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Edith Massey

Edith Massey

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Also Known As: Edith Dornfield, Edie Massey Died: October 24, 1984
Born: May 29, 1918 Cause of Death: lymphoma
Birth Place: New York, USA Profession: actor, singer, house madam, barmaid, store owner, dancer

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

"The eerily unhinged Edith Massey, a performer so genuinely eccentric it's not clear whether she deserves an Oscar or a 24-hour nurse." This description, from Newsweek's review of "Polyester" (1981), aptly sums up Massey's appeal. Her appearance was somewhat off-putting: short, squat, snaggletoothed, bizarrely made-up and coiffed. But her sweet nature made her a Baltimore landmark and one of the most beloved stars of cult filmmaker John Waters' early films. Massey's early life was something out of Dickens by way of Damon Runyon: born in an orphanage, she made her way to Hollywood in the 1930s and worked--she claimed--as a tap-dancer. During WWII, she employed herself as a b-girl, "entertaining the troops," and wound up as a house madam in Illinois. When the cops closed in, she fled to Baltimore and wound up by the late 60s as a barmaid in Pete's Tavern, a dockside dive where she was discovered by neophyte filmmaker Waters. Massey made her film debut playing herself in Waters' "Multiple Maniacs" (1971). It was only a bit part, and she made little impact. True "stardom" came with the cult classic "Pink Flamingos" (1972), wherein Massey portrayed The Egg Lady: as Divine's mother, she sat in a playpen...

"The eerily unhinged Edith Massey, a performer so genuinely eccentric it's not clear whether she deserves an Oscar or a 24-hour nurse." This description, from Newsweek's review of "Polyester" (1981), aptly sums up Massey's appeal. Her appearance was somewhat off-putting: short, squat, snaggletoothed, bizarrely made-up and coiffed. But her sweet nature made her a Baltimore landmark and one of the most beloved stars of cult filmmaker John Waters' early films.

Massey's early life was something out of Dickens by way of Damon Runyon: born in an orphanage, she made her way to Hollywood in the 1930s and worked--she claimed--as a tap-dancer. During WWII, she employed herself as a b-girl, "entertaining the troops," and wound up as a house madam in Illinois. When the cops closed in, she fled to Baltimore and wound up by the late 60s as a barmaid in Pete's Tavern, a dockside dive where she was discovered by neophyte filmmaker Waters.

Massey made her film debut playing herself in Waters' "Multiple Maniacs" (1971). It was only a bit part, and she made little impact. True "stardom" came with the cult classic "Pink Flamingos" (1972), wherein Massey portrayed The Egg Lady: as Divine's mother, she sat in a playpen sporting underwear (inspired, said Waters, by Carroll Baker in "Baby Doll") and demanding eggs in a braying voice. It was all so bizarre that it worked. Even weirder was Massey's performance in "Female Trouble" (1975) as the leather-clad "fag hag" Aunt Ida, who throws acid in Divine's face for stealing her nephew, Gator. Even playing such a cruel character, Massey's own dizzy sweetness came through. She wasn't so much an actress as a force of nature, but in "Desperate Living" (1977), Massey actually gave a respectable performance as the evil Queen Carlotta, ruler of the outlaw town of Mortville. Perched atop her throne and--for once--flatteringly coiffed and gowned, she was quite believable as a renegade royal.

Massey spent the next few years touring colleges and nightclubs with her punk band and posing for lewd--and very popular--greeting cards. She also owned a successful antique shop in Baltimore, Edith's Shopping Bag. She returned for her last hurrah in 1981 with "Polyester." Playing Cuddles, a cleaning lady who wins the lottery but remains best friends with her former employer (Divine), Massey once again tottered and brayed her way endearingly through the film. She died in Los Angeles three years later after a brief bout with lymphoma. To this day, Edith Massey presents the same question to audiences as do Mae West and Woody Allen: was she an actress or simply a personality? Regardless, it was impossible to keep your eyes off her.

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Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Divine Trash (1998)
2.
 Mutants in Paradise (1989) Dr Durchfall
3.
 Polyester (1981) Cuddles Kevinsky
4.
 Desperate Living (1977) Queen Carlotta
5.
 Female Trouble (1975) Aunt Ida Nelson
6.
 Pink Flamingos (1974) Mama Edie
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

1934:
Ran away from Denver foster home to Los Angeles
1971:
Acting debut in John Waters' "Multiple Maniacs"
1976:
Subject of documentary, "Love Letter to Edie"
1981:
Last film, Waters' "Polyester"
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Notes

"The key to her appeal was her comic timing that couldn't be imitated (one critic wrote that you could always tell she had a line coming up because she'd start bobbing her head as if she was one of those dolls people put on their back dashboards), and that incredible voice that sounds as if Chatty Kathy and Baa-Baa Blacksheep had somehow mated." --John Waters, 1984.

"Edith didn't have the qualities that make for stardom: impatience, fierce competitiveness, selfishness, greed. She was just too much of a sweetheart ... Edith took acting seriously, but she had no idea what she had gotten herself into. She would memorize her screen directions and say them right along with her lines during shooting." --Cookie Mueller quoted in Village Voice, 1984.

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