talk. You can imagine how much good that did.
The last time I saw Jean was at John’s party in 1991. That was the last one I went to as I moved to the Bay Area and later to Denmark and was never back in the neighborhood, so to speak. But I heard that the following year Jean had a new heath crisis and attended his party with oxygen tanks in tow, and that later in the evening everyone was taking hits off her air and John was scared shitless the house was going to explode in a fireball.
Jean Hill was an American original and a true force of nature. She cheated death so many times and battled back from so many personal tragedies that you’d need a calculator to keep track, but even hurricanes eventually lose their strength.