Edith Massey: John Waters’ Patron Saint

by:   |   Jan 30 2015

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Every director needs a muse, and John Waters found his in Edith Massey. Most famously known as “The Egg Lady,” she was the corset-wearing, ear-splittingly loud actress from Pink Flamingos who wouldn’t stop screaming for her sunny-side-up breakfast. Waters is clearly a genius at spotting some kind of strange sparkle in people, and it was no different with Edith. The two met one night in a Baltimore saloon where Edith was working as a barmaid, and he cast her on the spot for one of his films. The rest was history: Waters ushered her into the spotlight and into a life of cult stardom.

Putting together the puzzle of Edith’s past is tricky, since there are a lot of missing pieces. But one thing’s clear: wherever she went, she ended up on the wrong side of the tracks. One of 10 kids, she was placed in a Denver orphanage, where she spent most of her childhood. She’d go on to live with several families, but things inevitably combusted each time—she ran away from every home, got caught, and was always dragged back by the local police. At 16, she ran away to California for good to become a star. When actualizing that dream proved tougher that she imagined, she set out across the country hitchhiking from place to place, dancing in honky tonks, and even working as a madam in an Illinois brothel. Massey finally settled in Baltimore (she heard that “the pickins were good there”) and became a barmaid at Pete’s Hotel, where worked for 15 years before meeting Waters there in 1969.

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The mustachioed director recognized her star quality right from the jump, and asked her to be in his film Multiple Maniacs. True to his gonzo style, he shot a scene with her for the film right there on the spot. A few years later, Massey quit her job at Pete’s, and opened up a thrift store in Baltimore called Edith’s Shopping Bag. Can you even imagine the treasures she was holding on to? And can you imagine the smell of the place?

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Massey appeared in many of Waters’ films, including Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living, and Polyester. But she’s best known for her role in Pink Flamingos as Divine’s mother, an egg-loving lady who spent her days in a baby’s crib. The downright weird performance made a lasting impression on viewers—the nickname “The Egg Lady” stuck.

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In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Massey capitalized on her b-movie fame and began touring as the lead singer of a punk band called Edie and the Eggs. Their most memorable “hit” was “Hey Punks, Get Off the Grass,” and we’re lucky that some recordings have survived—here’s a 1979 performance on the Sunset Strip:

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Massey made a few other obscure hits before moving to Venice, CA, where she opened up another thrift shop with the money she made from her film roles. She passed away in 1984 due to complications with lymphoma and diabetes, but Waters still speaks lovingly about his time with Massey. Here’s a clip from one of his stand=up appearances where he tells some stories from their friendship:

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Though you’d never imagine them as buddies, there was obviously a special connection between Massey and Waters. And to his credit, he made a star out of the most unlikely lady. After all, it’s not often that you see a woman like Edith—an incredibly awkward actress with “unconventional” looks and some likely mental instability—on film. Luckily, Waters embraced her oddness and saw it as a beautiful gift to his audiences. So let’s raise a glass to Edith, our kind of star.

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Jenny

Jenny

Creative Director of G.A.L.
Jenny

Latest posts by Jenny (see all)

  • BladeRunner

    What a legend she was.