Remembering Candy Darling, a Trailblazing Trans Warhol Muse and Unlikely Star

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Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

It’s hard to have one favorite photograph of Candy Darling, but mine lives in the New York Public Library’s Billy Rose Theatre Division. In this photo by Kenn Duncan, she’s wrapped in a white fur and a golden yellow dress, her signature blond curls falling loosely around dark eyes and red lips. She’s easily one of the most beautiful performers ever to grace analog film.

In her time, Candy Darling’s portrait was taken by some of the greatest photographers of their day, including Richard Avedon, Peter Hujar, and Cecil Beaton. As author Cynthia Carr shares in her new biography Candy Darling: Dreamer, Icon, Superstar, Candy was apparently only more beautiful in person. But Carr’s new biography, the first of its kind about the star, preserves her legacy as not just a great beauty, but as an actress, an artist and a trailblazer of contemporary transgender history.

<cite class="credit">Photo by Kenn Duncan ©Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts</cite>
Photo by Kenn Duncan ©Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Candy Darling is usually associated with Andy Warhol; she starred in two of the artist’s films, 1968’s Flesh and 1971’s Women in Revolt as one of his Superstars, as his coterie of on-screen performers were known. But she also appeared in theater and film productions independently as a performer, though she never studied theater. That Candy lived as a glamorous public persona at all, frequenting exclusive parties and appearing in cool downtown print publications like After Dark and Warhol’s Interview, is astounding for the time. The word “transgender” wasn’t even in use yet — the word “transsexual” was used then, though Candy only referred to herself as a woman and often wrestled with how to describe her gender identity. While she sought to embody a starlet persona on and off screen, she regularly faced discrimination and was often struggling to survive. Carr was initially spurred to write Candy’s biography in part because of these dichotomies.

“The thing I most admire about her, I would say, [is] she seemed to figure out who she was when she was still a teenager and she made this statement…‘I am me. Do not tell me what I'm supposed to be, accept me for what I am or stay away.’” It was a bold way to live at the time, Carr says, especially when there was so little trans visibility, aside from pioneering trans celebrity Christine Jorgensen. “I think that that's important today... It's still not that easy to be transgender as we know. In fact, it seems to be getting harder.” In spite of the difficulties Candy faced, she sought to live in a world where she didn’t have to and wouldn’t apologize for being herself, something people still seek today.

There were people throughout Candy’s life who heeded her suggestions in both directions. In Manhattan, for example, Candy attended parties with Andy Warhol and high-end uptown socialites, but when visiting her mother’s home in Massapequa Park on Long Island, she was asked to arrive late at night and run into the house so nobody would see her. Famed playwright Charles Ludlam loved her onstage and wanted her in his Ridiculous Theatrical Company, but thought it might be too difficult for her since he felt her life was so chaotic. While originally from Long Island, as immortalized in Lou Reed’s 1972 song “Walk on the Wild Side,” Candy rarely had a stable place to live. She lived a life of in-betweens, stunted by others’ social and artistic shortsightedness, fear, or what we’d call transphobia today. Where one person wanted to work with her because of her undeniable star power, like legendary playwright Tennessee Williams, for example, a potential producer or co-star might write her off as “a cheap drag queen."

<h1 class="title">481636889</h1><cite class="credit">Jack Mitchell/Getty Images</cite>

481636889

Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

She did eventually work with Williams, however, at one point starring alongside him in his 1972 play Small Craft Warnings. She also had a host of small parts in other films, and a larger supporting role in the 1971 film Some of My Best Friends Are…, among the earlier films explicitly about being a queer person in New York. Even in the wake of others’ negativity, though, Candy imagined herself a beacon. “I’ve always felt my spirit was once a movie star,” she said, as Carr shares. “I think I may have been Jean Harlow.”

Candy’s story appeared previously in the 2009 documentary Beautiful Darling by the actress’s longtime friend Jeremiah Newton, albeit in a more fragmented way. By Newton’s own admission, Carr said, the story wasn’t as far reaching as he would have liked, mostly just chronicling their friendship. Newton actually approached Carr to write the biography. She waded through all of the archival material Newton had compiled of Candy’s over the years to make it happen, and then some. Writing the biography took Carr 10 years, in part because Candy never had a long-term regular residence and her personal effects were scattered in so many different places, if they were kept at all.

This can be the nature of recording lives of some queer and transgender historical figures, those who may have faced houselessness and/or joblessness simply because of who they were, like Candy. This was also an era, as Carr writes, before we understood the personal as political. Another reason Candy is interesting is because she had no interest in politics, per se, Carr says. Candy just wanted to be Candy, to be glamorous and beautiful, to be a star like Jean Harlow or Kim Novak in the golden age of Hollywood, to be loved for who she was. In a life of juxtapositions, she’d succeed in some spheres — becoming a known downtown presence, for example — while also facing extreme challenges, like finding regular work and a place to live.

Carr’s biography sparkles with intricate details about the star’s life, but it’s also an unflinching portrait. Candy wasn’t a saint, as none of us are, and when some narratives about marginalized identities can lean toward exceptionalism, this is one that humanizes its subject in all of her light and darkness, in all of her truths and fictions. For Carr, who has written about downtown New York’s creative denizens for decades including Fire in the Belly, her 2012 biography of queer artist David Wojnarowicz, the 360-degree viewpoint is necessary. She recognizes queer figures from the margins may only get one shot at having their stories told, so it’s important to have all their layers in order to understand someone as a person and not a token.

Nef called the role “a pipe dream so specific it felt silly to speak out loud.”

Candy created a fantasy world where she could be a starlet because that’s a place she could live happily and safely. It was also a place where she had a kind of control over her life and her narrative that she may not have had otherwise. She exercised this down to her last days, when she was in the hospital being treated for lymphoma. She asked Newton to find someone to photograph her, and the resultant image by Peter Hujar is now among the photographer’s most famous. At 29, Candy lies on what became her deathbed surrounded by flowers, her makeup flawless. Hujar took the picture, but it was Candy who made herself immortal.

“She was the princess in the fairy tale, completely devoted to the fairy tale because that’s where she was allowed to be the woman she knew herself to be,” Carr writes. “It’s why she didn’t want an acting class. She wasn’t acting. She was living.”

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Originally Appeared on them.