During the early 1970s, Laugh-In star Lily Tomlin met and fell in love with Jane Wagner, who first introduced her to the likes of Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis, whose Vain Victory show was then playing at La MaMa.
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.”
From Chapter 17 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“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.”
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.”
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
Vain Victory’s rehearsals at La MaMa’s practice space in the East Village were scheduled around I Love Lucy reruns, which Curtis watched twice each afternoon. (“I Love Lucy was a staple of Jackie’s life,” said Jayne County, who recalled that she would often act out scenes from the show in the apartment they shared.) These rehearsals started mid-afternoon and would sprawl into the evening—which made it accessible for people like Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner to drop by, along with others. “It was a gathering, and a continuation of an almost party-like atmosphere,” cast member Agosto Machado said. “From there, people could just stroll up to Max’s Kansas City, a little north of Union Square. As they say, ‘Location, location, location.’ Jackie would meet someone at Max’s Kansas City, and invite them, ‘Would you like to be in my play?’ ” Vain Victory morphed considerably as Jackie added and subtracted cast members over the course of the extended six-month rehearsal period. “During that time we departed from the original script,” Machado said, “because Jackie would see something on TV or heard something and said, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this.’ ” Tomlin recalled, “It was terribly imaginative, connected with all kinds of pop culture references that took on another angle the way Jackie used them.” Sometimes, lines from I Love Lucy would make their way into the play, or dialogue from an old film that Curtis saw on late-night television. “Jackie would put speed in her coffee,” County recalled, “and she’d sit there and write and write—sometimes outrageous things that made no sense at all, and sometimes it would be things from the telephone book, or things from TV Guide. She took a lot from TV Guide, because she loved old movies.” Curtis’s plays were among the first to heavily appropriate from popular culture, a pastiche-heavy style that would become associated with postmodernism (not that she thought of her plays in such highfalutin terms).
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.”