Words: Nina Antonia
Holly Woodlawn might have been denied the material trappings of fame but she was the very essence of a star. Too fabulous for mainstream success. Holly was destined to be a cult icon despite having received an academy nomination for her performance in Trash (1970) the best film in the Warhol/ Morrissey pantheon. Holly’s kooky vulnerability and comedic timing made her an irresistible presence as co-star Joe Dallesandro’s long-suffering girlfriend. Playing alongside Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis in Women in Revolt (1972) ensured Holly’s legend. Holly, Candy and Jackie evinced a vivid cornucopia of silver screen sirens, a shoe-string yet no less glamorous enactment of spit-fire, seductress and hard-bitten wit. Nonetheless, it is their own vital personas that scorch the retina and steal the show.
Though gracious throughout the interview, when I asked Holly about how it had felt to be immortalised by Lou Reed in Walk on the Wild Side, she asked me to pause the tape- recorder. Whilst she had appreciated Lou’s gesture, it appeared, aside from a fleeing kiss, that there had been no particular kinship between them, Holly as muse simply being a glittering cypher in Reed’s musical portrait of a scene. However, as she explained, she disliked it when people assumed that Wild Side encapsulated the entirety of her life. Holly was a transgender pioneer, an actress and in later years, an esteemed cabaret artiste. Needless to say, when Holly Woodlawn died, aged 69 on December 5th, 2015, most of the obituaries quoted Walk on The Wild Side. To be fame’s mistress but not its master, is a cruel fate, as Holly notes she was paid $125 for her role in Trash whilst Andy Warhol subsequently made millions. One can only hope that the invisible glass walls and ceilings will shatter and when they do, it will be because of people like Holly Woodlawn who blazed a trail brighter than most mere mortals can ever dream of.
How did little Harold Ajzenberg become Holly Woodlawn?
I was born in a small town in Puerto Rico. I had eight or nine aunts and one uncle. My uncle was gay and he would take me to the movies when I was five or six. They were Spanish movies. I fell in love with all the Spanish movie stars, one of my favourites was Lola Flores, she used to wear the flamenco dress and play the castanets. Another great beauty was Libertad Lamarque, who Eva Peron had thrown out of Argentina, and Maria Felix. They were the big glamorous stars.
How did they inspire you?
Coming from a small town, it was the most wonderful thing to see these glamorous movie stars. The local priest thought my uncle and I were heathens, my uncle and I would go dancing through the streets. I was the only blonde kid in town because my father was Germanic and I had green eyes, so I was different even then although I spoke Spanish. I couldn’t speak English. I never fitted in. At school, I hated sports. Baseball? Swinging a bat? Although I liked volleyball, but football, forget it. Beating people up? Uggh! I just went to the movies a lot, to escape. Sometimes my mother would take me to see American movies, Lana Turner. Later, when I went to high school, I used to go to this library in Miami Beach and across the street, there was a gay beach. This was 1960-61, when the Cubans moved to Miami Beach. Anyway, I could hear all this Spanish music coming from the beach and it reminded me of Puerto Rico. There were all these mad queens in bikinis, frolicking around. I said “Oh my God! I’m not the only one!” I started playing hooky a lot until my mother found out. I made some friends and got a copy of my father’s car keys made up and I used to take his car and we’d go out and party. My father worked till late at a hotel on the front desk. So we would go to a party and then afterwards, we’d return my father’s car to his parking space. But one night he got off work early and reported the car stolen but the car was still with some of my crazy queen friends and my father blamed me, obviously. I was at home asleep. He woke me up and confronted me and that’s when I told him I was queer. At the time, they didn’t understand that people are born that way and they sent me to a psychiatrist. I ran away from home in 1962, when I was 15. I was incorrigible so they sent me to a youth hall for a couple of days. There was nothing between my parents and I. My grades were falling and I didn’t want to go to summer school and some friends said they were going to New York. I said “Good, I’m going with you.” My mother had this aqua- marine bracelet that my father had found in the hotel, so we hocked it and jumped on a bus. We got as far as Georgia and then hitch-hiked the rest of the way.
Did you really pluck your eyebrows and shave your legs?
I plucked my eyebrows in Georgia and then I shaved my legs. I was with my friend, Georgette, she was Cuban and she used to pluck her eyebrows, so you know……since I didn’t have my parents to tell me what I could or couldn’t do, I plucked my eyebrows, I figured why not. I had braces on and I removed them with a pair of tweezers.
What were your plans for when you go to New York? Did you want to be an actress?
Not at all. I just wanted to get away from Miami because they were red-necks and I was tired of being made fun of and being slapped around. New York was the place to go, because Hollywood was too far. When I got there, I felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, arriving at the Emerald City. I’d never seen buildings so high. I thought the sidewalks were paved with diamonds. I thought Bryant Park which was on 42nd street where the library is; I thought that was Central Park. Some queens took me under their wings and I did everything that young kids do, drugs, sex and rock n’ roll, I sold my body, anything to survive. At night we’d go to clubs and dance. I was lucky; I met this guy one night in The Village on Christopher Street. He was cruising me. I jumped in his car, he was friendly and he took an interest in me. We became lovers and I moved to Brooklyn with him.
How were you dressing at that point?
I was androgynous but when I moved to Brooklyn, I started taking hormones and started living as a woman, as his wife. He introduced me to his parents and they fell in love with me. Nobody knew. I used to be a model at Sacs. I ‘passed’ all the way but it’s not like today. Then it was illegal, even if you wore mascara, you could be arrested.
I read that prior to Stonewall, you could be arrested for wearing two items of female apparel. It must have been very frightening.
It was. Very. I was at Stonewall the night of the riot. But I left early.
How did the Stonewall riot change things?
We weren’t going to take any more bullshit. Stonewall generated a lot of news coverage, that’s what did it.
Was it police harassment that sparked Stonewall?
At the time, most of the owners of gay clubs had to pay off the cops. I guess the owners of Stonewall decided not to and so the cops raided the place. The queens locked the doors and said “Fuck You.” They held the police hostage; then the girls outside started throwing garbage cans at the police on the street and it started a riot in Greenwich Village.
Was there an immediate after-effect?
The year after the riot, on the anniversary they put candles outside the Stonewall and people gathered. The idea of having an annual Stonewall parade grew out of that.
So just being yourself, dressing how you wanted to, was an act of subversion?
Yes, you couldn’t say you were gay, or if you went for a job you had to wear a tie.
How did you meet Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis?
I met Candy one night on Christopher Street; I saw this vision, very androgynous and very beautiful. We became friends, we hung out together; she introduced me to Jackie. We used to go to this guy’s house, Seymour, who lived on Bleecker Street, because he had a colour television. We all loved Barbara Streisand so whenever she had one of her specials, we’d all go over there. Candy thought she was Kim Novak, she belonged to an off off Broadway group, called Cafe Cino. When Andy started doing movies, she latched on to him and so did Jackie. They’d go “He’s the new Cecil B.Demille”. I didn’t think much of him. Soup can? Big deal, you call that art? Michelangelo, I mean,c’mon…..Jackie was not a petite girl. Her ploy was to wear house dresses, ripped stockings, dishevelled hair, glitter in her eyes……I joined the Playhouse of The Ridiculous, we all wore glitter…I would grease my body up and then throw glitter all over it. The idea came from watching Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. Sure they wore make up like that, 2,000 years ago in Egypt!
Teil me about The Factory.
The first Factory was on 42nd street: that was the tin-foil one. One day everyone was doing methamphetamine so Billy Name tin-foiled the whole place then hid in the bathroom for the next four or five years. After Andy was shot, it became Andy Warhol Incorporated and they moved to this huge office at 33 Union Square and it was a business. They really started concentrating on the movies – Lonesome Cowboys, Flesh and then of course Trash. Paul Morrissey is really the one who is responsible for the films; he was the man behind Andy Warhol.
Trash was the breakthrough movie.
Joe was Joe and I was me. We played ourselves.
When did you become Holly Woodlawn?
I changed my name when I moved in with that boy in Brooklyn, I became Holly and I took his last name. But when I met Andy, he was into debutantes, Edie was from a rich family as was Brigid Berlin so in interviews I told people I was the heiress to the Woodlawn Cemetery fortune.
Where were you living at the time?
There was 10 of us living in a one room apartment on 10th street, including my boyfriend, Johnny, who is also in Trash. He was adorable. It was Leee Black Childers and Wayne’s apartment. Their friends came down from Georgia, they were going to Woodstock. We all got along pretty well, they were hippies. They asked if I wanted to go along to Woodstock, oh please, why would I want to go to a mud farm. But then Jackie moved in, she could be a bit overwhelming, she made everybody uncomfortable so 1 moved out and got a little place with Johnny.
Did you enjoy making Trash?
I loved it; I felt like an actress, I’m not very glamorous in that movie. And then the fact that it was such a hit, it got nominated for an academy award. One day I’m on welfare: the next I’m a big superstar. It was overwhelming.
The disparity of being on welfare, of struggling yet you are on the silver screen must have been difficult?
Yes, it was very confusing, at night I’d be riding in limousines to penthouses or going to gallery openings, signing autographs and blowing kisses at people. During the day I was going hungry and living in a hovel. I’d have to go to the Factory and beg Andy for money. All I got for that movie was $125 and he made millions. It was strange, it was exciting. I was young, 23,24 and when you are that young, everything is exciting. Now, forget it! Now security comes first, fun last.
Did you notice the rise of Glam Rock?
Yes, I was in the middle of it. What happened with the Warhol crowd was that little by little, it disbanded. Max’s had been fabulous, that was where the movie people were, Roger Vadim, Jane Fonda, Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger, Veruschka the famous model, Fellini, all in the backroom, it was unbelievable and it will never happen again. The drugs were fabulous, they were pure, thank God I quit when I did but I was never a big drug addict. I did my share of speed and heroin. Drugs cost money and at that time, I had no money. Most of the drugs I got for free.
The change from the late 60’s to the mid 70’s on the NY scene, seems quite distinct.
We stopped going to Max’s. Although I was involved with this group, The Stilettoes through a friend, Elda Gentile. We gave Debbie Harry one of her first singing jobs, she was a backup girl. Then she met Chris (Stein) and they formed Blondie. This new sound came in and the boys were dressing like girls. Candy, Jackie and I were actors; we were never into rock and roll, although we liked to dance to it. These kids started forming bands. Elda used to do some of the costumes for The New York Dolls.
In your book, Low Life in High Heels, you say that by 73, Max’s wasn’t glamorous anymore.
It wasn’t, it was all rock and roll and to us it was noise so we never went. Jim Morrison and I went to an S&M bar and made out, he was a great kisser but he was a little on the hefty side but he was still Jim Morrison. Lou of course…… (cassette cuts out dramatically at this point)
You met Bette Davis at the Critic Awards in 1971.
That was amazing. She was walking down the stairs as I was running up them. I was like “Oh my God, its Bette Davis”. She was smoking a cigarette, I introduced myself and she said “I heard you were wonderful in your film” – she’d not seen it but she was kind enough to say that. She was a teensy little lady. Most movie stars are. Tom Cruise is and Stallone…
You are great in Women in Revolt.
I did Trash in 1969 and Women in Revolt in 1971. I like to make people laugh, I like to make people happy. I can also sing a mean ballad.
What was Andy like?
Andy was dyslexic and extremely shy. It was Paul Morrissey’s idea for him to put on dark glasses. He gave Andy his black leather look and the white hair. Since he was terrified of being interviewed, Paul instructed him to say “Uh huh, yes….yes and no.” And be mysterious. Whereas I am the opposite, I can’t shut the fuck up!
How was it acting with Jackie and Candy?
We were cut from the same cloth. When we were together, we were like sisters but when we were out somewhere we acted like we were rivals. That’s what people wanted, it was an act, they didn’t want us to like each other. God forbid we should all like each other! It would create gossip – “Candy’s date said this about Holly.’’And Jackie said this or that about Holly and Candy.
Anything I should know about trying to understand Holly?
I’m glad that the kids now don’t have to go through what I went through, that you can be who you want, dress how you want. You don’t have to worry about being arrested or beaten up for being in the wrong neighbourhood.
In another way things have become more conservative…
AIDS decimated a lot of creative people, we have to start again. But there’s a future out there, there are many talented kids.
Who is going to play you in the bio-pic?
Ewan Morden, he was in a movie called Taboo. Stephan Elliot who directed Priscilla, Queen of The Desert is on board, the producer is Adriana Serafini. We have the backing, the script and the cast. We should start shooting around Spring.
Who is going to play Candy?
When I was in Toronto for the film festival, I discovered this kid, Nigel, it was like when I first saw Candy, a vision. He had a short in the festival and I introduced myself to him. He said he’d never acted and I said it didn’t matter because neither had Candy, I gave him my card and we’ve stayed in touch.
Superstar in a Housedress.
It’s wonderful! And it’s coming out with a book, this spring. The director, Craig B. Highberger, he did an incredible job, its won awards. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, he really did his homework.
Do you think that glamour still exists and who do you perceive as glamorous today?