Holly Woodlawn, one among the bright firmament of “superstars” created in Andy Warhol’s Factory that in ‘60s and ‘70s Manhattan produced experimental films and other performance art, died of cancer-related causes in Los Angeles on December 6. The Puerto Rican-born transgender actress and cabaret singer was 69.
Woodlawn won wide attention from her appearance in “Trash,” a 1970 film produced by Warhol and directed by Paul Morrissey, where she played opposite Factory stud Joe Dellesandro. Several years later, she joined fellow Factory stars Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling in Morrissey’s “Women in Revolt,” a women’s lib send-up, also produced by Warhol. According to the New York Times, Woodlawn performed cabaret in the late 1970s at the famed Reno Sweeney nightclub in the Village.
Woodlawn achieved her fame at a time when most Americans’ knowledge of transgender lives was limited to Christine Jorgensen, a Bronx-born trans woman who underwent transitioning surgery in Denmark in the early 1950s. Even among the hip, underground set she ran with in Manhattan, her life was viewed as exotic, as evidenced by Lou Reed’s famous lyrics: “Holly came from Miami F-L-A/ Hitchhiked her way across the USA/ Plucked her eyebrows on the way/ Shaved her legs and then he was a she/ She said, ‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side’…”
But some were listening and watching more closely. Melissa Sklarz, a longtime transgender activist and the board co-chair at the Empire State Pride Agenda, remembers, as a high schooler in the 1960s, being “very confused on the inside” even as she “managed to conform to cultural gender standards.”
Sklarz recalled, “I had heard of female impersonators, as they were called then in Club 82, but they were on stage. But when I also heard of Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn and real people living real lives, I was very intrigued and was determined to learn more. When the movie ‘Trash’ came out in 1970, I felt that I needed to know more. I am sure that the life of Holly Woodlawn touched other young trans women the same way.”
Penny Arcade, the New York performance artist and friend of Woodlawn, wrote on Facebook about Woodlawn’s struggle during her recent illness with mounting healthcare costs but also about how friends helped her to continue taking care of herself. “I know Holly deserves a star on Hollywood Blvd.,” Arcade wrote, adding that memorials will be held in both Los Angeles and New York.
According to Arcade, both Dellasandro and gay author, journalist, and filmmaker Gabriel Rotello were at Woodlawn’s side at the time of her death.
“I just wanted Holly Woodlawn's friends to know that her passing was very peaceful,” Rotello wrote on Facebook. “I happened to stop by at the final moment and she was surrounded by friends, surrounded by love, and there was a great sense of calm, serenity, and acceptance in the room.” Woodlawn, he said, “was touched by all the people who contributed to her care. I am too.”
Dellasandro, writing on Facebook about the requests he’s gotten to talk about Woodlawn, said, “Honestly, I am still in the process of absorbing and understanding everything that happened on Sunday so even I am not clear enough to discuss much of anything at this time. Maybe one day in the future.”