A Divine Tragedy
The outrageous Harris Milstead — better known as Divine — died 13 years ago
The name — Harris Glenn Milstead — hardly conjured up images of Hollywood style and glamour. But on March 7, 1988, when Milstead was found dead at 42 of a heart attack in a Los Angeles hotel, fans of cult cinema lost one of their favorite stars: the trash-talking, filth-loving, 300-pound cross-dressing temptress also known as Divine. With only a handful of film roles to his credit, Milstead (whose death was attributed to his weight) had achieved notoriety thanks to his scene-stealing performance in such John Waters campfests as 1969’s Mondo Trasho. Off screen, though, his life bore little resemblance to his outlandish alter ego.
”I miss Divine cinematically, of course,” says Waters, ”but mostly I miss him as a friend.” The two met in 1963, after the actor’s family moved from Towson, Md., to Waters’ hometown of Lutherville, Md. Waters recalls that Milstead was constantly mocked about his weight by their high school classmates (he was cross-dressing by his senior year; he even attended his prom as Elizabeth Taylor). They soon teamed up for a cinematic troupe dubbed Dreamland Productions, and eventually worked together on nine movies, including 1975’s Female Trouble and the more family-friendly romp Hairspray, which was still in release when Milstead died.
But Divine’s most outrageous cinematic moment came in 1972’s Pink Flamingos, in which he dined on canine poop to the tune of ”(How Much Is That) Doggie in the Window?” ”Those early movies were vehicles for Divine,” says Waters. ”They were the best examples to spotlight his extreme beauty and my mental illness.”
Divine would go on to sample some of the Hollywood life he had fantasized about — even arriving at Hairspray‘s Baltimore premiere dressed in a black tux. But his on-screen persona antagonized his family, and he endured a nine-year estrangement from his parents, Frances and Harris — nursery-school operators — before reuniting with them in 1981.
Toward the end of his life, Divine was moving into non-drag roles. Hairspray featured him playing both a housewife and a male TV station owner, and he won praise for his non-drag turn in 1985’s Trouble in Mind. He was in L.A. to tape a potential breakthrough role — as Uncle Otto on Married … With Children — when he died. Today, his mascara-covered myth lives on: Fans who visit his grave in Towson often leave mementos like pink flamingos and spiked heels, and a biography by his mother is due later this year.
”Before Divine, in the old days, drag queens were square,” says Waters. ”And he certainly wasn’t.”
Time Capsule — March 7, 1988
At the movies, Best Actor nominee Robin Williams goes to war in Good Morning, Vietnam. In music, George Michael’s Faith and ”Father Figure” top their respective Billboard charts. In bookstores, the Donald’s business bible Trump: The Art of the Deal is No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. And in the news, documents released by the Justice Department show that the families of four astronauts killed in the 1986 Challenger accident received a total of $7.7 million in a settlement with the government and with rocket manufacturer Morton Thiokol.