Amid the taboo-shattering and polymorphously perverse chaos that is the John Waters universe, she was an oasis of…well, if not sanity, then certainly an off-kilter form of niceness. Few who have seen the director’s landmark 1972 “exercise in poor taste,” Pink Flamingos, can look at an order of deviled, hard-boiled or sunny-side-up eggs without thinking of the snaggletoothed grin, cackling laugh and one-in-a-million line delivery that were hallmarks of “Edie the Egg Lady,” Edith Massey.
The details of Edith’s early life are sketchy, with sources listing her May, 1918 birthplace as San Francisco, while Massey herself said it was New York. As recounted in the Waters book Shock Value and Robert Maier’s 1975 documentary short Love Letter to Edie, she was soon placed in a Dickensian orphanage near Denver. Sent to work as a maid at 15, Edith ran away and wound up in a reformatory. Dreams of a show biz career sent her on the lam again, this time to California, where she claimed to make her screen debut as an extra in the 1940 Claudette Colbert romance Arise, My Love.
Over the next three decades Edith criss-crossed the country, riding the rails and working as everything from chorus girl to tap dancer in a burlesque house to madam. Along the way she also wed and separated from a soldier named Massey. Her wanderings eventually took her to Baltimore’s seedy Fells Point waterfront district, where she became a barmaid whose motherly, chatterbox demeanor caught the eye of a certain young filmmaker and his oddball cohorts. Waters cast Edith as herself–and the Virgin Mary– in his 1970 dark comedy Multiple Maniacs.
Two years later, she got the iconic role of Divine’s “mentally ill mother, Miss Edie” in Pink Flamingos. Sitting in a playpen, clad only in bra and girdle and demanding that someone fix her a plate of eggs, Edith was at once bizarre yet strangely sweet. She also got to have a happy elopment with beloved Eggman Paul Swift. Waters’ next mutant melodrama, Female Trouble, found Massey playing leather-clad Aunt Ida, who wished hairdesser nephew Michael Potter would dump Divine and “turn nelly.” As she explained to him, “I worry that you’ll work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries. The world of a heterosexual is a sick and boring life!” By the mid-’70s she moved out from behind the bar and opened her own thrift shop in Fells Point, Edith’s Shopping Bag.
Following a villainous turn as Mortville’s evil Queen Carlotta in the Waters-style fairy tale Desperate Living, Massey played cleaning woman-turned-heiress Cuddles, best friend to put-upon housewife Franice Fishpaw (Divine) in Waters’ Douglas Sirk spoof Polyester, where the line “Poor, poor Francine” came out–thanks to Edith’s unique accent–as “Purr, purr Francine.” Along the way she also made a memorable appearance, as John Cougar Mellencamp’s dream woman, in his video for “This Time,” and co-starred in the sci-fi satire Mutants in Paradise. Edith also had a “singing” career as “Queen of Punk,” releasing covers of “Fever” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and the original song “Punks, Get off the Grass.”
Shortly after moving to Venice, California for health reasons, Massey passed on to that big playpen in the sky due to complications from cancer and diabetes in October of 1984.