American actor Holly Woodlawn (1946–2015) became a star in early 1970s underground films, appearing in several movies produced by pop artist Andy Warhol. Born male, she hitchhiked from Miami to New York City and changed her name and gender identity, a transformational journey later immortalized in Lou Reed's 1972 hit single “Walk on the Wild Side.” Woodlawn was a “talented if eccentric cabaret performer and an erstwhile heroine of the transgender movement,” Guy Trebay wrote in the New York Times.
Woodlawn was born Haroldo Santiago Franceschi Rodriguez Danhakl in Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico, on October 26, 1946. Her mother, Aminta Rodriguez, married the baby's father, who was then in the U.S. Navy and stationed in Puerto Rico, but they divorced when his military service ended. When Woodlawn was nine, Aminta moved to New York State in search of a better-paying job. She married Joseph Ajzenberg, a Polish immigrant whom she met while waiting tables at a resort in the Catskills Mountains. The new family eventually relocated south, to Miami Beach, Florida.
By age 13, when she was still known as Harold, Woodlawn had discovered queer culture and found her tribe. While visiting the Miami Beach library, she heard music and followed it to the beach's gay section, where she met and befriended many of the local Cuban drag queens. “I started hanging out with them because I spoke Spanish,” Woodlawn was quoted as saying in Out, “and they're the ones that turned my entire life on.” Hanging out with drag queens, she learned the lively and colorful banter that would light up her stage and screen personality.
Living in New York City as a transgender runaway teen was rough. “At the age of 16, when most kids were cramming for trigonometry exams, I was turning tricks, living off the streets and wondering when my next meal was coming,” Woodlawn later remembered in her 1991 autobiography A Low Life in High Heels: The Holly Woodlawn Story. She eventually found work as a saleswoman and model at Saks Fifth Avenue, where she worked for five years. Woodlawn also got a job as a go-go dancer in men's clubs in upstate New York, and she earned the title of Miss Donut and was the beauty-queen star of a 1968 parade in Amsterdam, New York. Although she briefly took hormones for a sex change, she eventually opted not to have sex reassignment surgery.
Woodlawn adopted the name Holly in homage to Holly Golightly, a glamorous young woman who moves to New York City to reinvent herself in Truman Capote's popular novel Breakfast at Tiffany's and its film adaptation. The origin of her adopted surname, Woodlawn, is less clear. In her autobiography, she alternately explained that she took the name from Woodlawn Cemetery and from a New York subway sign shown in an episode of the TV show I Love Lucy. “Honey, I told everyone I was the heiress of Woodlawn Cemetery,” she once told Trebay in the New York Times, adding that she had not expected anyone to believe her.
In 1968, Woodlawn joined Playhouse of the Ridiculous, an avant-garde theater troupe, where her friend Jackie Curtis, a performer and playwright, cast her in the play Glamour, Glory, and Gold. Woodlawn played a showgirl opposite actor Robert DeNiro, who was just getting his start in the theatre. A year later, Curtis cast Woodlawn in Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit, a musical. During an interview, Woodlawn once claimed to be one of Warhol's “superstars,” as well as the fashionable personalities that the pop icon socialized with and promoted as icons. In fact, although she visited Warhol's club The Factory as well as his other hangouts, such as Max's Kansas City, Warhol did not know her. “I was just one of the audience,” she later admitted to John Patterson in the London Guardian. Her brazen self-promotion piqued the curiosity of Paul Morrissey, an underground film director who often worked with Warhol. Before even meeting her, Morrissey cast Woodlawn in his 1970 film Trash.
Woodlawn's charisma had captivated Morrissey and he while filming Trash he hired her for $25 a day, intending to include her in only a few scenes. He was so pleased with her performance that he expanded her part and most of her scenes were filmed in one take. Woodlawn was cast as the girlfriend of a heroin addict (played by Joe Dallesandro) living on New York City's Lower East Side. The characters, like the actors, were named Holly and Joe, and “the clothes, the dialogue, like everything was mine because the character I play is me,” as Woodlawn explained to Arthur Bell during a Village Voice interview following the film's release.
Although Trash was panned by the critics and judged to be as trashy as its title implies, Woodlawn's performance was cited as a highlight. “Her sassy, improvised dialogue and her vulnerability touched audiences and critics, many of whom were desperate to find a glint of redeeming light in a relentlessly sordid film,” explained William Grimes in a New York Times retrospective of Woodlawn's career. While Trash made Woodlawn a celebrity among New York City's avant-garde, underground film director George Cukor led an unsuccessful petition drive to win her an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress.
“I felt like Elizabeth Taylor!” Woodlawn later recalled to Patterson in the London Guardian. “Little did I realize that not only would there be no money, but that your star would flicker for two seconds and that was it. But it was worth it, the drugs, the parties, it was fabulous.” Her celebrity allowed Woodlawn to spend her evenings at clubs such as Max's Kansas City and socializing with stars such as Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones.
While working with Morrissey, Woodlawn met two other transgender actors, Curtis and Warhol acolyte Candy Darling. Perhaps at Warhol's suggestion, singer/songwriter Reed refers to Holly, Candy, Jackie, and Little Joe—the lead actors of Trash and Women in Revolt—in his lyrics for “Walk on the Wild Side.” References to New York City's underground, with explicit references to sex and drug use, became a staple of classic rock radio. Reed dated a transgender woman in the 1970s and was subjected to gay conversion therapy when he was young, and he made references to the alternative gay culture in his writing of the period.
Woodlawn's fame from “Walk on the Wild Side” did not translate into prosperity although she appeared in several other low-budget films during the 1970s, including the documentary Is There Sex after Death? She performed the lead role in Scarecrow in a Garden of Cucumbers, a stage musical, and Broken Goddess, a short black-and-white silent film. Woodlawn's provocative, gender-bending performances, and her refusal to label herself, spurred Geraldo Rivera to confront her in a mid-1970s televised interview. “Are you a heterosexual? Are you a homosexual? A transvestite? A transsexual?” Rivera asked (as recounted by Arcade in Out). “But darling,” Woodlawn replied, “what difference does it make as long as you look fabulous?”
In the late 1970s, Woodlawn performed as a cabaret singer at the New York City club Reno Sweeney. Then, near the end of the decade, she left the city and show business and returned to Miami and her family. In addition to bussing tables at a local restaurant, she worked for her stepfather's tax business.
In the 1990s, Woodlawn moved to West Hollywood, California, studied fashion design, and returned to film work. After decades of extreme living, she sought quiet moderation. “If you're out all night, you look horrible,” she explained (as quoted in the Los Angeles Times). She was cast in small roles, including cameos in the 1998 film Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss and 1999's Twin Falls, Idaho. Meanwhile, she helped AIDS Project Los Angeles raise funds and appeared in neighborhood theater shows.
Woodlawn's work on state included 1997's Christmas with the Crawfords, a campy comedy produced at Los Angeles's small Hudson Backstage theater. Several critics hailed her performance as Joan Crawford, the famed film actress who was accused of child abuse in the 1981 biographical film Mommie Dearest.
In the 2000s, she appeared in documentaries about fellow Women in Revolt actors Curtis and Darling and fourteen years later she made an appearance in the television series Transparent, which centers on a transgender character. British artist Sadie Lee painted a series of portraits of Woodlawn without makeup or drag costume; in 2007 they were exhibited at a London gallery under the title “And Then He Was a She.”
As Woodlawn's health declined in her late 60s, she cheerfully expressed no regrets about her risky life choices. “I can't believe I've lasted this long!,” she told Arcade (as quoted in Out). “It has been fabulous. I am not afraid of death. I never have been!” She died of liver cancer and cirrhosis on December 6, 2015, in West Hollywood, California; she was 69. Dallesandro, Woodlawn's co-star in Trash and one of many friends with her during her last hours, announced her death online.
Arcade, commenting in Out on Woodlawn's legacy, contrasted the transgender performer with the current crop of transgender activists as well as with transgender celebrity Caitlyn Jenner. “Holly Woodlawn [was] rough and ready, not bothered by pronouns, not bothered if her beard was showing,” Arcade recalled in Out. “The battle for visibility was fought and won on the street by originators like Holly.”
Woodlawn, Holly, and Jeff Copland, A Low Life in High Heels: The Holly Woodlawn Story, St. Martin's Press, 1991.
Reed, Lou, Between Thought and Expression: Selected Lyrics of Lou Reed, Hyperion, 1991.
Guardian (London, England), September 26, 2007, John Patterson, “‘Oh, the Things I Did!” ’ (interview with Woodlawn).
Los Angeles Times, December 7, 2015.
New York Times, December 8, 2015, Guy Trebay, “Remembering Holly Woodlawn,” p. B14; December 10, 2015, William Grimes, “Holly Woodlawn, Transgender Star of 1970s Underground Films.”
Village Voice, December 10, 1970, Arthur Bell, “Trashing
‘Trash’ with Holly Woodlawn.” Washington Post, December 7, 2015, Justin Wm. Moyer, profile of Woodlawn.
Out online, http://www.out.com/ (September 12, 2016), Penny Arcade, “Penny Arcade Remembers Holly Woodlawn.” ❑