Fans of the late drag performer and gay icon Divine, also known as Harris Glenn Milstead, are getting a warning this summer from the cemetery where he’s buried:
“Fans of Harris Glenn Milstead (“Divine”) are welcome in Prospect Hill Cemetery, but please be respectful of the impact of your visit on families who have loved ones buried nearby,” states a sign that was recently posted next to the celebrity’s gravestone.
“Writing on or defacing a gravestone is illegal under Maryland law. Items left will be removed at the cemetery’s discretion.
“By all means, pay your respects to an iconic performer, but help preserve the dignity of this burial ground.”
That’s the message in Towson, Maryland, where Divine was buried following his sudden death from heart failure in 1988. The 300-pound entertainer, who rose to fame in John Waters films such as Pink Flamingos and Hairspray, was 42 and would be 75 today.
The sign was posted after years in which fans would write on Divine’s gravestone or leave “gifts” at the grave as gestures of their affection.
Tributes have included high heeled shoes; costume jewelry; beer; vodka; coins, paper money; tubes of lipstick, fake nails and plastic pink flamingos. The praying hands on the gravestone were often covered with fingernail polish. Messages would read like insults: “Trash Royalty,” “Tracy Turnblad is a Whore,” “The Filthiest Person Alive.”
This is the first time the cemetery has posted a sign related specifically to Divine, or anyone else buried there. It appeared after an admirer of Divine’s from Alabama offered the cemetery money to have all the obscenities and other markings removed from Divine’s gravestone by a stone restoration expert.
“A fan paid to have the grave cleaned, which we thought was lovely,” said Waters. “The Divine estate approved and I did, too.”
People have different ideas about how to pay their respects at a cemetery, “especially when you’re talking about someone as iconic as Divine,” said Noah Brodie, CEO of Divine Official Enterprises LLC., an organization created with Divine’s family to administer his estate and help keep his memory alive.
“I compare it to something along the lines of Jim Morrison’s grave, where people do come and leave things and they do mark the headstone,” Brodie said. “I think it’s a real polarizing kind of thing. Some people think it’s OK. Some people think it’s absolutely not OK.”
Some of Divine’s fans “look at the writing on the headstone as defacing or desecrating the land there,” Brodie said. “Others look at it as celebrating Divine’s career. I see both sides of it.”
Waters said the words that people wrote tended to be lines from his movies and fans of Divine recognize that. But to people who were visiting another grave and weren’t familiar with his movies, he said, they could be taken the wrong way.
“There’s never anything written that’s actually hateful or awful,” he said. “Even when they write, ‘The Filthiest Person Alive’ [a reference to Divine’s character in Pink Flamingos] and that kind of stuff, it’s all meant in the right way. But someone might not know that who doesn’t know the movie.”
Some time ago, he said, “somebody wrote Satan. And my friend Pat Moran said, they really meant ‘satin.” They spelled it wrong.”
Brodie said the closest he’s heard about anyone disturbing anything at the cemetery is a report that someone was selling “dirt from Divine’s grave” on eBay, but that turned out to be a hoax.
“This guy was totally scamming people on eBay, digging dirt out of his own backyard,” he said.
The written tributes have all been well-meaning, he added.
“It’s homage. It’s celebratory…It’s always been love and support for Divine and his career.”
The words and offerings have been a way for fans to communicate with each other and show their appreciation for Divine, but the next family over may not get it “unless they do a quick Google search and see who Divine was,” he said.
“It’s almost an inside joke, if you will. It’s not even a joke. It’s the tongue in cheek for each fan. When they come and visit, they get to see those messages.”
Some of the gifts can be very expensive, including a pair of fire engine red, spiked heel Jimmy Choo shoes that someone left for Divine, said Carolyn Parker Knott, President of Prospect Hill Cemetery of Towson Inc., the organization that owns and operates the burial grounds.
But seeing marks on a gravestone can mar the experience for others, she said.
“That’s illegal in the state of Maryland,” she said. “That’s defacing property, and there was a lot of stuff written on that grave. Front, back, top. Some of the language was offensive.”
Knott compares writing on a gravestone to graffiti on a building.
“Think of when another family nearby has a burial,” she said. “How disgusting is that for them to be standing at a burial and you’re looking at graffiti?”
The cemetery management also has a liability issue with the way some visitors act, because the monuments are heavy and can shift, she said.
When Divine’s mother, Frances Milstead, was buried close to Divine, a couple of mourners “decided to sprawl across the top of Divine’s gravestone to have their photo taken,” she recalled. “Well, that’s dangerous. These monuments weigh well over 1000 pounds. Some of the big ones weigh a ton, and if they shift a person could be seriously injured. This is nothing to fool around with, besides not being respectful…We stopped them because they could have endangered themselves.”
Knott said Prospect Hill has never prosecuted anyone for defacing a grave to her knowledge, and she hopes it never has to. She said the cemetery installed the sign in an effort to deter visitors from marking Divine’s gravestone in the future.
“The purpose of the sign is stated in its message,” she said. “We’re asking people to be respectful of all those buried in the cemetery and to follow the law.”
Prospect Hill has a responsibility to think of all the people who are buried there, said Brodie. “The cemetery is trying to protect the integrity of the other plots, for when families come and visit.”
Following the restoration of Divine’s gravestone, visitors are still permitted to leave objects at the grave, as long as they don’t disturb the grounds or mark the gravestone or offend others.
“We just have to also listen to the people who have graves right next door to it, that maybe when they go to put flowers down they don’t feel like reading” obscenities, Waters said. “So I just ask the people who come to be respectful to the neighbors.”
Groundskeepers will remove food, makeup and objects that might get in the way of grass cutting, but items such as plastic pink flamingos are fine, Knott said.
“We’re always going to leave pink flamingos” at the grave, she said. “Perfectly harmless. Totally appropriate. What do you think of with Divine? Pink flamingos.”
In addition to Pink Flamingos (1972), Divine appeared in Roman Candles (1966); Eat Your Makeup (1968); The Diane Linkletter Story (1969); Mondo Trasho (1969); Multiple Maniacs (1970); Female Trouble (1974); Polyester (1981) and Hairspray (1988) – all Waters films, usually with Divine in drag and playing an outsider or renegade.
Divine branched out to appear in the plays Woman Behind Bars and The Neon Woman and movies such as Lust in the Dust and Trouble in Mind. Performing in drag, he also embarked on a singing career at the height of the disco era. His appearance inspired the look of Ursula the evil witch in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. After he died in 1988, People magazine named him ‘The Drag Queen of the Century.”
And unlike some celebrities who get less attention after they die, Divine has stayed in the limelight. If anything, his fame as an actor, singer and drag performer has only increased since he passed away, and that keeps the visitors coming to Prospect Hill.
Divine’s movies with Waters, once reserved for midnight theater showings, are now presented on mainstream television, even Pink Flamingos. Some have been restored and reissued as part of The Criterion Collection.
Divine is widely credited with paving the way for a new generation of drag performers as seen on RuPaul’s Drag Race and other shows. Brodie’s efforts to keep Divine’s memory alive have paid off with promotional agreements involving fashion lines such as LOEWE and Kat Von D Makeup. He also runs the enormously popular Divine page on Facebook and operates the Divine Museum, a roving collection of Divine-related artifacts and memorabilia that he exhibits at conventions such as RuPaul’s DragCon.
Brodie got a big addition to the collection last year from set designer Vincent Peranio and his wife Delores Deluxe, after they moved to Portugal. This year he got another large collection from Waters and longtime Waters associate Rachel Talalay, including clothes, wigs, shoes and jewelry worn by Divine and others in Hairspray. Brodie is expanding the collection to include items from other characters from Waters movies and hopes eventually to create a bricks-and-mortar Divine Museum.
Next year, Divine stands to get even more attention. March 17, 2022 will be the 50th anniversary of the release of Pink Flamingos — perhaps the best-known of Divine’s movies, the one where he devours dog poop at the end.
Though Divine has an international following, Baltimore City and Baltimore County, where the cemetery is, have always been Divine Central because it’s where Divine and Waters were born and raised, and where they’re continually honored.
In 2018, fans Jesse Salazar and Tom Williams commissioned the artist Gaia, also known as Andrew Pisacane, to paint a four-story-high mural of Divine on a house they own in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. They didn’t get permission as required by law but the mural had so much support, including from Waters, that a city review board let them keep it up. The American Visionary Art Museum has in its permanent collection a 10-foot-tall statue of Divine by the noted British artist Andrew Logan. The city’s tourism office, Visit Baltimore, has featured Divine in its ads.
Perhaps compounding the problem for the cemetery is that Divine usually played someone who broke the law. As Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble, he was a murderer who died in the electric chair. In Multiple Maniacs, he was Lady Divine, who kills her boyfriend and eats his heart. One of his famous lines in Pink Flamingos was: “You stand convicted of assholism!”
Divine was something of a renegade in real life too. He once famously sold his landlord’s furniture from an apartment he rented in Provincetown. He was known for buying things and not always paying for them. In 1988, he sent his mother a fur coat to wear to the world premiere of Hairspray at the Senator Theatre in Baltimore. Shortly after her son’s death several weeks later, Frances Milstead got a note from the furrier: It turns out Divine had only rented the coat for the occasion and the shop wanted it back.
What would Divine think of the way fans visit his grave?
“I hate to put thoughts in his head or words in his mouth, but I would like to think that Divine would appreciate it very much,” Brodie said. “Here we are, half a century after these films have been released. It goes to show how iconic John and Divine are.”
Divine the person was different from Divine the character in Waters’ movies, Brodie said.
“Divine was really a quiet person, kind of reserved, more reserved than the character Divine, so I think he’d be very gracious to the fans,” he said.
On the other hand, Divine the person and Divine the character are both buried at Prospect Hill, as noted in the wording on the newly-restored gravestone. Brodie said he thinks the renegade in Divine might support the more outrageous gifts and tributes he’s received over the years.
“He lived on the edge for sure,” Brodie said. After all, “he sold his landlord’s furniture.”