Hosannas for Holly Woodlawn

We pen this tribute to Holly Woodlawn (Haraldo Santiago Franceschi Rodriguez Danhakl, 1946-2015) amongst good and bad benchmarks. It’s the star’s birthday of course, and 50 years from the point when the Warhol Superstar was at her greatest fame. But it’s also a morning when we read in the headlines that Texas has just passed its latest barbaric state law, this one making it illegal for trans kids to play on the sports team of their idenitifying gender. What possible purpose does this law serve besides cruelty and hatred? What sort of evil mind thinks that there are little boys out there pretending to be girls just so they could excel on sports teams? And how often does it even come up? Why don’t you fix your electrical grid so your citizens don’t freeze to death again, eh, Governor? Of course this law will be fought as far up the Court ladder as permitted, but there’s no guarantee that this lousy partisan SCOTUS will do the right thing. That’s where we’re at, at the moment. To use a football metaphor that seems relevant: every time some hard-won yards are gained, a few are lost in the next play.

But the conversation probably wouldn’t even be occurring without public figures like Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, Mario Montez, et al paving the way. Born biologically male in Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, Woodlawn grew up in Miami Beach, and moved to New York City as a teenager, initially hustling (turning tricks) to earn a living. Her professional name is a mash-up of “Holly Golightly” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery (where many celebrities are buried), which she learned about in an I Love Lucy episode. She made it onto Andy Warhol’s radar when she attended the opening of his movie Flesh, which featured Darling and Curtis, in 1968. This led to her being cast in his movies Trash (1970) and Women in Revolt (1971), and to getting some screen time in the PBS tv show An American Family, when Lance Loud went to NYC to spend time at the Factory. At the same time she was in Curtis’s plays Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit (1969), and Vain Victory (1972) at La MaMa. Also in 1972 she starred in Robert Kaplan’s Scarecrow in a Garden of Cucumbers (with a theme song by Bette Midler, who also started out at La Mama) and was memorialized in an entire verse of Lou Reed’s top 20 hit “Walk on the Wild Side”. This is arguably her high water mark. In 1973 she starred in a short film called Broken Goddess and opened a cabaret show at Reno Sweeney’s.

Throughout the ’70s Woodlawn was jailed several times for various minor crimes and the experience was clearly demoralizing. She dropped out of the world of performance from the late ’70s through the mid ’80s, at which point she gradually returned, singing in night clubs, playing bit parts in films, and appearing on lots of documentaries about the old days. As Darling had died in 1974, and Curtis in 1985, Holly Woodlawn’s historical perspective became increasingly valuable as the decades wore on. It was a gas to see her on Transparent as recently as 2014. Sadly, she died of cancer the following year at the age of 69.