Holly Woodlawn is gone at the age of 69. The last time I saw her we were having lunch in a posh midtown restaurant. It was 1991 and her book had just come out--the aptly titled A Low Life In High Heels--and she was dressed to the nines in conservative but very chic designer wear.
The place was crowded and Holly wasn't happy that nobody in the restaurant seemed to recognize her as a Warhol drag queen superstar. Alas, it had been a long time since Trash made her one in 1970, but whatever disappointment she may have felt was more than cancelled out by the fact that at the same time nobody would have ever suspected that this woman having lunch there that day began life as Haraldo Santiago Francheschi Rodriguez Danhaki in Puerto Rico.
Holly's breakthrough moment in underground film came as a transgender welfare cheat in Trash when she famously copulated with a coke bottle in sexual frustration while husband heroin addict Joe Dallesandro nodded out on the floor. She became part of the great triumvirate of Warholian drag queens that included Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling who all came to epitomize the strange new celebrity of Max's Kansas City in its heyday, but while Jackie was certainly more talented and Candy was certainly more beautiful, nobody was funnier or somehow more touchingly melodramatic than Holly--or had more sheer moxie--and it was not for nothing that Lou Reed brought her onstage as his first character in his epochal 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."
Holly had a great story but what intrigued me the most were her first days in New York, when she arrived at sixteen and lived in the Village, knew absolutely nobody, and had no idea how she would survive. She fell in with a group of prostitutes of every conceivable sexual persuasion, lived off the streets, and put her whole being into being a woman.
With the whole Caitlin Jenner circus going on and transsexualism all over the mainstream media, it's hard to remember what it must have been like at that time, when there were only a handful of transsexuals living openly. Not that she ever had a choice in the matter, but the courage it took to be herself and live as she did was nothing less than monumental, and as I remember her and reflect on that day we had lunch, what stands out the most is the simple but elemental pride and pleasure she took in passing as a woman.
We'll miss you, Holly. If there's a cabaret in Heaven like Reno Sweeney's, I know you'll be squabbling with Jackie and Candy to see who gets on stage first...