RIP Holly Woodlawn: Remembering Warhol's Superstar
With little more than a dream and a knapsack, Harold Danhakl ran away from her Miami home at the age of 16 and set out for New York City. Somewhere along that fateful 1962 journey, Harold fell away and Holly Woodlawn (inspired by Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly) emerged—beginning a legacy that would be celebrated for decades. If you’re a classic rock fan and are wondering why that all sounds so familiar, it’s her origin story served as the basis for the first line in the Lou Reed song “Walk on the Wild Side.”
“Holly came from Miami, F.L.A. Hitchhiked her way across the U.S.A. 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.'”
Sunday was a dark day for fans of the infamous transgender icon, actress, and cabaret performer, as news spread that she had died at the age of 69 after spending months battling liver cancer. Born Haroldo Santiago Franceschi Rodriguez Danhakl in Puerto Rico in 1946, the activist and muse to both Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey rose to fame in the 1970s, after making her mark on the underground film scene with starring roles in Trash and Women in Revolt. In those cult classics, she played a welfare cheat married to Joe Dallessandro’s heroin addict, and a man-hating nymphomaniac fashion model, respectively—two roles that seemed to mirror her own wild personality.
As with many young runaways in New York during the ’60s, Woodlawn fell in with a group of prostitutes that identified across the gender spectrum. She turned tricks until her fateful meeting with Andy at a screening of Flesh at the Factory in 1968. Cut to two years later, and Trash had made her such a star that she actually inspired George Cukor to launch a write-in Oscar campaign on her behalf. No nomination came of it, but it did cement her status as one of Warhol’s trans superstars, alongside Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis.
In the decades following her rise to underground stardom, Woodlawn moved from New York to San Francisco to Miami, but never truly found the mainstream success she was searching for. In 1992, she released a memoir, A Low Life in High Heels. Towards the end of the 1990s, she experienced a bit of career revival, with roles in indie films like Billy’s Big Hollywood Kiss and Night Owl. More recently, Woodlawn appeared on the first season of Transparent as Vivian, and she did regular cabaret shows in Los Angeles in the 2000s.
Long before the rise of Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, and other modern trans icons, Woodlawn broke down barriers for the transgender community. To honor her memory, we’d like to look back on our five favorite Holly Woodlawn quotes.
On being one of Warhol’s Superstars:
“I felt like Elizabeth Taylor! Little did I realise 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.”
On her days as a prostitute before meeting Andy:
“The boys at the baths loved me. Of course, they were all drunk and high and would’ve loved a French poodle barking out ‘Jingle Bells’!”
On gender fluidity:
“If I’m wearing pants, call me a man. If I’m wearing a dress, call me a cab!”
On the casting process for projects about trans or gender-nonconforming people:
“I’m tired of straight people playing drag queens. Why can’t drag queens play drag queens? They’re talented, they’re fabulous, they’re gorgeous!”
On the death of her friend Lou Reed:
“You can’t take everything too heavy in life. Listen, you have to have a real sense of humor to get through this life. I mean, honey, get real.”
From her escape from Florida to her rise as a cult icon in Warhol’s Factory, Woodlawn was more than just a woman. She was a trailblazer who showed everyone—no matter where you fall on the gender spectrum—how to be fabulous.
Images via Bei Rix, Robert Coddington, Jarry Lang, and Danielle Levitt.