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Still Waters

Waters backstage at a Cry-Baby dress rehearsal.  

Waters’s summer place in P-town is the small top floor of a phenomenal, ramshackle house that he rents from the painter Pat De Groot, an old woman who looks like a white witch and has been painting the view of sea and sky from her studio on the ground floor over and over, every day, for ten years. (Waters appreciates her commitment.) In his room, which felt like the inside of a ship and was decorated with a cartoon of Alvin of Chipmunks fame holding an enormous erection in his rodent fist, Waters offered to reprise the speech he gave a few weeks earlier to investors in the Cry-Baby musical. “All my movies could work as theatrical productions—Pink Flamingos should be an opera! Hairspray on ice!” Waters read off an index card with enthusiasm. “If it ever was shocking, my sense of humor seems mainstream today. What’s on television is even ruder than anything I ever had.” His breath smelled like my father’s … a certain mustiness that happens to men in their sixties who used to be heavy smokers, a waft from a room no longer used.

I asked him what he missed about the past. “I don’t think my generation is better or had it better,” he said. “The one thing you’ll never see again—and I’m not so sure it’s bad you missed it—was the sexual revolution. You can’t imagine what it was like to go home and have sex with someone different every day … People really did! In Provincetown there was a bar called Piggies, totally mixed, gay and straight, but it was outside of town and everyone had to walk home and every person would just have sex in the graveyard along the way. I mean, those days will never happen again. Going to places like Hellfire in New York City, you look back and it’s so amazing, and that certainly did lead to terrible things like AIDS—and AIDS ruined everything for the rest of our lives. It ruined people taking chances. That’s over. You missed that.”

But does he miss it? “At 60!?” He shrieked. “What am I? I’m not gonna be goin’ out every night at 60 … That would be a little pitiful, hangin’ around the graveyard like, ‘Hey! You need a ride?’ No, I think for my dignity—I mean, old chickens make good soup—I’m glad I’m not out in the graveyard.” He thought about it for a minute. “The big difference when we were younger is, it was cool to be poor. But I have no favorite time. Tomorrow. Now is my favorite time. Because I mean I have great memories, but I don’t have nostalgia. Do I wanna be 20 now? Not really. I’d like to look in the mirror and be 20.”

I went to use Waters’s bathroom and gasped at what I saw on the sink next to a jar of Crème de la Mer: a Maybelline black eye pencil with a sharpener and a little pile of shavings.

It was like happening upon Andy’s white wig.

John Waters has a good relationship with his wife. She’s not a normal wife, obviously: Waters is a confirmed homosexual. But she’s not a fake wife, either, in the way that Waters keeps fake food, a fake cat, and an eerily realistic fake baby here in his house in Baltimore. (Bill, the fake baby, sits in the living room with a shiny patina of fake saliva on his rather hideous lips. “I told them I wanted an angry baby with bad hair,” Waters says.) Technically, Susan Allenback is one of Waters’s assistants, but she also appeared completely naked in A Dirty Shame, so sometimes he calls her Full Frontal Susan. “But Olga is her wife name,” Waters says. It’s what he’ll call her when she accompanies him to his niece’s wedding this weekend, for instance, or when he checks in with her by phone throughout the day as she sits in her glassed-in office in his house, organizing his affairs and making sure his life runs smoothly.

This is no casual project. Waters is unusually regimented. He wakes up at exactly 6:10 every morning and reads newspapers and drinks tea until 8. He starts writing “right at eight o’clock—not 8:01, not 7:59,” and works until lunchtime. Waters is rigidly devoted to these morning sessions, and his hired wife plans his travel accordingly. He will go somewhere a day early or stay a day late rather than fly in the morning, even if it means staying at an airport hotel, “because I need to write five days a week,” he says firmly. “As far as I can remember I have done that, at least for 25 years. I most never miss a day. When I was young and went out every night—like during the days of Multiple Maniacs and Pink Flamingos—I don’t know how I did it. I took pills and smoked pot every day, but I still made those movies. I don’t think I was as stringent in my Swiss personality, as I call it, but I did make those movies.”