Monthly Archives: October 2011

Edith Massey’s Long-lost Brother, the College Professor

Brother and sister in an orphanage in 1922

Edith Massey and her brother Morris Grodsky c. 1922

Yesterday while snooping through my office shelves, I pulled out a book by one Morris Grodsky, titled The Home Boy’s  Odyssey: The Saga of the Journey from Orphan Boy to Criminalist.  The title page was inscribed “To Robert Maier with appreciation for your efforts on behalf of my sister Edith (Edie)”.

Yes, Morris was Edith Massey’s brother– one of them.  Around 2004 he found my DVD, Love Letter to Edie, while surfing the Internet.  I knew Edith had a sister who occasionally visited her in Baltimore, but had no idea about a brother.  In all our conversations, she never mentioned him—or at least never made a big deal about him.  Morris and I exchanged emails and phone calls for a while, and he sent me his book, one of several he wrote and published.

Morris was quite accomplished.  He went to college, and got a Masters Degree in Criminology.  He headed the San Mateo, California crime lab for years, and then spent many more years in the Caribbean and South America training policemen for the U.S. Department of Justice.  He taught advanced forensic courses at several universities.  Morris was 85 years old when he contacted me, and had retired to Florida many years before.  He wrote for the local newspaper and played bridge with the other old folks in a typical upscale Florida retirement community.  No one knew he was the brother of one of the most famous underground movie stars of the 1960s and 1970s.

What a very different path he had taken from Edie.  He knew of her career, and admitted that only recently had he realized how popular she was, and regretted not being closer to her in her more difficult times.  He was pleased and grateful that he could communicate with me, and maybe capture some of what he had missed.  He was full of questions, because he never had contact with people from Edith’s show business life.  “We had both taken different paths, and they just never crossed,” he told me.

I was planning a larger documentary about Edith’s life and work, and Morris was anxious to include tales of their life together in the orphanage where they were sent during the depression, and contribute his insights to her many fans.  He and Edith were two of ten children, and their mother and father just threw up their hands one day, dropped off those who couldn’t fend for themselves at a local orphanage or “home,” and disappeared.  Unfortunately we couldn’t round up enough funds to get the documentary going, and other work pushed it to the back burner.

Morris wrote a book about the orphanage life, which he claims was not so bad, but I haven’t found it.  Edie’s story, as she tells it in Love Letter to Edie, is that she was sent from the orphanage to a foster home.  The family was so mean that she ran away to Hollywood.  Edie was only a teenager at the time, but bound and determined to be a part of the Hollywood Dreamland.  Forty years later, she was discovered by John Waters and his Dreamland Studio in a cheap Baltimore artist bar.

Feeling nostalgic, I decided to contact Morris again.  It had been a few years, but I still had his email address and zipped off a quick message.  Not hearing anything by the next day, I Googled his name.  It turns out my email was a letter to the dead.  Morris passed away on December 19, 2007, according to an obituary I found.  It was a sad moment.  I hope Edith is remembered.  A star in the sidewalk in front of her old Fells Point store would be wonderful.

The photo included is from Morris’ book, and was taken at the orphanage.  The caption says his “little friend,” but he told me it is actually him and Edith (she was 3 or 4).

Read more about Robert Maier’s fifteen years working with John Waters in the new book “Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters.”  Available on Amazon.com and other booksellers around the world.

How I Nearly Burned Down Edgar Allan Poe’s House

In celebration of Halloween, here is a nice Low Budget Hell Story.

Front facade of the Baltimore home of Edgar Allan PoeFilm crews can be pretty careless about others’ personal property when working on location.  For them, it’s here today and gone tomorrow, and if they leave a place a little worse for the wear, well they paid a fee, and that’s how it goes.  But as experts in illusion, they can usually cover their whoopsies pretty well.

Around 1980, I worked on a film about Baltimore’s celebrated 18th century African-American astronomer, Benjamin Banneker.  One of the locations, in an old section of Baltimore, was the Poe House, where the hapless poet had lived for several years as he bounced between Richmond, Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore.  His grave was less than a mile away.

The curator was rightly very nervous about our using the historic and invaluable site, but they needed the hefty location fee to keep the doors open (the Poe house is in one of Baltimore’s bleakest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods, and people were afraid to go there).  He laid down specific ground rules of no food, no drinks, no smoking, which we absolutely swore we would follow.  Around noon the curator left to go to lunch, and said if we went to lunch, leave someone there to guard the place.

After finishing our shots, we went out to lunch, figuring we’d wrap up when we returned.  We forgot to leave a guard, but at least locked the door behind us.  A half-hour later, we returned, opened the door, and found the house full of smoke.  In a panic, we ran upstairs which was even thicker with smoke, and saw one of the hot movie lights had been left on under the lintel of a doorway.  It was smoking the paint off and charring the wood black.

No water was upstairs, but we had brought back bottles of soda.  We shook them up, and sprayed  about a gallon on the red-glowing, smoking wood, like fire extinguishers, soaking it and half the room creating billowing clouds of Pepsi steam to add to the smoke.

The art crew quickly started mopping up the mess, and brought a can of white paint to “dress” the still-steaming lintel.  Through the window, I saw the curator walking up the sidewalk.  I pulled out my pack of cigarettes, gave one to each crew member, then told them to sit at the bottom of the stairs, smoke up a storm, and sip their sodas— but whatever, don’t let the curator upstairs.

The curator opened the door and shrieked as the smoke hit him in the face.  Enraged, he pulled the lounging crew out of the house and dressed them down on the sidewalk.  Hadn’t he expressly told them no smoking and no drinking in the house?  Were they morons?  Idiots?  Had they no respect for anything?  Everyone apologized profusely, and we opened the windows to air the house out.  By the time the curator had calmed, the art department had finished their clean-up, including freshly painting the lintel, still quite warm to the touch.  We quickly packed and left.

We never ever heard back from the curator.  In the dim upstairs light, I guess he didn’t notice the damage, though at least an inch of the doorway had been charred or chipped away.  In the end, I suppose it looked like any other well-used 150 year-old Baltimore row house.  We had only added to Poe’s many mysteries.  Archeologists a hundred years from now, scratching away at the old house will perhaps wonder why a doorway, of all things, would suddenly catch fire.  Ghosts? Poe himself, in a moment of madness?  Perhaps.

In a sign of the economic times The Poe House was de-funded from the Baltimore City budget.  It may close, but people are working to save it.

Save The Poe House

Read more about Robert Maier’s fifteen years working with John Waters in the new book “Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters.”  Available on Amazon.com and other booksellers around the world.