Holly Woodlawn appeared with Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis in many Warhol films, on cabaret stages, and in underground theater productions, and was name-checked in the opening lines of Lou Reed’s classic song “Walk On the Wild Side” and appeared briefly in An American Family.
During the original run of Conquest of the Universe, Ondine played the King of Mars (“I’ve come to Venus to see the ka-ween!”) and Mary Woronov was Conqueror of the Universe (“Seize him! Sterilize him!”), while Holly Woodlawn covered her nearly naked body in baby oil and rolled in glitter on the floor. “It wasn’t sexy, even if there was nudity,” Woronov recalled. “It didn’t have much to do with sex. My minions would spend half the time onstage trying to shit in a pail.” Woronov already had a masculine image because she had played strong characters in Warhol films such as Vinyl, so she brought that persona to John Vaccaro’s stage. “I would be in a dress, but I was obviously a woman posing as a man, doing manly things,” she said. “So in other words, it was playing with gender—which is much different from a queen dressing up as a woman.” Costar Ruby Lynn Reyner added, “It was all very sexually ambiguous in those days. Gender roles were being exploded.” Reyner started out in the chorus in Conquest of the Universe, then got her big break after one of the lead actresses had an accident and could no longer perform. “Beverly Grant broke her ankle, like in 42nd Street, the Busby Berkeley film. Ondine and Louis Waldon came over to my apartment, and I was getting ready to play my usual chorus part when they told me.” They worked all day to help Reyner learn her new lines, telling her not to worry if she forgot them, because she could always improvise. Conquest of the Universe became a downtown hit that attracted the likes of Marcel Duchamp, who declared, “This is a Dada play.”
From Chapter 16 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
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
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
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.”
From Chapter 21 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
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 did not appear in television’s first weekly reality series, An American Family, but he was a looming influence behind the scenes. Shot in 1971, the PBS show premiered on January 11, 1973, and became an immediate pop culture sensation. It was discussed by newspaper columnists, debated by television pundits, and taken seriously by respected scholars such as Margaret Mead. In a TV Guide article, the anthropologist declared that the show was “as new and significant as the invention of drama or the novel—a new way in which people can learn to look at life, by seeing the real life of others interpreted by the camera.” Though An American Family primarily took place in the Loud family home in Santa Barbara, California, several key moments were filmed in New York—exposing the likes of Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn to millions. It also introduced audiences to the first openly gay man on television, Lance Loud, who had already forged links with the downtown underground in the mid-1960s. After he saw a Time magazine article about Warhol and Factory superstar Edie Sedgwick at the age of thirteen, Loud dyed his hair silver. He even struck up a long-distance friendship with Warhol—via mail and, eventually, telephone—but the letters and late-night phone calls abruptly ended after Warhol was shot in 1968. “I tried to write him, but the letters came back,” Loud said. “He suddenly became very, very private. He got very scared after that for a long time.”
From Chapter 23 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The second episode of An American Family, which focused on her first encounters with the underground, provided fodder for water cooler conversations around the country. “We’re going to the La MaMa theater tonight,” Lance told his mother, Pat Loud. “Vain Victory with Jackie Curtis. It’s the ultimate of the underground, honey. You’ll just think it’s so neat.” Several minutes of campy performance footage from Curtis’s show were included in that episode, as well as an awkward moment in which Holly Woodlawn met Pat Loud in a Chelsea hallway. Later that evening, in a diner after the play, the cameras made it clear that Pat was not impressed by what she saw at La MaMa. Pat Loud explained her reaction to Vain Victory decades later, which mostly had to do with the fact that it was a hot summer night, and La MaMa had no air conditioning. Along with the outré dialogue and uncomfortable bench seating, it was all a bit too much for her. “I was just a housewife from Santa Barbara, California,” she said, “which was a small town at that time, and I had no idea there were people like this in the world. And it was pretty crazy. I remember there was a toilet in one of the major scenes, and it just did not appeal to me. It did not have my name on it.”
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
“Blondie were more ramshackle than the Ramones,” recalled producer and recording engineer Craig Leon, who recorded their first album. “They didn’t sound very good, quite honestly. They weren’t taken seriously. If you would have said, ‘Who was the band that was least likely to be signed?’ it would have been them. Particularly in the earlier incarnations that I’d seen, like the Stilettoes.” Debbie Harry said of those early years, “We weren’t even really a garage band. We were so bad we were more like a garbage band.” Her quip is fitting, given that Blondie emerged from the ashes of a group called Pure Garbage, featuring Warholites Elda Gentile and Holly Woodlawn. During Woodlawn’s short tenure in the group, she recalled that she “jiggled my jugs, wiggled my hips, shook my maracas, and played the cymbals between my knees, a rare talent that I had picked up from a battery-operated monkey at FAO Schwarz.” After Pure Garbage broke up in early 1973, Harry ran into Gentile and suggested they start a new band. “I had made a deal with Jayne County to allow her PA system to remain in my loft in exchange for free rehearsal time,” said Gentile, “and that allowed me to put together the Stilettoes.” The band primarily played makeshift spaces and failing bars, like Bobern Bar & Grill on West Twenty-Eighth Street. Named after its owners, Bob and Ernie, Bobern was such a low-rent venue that they had to take the legs off a pool table to make a stage, but at least it was conveniently located on the same block where Gentile lived. The Stilettoes played there between October and December 1973, and they developed a following in part because Gentile had connections as a Max’s Kansas City waitress who was dating the New York Dolls’ Sylvain Sylvain (and had previously had a child with Eric Emerson).
From Chapter 31 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
This interest in fashion intensified when designer Stephen Sprouse moved into the building’s top floor. “I invited Stephen to live there sometime after I met him at Reno Sweeney, when Holly Woodlawn was performing there,” Benton Quin said. “Stephen began designing and making a few things for Debbie, and also loaned her things. She was just basically wearing a lot of thrift shop stuff, so Stephen ramped up her glamour several notches.” Sprouse had a professional background working for Halston, a major designer at the time, and he created clothes for everyone in the band. “He was very much an artist who was aggressive about how he would cut up materials,” Chris Stein said. “He was just so far ahead of his time.” “Stephen would find things for me to wear,” Debbie Harry recalled, “or go through my collection of rags and put them together so that it had a strong visual look. He had all that experience at Halston of creating collections, so he was able to compile things.” Roberta Bayley added, “Dressing Debbie was probably inspirational for him, and it was great for her because she really developed her look—going from a thrift shop look, because nobody had money, to actually having dresses that were made for her to be onstage.” Sprouse did other graphic design work for the group, and in 1976 he was tapped to be the art director on the first two Blondie videos, “X Offender” and “In the Flesh.” From the very beginning, Blondie understood that visuals matter. The group started making music videos five years before MTV debuted in 1981, and photos of Harry circulated widely well before the band ever had an American hit, which undoubtedly laid the foundation for their later success. Although Blondie began as the runts of the CBGB scene, the group became its biggest global export by the end of the decade.
The buzz created by An American Family brought the Loud family to the attention of millions of people, including Lisa Jane Persky. The year it debuted, her father, Mort Persky, hired Pat Loud to write a piece about the show for Family Weekly, a newspaper insert that he edited. Lisa thought Lance Loud’s brother was cute, and a couple of months later, Mort introduced her to Grant Loud when he and the other Loud kids visited New York. She took them to see Holly Woodlawn perform at Reno Sweeney, an intimate cabaret located at 126 West Thirteenth Street in Greenwich Village. “Because of Warhol films like Trash and Off-Off-Broadway,” said Paul Serrato, who often accompanied Woodlawn as a pianist, “everybody wanted to see Holly perform at Reno Sweeney. It attracted everybody from the underground scene.”
From Chapter 32 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore