Holly Woodlawn (1946 – 2015):
“I was very happy when I gradually became a Warhol superstar. I felt like Elizabeth Taylor! Little did I realize that not only would there be no money, but that your star would flicker for two seconds and that was it. But it was worth it, the drugs, the parties, it was fabulous. You live in a hovel, walk up five flights, scraping for the rent. And then at night you go to Max’s Kansas City where Mick Jagger and Fellini and everyone’s there in the back room. And when you walked in that room, you were a STAR! “
Holly Woodlawn will forever be known as one of the inspirations behind Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side.
“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 says, “Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side.”
Opening clip from the documentary about the song’s real life Warhol’s “superstars”:
Woodlawn, then known as Haroldo Santiago Franceschi Rodriguez Danhakl, left home when she was 16 years old and hitchhiked to New York City, a moment captured in Reed’s 1972 song.
“I hocked some jewelry and made it all the way to Georgia, where the money ran out and had to hitchhike the rest of the way to New York City.”
In her memoir, A Low Life In High Heels, Woodlawn writes:
“At the age of 16, when most kids were cramming for trigonometry exams, I was turning tricks, living off the streets and wondering when my next meal was coming.”
She chose the name Holly from the main character in Truman Capote‘s charming novella Breakfast At Tiffany’s. In 1969 she added the surname from a sign she saw on an episode of I Love Lucy. After changing her name, she began to tell people she was the heiress to the Woodlawn Cemetery money.
Woodlawn met Andy Warhol at The Factory, at a screening of his movie Flesh (1968). At the Factory she met Jackie Curtis (born John Curtis Holder Jr.). Curtis performed as both a man and a woman, but while performing in drag, she wore lipstick, glitter, bright red hair, ripped dresses, and stockings, pioneering the combination of trash and glamour, helping inspire the Glam Rock of the 1970s.
It was Curtis who cast Woodlawn in her play Heaven Grand In Amber Orbit in autumn of 1969. Woodlawn was cast in a bit role in Trash, but director/screenwriter Paul Morrissey re-wrote it to give her a much larger role. In Trash, Joe Dallesandro plays a heroin addict on a quest to score. Ambivalent about his sexuality, he has a transgender girlfriend played by Woodlawn. The couple contrast the other with violent episodes of overdosing. Woodlawn adlibbed most of her dialogue. She made $25 per day during filming, spending her last paycheck on heroin.
Prompted by director George Cukor and supported by other members of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, there was a petition to the Academy to nominate Woodlawn for Best Actress for her work in Trash. It may sound crazy, but that year Midnight Cowboy became the first, and so far, the only, X-rated film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. The previous year the Best Picture Oscar went to the family-friendly musical Oliver!.
She was cast in Morrissey’s next Warhol film Women In Revolt, a satire the Women’s Rights movement and the PIGS (politically involved girls). In this film, she became one of the first people to say ”cunt” in a released film.
In May 1971, Woodlawn created quite a stir when she was arrested in New York City for impersonating the wife of the French Ambassador to the United Nations. She was taken to the Women’s House of Detention then transferred to a men’s facility when her assigned sex at birth was discovered.
In 1972, filmmakers Robert Kaplan and Paul Glickman decided on using a transgender woman as the lead in a film without revealing the sex of the actor. Woodlawn played a young, starstruck girl hoping for success in New York City in Scarecrow In A Garden Of Cucumbers, a very, very low budget, 16 mm musical. In the film the song In The Very Last Row, written by Marshall Barer, is performed by another upstart, Bette Midler.
In 1977, Woodlawn moved to San Francisco, but returned to New York to appeare on Geraldo Rivera‘s talk show Geraldo. A bad choice; she was jailed for violating her probation. By 1979, she gave up on showbiz, cut her hair and moved back to her parents’ home in Miami, and worked as a busboy at Benihana.
But you cannot hide a star’s light, and she was back in NYC by the mid-1980s, working as a featured singer at clubs such as The Limelight and The Palladium.
Woodlawn had a sort of film comeback, with parts in several underground films and a small role in Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss (1998) Twin Falls Idaho (1999) and Milwaukee, Minnesota (2003). She was featured in the Amazon series Transparent in 2014.
It would be lovely to say Woodlawn’s hard life was just the way it was in the era she grew up in but, sadly, even today gay and trans kids still find themselves homeless and turning tricks at 16. Woodlawn had 15 minutes of fame with the help of Warhol. She got his attention by announcing herself as one of his superstars before they’d even met.
When I heard Walk On The Wild Side in 1972, it was the first time I’d heard of a trans person. A song about trans women and gay hustlers might not seem like a big deal now, but Woodlawn and her friends were revolutionaries.
In her last decade, she made a few more films and had a bit of a career as a cabaret artist, selling out her show in the aughts, but in her lifetime Woodlawn never really broke into the mainstream. Now, trans women win awards, appear on magazine covers. They are show-runners and deal makers.
When Woodlawn was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, her friend, performance artist Penny Arcade, set up a funding page to raise money for her healthcare. More than 1,200 people donated over $68,000.
She represented an exciting but sad time for trans people. Holly Woodlawn: superstar, transgender role model, inspiration to many, died in December 2015 after battling brain and liver cancer. She was 69 years old. Woodlawn was never nominated for the Oscar, but she was included in the In-Memoriam segment at the Academy Awards in 2016.
The money she had left went to funding the Holly Woodlawn Memorial Fund for Transgender Youth at the Los Angeles LGBTQ Center.
She was with Dallessandro when she left this incarnation. Dallesandro posted the news on The Facebook:
“I arrived to the hospice and went to Holly’s room, #403. I was next to her talking and telling her all the love that was being sent her way from everyone. It was like she knew I was there. I am sorry to say at 3:06pm Los Angeles time, Holly Woodlawn passed away.”