After moving to Downtown New York, Bruce Eyster became fast friends with the likes of Harry Koutoukas, Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling and others; he also appeared in a few of Koutoukas’ shows until they had a falling out after the playwright demanded that Eyster bleach his hair white and shave off all his body hair for his play Too Late for Yogurt.
When Harry Koutoukas first met Off-Off-Broadway artist and performer Bruce Eyster, he wore a luminous outfit that was quite memorable. “He had shiny pants and a top made of really sparkly material,” Bruce Eyster said, “but it was all ragged and pinned together with safety pins, way before punk.” Koutoukas followed Eyster home that night and waited outside until morning to talk to him, and the two became friends. “The first time we went to Harry’s apartment, my boyfriend and I went there and Harry said, ‘Wait, before you go in, I have to do this thing.’ And he did this weird thing with the locks, and then when we got in he had to push this thing aside.” An automobile engine was precariously balanced on top of the refrigerator so that, according to Koutoukas, “If somebody breaks in, the car motor will fall on them and kill them.” Oh, o-kaaaay, Eyster thought. “Harry had very funny ways of seeing things,” he recalled, “and he was very clever with words.” Koutoukas could shock people, make them laugh, or do both at the same time—which was often a good line of defense. One night on Christopher Street, a black man began hassling him, so Koutoukas told the guy, “Well, I never fight with anybody I can’t see in the dark.” The man stood there wide-eyed, then burst out laughing and never bothered Koutoukas again.
From Chapter 12 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Harry Koutoukas shot lots of speed and could get paranoid about it, shouting from his apartment window, “Okay, everybody can see me now—I’m shooting up!” “He was kind of overweight,” his friend Bruce Eyster said, “which I found amazing, because most people that were doing that much speed were very skinny. But not Harry. Harry was heavy.” One time after throwing up neon-green bile and nearly dying, Koutoukas was taken to nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital, where he wrote from his hospital bed, still wired from the speed: “When I put on the black sequined G-string and pasties for the Gay Halloween event at St. Charles next month, I’ll be as svelte as an anorexic stripper. Almost. I’m outwardly still, but my contents are leaping, leaping! My shell is bursting with frogs. What the hell! I can’t write! I can’t think. I can only emote.”
Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, and Holly Woodlawn appeared in many Warhol films, on cabaret stages, and in underground theater productions. As with the other two, Woodlawn (née Haroldo Santiago Franceschi Rodriguez Danhaki) was also name-checked in that Lou Reed classic: “Holly came from Miami, F-L-A, hitchhiked her way across the USA, plucked her eyebrows along the way, shaved her legs and then he was a she.” In fact, Holly Woodlawn didn’t hitchhike—she took the bus to New York—but the rest was more or less true. “Through Jackie, I would end up at Max’s with Jackie and Candy and Holly,” Bruce Eyster recalled. “They were all very funny in different ways and had their own take on things. Holly was kind of like the Martha Raye comedienne slapstick girl.” Ruby Lynn Reyner also hung out with all three, and would act out scenes from 1940s movies and 1950s televisions shows with them. “They knew all the dialogue from old Kim Novak movies, Joan Crawford movies, or I Love Lucy,” she said. “We’d switch off playing the roles. Jackie and I would always fight over who would be Lucy and who would be Ethel. Oh, and Holly and I had adventures together. We used to wear these old vintage 1930s nightgowns and wander through the East Village, clinging together in the night. One time she came to answer the door and she was just out of the shower and she had a big dick. I couldn’t believe it. I always thought of Holly as my girlfriend.”
From Chapter 17 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Bruce Eyster first laid eyes on Jackie Curtis in a Chicago art house theater that screened Warhol’s 1968 film Flesh, her film debut, and after arriving in New York, Eyster went to Max’s Kansas City because he heard they had great hamburgers. He had no idea it was also a Warhol hangout, so when Curtis walked into the front area Eyster exclaimed, “Hey, it’s Jackie Curtis!” They became fast friends. Eyster recalled that being with Curtis was akin to running around with Harpo Marx in a slapstick comedy—like one time when they needed to cross a busy street and Jackie hailed a taxi, then crawled through the cab’s backseat and came out the other side, then crawled through the back of another car, and then another. “We did four cars to get across the street instead of just taking the crosswalk,” Eyster said. “He was just so hilarious. Jackie would walk into a room and you could feel the electricity. He really did have a movie star quality about him.” Kristian Hoffman, whose band the Mumps would later become regulars at Max’s and CBGB, vividly remembered the time when someone asked Curtis to do something “camp” for them. “Camp? I’ll give you camp,” Curtis shouted. “CONCENTRATION CAMP!”
Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, and Holly Woodlawn weren’t clinically insane or homicidal, but they still contributed to the Factory’s edgy atmosphere. It was fueled by heavy drug use and hard living, which Warhol mined as grist for his movies Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), and Women in Revolt (1972), which featured this trashy trio. “He took advantage of them, and I didn’t really like that at all,” said Curtis’s friend Melba LaRose. “I always found Andy very cold, and with not much to say. And of course the people around him said all these witty things and then he’d get credit for it. Jackie and Candy were always very witty.” Their exhibitionism, which made for compelling cinema and great PR, stood in contrast to Warhol’s wordless, blank persona. “Jackie, Holly, and Candy had problems with Warhol because he didn’t really pay them,” said another friend, Bruce Eyster. Warhol did give them token money, but they still ended up marching over from Max’s Kansas City to the Factory to scream and beg for more money—something that underscored a genuine divide between Warhol and some of those he mixed with. Even though many vied to be in his social world, Warhol wasn’t revered or respected in the same way as Jack Smith, Harry Koutoukas, and other struggling downtown artists who prioritized art over money. “You wondered if some of the entourage people—Billy Name, Taylor Mead, and so forth—would jump out the window,” Robert Heide added. “They’d go back to their shabby little rooms because there was this double standard going on. I think ultimately that’s one of the reasons I think Andy got shot.”
From Chapter 18 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
After Grandmother Is in the Strawberry Patch, Harry Koutoukas had another big row with Ellen Stewart. Both had strong personalities, and they clashed several times over the years, culminating in him sending her tumbling down a few stairs—though because this legendary incident had been embellished over the years, who knows exactly what happened. Real life often blended with fantasy, especially when highly theatrical people got involved. The story resonated because it reminded some on the scene of an over-the-top moment from the 1947 film noir classic Kiss of Death, in which Richard Widmark rolled a wheelchair-bound woman down a flight of stairs. “I was there the night Harry threw Ellen down the stairs of La MaMa,” playwright Robert Patrick recalled, “and she forgave him. Everybody forgave Harry for everything. He was the most extreme example of what we all were—dropouts, freaks, originals, or ‘gargoyles,’ as he would put it.” Koutoukas finally returned to the La MaMa fold on Christmas day 1975 for a presentation of his play Star Followers in an Ancient Land. Because Agosto Machado was friends with Koutoukas and had known Stewart from La MaMa’s early days in the basement of East Ninth Street, he was asked to help smooth things over. “Ellen was so pleased,” he said, “and Harry was so honored to be back at La MaMa, because it really was important to him.” Machado also performed in Star Followers, as did Koutoukas’s friend Bruce Eyster. “One day I was walking around,” he recalled, “and Harry came up to me and said, ‘You’re going to be in my Christmas show.’ And I said, ‘Oh, really? Well, okay.’ ” Eyster played a Heavenly Body, Machado was one of the Three Wise Men, and Koutoukas once again cast Mary Boylan, who was given lines from the Bible. “Harry, you didn’t write this,” she told him. “Well, no,” Harry replied, “but if you’re going to plagiarize, I believe you should plagiarize from the best.”
From Chapter 29 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Being an Off-Off-Broadway playwright and performer certainly did not pay the bills, and Harry Koutoukas never held a real job, but he survived with a little help from his friends—and various patrons that he juggled. “More or less, they were women who had money who needed a walker,” Agosto Machado said. “You know, that term for a gay male who escorts a lady to functions, so she won’t be alone. They really thought he was so unique and unusual and talented.” Koutoukas also wrote many chamber plays that were performed in candlelight in the apartments of wealthy uptown patrons who were dazzled by his wit and wordplay. “Now and then, Yoko Ono might give him a call,” Machado continued, “but it didn’t mean automatically she’s going to help him out, though she often would.” Harry also had a patron, Angela Boone, who ran the restaurant Pennyfeathers near his apartment. After discovering he was a playwright, she set him up at a little round table and would introduce him as the house playwright. “Harry would always come in,” his friend Bruce Eyster recalled, “and he would have all this food and then say, ‘Oh, put it on my bill.’ Until Angela died, he sent me to go over there and say, ‘Harry needs two sandwiches, roast beef.’ And she’d say, ‘Okay,’ and she would make it and send it over.” Despite the speed demons and drug-fueled craziness that nearly killed him, Koutoukas beat the grim odds and lived into his seventies, spending a full half century in a building he called home—with his trusty deceased: return to sender stamp ready when the bills piled up in his mailbox.