Born James Slattery, Candy Darling grew up in Massapequa Park, Long Island and moved to New York in the mid-1960s, where she became part of the street scene—eventually befriending Jackie Curtis, with whom she appeared in Warhol films.
Glamour, Glory, and Gold served as the stage debut of both Candy Darling and a young actor named Robert De Niro, who played all the male roles in the show. Even before Darling transformed herself from a brunette into a peroxide blonde goddess with blue eye shadow, false eyelashes, and an icy wit, she could play a convincing woman. New York Times theater critic Dan Sullivan commented without irony in a review: “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.” Candy loved that review, which mistakenly warped Darling’s gender like a Möbius strip. The wider public didn’t know the truth until Ron Link did a big reveal when he directed Darling in Give My Regards to Off-Off Broadway. Reflecting on Darling’s sexuality, Tony Zanetta recalled, “Maybe Candy actually was transgender, but in the beginning we didn’t think of Candy as a woman, or someone who was trying to be a woman. Candy was a boy who was being a star. He recreated himself in the guise of Lana Turner or Kim Novak. Candy’s life was performance art about stardom, more than anything. We were attracted to the movies, but we were especially attracted to the stars.” Darling even convinced aging film director Busby Berkeley that she was a woman during an open audition for a Broadway show he was involved in. Darling wore a black 1930s dress with leaping gazelles, while Curtis looked decidedly less femme in a ratty raincoat, torn stockings, and glitter-damaged face. Darling and Curtis were cooing and talking to the director, who took one look and said to Darling, “If it’s based on looks alone, you’ll get it.” He had no idea Darling was in drag.
From Chapter 17 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The Warhol film Flesh introduced Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis to the underground film world, after which the two became regulars at Max’s (in “Walk on the Wild Side,” Lou Reed observed, “Candy came from out on the Island, in the back room she was everybody’s darling”). Born James Slattery, Darling grew up in Massapequa Park, Long Island—where she was friends with future Off-Off-Broadway director Tony Ingrassia. By the mid-1960s she and Ingrassia made their way to New York City, where Darling became part of the street scene. Hanging out on the stoops or in the parks, she would often be invited back to people’s apartments in the hope that she could inject a little glamour into their evenings. “Candy looked beautiful,” Jane Wagner recalled, “like she just stepped out of a movie.” Curtis quickly took Darling under her wing and, one evening, brought the new arrival to Jim Fouratt’s apartment. “I would like you to meet this boy that just arrived in town,” Curtis told him. “His name is James, but we’re going to call him Candy—Candy Darling. And Candy Darling is never going home again.” Curtis and Darling first met Andy Warhol on the Greenwich Village streets, asking for an autograph and inviting him to Glamour, Glory, and Gold, playing at Bastiano’s Cellar Studio. “Walking just ahead of us was a boy about nineteen or twenty with wispy Beatle bangs,” Warhol recalled, “and next to him was a tall, sensational blonde drag queen in very high heels and a sundress that she had made sure had one strap falling onto her upper arm.” Warhol loved Curtis’s show and provided a publicity blurb—“For the first time, I wasn’t bored”—which led to parts for Curtis and Darling in Warhol’s Flesh.
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.”
Jackie Curtis, who was always writing, quickly followed his theatrical debut with a musical, Lucky Wonderful. It was based on the life of Tommy Manville, a playboy socialite who had several strange, exotic wives. “Jackie decided to write a musical,” Melba LaRose said, “and he starred in it, and Paul Serrato wrote the music for it.” Serrato also composed music for Curtis’s biggest underground hit, 1971’s Vain Victory, and he later did a cabaret act with Holly Woodlawn. He first met Curtis when he worked at the Paperback Gallery, one of Greenwich Village’s literary hotspots. “Jackie would come in, as everybody did,” He first said. “Through one thing or another—we were all very young then—Jackie and I became friends. Jackie learned that I was a musician and composer, and he came in and told me, ‘I’m writing this script for this musical. You want to do the music for it?’ And so I said, ‘Of course.’ And that’s how we met, in a Greenwich Village bookstore.” Lucky Wonderful included a lovely bossa nova number, “My Angel,” along with the sultry “White Shoulders, Black and Blue” (the song was later revived in Vain Victory for Candy Darling to sing). The songs were fairly low-key, though the acting was wildly animated. “Jackie wrote things with tremendous energy,” Melba LaRose said, “and each show was only an hour and ten minutes straight through. It was high, high octane energy.”
Agosto Machado remembered Holly Woodlawn as a very open, childlike, and loving playmate and friend. “One of the things people noted was her vulnerability,” he said. “She didn’t have that protective armor, but Holly was so much fun and so good-spirited.” Woodlawn, Candy Darling, and Jackie Curtis were sometimes homeless and crashed where they could, making their destitute surroundings glamorous through sheer force of will. Sometimes they were allowed to stay in a place behind Slugger Ann’s, a little studio apartment with crumbling concrete steps that led to the door. Aside from a mattress for Curtis, it was filled with books, photos of movie stars tacked to the walls, and notebooks of Curtis’s writings. “I’m a loner,” Curtis said. “I hate hangouts! But I do haunt old bookshops and music stores, because you never know who or what you might find there.” Despite a very visible exhibitionist streak, Curtis remained fairly private while at home. “Jackie didn’t like to receive anybody if she wasn’t shaved or put together,” Machado recalled, “but for us, we’d all seen each other when we didn’t look our best or had slept over and our beards grew out.” Amid the crumpled bed sheets and pillows that were smeared with makeup, the friends would relax and dish about the previous night’s shenanigans.
From Chapter 17 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
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
Both Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling held on to a sincere hope that they would become actual stars, but they were too far ahead of their time to crack the glitter ceiling. When Lily Tomlin was performing in the early 1970s at the popular midtown venue Upstairs at the Downstairs, she got Darling an audition for the nightclub’s musical review. “I thought Candy was really good in the audition,” Tomlin said, but the show’s producer had a more uptight midtown audience to contend with, so he passed. “My frustration is that they couldn’t break through to the mainstream culture,” Jane Wagner added, “but that was what made them unique, so that’s ironic. You wanted them to be accepted in a bigger way because they wanted it so much, but then if they had been, they wouldn’t have been who they were.” In 1974, at the age of twenty-nine, Darling died of lymphoma, perhaps caused by the questionable hormone treatments she received. “By the time you read this I will be gone,” she said in a deathbed letter written to Andy Warhol, which captured the exhaustion that saturated that era. “I am just so bored by everything. You might say bored to death.” By the mid-1970s, the Off-Off-Broadway and Factory scenes were also on life support.
From Chapter 21 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Patti Smith was wary of the Warhol scene, but she supported Robert Mapplethorpe’s desire to break into that world. This led them to what she called the downtown’s “Bermuda Triangle”: Brownie’s vegetarian restaurant, Max’s Kansas City, and Warhol’s Factory, which were within walking distance of one another. Warhol had become reclusive after he was shot by Valerie Solanas, but the back room of Max’s remained one of the downtown scene’s hot spots. Its social politics were reminiscent of high school, though the popular people were not jocks and prom queens, but rather drag queens (who, as Smith observed, knew more about being a girl than most females). Mapplethorpe and Smith sat for hours nursing twenty-five cent coffees or a Coke as they slowly edged their way into the dark, red-lit cabaret that was Max’s back room—where “superstars” made grand entrances, blowing theatrical kisses. Smith was especially taken by Jackie Curtis, Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, and Wayne County, whom she viewed as hybrid performance artists and comedians. “Wayne was witty, Candy was pretty, and Holly had drama,” she recalled, “but I put my money on Jackie Curtis. In my mind, she had the most potential. She would successfully manipulate a whole conversation just to deliver one of Bette Davis’s killer lines.”
Through hanging out in Max’s Kansas City, Patti Smith became friendly with Jackie Curtis—who cast her, Wayne County, and Penny Arcade in Femme Fatale, which debuted at La MaMa on May 6, 1970. Wayne County, who would become Jayne County by the end of the 1970s, was the newest addition to the downtown’s glitter mafia. She met Curtis, Darling, and Woodlawn in 1969, soon after moving from Georgia to New York, and by this point she was living with Curtis and several others in a tiny cold-water apartment on the Lower East Side. “It was during this time that I first got the idea of going on stage,” County recalled. “Jackie had been writing a play called Femme Fatale at the flat, and she was looking for people to be in it. So she said to me one day, ‘Wayne, you should be in Femme Fatale. You’ll play a lesbian.” County’s first line was the setup for a gross-out gag: “You scared the shit out of me” (after which she pulled a plastic poop novelty item from under her dress). “That was my debut on the New York stage,” she said, “in Jackie Curtis’s Femme Fatale. You can imagine.”
Vain Victory brought in rich people who were trying to “slum it” downtown, sometimes inviting Jackie and the rest of the cast to their fancy uptown residences. Agosto Machado said it was like inviting a sideshow performer to dinner for your friends to gawk at, something that Lily Tomlin also found troubling. “You just felt that someone was bringing them to be amused,” she said, “or be hip or to rub elbows with that culture—but not really take it in or embrace it totally. I just felt that it was kind of exploitative.” “The Ridiculous people—and Jackie, Holly, and Candy—were always getting invited to these big uptown parties,” Tony Zanetta said. “They were kind of like toys of the rich people, these little social freaks.” Despite the patronizing attitudes, Machado and his friends made the most of it. “It was such a novelty for many of us, being invited uptown. You could tell they were from different classes because they had nice teeth and could afford dentists. People who were like us, we didn’t have manicures.” The last time Robert Patrick saw Candy Darling, he was cruising around Times Square with friends in a baby-blue Thunderbird convertible when they saw her on the sidewalk looking distraught. “We stopped and said, ‘What’s wrong, Candy?’ She said, ‘Well, I’m supposed to go to this party and I get $500 for going to a party now, but my ride hasn’t come.’ ” When they offered to take Candy, she hopped in the back of the convertible with the grace and poise of a beauty pageant winner. “She sat up on the backseat,” Patrick said, “and waved at people like Miss America as we drove her to a party.”
Jackie Curtis wrote the underground hit Vain Victory: The Vicissitudes of the Damned. “La MaMa to me was an acknowledgment that we kind of made it,” recalled Tony Zanetta. “It was very respectable. So if Jackie Curtis did Vain Victory there, it was taken seriously, even though it was a total mess.” The show featured Curtis alongside a star-studded downtown cast that included Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, Taylor Mead, Mario Montez, and Agosto Machado, among many others. Vain Victory was Machado’s first Off-Off-Broadway show, even though he had been hanging around the scene throughout the 1960s. “It never occurred to me that I would cross the footlights, but with the encouragement of Jackie Curtis I suddenly was on the other side, and people were so welcoming,” he said. “I couldn’t understand why, because I don’t sing, dance, or act—and yet it was like, ‘Be part of our show!’ ” Eric Emerson and his band the Magic Tramps played Vain Victory’s backing music, and the glitter-slathered frontman had his own solo number as a naked cowboy, wearing little more than chaps. “There was glitter all over his pubic hair and what have you,” Machado said. “He was not self-conscious about nudity because he had done that in Warhol films.” Darling performed as a wheelchair-bound mermaid who was sad about having a tail but no legs (Woodlawn took that role after Darling left Vain Victory, accidentally rolling over the edge of the stage and into the audience during her first night as the mermaid).
Andy Warhol’s Pork, which debuted at La MaMa, also marked the beginning of the end of his significant ties to the downtown scenes, a transition embodied by the evolution of Interview magazine. Warhol launched it in 1969 as an underground movie magazine printed on cheap black-and-white newsprint—much like what was available in indie bookstores such as the Peace Eye—but by the early 1970s, Interview was reborn as a glossy magazine filled with celebrity photographs and transcripts of verbatim interviews. He traded in downtown companions like Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, and Holly Woodlawn for the high-rolling glitterati of uptown and Europe, who could afford his art. Anyone could have a Warhol portrait made for $25,000—about $150,000 in today’s dollars—which became the bread and butter of the Factory operation. “If his Factory had been an incubator for many of the experimental tendencies of the New York underground of 1960s,” historian Andreas Killen wrote, “by the early 1970s it had been transformed into an increasingly professionalized operation dedicated to chronicling the lives of celebrities.”
From Chapter 24 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Tony Zanetta graduated from high school in 1964 and went to art school in Buffalo, then dropped out. While coming to grips with his sexuality and discovering the gay world, he had a roommate from Massapequa, Long Island, who grew up with both Tony Ingrassia and Candy Darling. Zanetta got to know them both when he moved to New York City, where he lived fairly deep in the East Village on Twelfth Street and Avenue C. At first he did only conventional theater, though Zanetta was familiar with the underground theater scene. “I was aware of the Theater of the Ridiculous and I had seen two things that I absolutely loved, including Gorilla Queen, which was Ronald Tavel’s,” he said. “I also saw Night Club, which was directed by Tony Ingrassia.” Ingrassia directed several other Off-Off-Broadway shows, including Curtis’s Femme Fatale and the Wayne County–penned three-act play World: Birth of a Nation at the New York Theater Ensemble. “I went to the audition for World,” Zanetta said, “and I had previously met Tony Ingrassia through my college roommate. So Tony’s like, ‘Darling, you don’t have to audition. You can be in my play.’ ”