By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
When I was young, pre-Internet, and looking for examples of male-assigned people living interesting female lives, the pickings were nearly nonexistent. The one exception that popped up was Candy Darling.
A gorgeous actress and a participant in Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, she appeared to live her life exclusively in fabulous evening gowns, at glamorous, decadent parties. The stories she appeared in peripherally never explained how she became herself, and, as her feat had been un-replicated, “being Candy Darling,” unfortunately, did not seem like a career path I could follow.
Around college I learned about Lou Reed and discovered the song “Candy Says” and a verse of “Walk on the Wild Side” were about her. The first song seemed empathetic, and the latter slightly sensational and derogatory.
When I started transitioning I remembered my fascination with her, and tried to learn more.
Born in 1944, Darling’s assigned name was James Slattery. She grew up in suburban Long Island, idolizing female movie stars and journaling about the icon she hoped to become.
Her road to those dreams was less than luxurious. In the early ’60s she started going to Greenwich Village presenting as female, which was illegal at that time. She performed sex work to support herself, and took amphetamines, activities she continued, off and on, for the rest of her life.
Her name slowly evolved through the mid ’60s from Hope Slattery to Candy Darling, as she became integrated in the underground theater scene, working with a young Robert DeNiro, among others, and eventually crossing paths with Andy Warhol.
Warhol cast her in a small part in his film “Flesh,” and as a lead in his ensemble piece “Women in Revolt.” The latter is a sort of awful masterpiece, one of those partly brilliant, partly unwatchable drug-addled films that could only have emerged from the late 60s or early 70s.
A satire of both the nascent women’s liberation movement and the hysterical fears with which it was met, Darling stars in it as “Candy,” a sort of Patty Hearst-like socialite, recruited by the group PIGS (Politically Involved Girls), to help overthrow the patriarchy.
Darling both enacts and parodies the regal hauteur and swooning fragility one associates with ’30s screen goddesses throughout the film, creating a hilariously memorable character.
As the 2011 documentary “Beautiful Darling” makes clear, this was a perpetual pose of hers, as, despite her precarious, hand to mouth existence, she’d managed to live out her dreams of glamorous (if practically uncompensated) silver screen acting.
The film is filled with amazing archive footage of her days with Warhol and after, and features interviews with contemporary figures, such as John Waters, who is clearly a fan. It also details her lengthy friendship with Jeremiah Newton and his effort to find a final resting place for her remains.
The prejudice and intolerance Darling faced in affirming her identity are thoroughly laid out in the documentary, coming most starkly in the epic-level transphobia spewed by writer Fran Lebowitz. Engaging in the kind of rhetoric rarely seen outside of bigoted second wave feminist texts, Leibowitz says of Darling that she could never actually be a woman—because to be a woman you must first have been a girl, and Darling never was, and so, therefore, she was just a hopelessly inadequate imitator.
A similarly painful note is struck in an anecdote about her appearance in Tennessee Williams’ play “Small Craft Warning,” in a part Williams sought her for himself. A crew member who is interviewed recalls that Darling was given her own dressing room, because “of course” she couldn’t change with the other women, thus underlining the second class status she endured even during her greatest successes.
Darling’s time with Warhol was a kind of apex for her professionally. Clips of the two of them at art openings and on news programs reveal a natural symbiosis. They shared a love of glamour and a deadpan wit. Darling was just as expert as Warhol at projecting a superficial emptiness meant to tweak the pretensions of the art world cognoscenti; she just did it in the guise of a starlet, rather than a savant.
In 1969, famed photographer Richard Avedon documented Warhol’s Factory denizens. A striking nude portrait of Darling emerged from the sessions. As she stands facing the camera, the viewer sees a gorgeous woman with a penetrating stare, her long hair covering her breasts, and a penis and testicles between her legs.
It’s likely an empowering sight for anyone who’s transitioned, and the impact it still carries indicates that, forty five years later, our culture still hasn’t fully caught up to Darling and her peers.
Darling acted and was friends with two other transwomen, Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis. All three appear in “Women in Revolt,” but the other two play their parts in a more campy, confrontational way. It was only Darling who appears to have dreamed of conventional movie stardom.
“Beautiful Darling” captures the awe and bliss she felt traveling to Hollywood for the premiere of “Women in Revolt.” Fearing ridicule, she was greeted with cheers, giving her a new belief in her ambitions.
Her career after that point, however, was not as successful or fulfilling. As they were wont to do throughout his career, Warhol’s interests turned elsewhere. Never generous or loyal, Warhol simply ceased working with Darling, whom he’d never properly compensated for her work.
Darling campaigned to be cast in a mainstream Hollywood film, the adaptation of Gore Vidal’s novel “Myra Breckinridge,” but was not chosen, a decision that’s said to have lead to bitterness on her part.
She won small roles in a few memorable films, including good ones like “Klute” with Jane Fonda, and poor ones, like “Lady Liberty” with Sophia Loren. Other performances, sadly, simply reflected the marginalization she was already experiencing, such as her turn as the victim of a trans bashing in the independent film “Some of My Best Friends Are . . . ”
Her personal life, at this point, fared no better—during this period, she was disowned by her mother, who feared how her conservative second husband would react if he learned she had a transgender daughter.
At the age of 29 the actress was diagnosed with lymphoma. She appears to have approached her deathbed with the same melodramatic relish she’d brought to each previous stage in her life, having written in a note to Warhol, “Unfortunately before my death I had no desire left for life . . . I am just so bored by everything. You might say bored to death. Did you know I couldn’t last? I always knew it.”
She died in March of 1974.
While the reactionary Lebowitz might say otherwise, Candy Darling lived a remarkable female life. It’s difficult and dangerous to be a transgender woman today, but it was virtually unheard of when she did it. To have not only transitioned, but become a recognized stage and screen actress as she did in her era, is akin to having flown to the moon on a bicycle.
Candy Darling was and remains an icon worthy of remembering and celebrating.