At Home with John Waters: Criminally Cool

Director John Waters doesn't let the exquisite kitsch of his films dominate at home--but his private decor does feature an electric chair and a painting by serial murderer, John Wayne Gacy.


Lined up side by side, they make an unlikely trio: Vegas icon Liberace, busty beauty-queen-turned actress Anita Ekberg, and well-hooved screen star Francis the Talking Mule. For John Waters, however, they comprise a holy trinity of entertainers. Looking dapper in black pleated pants and white double-collared Issey Miyake shirt, Waters gestures toward an oak bureau where the three photographs are propped in stand-up frames. "Right there is everything that I'm about. Liberace, Francis, and Anita personify my entire philosophy on life," the director deadpans, smiling downwardly so that his pencil-thin mustache hugs the rim of his upper lip like a wide curve on a mountain highway. "Anybody who is happy with the way they look and can exaggerate it is generally somebody I like."

Considering Waters's cinematic view of life--as expressed through such bad-taste classics as Pink Flamingos (in which two women vie for the title of Filthiest Person Alive), Polyester (shown in scratch 'n' sniff Odorama), Female Trouble (in which Divine shoots members of her nightclub audience), Hairspray (an homage to mile-high '60s 'dos and screeching hues), and the forthcoming Cry-Baby (a musical celebrating juvenile delinquency circa 1950)-- his home is surprisingly subdued. Located at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in an upscale neck of Baltimore, the four-story house is furnished with a mix of frumpy family hand-me-downs ("heirlooms," Waters sighs, showing only a hint of irony) and a smattering of his own antiques.

While one doesn't find Waters deep in the kitschy finery propagated in his films--"That stuff is good to laugh at," he sniffs, sitting on a plush, red velvet sofa in his living room, "but I wouldn't want to live with it"-- the auteur of Baltimore gets quirky with the interior details. Posters from low-budget howlers such as The Bad Seed, I Hate Your Guts, and Kitten With a Whip cover the walls; platters of rubber food are neatly laid out around the house; and bits of memorabilia (the bongos Pia Zadora played in Hairspray, a skull from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) serve as hipster knick-knacks. A poster for Carroll Baker's deathless Baby Doll hangs alongside a small painting by Roy Lichtenstein, and a block-headed cement sculpture that a friend found in the garbage is the centerpiece of what once might have been a grand sitting room. Books are everywhere and shelves groan under the weight of titles like Suicide in Guyana and The Coed Killer.

Alongside a multi-volume Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment is a mini electric chair. Waters picks up the novelty item and says, "This is supposed to give you a shock when you touch it." He gingerly prods the steel seat with a finger and gets no response. "I guess it needs batteries," he shrugs. A more convincing model is at the end of his front hallway. Constructed for the Female Trouble scene in which Divine gets fried, it looks authentic enough to have confounded a handful of Baltimore policemen during a recent visit.

The call to the law came about thanks to another prop: a machine gun in a violin case that was a gift from Johnny Depp, the star of Cry-Baby. ("Johnny was not real happy about being a teen idol," Waters offers as an aside. "So, I said to him, 'If you want to end it, make fun of it. Stick with me and your teen idol days will be over.'") Waters was in Los Angeles editing the new movie when his father dropped by to check the mail. "There was a bad storm the night before, and a window had gotten blown open. My father saw the open window, noticed that gun on the floor, and ran out of the house. He told me that once the police arrived he couldn't get them to leave, they were so curious about everything. They particularly enjoyed the electric chair."

Waters's fascination with crime--he corresponds with the likes of Tex Watson and once taught a film course behind bars--is most visible in a pair of top-floor guest rooms. "The worst things are in here," he says fiendishly, leading the way up a circular flight of steps. "I try to discourage people from overstaying their welcome."

Most striking are two pieces of crime art: an elegantly rendered oil portrait of Gertrude Baniszewski (a stern-faced woman who killed a young girl and carved "I AM A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT" on her chest), and a painting done by John Wayne Gacy (who seduced and killed 32 boys and buried them under his house). Waters commissioned the former ("I kept telling the artist to make Gertie uglier," he remembers), and the latter was a gift from a friend. "It's unfortunate that Gacy's paintings are so well known," Waters says, "because they look like bad paint-by-numbers, and he's the worst-dressed mass murderer in the country. I'm against capital punishment, but if they're going to put anybody to death, I wouldn't mind seeing it be him."

Largely because he spends nearly half the year in Los Angeles, Waters has come to value his time in Baltimore. While other filmmakers flee to the glitz and opportunity that the West Coast offers, John Waters still revels in the small-town charm of his native city. "Living in Baltimore and making movies here keeps me sane," he says. "My real friends are here, and they help me stay grounded." While Waters enjoys hosting dinner parties in the formal dining room that takes up most of his basement, he also thrills to a form of nightlife that one would be hard-pressed to find in more jaded environs. "There's a place called the Wee Hours that can be quite scary," he explains with the pride of a Jaycee. "It doesn't open until 2:00 a.m. and everybody there is extremely stoned on various substances. You go there and behave the way you would on your first night in jail: You avoid eye contact."

Like all of John Waters's movies, the new one was filmed in Baltimore and features an incongruous cast: Iggy Pop, Patricia Hearst-Shaw, Traci Lords, and Joey Heatherton, along with Depp. Waters reveals no behind-the-scenes dirt, though he does allow, "Joey needed tender loving care, so we were very supportive. I told everybody that the movie was an extension of rehab." Cry-Baby walks a fine line of taste. "It's about a good girl from the wrong side of the tracks who falls in love with a bad boy who has a gang. The good girl's raging hormones coupled with the influence of rockabilly drive her into the arms of Johnny Depp."

On the third floor are Waters's office, video room, and bedroom. Actually two rooms, the office is divided with a space for conducting business and an area for writing. It was here that he completed the script for Cry-Baby and shook any lingering memories of Divine. "I certainly miss Divine, but I began writing the script after he had died, so I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about him," Waters admits, sorting through a mess of notes on legal pad paper and unread correspondence. "Before we began filming I went with Johnny to Divine's grave, and I think his spirit was very evident during the making of Cry-Baby. But that's as far as it went. I may be a cult filmmaker, but I'm not the kind of cultist who can bring somebody back from the dead." He rolls his eyes and campily adds, "Jim Jones I ain't."

Across the hall, a photographer is setting up for a shoot in the bedroom. Circling a prop from Cry-Babya Flintstones-style crib made from bones and outfitted with a spider mobile is a rakish assortment of Waters's footwear. He points to a pair of monogrammed slippers, acknowledges they were a gift from Divine, and slips on the gold lame loafers. As he poses for the first round of shots, Waters quips, "They say you can't [tax] deduct clothing as a costume if you wear it on the street. I always wanted to get audited by the IRS so that I could bring in these shoes and say, 'You wear them on the street.'"

After getting a few variations on the portrait, the photographer begins negotiating for a tour of the director's digs. This is where Waters gets testy, kvetching about not wanting a picture-perfect inventory of his belongings. "When Divine and I were teenagers," he says, "we used to read the society pages and look for photos of rich people in their homes. If we saw anything that looked good, we'd break in and steal it."

Is he afraid of being robbed, or fearful that his heisted goods will turn up in the magazine?

"Most of what I have here is not stolen," he says, putting on a put-out air. "I can only think of one thing that's blatantly hot, and I won't tell you what it is." John Waters drops his head back and lets out a burst of laughter, then adds, "Even though the statute of limitations is up."


Michael Kaplan has written for Premiere, Esquire, and Manhattan, inc.