The Warhol “Superstar” Candy Darling and the Fight to Be Seen

If it wasn’t love at first sight, it was certainly fascination. I spotted him one afternoon in the East Village. Pale-skinned and thin, in an oversized trenchcoat tightly cinched at the waist, he looked like no beauty I’d seen before. His large eyes were lined with kohl, and his lips were painted a moist pink. His shoulder-length hair, straight and full, was dyed a kind of ash blond (he let the darker roots show). And as I watched him walk past Gem Spa, where newspapers and egg creams were sold—this was in the early nineteen-eighties—I didn’t think Bowie genderfuck so much as I thought Sue Lyon—not as Kubrick’s Lolita but as the wild, lovesick girl in the film version of Tennessee Williams’s “The Night of the Iguana,” staunch and a little spoiled. As I followed him down Second Avenue to Third Street, where, as it turned out, we both lived, he was even more alluring to me than Sue Lyon, in part because I couldn’t determine his sex right away, and I loved how that made me feel.

I had the same feeling when I first looked at photographs of Candy Darling, the trans actress, gender revolutionary, and Warhol fixture, who is the subject of Cynthia Carr’s monumental biography “Candy Darling: Dreamer, Icon, Superstar” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). In the images I saw of Candy, by Richard Avedon, Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, Fred W. McDarrah, Gerard Malanga, Warhol, and others, she seemed to share something with that young man in the East Village (he and I became friends eventually). They moved through the world in a similar way, not experiencing, say, the jumpiness I felt at living down the street from the Hell’s Angels, or the fear and apprehension that overtook me when I passed, let alone entered, a gay sex club. They didn’t bother to meet the curious stares of passersby with a reproachful or baleful look. They were too caught up in the business of developing and finding ways to represent their various selves.

Candy Darling died, of cancer, in 1974, when she was just twenty-nine, a full decade before I moved to Manhattan, but so great was her legend that there was still much to remember her by. Theatre folks recalled her inspired performances in works by playwrights ranging from Jackie Curtis to Tennessee Williams, while others had never missed a chance to see her in art-house movies by Warhol, Werner Schroeter, and Mario Monicelli, among others. Then, there were the still images. Like Marilyn Monroe—another brilliantly constructed persona—Darling was a master at projecting energy in a two-dimensional medium, by which I don’t mean that Candy, who grew up in Massapequa Park, on Long Island, radiated physical joy, like Marilyn cavorting in the California surf. If anything, her energy was of a blondness turned inside out: no matter how much she smiled or gave come-hither looks, she was a melancholy urban creature, protected by a sense of irony that sometimes lit her from within or lit up the crummy hotel rooms and park benches where she posed. (In Laura Rubin’s shots of Candy in Brighton Beach in 1971, she looks not windswept but uncomfortable.)

For people of my generation and even the current one, however, a first awareness of Candy Darling most often comes from music. The Rolling Stones gave her and her friend Taffy Titz a shout-out in their 1967 song “Citadel”—“Candy and Taffy / Hope you both are well / Please come see me in the Citadel”—but it took a writer of Lou Reed’s strengths to frame Darling’s narrative of being and becoming, in songs that make us see and imagine her living self. Two of Reed’s most famous songs, “Candy Says” (1969) and “Walk on the Wild Side” (1972), continue to introduce Candy to the larger audience she always craved. She didn’t especially care for rock—her head was filled with the sounds of an earlier era; she loved the musical bio-pic “The Eddy Duchin Story” (1956), starring Kim Novak, an idol of hers—but Reed’s paean to Darling in “Candy Says” is something else: an ode on the limiting and corrosive effects of wanting to live in a body other than one’s own, and what that can do to the heart and the imagination. Reed’s Velvet Underground bandmate Doug Yule sings in an almost whisper:

Candy says, “I’ve come to hate my body
And all that it requires in this world.”
Candy says, “I’d like to know completely
What others so discreetly talk about.
I’m gonna watch the bluebirds fly
Over my shoulder
I’m gonna watch them pass me by
Maybe when I’m older
What do you think I’d see
If I could walk away from me?”

But the point of Darling’s life—a point she insisted on with the few people she was close to—was that you can’t walk away from yourself, no matter how difficult it is to be who you are. “Always be yourself,” Candy told a cousin, and it’s the story of how she became a self—or, more accurately, lived simultaneously in her real and her fantasy selves—that Carr tells in her book. “Candy Darling” is the first full-length biography of the trans star, and I can’t imagine a better or more honest writer for the task.

From the very beginning of the book, Carr, who wrote a powerful biography of another poetic outsider, “Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz” (2012), shows us how Darling’s story queers straight biography. “She began her life as a tortured effeminate boy because she wasn’t really a boy,” Carr writes. “She was always a she, and I will be using she/her pronouns for her throughout.” By honoring Darling’s disconnection from her birth name (what some trans people call their “dead name”), Carr not only meets Darling on her own terms but insists that we do, too. “The word ‘trans’ implies a journey,” Carr writes, and the journey was a long and arduous one, driven and framed by romanticism and conviction.

Carr had to assemble her portrait of the young Candy from snippets, fragments, misremembered memories, and family shame. How did that child—born James Slattery—become this magnificent other? Partly by keeping things moving. “We don’t talk about then,” Darling said, in 1973, to an admiring young filmmaker, who’d mentioned having met her before. “Because it doesn’t matter who we were. Only who we are.”

To read about Candy’s early years, in Queens and Massapequa Park, is to long for her escape. Candy’s mother, the beautiful Theresa, known as Terry, already had a son, Warren, from a previous marriage, when she got together with John F. Slattery, whom friends called Jim. (Warren answered Carr’s questions only on condition that his last name not be published. He didn’t want his friends to know he was Candy Darling’s brother.) The family was living in Forest Hills, Queens, when James was born, on November 24, 1944. The Slatterys were not short on drama. Though the couple held down jobs—Terry as an office worker and, later, a bank teller, and Jim as a cashier for the New York Racing Association and a sometime bartender—and were eventually able to buy a house in North Merrick, on Long Island, the family’s emotional well-being was often rocked by Jim’s drinking, gambling, and violent rages, which were followed by the usual pleading and promises: Please don’t leave, I’ll be better. By 1957, Terry had had enough.

She divorced Jim and, with half the money from the sale of their home, got a place in suburban Massapequa Park, where Candy attended middle school. She was very soon a target. “He fit in with the girls,” one of Candy’s early friends told Carr. “He gravitated to them. And he was always picked on. He was very effeminate.” But what’s a girl to do? Especially if her inner self—her true self—bears no resemblance to the body, let alone the social constructs, she has to live with? (Candy referred to her penis as her “flaw.”) She learns to lie, to obfuscate, to sidestep the violence that’s always headed her way. Did Candy even know then that it was possible to be trans? Carr makes the case that she didn’t. All she probably knew, at fourteen, at fifteen, was what she was: a woman.

In 1953, Christine Jorgensen, the trans performer and activist who became famous in the United States for having sex-reassignment surgery, moved to neighboring Massapequa to distance herself from her notoriety. Sometimes Candy would cross the park separating the two towns and walk back and forth in front of Jorgensen’s house, but she never rang the bell. Part of what makes Darling’s performances so evocative—especially in “The Death of Maria Malibran,” Werner Schroeter’s 1972 romantic movie about art and the female diva—is her loneliness. (Once, as a young adult, she and a friend, the performance artist Agosto Machado, passed a schoolyard where they saw a little boy sitting by himself, and Candy, who rarely talked about her past, said, “I know how he feels. He doesn’t have any friends and he doesn’t know why he’s being punished in this way.”)

What likely saved her was her ability to hope, even in the depths of that loneliness. (Hope was a name she used before she settled on Candy.) “Practically everyone has a little hope,” she wrote in a school essay in 1960. “From the teenage girl who wishes on the first star of the evening to the starlet who wishes for fame and success to the poor tortured creature who in a last plea for mercy cries out in anguish for death.” There were life rafts along the way, small boats filled with happiness she could sail away on for a while. After dropping out of high school in her junior year, Candy enrolled at the DeVern School of Cosmetology, in nearby Baldwin, New York. In her journal, she wrote, “It isn’t like school at all. I always have someone to eat with. There is no ‘embarrassment.’ ” Eventually, Candy got a job at a friend’s beauty parlor; what she loved most was performing for other women in that all-female space. Impersonating Marilyn Monroe was a way of becoming herself, and in the early sixties she began transitioning. At first it was slow. A woman’s blouse tucked into her jeans, say. Though Candy had to lie to Jim, whom Terry remarried in 1962, she didn’t hide who she was from her mother for long; she couldn’t. When Terry told Candy she’d heard from a neighbor that “Jimmy” had been at the Hayloft, a gay bar in Baldwin, wearing women’s clothes, Candy went into her room and then emerged dressed as her true self. “I couldn’t hold my son back,” Terry said.

Nor could anyone else. Carr is a wonderful social historian, especially adept in her depiction of New York’s art and theatre scene in the years when Candy made her name. But, before making her name, she had to choose one. For a while, she was Candy Cane. (Monroe’s name in “Some Like It Hot” is Sugar Kane.) Eventually, Taffy Titz, who used to hang out with Candy in the West Village, said, “Come on, let’s go, Candy, darling,” so often that it stuck.

That was in the mid-sixties, and the streets were a trans girl’s home. Carr writes, “Those were the days but mostly nights when queens promenaded up and down Christopher Street to dish, to see what everyone was wearing, and to find out if anyone knew of a party.” As a “street queen,” Candy had no protection and no money; she occasionally tricked for cash. She was kicked out of one shitty hotel after another, lived with friends or acquaintances. She never had a permanent place of her own, besides her room in her mother’s home in Massapequa Park. (When she wanted to go to Long Island, she would say, all Joan Bennett-like, that she was going to her country home; she failed to mention that she had to arrive and leave at night, so the neighbors wouldn’t see her.) Still, she was known as the most glamorous girl on the block. From Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”:

Candy came from out on the Island
In the back room she was everybody’s darling
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, “Hey, babe
Take a walk on the wild side”

Unlike the other queens in the West Village, Candy didn’t make her life a performance for all the world to see. Ladylike and demure, once she was onstage she played the truth of her character as she saw it. Her allure was given its first real showcase by Jackie Curtis, a brilliant, messy queen a few years younger than Candy, who’d grown up on the Lower East Side. (His grandmother owned a bar on Second Avenue called Slugger Ann’s.) Frequenting the same social circles, Candy and Jackie began meeting up for late-night gab sessions in lousy diners, where Candy, wrapped in fake furs, would act out her favorite scenes from the movies she loved.

The twenty-year-old Jackie made a proposal: if Candy really wanted to be an actress, he would write a play for her, and he did. Titled “Glamour, Glory, and Gold: The Life and Legend of Nola Noonan, Goddess and Star,” it opened Off Off Broadway in 1967, and was about a young actress’s rise to stardom, and her fall. Candy didn’t have the lead role, but she got excellent notices—notices that failed to mention that she was a trans woman, because Candy had pushed for her gender identity to be kept secret; she wanted to be reviewed as a woman. From Dan Sullivan, in the Times: “A skinny actress billed as Candy Darling also made an impression; hers was the first female impersonation of a female impersonator that I have ever seen.” Ron Link, who directed “Glamour,” said, “You didn’t direct her like a normal actress. In other words you’d say to Candy, Here I want you to be like Lana in ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice,’ and then maybe the next scene . . . you’d say, I want you to do what Joan Bennett did in ‘Scarlet Street,’ and then she’d get it immediately. So she did the play in segments as those ladies until it became her own.”

Cartoon by Sam Gross

The late sixties were an exciting time to be in the theatre, and to be in the new New York, where, although gay people could still be arrested for their preferences, there was the Stonewall rebellion, and second-wave feminism, and queer artists and writers making work that spoke of their own world in code, while offering a critique of the “normal.” Candy wasn’t political, but she and Jackie, along with their friend the outstanding trans comedian Holly Woodlawn (who also features in “Walk on the Wild Side”), became symbols of the anarchy of the time: you can fuck with gender, all right, but first let’s ask the question “What is it?”

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