Through occasional magazine articles, John Waters’ writings and stories, a few paragraphs in movie databases and my short film, “Love Letter to Edie,” brief snippets of Edith Massey’s life story have drifted along the edges of hipster culture in the thirty-three years since her underground movie debut in Waters’ “Multiple Maniacs” (April 10, 1970).
Since she was a little girl, Edith had “always wanted to be in the movies.” She struggled through a unique and usually difficult life, generally in poverty while living and working on the bad side of whatever town she landed in. Her sweet, innocent personality, though, delighted millions of viewers of John Waters’ films—especially when he cast her in his favorite role as an addlepated old bag. Edie was fine with that. She was delighted to be the permissive, anything-goes-free-spirited godmother of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ’80s counterculture.
One of Edith’s claims to fame was her willingness to present her over-sized breasts on film. That, and her senior citizen characters who refused to honor the straight and narrow path were ground-breaking artistic statements of the early 1960s.
Was she acting, or was she for real? Even Newsweek wondered, “It’s not clear whether she deserves an Oscar or a 24-hour nurse.”
In a recent phone call to Edith’s brother, Morris Grodsky, I learned more about Edith’s young life as an orphan. This previously unpublished information provides additional pieces to the puzzle of her life.
Edith was born in Chicago on May 28, 1918 to a Jewish family. Her father fought in Europe in World War I, but returned home early, after his lungs were severely burned in a gas attack. The family moved to Colorado for the healthier air, which was where Edith was born. Unfortunately, the fresh air didn’t help her father who wasted away and died when Edith was an infant. Edith’s mother, destitute with three children re-married. She had more children with this new husband, but he too died within a few years, leaving her alone with five children.
Desperate, the young widow took them all to a Jewish orphanage outside Denver, and then disappeared. It was the best she could do. According to Morris, the orphanage was not a terrible place. The food was healthy, if not plentiful (he remembered being always hungry). Their clothes were donated hand-me-downs. The children had chores; cleaning and sewing for the girls, and grounds-keeping for the boys. Most of the projects were pointless busy-work things like moving piles of rocks for the boys or washing dishes that weren’t dirty for the girls. Every weekday morning they walked to a nearby school. Saturdays were holy days, with nothing to do and Sundays were chore days.
Boys and girls lived in separate wings of the orphanage and rarely mixed, following religious tradition. Morris didn’t see Edith, except for a few minutes on an occasional weekend. The orphanage discouraged sibling contact. They never celebrated birthdays or other events together. Parents and relatives never visited. It was a lonely existence. The orphans yearned for just one new piece of clothing.
At school, they saw happy classmates with parents who gave them gifts and new shoes. Every orphan child hoped and prayed to be adopted into a family. But that day never came, for anyone. They were outcasts, which must have helped form Edith’s sympathetic personality. As an adult, she was an instant friend to everybody, and every animal that crossed her path– when I lived around the corner from her in Baltimore, she had 30 cats.
To escape her colorless life, Edith collected movie magazines that were donated to the orphanage. It was the roaring ‘20s, and they lit up her life like a Roman candle. She had a pair of scissors and on Saturdays carefully cut and arranged glamorous movie star photos in her own notebooks. Morris was shocked, when on one of the rare visits, she showed him a stack of the notebooks that must have taken hundreds of dreamy hours to assemble. He called her “movie crazy” when she swore that as soon as she could get out of the orphanage, she would go straight to Hollywood and get into the movies.
The orphanage had a strict path for its charges. The boys learned Hebrew, to prepare them to be observant Jews. The girls, having no role in religious services, were given no religious instruction. In the eighth grade, the boys were given an academic test. Those who did well went on to high school. Those who did not were apprenticed out to local tradesmen, leaving the orphanage to work in family businesses. Those who went to high school stayed at the orphanage, but were turned out at graduation, to find a job and fend for themselves.
Every girl’s education ceased after eighth grade. There was no academic exam for girls to go to high school. Their path was to be discharged from the orphanage and placed as housekeepers in local homes, to cook, clean, and sew as they had been taught at the orphanage. They’d work a few years for free, and then marry a local tradesman, stay home and raise the children, and so complete a healthy heterosexual life cycle.
It didn’t always work out that way. There were girls like Edith who were dreamers and achievers and wanted more than a life of cooking and cleaning. Being a housekeeper in a family was rarely idyllic. The girls were frequently mistreated, over-worked, and, probably worse. Many fled their assigned “homes” for freedom and all they had been denied in the orphanage.
This was Edith’s story. She ran away several times from several families. Each time she was picked up by the police, usually hitch-hiking at the edge of town, and returned, until she turned sixteen, and could legally be on her own. At sixteen, Edith ran away again and headed straight to California.
This is where “Love Letter to Edie” picks up. There is much more to her life than what appears in the short movie; her marriages, her relationship with her brothers and sisters and their families, her music and modeling careers.
Edith died on October 24, 1984, in Hollywood, the land of her dreams, after suffering from cancer for many years. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered in the lovely “Garden of Roses” at the Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
I wish I had had the presence of mind to record more of her story when I made “Love Letter,” but I was 23 years old, and thought I had forever to pick up the trail again. Maybe one day. You can find “Love Letter to Edie on e-Bay.”