Not Simply Divine by Bernard Jay

“I’m less trashy than I used to be.”

After reading Francis Milstead’s delightful biography, My Son, Divine, my attention was drawn to the biography Not Simply Divine, written by Divine’s personal manager, Bernard Jay. I read many reviews of Jay’s book, and Francis Milstead also referred to the book with a hint of negativity. As a Divine fan, I wanted to read the book and gain my own opinion.

Bernard Jay became Divine’s (Glenn Milstead) manager in 1977 until Divine’s sudden death in 1988. Not Simply Divine provides Divine fans with details of Divine’s film roles, recording career, and disco engagements, and Mr Jay, in his introduction writes that this is a “warts and all” portrayal of the star. Jay explains that he is aware Divine is often shown to be a “selfish and insensitive person,” and he contends the book is a honest portrayal of the Divine he knew. The book includes scanty details of Divine’s life prior to Bernard Jay (reasonably enough), and for the details of Divine’s childhood and teen years, fans must read My Son, Divine, written by Glenn’s mum.

Bernard Jay had a somewhat turbulent relationship with Divine. Obviously, Mr Jay believed, ultimately, in Divine’s potential for stardom–after all–he committed to Divine’s career–but managing Divine was not an easy job. Jay and Divine agreed that their mutual goal was to alter the perception that Glenn was simply a drag queen, and establish Glenn as a character actor–whose most successful character was Divine. Jay’s task was fraught with problems–for starters, Divine didn’t earn enough money to warrant the entourage who accompanied him on tour. It was even questionable that Divine’s income warranted a personal manager (whose only client was Divine). Bernard Jay’s attitude to his subject is problematic–at times he is extremely complimentary–extolling Divine’s work ethic, charisma, and talent, but at other times, Jay sneaks in a snide comment–and one example is Jay’s description of Glenn eating “feverishly.”

Divine is no longer here to defend himself, but this is one case in which being maligned in print after death, backfires, and the negative comments about Divine reflect badly on the author. I can’t imagine that anyone other than a Divine fan would buy this book, and so Jay created an interesting dilemma in writing a book that includes several rather negative comments about Divine–that will, it is hoped, sell to Divine fans. I have no difficulty accepting that Divine was a flawed human being, but the glimpses of revulsion Jay shows for his subject are quite gratuitous.

However, on the plus side, the book, Not Simply Divine, filled in many of the gaps and detailed Divine’s career. As a result, at the end of the book, I was not shocked by Divine’s flaws–in fact I had even more respect for this hard-working actor who kept going in spite of the fact that he suffered many set-backs in his career (including never receiving adequate compensation from several record labels).

I think a Divine fan can read My Son, Divine, and have a fairly good idea about Divine–his career and the flawed human being that he was, but Not Simply Divine is an essential supplementary book–especially if you want specific details about Divine’s career. BUT, the reader should be aware that there are several very unpleasant and negative comments made by Mr Jay (and I’m not talking about the fact that Divine was a compulsive spender)–the comments that I found a bit much were cruel and gratuitous. But consider the source–Bernard Jay’s star slipped away just as he was about to prove that Jay’s faith was warranted. Jay was left the rather thankless job of mopping up the financial mess left after Divine’s death, organizing an auction of Divine’s belongings,and paying off the IRS.

This is a well-written book, and I enjoyed it–although I do wish that Mr Jay had been a little more forgiving with some of his nastier comments, and although there really weren’t that many nasty comments (and once unleashed, they seemed to arrive on a page in waves), this would have been a better book without the nastiness, and I’d hazard a guess that the book would have enjoyed more success.

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