Arts & Culture

Edith Massey: The Egg Lady in Her Own Words

Remembering one of Baltimore’s original Dreamlanders on the 40th anniversary of 'Polyester.'

May 1982. Ronald Reagan is U.S. President. Late Night with David Letterman debuts. “I Love Rock n’ Roll” covered by Maryland’s own Joan Jett & the Blackhearts is the hot pop single. And John Waters is packing midnight movie houses with audiences drawn to his singularly shocking style of alt-films.

We are high school seniors at St. Paul’s School for Girls, one of Baltimore’s all-girls prep schools, buddied up in journalism class, and assigned one last article before graduating—a profile of a local celebrity. 

Instead of our classmates’ more staid interview subjects, we decide to go big and bold with Edith “Edie” Massey. Leader of an all-girl punk rock band, Edie and the Eggs. Smutty greeting card model. Most famously, actress in a series of Waters’ dark comedies. A campy character deeply entrenched in Baltimore’s underground arts scene. 

Little do we know that ours would be the last interview the Egg Lady (her character, Divine’s mother, in Pink Flamingos) would give before her death two years later in 1984.

We meet with Massey at Edith’s Shopping Bag, her eponymous downtown thrift shop at 726 South Broadway on the main drag of historic Fells Point. Today, the area is known as an enclave of art galleries, restaurants, and restored Federal-era row houses. Then, it was a gritty low-rent haven for artists.

Bic pens and notepads at the ready, we walk in, our plaid kilts, ankle socks, and brown lace-ups mirroring the preppy outfit Massey wore for her role as a late-blooming debutant in Polyester—released a hard-to-believe 40 years ago this week. 

Skipping our gazes over racks of vintage clothes and shelves of salvaged accessories, we zero in on the Egg Lady seated behind the dusty glass display counter filled with rhinestone jewelry and punk rock badges.

A week away from her 64th birthday, Massey is an eyeful. Doughy face crowned with a cap of mussed, mousy-brown curls, clearly a wig. Bow-shaped mouth spot-lit by bright red lipstick. Pudding bag body poured into a tight black, calf-length cocktail dress. She flings a stubby hand to a black-and-white cat curled up on the counter, one of her menagerie of four-legged rescues. 

“This is Lovey,” Massey says, breaking into a big, unguarded grin, our first glimpse of her trademark single brown tooth. “They say cats are like women—jealous and sneaky.” She lightly scratches Lovey’s back with her short, red-tipped nails. “In the movies, they show them to be so mean. But they aren’t. They’re so p-r-e-c-i-o-u-s. If you pick up a stray, it shows you got a good heart.”

The other beneficiary of Massey’s good-heartedness perches on a stool to her left, a bird-like woman with Magic Marker-ed on eyebrows and a wild mane of silver and dyed black hair puffing on a Pall Mall. Jean Skila is another rescue, a bag lady until Edith gave her the position of riding shotgun in the shop.

Massey reaches for her resume, two stained sheets of Holiday Inn stationery kept by the register. Listed at the top is her weight (200 pounds), dress size (24 ½) and smile (“unique”). Career milestones follow, including notably leading roles in five John Waters’ cult film hits—herself as a barmaid in Multiple Maniacs (1970), the ovum-obsessed Egg Lady in Pink Flamingos (1972), Aunt Ida in Female Trouble (1974), despotic Queen Carlotta in Desperate Living (1977), and prepster Cuddles Kovinsky in Polyester (1981).

In a recent interview, Waters told us that Massey’s performance in Polyester—as the good-girl bestie to an alcoholic suburban housewife, Francine Fishpaw (played by drag queen, Divine)—is her strongest performance, even if the subtext of some of her lines was likely lost on her. “I’m not so sure when Edie said, ‘Oh God, I wish I lived in Connecticut,’ that she got that joke, but it worked,” he says.

Cuddles would be her final performance in a Waters film. By 1983, she would leave Baltimore and its harsh winters for Venice, California, where she would open another thrift store and co-star in Mutants in Paradise (1984), a screwball sci-fi comedy. Later that year, in October, diabetes and lymphoma would sideline her for good.

“I’d like to travel again, I’m a traveler,” she tells us at the shop, a nod to her early years when restlessness propelled her to pick up and move frequently, often on a whim. “But I like Baltimore,” she adds, as if not wanting to come off as snubbing her adopted hometown. “I have a lot of friends here. I was just on TV with the Go-Go’s. Did you see me? The drummer used to be my drummer.”

She points to the framed poster behind her: “Edie & The Eggs. Edith Massey and Her All-Girl Punk Rock Band.” Massey, leather-clad and snarling with a spider painted on her cheek, mugs for the camera with bandmates Ann Collier, Suzan Wirth, and Gina Schock—the Dundalk native who would go on to international fame as drummer for The Go-Gos. (The band was nominated to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in February 2021.)

“She was definitely a novelty act,” says Waters, who credits “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Punks, Get Off the Grass” as her best recordings. “Was Edie a real punk? No, she was the sweetest person in the world.”

“I can’t sing. I perform,” Massey told us at the shop. “I say stuff like ‘Oooohhh, daddy, do it like I like it, everybody’s got the fever.’” She grinds her gravelly voice down to breathless throatiness and strikes a seductive stare. “Bullshit like that, and they love it.”

“Was Edie a real punk? No, she was the sweetest person in the world.”

Massey was born May 28, 1918, an eventful year in 20th century history, to say the least. America was embroiled in the First World War. A deadly influenza pandemic, the so-called “Spanish Flu,” was hitting its height, a scourge that would claim 50 million lives worldwide—the likes of which would not be felt again until 2020 when the first COVID-19 cases reached the U.S.

From her earliest memory, Massey dreamt of being a “movie star.” Of Austrian and German descent, she spent most of her childhood in a Jewish orphanage in Colorado and later in a foster home from which she repeatedly ran away. Itching to be an actress, as soon as she turned sixteen she hitchhiked to Los Angeles and joined a striptease act.

By 1946, the Second World War was over, and Massey had moved on to Reno. No closer to her dream of stardom, she tried settling down, marrying a returned GI.

 “When I was young, I used to keep love stories in the bottom dresser drawer in the home,” she confides. “When you’re young, you think men come on a white horse. You believe all that baloney.”

She left after getting “restless” and worked odd jobs in Florida and Oklahoma (according to Waters, as the madam of a gas station whorehouse) before settling in Baltimore’s gritty downtown in the early 1950’s, a time when those who could were fleeing the city for picket-fenced lives in the suburbs.

“I worked on The Block for 12 or 13 years,” she blurts out without blinking, referring to the city’s red-light district.

In its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, the 400 block of East Baltimore Street was a must-stop for touring striptease performers, most famously Blaze Starr. By the time Massey hit town, the burlesque houses had given way to a seedier assortment of strip clubs and sex shops.

“You’d never think I was one of those girls with the dresses cut down to here, but I was,” she adds, gesturing to the rhinestone broach straining to hold together her dress’s V-neckline.

If Massey possessed a superpower, it was figuring out what people wanted from her and giving it to them. And then some. It was a quality Waters would pick up on at their first impromptu meeting in 1968 at Pete’s Hotel on South Broadway, where she tended bar, serving up wisecracks and 15-cent drafts to an eclectic mix of locals.

If Massey possessed a superpower, it was figuring out what people wanted from her and giving it to them.

By then, Massey was 50 and looking every year of it, down to 10 teeth and past her window for filling the glamorous leading lady roles she once had fantasized for herself. Fortunately, Waters held to a radically different definition of beauty, one not predicated on a pearlescent smile or sylph-like model figure, but on uniqueness.

“She had a look,” Waters says. “That hairdo was very old-fashioned, but it was one that no one else had. The teeth. People were shocked by it, but she turned it into a beauty mark in a way.”

“They all came in, these hippie-type people and John, an’ I dunno, they all liked me,” Massey remembers, referring to Waters’ “Dreamlanders”—his stable of cast and crew members that included Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead), Mink Stole (Nancy Paine Stoll), and, very soon, Massey.

“She had a delivery that was so original, with the loveliest way of mispronouncing words,” Waters says. “She’d say things like, ‘I just sell little trinklets.’ There’s outsider artists. Edith was an outsider actress. Somebody could play her in a movie, but nobody could make that up. She couldn’t have been directed to have that voice or that kind of delivery.”

“John is real good for me . . . he’s a perfectionist,” Massey told us. “Oops, I shouldn’t say that. He’ll make me work harder,” she added with a giggle.

“I did make her work hard,” Waters remembers. He admits to being “a stickler for actors saying the exact dialogue.” This was a challenge for Massey, who often had trouble memorizing her lines. 

“Making those early movies was not easy for anybody, much less a woman who was probably not in the best health,” he says. “They were 24 days, filming outside and everything. We had big generators shooting night scenes at three in the morning. Like all young people when they make movies, they are torture to make. Edie did work hard and she never complained. I give her great respect. She was a pro always.”

A dark-haired woman walks into the shop, and Massey presses pause on our interview to ask, “You get the job?”

 “Think so. Interview went pretty well,” the brunette replies, browsing a rack of dresses.

“Gawd, you went with that wild hairdo!” Massey shrieks.

The woman shrugs. “I’m getting it cut tomorrow. I don’t think it looks too wild. I’ve been out in the wind.”

“I like it the way you get it cut,” Massey says quickly, as if it’s just occurred to her that maybe she’s treaded on tender feelings. “Think he could do that with mine?” She cuts us a look and whispers, “I’m just teasing her. I wouldn’t if she wasn’t a friend.” She turns back to the woman. “At least you’ve got hair.”

Massey searches through her nest of knotted curls and pulls out a hairpin, which she uses to clean her left ear and then her right while we watch in grossed-out fascination.

Clocking the looks on our faces, she lets out a snort.

“Sometimes I’m so much myself I hate me. No, I don’t. I like me. I have to like me.”

“She hated that she had her snaggleteeth,” Waters remembers, “but when the dentist in Baltimore went on television and gave her a full set of good teeth, she didn’t like them, so he made her a set of snaggletooth ones.”

“Sometimes I’m so much myself I hate me. No, I don’t. I like me. I have to like me.”

In the shop, Massey turns her attention to another customer, who holds up a faded 1920’s flapper frock. “I’ll give it to you for $2.50,” she calls out. “One of those scarves oughta look real nice with it, too,” she adds, shamelessly upselling, but gently so.

The sale is made, and Massey invites us all to her birthday party at The Marble Bar. Housed in the rathskeller of the historic Congress Hotel at 306 West Franklin Street, from 1978 through the mid-1980s, the no-frills nightspot was a must-stop for up-and-coming punk rock and new wave bands including the Psychedelic Furs, REM, and Iggy Pop. Today the hotel has been converted into rental apartments, the former Marble Bar slated for a coffee bar and bakery.

“Now you two keep in touch,” Edie calls out as we gather our things to go. “Maybe you can work in some of John’s films. I can’t promise you’d get paid. I don’t have anything to do with that end of it. But maybe…”

While sneaking out to the Marble is probably doable, appearing in a John Waters film isn’t in the cards for either of us. We’re not going to scarf down eggs in a playpen as Massey does in Pink Flamingos, let alone act out the taboos Waters writes into his dark comedies in service to making “trash” beautiful.

Between the two of us, we’ll go on to college and graduate school, get married, have babies, and relocate to New York as a novelist and Los Angeles as a screenwriter—the latter just blocks from the Venice outpost of Massey’s thrift shop. For decades, we’ll forget our afternoon with the Egg Lady. Until the COVID pandemic when one of our teenage sons downloads Polyester from Amazon and discovers our interview filed away in a storage box in the garage.

“Me and all my friends have grown up in such a weird sort of city [Venice Beach], that seeing a movie about a strange suburban life is refreshing in the opposite sense,” he says. “It’s totally different from what me and my friends know.”

When Waters was shooting Polyester, Hairspray (1988), his breakout commercial hit, was still seven years away. Like the neighbors protesting pornography in the opening scene of Polyester, not everyone in the Severna Park suburb where he filmed was happy to have him there.

“Suburbia was always, in the old days, enemy territory for me,” Waters admits. “It was the people that hated us and didn’t like our movies and would try to censor them. Nowadays it’s different. But at the time, suburbia was the opposite of how we lived. We were scared of suburbia, not downtown Baltimore. We didn’t want to live in that house, and we didn’t want to wear polyester clothes.”

Looking back through the lens of 40 years, Waters has nothing but admiration for his muse and friend. 

“Edie was a sweetheart,” he says. “Audiences loved her from the very beginning. The other actors loved her. She got the fact that we were a bunch of lunatics, running together outside of society because she grew up like that. She grew up tough. I don’t think she was a stripper ever, but she did work in that world and saw a lot of rough behavior, but she survived all of it.”

Meet the Authors: 

Kendell Shaffer has published a YA novel, Kalifornia Blu and sold a TV pilot, Downtown, to ABC Studios and a TV movie, Team Julia, to Lifetime Television.

Hope C. Tarr is the author of 25 novels for Penguin, Harlequin and Macmillan. She is a SPJ-winning freelance writer whose work has appeared in Baltimore magazine, USA Today, and The Irish Times. She is also a co-writer with Emmy award winner Linda Yellen on Stolen Kiss, an indie feature in development.

Hope and Kendell started writing together in journalism class at St. Paul’s School for Girls in Baltimore. They are developing a TV pilot based on Hope’s Suddenly Cinderella novels.