The playwright and performer Jackie Curtis was a working class Lower East Side native who was raised by his grandmother, “Slugger Ann,” the proprietor of a rough East Village bar named Slugger Ann’s.
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.
“Ellen Stewart took John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous under the umbrella of La MaMa, and she gave them a regular space to rehearse and perform,” recalled Agosto Machado. “They were her ‘babies,’ as she would say, and she always took care of them.” One of Stewart’s most notable babies was Jackie Curtis—born John Curtis Holder Jr.—who was about fourteen when they met in the early 1960s. “Jackie was just a boy when he came to La Mama,” she said. “I thought he was a genius. And he created many beautiful things. Jackie was a wonderful writer. And he said that being a drag queen brought him more fame, but he wished that his work as a playwright would establish him as a very great writer.” By the time Curtis was cast in the John Vaccaro-directed Cock-Strong in 1969, the gender-fluid playwright and performer had already written and staged two Off-Off-Broadway plays. “Ellen really treated Jackie like an honorary child,” said Machado, who appeared in Curtis’s Vain Victory: The Vicissitudes of the Damned. Stewart generously let Curtis use La MaMa’s rehearsal space during the lead‑up to that show, a downtown hit that secured her status as an underground celebrity.
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 made the most of the radical shifts happening downtown in the 1960s, when bohemians escaped rising rents in Greenwich Village by moving eastward. A Lower East Side slum kid, he was raised in a quasi-criminal atmosphere by a grandmother, known as Slugger Ann, and an aunt, Josephine Preston. Slugger Ann, who owned a bar with the same name, earned her nickname after working as a taxi dancer in a Times Square dance hall. Slugger Ann’s was a dimly lit Lower East Side corner bar with a few tables. One could find a cross section of low society and working people there, mostly truck drivers and laborers who would stop in for shots and beer. “Jackie really grew up in the bar,” said Melba LaRose, the star of Jackie Curtis’s first play, Glamour, Glory, and Gold: The Life and Times of Nola Noon, Goddess and Star. “Slugger Ann was a great old babe, loudmouthed. She obviously had been a beauty in her day, a sexy beauty. Bleached hair, and a feisty personality, great fun. And Jackie’s aunt Josie was great fun, too.” Slugger Ann would sometimes have a half dozen Chihuahuas stuffed inside her low-cut dress, propped up by her enormous breasts. Jackie sometimes tended the bar in jeans and a white T‑shirt with a cigarette pack rolled up in a sleeve, and other times in a shredded dress. “It wasn’t a gay crowd or a drag queen crowd, but sometimes Jackie was tending bar in drag,” LaRose said. “But if any customers would have said anything about Jackie, Slugger Ann would have punched them out. She was very protective of Jackie.”
Ann Harris remembers Jackie Curtis as a ubiquitous presence around the neighborhood. “My older kids ran into him around town,” she said. “Jackie was definitely around.” George Harris III, later Hibiscus, was Jackie’s classmate when they both attended Quintano’s School for Young Professionals, a special high school for performers in midtown Manhattan. (Jackie, Hibiscus, and actress Pia Zadora were all in the same math class.) Along with Hibiscus’s brother Walter Michael Harris, Jackie Curtis was cast in a 1965 La MaMa production of Tom Eyen’s Miss Nefertiti Regrets, as the love interest of Bette Midler, who had just arrived from Hawaii. One day, the temperamental Curtis stormed off the set, and Eyen asked Walter to take the vacant role. He was already the drummer in the offstage band that performed the show’s music, so he would run back and forth performing various duties, like singing a lover’s duet with Midler. “Bette played the Nefertiti role and I took on Jackie Curtis’s role, Tobias, an angel sent by the god Ra to be Nefertiti’s downfall,” Harris said. “I was about fourteen. So I got to sing and perform with a nineteen-year-old Bette Midler and played drums for the other people’s songs when I wasn’t onstage.”
Jackie Curtis loved the limelight and couldn’t have been happier than when Lou Reed immortalized her in “Walk on the Wild Side,” his best-known song: “Jackie is just speeding away,” Reed sang, “thought she was James Dean for a day.” (Friends and acquaintances tended to use both “she” and “he” pronouns when describing Curtis, which was fitting for someone who insisted, “I’m not a boy, not a girl, not a faggot, not a drag queen, not a transsexual—I’m just me, Jackie.”) “Sometimes he’d kind of have a James Dean style, but ragged,” playwright Robert Heide said of Curtis, “and other times Jackie would dress as Barbara Stanwyck. She would look really good in a red wig or that kind of thing.” Jackie wasn’t the kind of drag queen who tried to pass herself off as a woman and instead developed a sui generis style—as Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin learned when she would drop by Wagner’s apartment dressed either as a man or woman. “What Jackie did was more like performance art,” Melba LaRose said. “I never thought of him as a woman. He went back and forth so many times. When I met Jackie, he was a little boy with a shopping bag. He had bangs. He was very cute.” “That was the beginning of pansexuality, and David Bowie picked up on that,” said Tony Zanetta, who worked with the glam rock singer. “I find a lot of similarities between Jackie Curtis and David Bowie.” Noting that Jackie had the same DIY aesthetic as John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous, Zanetta added, “Jackie Curtis’s tattered clothes look was do-it-yourself, number one. Like at Warhol’s Factory, it was about how, if you wanted to be an artist, you just basically said you were. Like with punk, if you wanted to be a musician or you wanted to be in a band, well, you didn’t really have to learn how to play an instrument. So Jackie Curtis, the Ridiculous, and punk are all connected.”
“Jackie [Curtis] wanted to write something that was a comedic takeoff on all those Hollywood stars of the thirties,” said Glamour, Glory, and Gold star Melba LaRose. “We were trying to make those movies our own.” Living through the chaos of the Vietnam War and the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., they sought refuge in Hollywood’s dream factory. “I think we all came from very dysfunctional backgrounds, and we just sort of lived through those films,” LaRose said. “There was, of course, all the glamour and we genuinely loved all that—the makeup, the clothes, the feathers, the glitter. It was the beginning of camp. We thought we were really living out these parts onstage and in life, so we didn’t think of it as campy. It was a style that we created. Everything was larger than life, but still had reality in it, and it still had something in it that we really believed. It wasn’t just clowning.” Curtis and her friends weren’t simply passive consumers, as mass culture critics such as Theodor Adorno and Dwight Macdonald have characterized media audiences. They knowingly appropriated and subverted the heteronormative products of the culture industry, liberating them from their ideological constraints. “Jackie was a natural satirist,” Lily Tomlin observed, “because he was an outsider and an artist. All the notions he had about living and being made him really able to see the absurdity of the culture.”
Jackie Curtis originally wrote Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit, which debuted at La MaMa, while touring with John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous, which appeared at the Pornography and Censorship Conference at the University of Notre Dame (ironically, their show was censored by university officials during the conference). “Everybody went there,” Vaccaro said. “Allen Ginsberg, we all went, and I did a show called The Life of Lady Godiva. We took a train to South Bend, and on the train Jackie wrote Heaven Grand, speeding out of his mind. He got the names of the character from a racing form.” The script was written in a large wallpaper sample book that was covered with Curtis’s tiny handwriting, filling the margins. Like many of his scripts, it was littered with references to old movies, television shows, and a random assortment of other pop culture ephemera, including the 1958 TV movie The Secret Life of Adolf Hitler, TV Guide magazine, All About Eve, a menu from Howard Johnson’s, Gone with the Wind, The Ten Commandments, The Wizard of Oz, and the surf rock group Dick Dale and His Del-Tones thrown in for good measure. Many of the lines in the play were borrowed from old films and television sitcoms, though a lot also came from what Curtis witnessed on the streets of downtown New York. The main character was partially based on a demented person he had seen wandering through a store shouting, “FASCINATION!”
Melba LaRose first met Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling during a production of Glamour, Glory, and Gold, a ridiculous send‑up of Hollywood melodramas. She played the lead role as Nola Noon, an amalgam of old movie stars like Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford. The play—Curtis’s first—began with Noon working in a burlesque house, followed her rise as a big Hollywood star, and ended with LaRose’s character mock-tragically walking into the ocean as the Warsaw Concerto played. Glamour, Glory, and Gold was directed by Ron Link, who went on to direct many Off-Off-Broadway shows, including Tom Eyen’s Women Behind Bars. During the opening scene of this explosive production, LaRose walked onstage wearing nine feather boas and started throwing glitter. “It was everywhere,” she said. “The set was covered with sparkles and glitter.” Oddly enough, the show’s title came directly from Lady Bird Johnson (President Lyndon Johnson’s wife) when she crossed paths with an extravagantly dressed Jackie Curtis, who was lurking in the lobby of the Lincoln Center. As Johnson came down a set of stairs, she saw Curtis and exclaimed in her regal southern accent, “Oh my. Glamour, glory, and gold.” Jackie thought, Ding! Yes. That’s gonna be the title of my play.
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.”
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 was big, not at all femme, and looked like a man in a dress: a little stubble or a beard, torn stockings, trashed dresses, smeared makeup, and plenty of body odor. This tattered look came out of necessity because Curtis was constantly broke, though it was also deliberate—because if a rich patron gave her a brand-new designer dress, she didn’t think twice about shredding it. “They would get rips and things in them,” recalled her friend Jayne County, “and she really didn’t have the money to buy new ones, so she would just continue to wear them and they’d get more and more holes in them. Finally, they were just kind of rags on her legs. They became works of art. Sometimes she would put them together with safety pins, not because she was trying to be cute, but because she was really trying to keep the dress together. It became a style and a fashion, but she was the first person I ever saw to wear that style.” Curtis loved 1930s dresses, which could easily be found in thrift stores or by raiding Slugger Ann’s and Aunt Josie’s closets. One time, when a neighbor passed away, Jackie crawled through the window onto the building ledge and broke into the deceased woman’s apartment, bringing back an entire wardrobe of black Italian dresses, shoes, and accessories. “Jackie was blowing up the idea of gender,” actress Melba LaRose observed. “When he was a boy he liked to look really rough: saddle shoes or other big shoes, vest sweaters like a boy jock.” Agosto Machado recalled, “With Jackie, you never knew what she was going to wear or what she was going to do, but she had a force of personality.”
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
Before Jane Wagner became Lily Tomlin’s longtime collaborator and partner, she met Andy Warhol in 1965 and developed several Factory connections. The writer, artist, and Village resident was especially drawn to Jackie Curtis, who befriended Wagner and sometimes stopped by her apartment (and, on one occasion, called from jail for help after being arrested). “When Lily and I first met in New York, we fell in love,” she said, “and the only thing I could think of that I wanted to do with her was to see Jackie Curtis’s Vain Victory [at La MaMa] Lily just flipped over it. That’s how much I loved Jackie—there was so much to do in New York at that time, but that was the main thing I wanted to take her to.”