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Penny Arcade Remembers Holly Woodlawn

Holly Woodlawn

Photography Courtesy of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

On Friday November 27, a month after her 69th birthday, Warhol Superstar, cabaret singer and  queer, transgender icon Holly Woodlawn slipped into unconsciousness. On Sunday, December 7, 2015, at 3:06 Pacific Time, she quietly passed away in West Hollywood’s Citi View Assisted Living Facility with friends at her bedside including fellow Warhol Superstar Little Joe Dellasandro and her former producer Gabriel Rotello.

Holly was near death in late June of 2015. Untreated hepatitis C had taken its toll, bringing cirrhosis and liver cancer. Further examination found tumors in her lungs which had spread to her brain. She underwent radiation to shrink the brain tumors and she rallied back to cohesiveness but by September doctors determined that she was too fragile to undergo anymore radiation. Holly entered hospice care just as the building that housed her apartment was evacuated on September 16 due to the second freak rainstorm in the middle of one of Los Angeles’s longest droughts.

Eternally optimistic, invincibly cheerful, no one was faster to state the bottom line than Holly. “I can’t believe I’ve lasted this long!” Holly told me on the phone in July. “It is amazing that it has taken this long for my body to break down after what I have done to it for decades.” Self pity was never part of Holly’s emotional palette. “Hey,” Holly said, "This is my life. No one made me do anything. It was all my choice. The drinking, the drugs, the carrying on! I am fine with it. It has been fabulous. I am not afraid of death. I never have been!”

It will take a long time to fully absorb what Holly Woodlawn's effect has been on American and international culture. Holly was a game changer and her impact went far beyond gender, beyond drag, beyond queerness, glitter, glamour, sex or outrageousness. Those elements were the delivery system but the content was pure humanity, the power to pierce the membrane of invisibility through a single, unique and individual spirit without changing an iota of their louche, irreverent, criminal, and yes, low life, nature.

Holly Woodlawn was born Haroldo Santiago Franceschi Rodriquez Danhakl in Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, on October 26, 1946, to Aminta Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican mother of Corsican, Italian, and French ancestry and to a German-American father from Wisconsin who was stationed there in the Navy. The young parents married to make Haroldo’s birth legitimate but when the father’s military service ended, he left Haroldo’s mother and they divorced soon after. The father returned to Wisconsin where he subsequently married and had another son.

“I was raised in Puerto Rico for the first few years of my life where the culture is more Caribbean,” Holly told the Guardian in 2007. “Everyone’s naked, it’s hotter, you come out earlier. I was having sex when I was seven and eight in the bushes with my uncles and cousins, of course, they were only 11 or 12 themselves. I was raised in a house full of women and my uncle was gay.”

When Haroldo was 9 years old, his mother moved to upstate New York, where she married a Polish immigrant, Joseph Ajzenberg, a waiter at the Catskills resort where she worked as a waitress. The three moved to Miami Beach, where Mr. Ajzenberg found work at the newly opened Fontainebleau hotel. Haroldo took his stepfather’s surname and Americanized his first name to Harold.

By 13, Harold was hanging out with the Cuban queens on Miami Beach, learning the madcap verbal jousting that would become Holly Woodlawn’s trademark in underground films and countless night club appearances.

“The library in Miami Beach was right across the street on Collins Avenue and 21st Street, and the beach—that section—was the gay beach. I used to go to the library and I would hear this music, y’know across the street and it was like walking into Disneyland, the Emerald City. You know, all these insane queens and this is what? 1959? 1960? Something like that, in bikini bathing suits, fully made up, screaming and yelling, with Cuban music, carrying on and honey, I’m home! I’m home, Auntie Em!

"I started hanging out with them because I spoke Spanish and they’re the ones that turned my entire life on. I was telling my parents that I was going to the library. I started playing hooky, and I’d be hanging out with them. I’d steal my father’s car and go to these gay parties, and after that, summer came along and I had to go to summer school and I was in no mood—hell. One of them, Georgette was her name. She had these eyebrows that went ‘Whoa!’ (indicates big arches) they were plucked and her shirts, she would tie them up here! and hot pants and this was before anything! Ya ’know? and tease her hair, I mean she would walk down the street and people obviously thought she was some prostitute, a slut, but never a man. So long before I did anything on film, we were doing it on the street!”

Hollie, as he called himself then, after the Breakfast at Tiffany’s protagonist, was flunking high school and in July of 1962 at 16 along with some Cuban friends, with money she got pawning her mother’s jewelry, Hollie hit the road for New York, getting as far as Georgia when they ran out of money, forcing them to hitchhike.

That moment is immortalized in the 1972 Lou Reed song “Walk On the Wild Side.” Lou Reed’s paean to the decadent, bohemian, underground of New York City’s queer demi-monde.

“Holly came from Miami, F-L-A / Hitchhiked her way across the USA! / Plucked her eyebrows on the way, shaved her legs and then he was a she / She says, ‘Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side.’”

A sliding bass line, and a syncopated doo doo doo telegraphed a pop hook clarion call heard around the world: Yes! There is another way to live and it is fabulous! It would turn out to be the zeitgeist!

Once in New York, now calling herself Holly, she found work as a saleswoman at Saks 5th Avenue, and did some in-store modeling. “They had no idea,” Holly mused 45 years later. “I worked there five years. It never occurred to them that I wasn’t a girl.” She was soon on the periphery of the Downtown art scene and like many others, her conduit to a lifetime in performance was East Village poet, performer and playwright, Jackie Curtis, who introduced her to The Playhouse of the Ridiculous. John Vaccaro’s explosive theatre company was NYC’s original pre-punk, queer, glitter/glam, rock and roll, political theater. Paul Morrissey, attending a performance off Jackie Curtis’s Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit with Warhol, spotted Holly, greased in Vaseline, coated in glitter, playing a Moon Reindeer Girl in a mink bikini in the chorus line and immediately cast her in the movie Trash. The rest is cinema history.

Holly Woodlawn

Holly Woodlawn’s whimsical charm and down-to-earth affability would win over even the staid The New York Times. Reviewing Andy Warhol’s Trash, the film critic Vincent Canby was unperturbed by Holly’s famous faux masturbation scene with a Miller beer bottle. He gushed: “Holly Woodlawn, especially, is something to behold, a comic book Mother Courage who fancies herself as Marlene Dietrich but sounds more often like Phil Silvers.”

“That beer bottle put me on the map,” Holly said, “just like eating that dog shit put Divine in the map”

Famed director George Cukor started a petition to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, supported by others to nominate her for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Trash, although nothing came of this campaign.

In a 1976 interview, after answering Geraldo Rivera’s questions for an hour with a smirk and her typical insouciance, Rivera finally pleaded: “Please answer me: What are you? Are you a woman trapped in a man’s body? Are you a heterosexual? Are you a homosexual? A transvestite? A transsexual? What is the answer to the question?” Holly replied: “But darling? What difference does it make as long as you look fabulous?"

“When I was younger,” Holly said, “I was extremely shy. My father had a nice job. I guess we were middle income. I went to good schools. I just was unhappy because I didn’t know who I was.”

There was no role model for a Holly Woodlawn. We’re talking about a time where the only reward was freedom in itself. Whatever sacrifices Holly made in terms of acceptance or rejection by her family or society could never compete with the freedom that Holly needed — the need to be herself.

“There wasn’t — there was no title for us.” Holly said. “There was no ‘What are you—gay? Straight?’ I lived with Crystal Loringer for six months, with this girl, y’know? You fucked what you liked. We never thought — I mean, it never dawned on me — ‘gay-straight, this-that, bi-, tri-,’ yeah…You just went, if you liked the person, yeah—you got along, yeah…everybody fucked…People think they are freer now but they are not “Now it’s more: ‘Oh, you sleep with men and you also sleep with women, so you’re bisexual. Oh no, it’s like my friend, Adriano. All his life, y’know—he was turned on by women, He was married, then one day, he met a guy and he’s been going with guys ever since. But he still loves women. But, when they ask me about him—because he’s very handsome— ‘Is he gay?’ I don’t know. Does he like men? Does he like women?’ I say, ‘Yeah.’ Yeah what? Yeah, he likes men, and he likes women. It doesn’t, it doesn’t cross his mind, but now you have to be something, Beside I think it’s stupid, y’know. I mean, if you’re fabulous and you go for the person: Hey, hey, yeah—go for it! That’s always been my credo.”

In the era of Caitlyn Jenner, where a reality television star comes out in a multi million-dollar production for five minutes and is considered the voice of the transgender movement, the lives of people like Holly Woodlawn are not only marginalized and made invisible but trivialized. In this period where many transgender women and their advocates are delicate, touchy and prissy, it would behoove them to understand a Holly Woodlawn, rough and ready, not bothered by pronouns, not bothered if her beard was showing. The new world that stretches from middle-class consensus to wealth and million-dollar homes is an entire galaxy away where the battle for visability was fought and won, on the street by originators like Holly who fought for freedom not acceptance and not contracts. A Caitlyn Jenner erases the visibility of Holly Woodlawn and of the transgender and transsexual women like Holly who will never be Republicans and will never play golf.

Late in life, the universe had one more surprise for Holly.

“After my parents got divorced and my father left me and my mother, he moved to Wisconsin, got remarried and had a son and just went on to live his life. So I have a half-brother, I have a half-brother that’s alive. I have an aunt that’s alive, an uncle. They’re all in Wisconsin, somewhere. But my half-brother lives in Florida. And the funny
 thing about it, is he’s very intelligent, I mean, he joined the Peace Corps—he was very anti-war. So whereas I became Holly Woodlawn and did my own thing out of, as opposed to being whatever. He did his—
he was, not an outcast. A different version of me! And he’s very—he’s sweet, very kind, very sensitive, very poetic.”

Holly is also survived by cousins in Puerto Rico. Memorials are being planned in Los Angeles and New York and a legacy in Holly’s name for homeless transgender youth. 

Penny Arcade is a legendary performer, writer, and actress. Read more about Penny Arcade here.

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