Ronnie Pontiac contributed to this article.
In 2015, when Caitlyn Jenner has captivated the media and gay marriage has become legal in every U.S. state, it’s hard to imagine what America was like when Holly Woodlawn was born. The smothering patriarchal monotheist society demonized homosexuals, electro-shocked them, and in those days it wasn’t a handful of extremist preachers and their flocks threatening divine wrath on anyone who tolerated gay behavior; back then that was the official worldview of all decent people. Homosexuality was a crime with heavy penalties. Homosexuals were targets for any sociopath with a self-righteous streak.
Meanwhile Holly was growing up in a tiny village in Puerto Rico, in the house of his gay uncle. I asked him when he first heard the call of the wild. He said that in this tropical paradise, he had begun exploring sexuality early, and without regard for gender. But the moment when he saw himself came in a movie theater, as he watched a Hollywood actress portray a pagan priestess in Babylon; the costume was so fabulous.
Being gay wasn’t the only strike against him, he was a Puerto Rican growing up in Miami Beach. But that had its advantages too. After Castro took power, much of the Cuban gay scene packed up and arrived in Miami. Partying all the time, by age fifteen he was facing summer school. Instead he hocked some pilfered jewelry and joined up with some Cuban queens on their road trip to New York City. But the money ran out before they made it, and as Lou Reed famously sang:
“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 arrived in NYC in 1962, just after Marilyn Monroe died. Seeing the mica in the asphalt, Holly thought the streets were paved with diamonds. She lived as a street kid until she met a guy who fell in love with her. He gave her the life of a pampered housewife and paid for her sex change hormones. Holly passed for female. Her adventures included being a model at Saks Fifth Avenue. But the lure of a wilder life called and surrendering security Holly hit the streets again.
She told me once about working as a stripper in a New Jersey joint frequented by cops. She especially enjoyed French kissing them and letting them get to second base. She knew if they figured out she was a man they probably would have killed her, but that only added to the excitement.
In 1969 she became part of Andy Warhol’s scene, the last of the Warhol Superstars. At the height of her fame, during the premiere of Trash, she was in jail for impersonating a bank account owner, I believe a countess. Andy didn’t bail her out. She wasn’t happy about how much money he made off her and others like her. He would write a check now and then but he was afraid the money would go straight to drugs.
I met her long after, when she had settled in Los Angeles.
We met at a poetry event, a bunch of poets gathering together to support newcomer Clinton against old man Bush. I was a kid, a wannabe musician, a girl with no fashion sense. We chatted and laughed until I asked her who’s the coolest Rolling Stone? Together we both answered Marianne Faithful then sang some of As Tears Go By. I thought of myself as a bass player then, but she brought out the first glimpse of the singer.
My guitar player and I wanted to make a poster for the election, and we wanted to feature her. So she gave us a photo of herself done up as Marlene Dietrich. We found that just about every shop owner in West Hollywood not only immediately recognized Holly but wanted the poster. How surreal for a straight couple to find their art poster in all the shop windows of West Hollywood. That’s the magic of Holly Woodlawn.
As my band slowly came together, with much encouragement from her, our friendship with Holly deepened. She came over to our apartment to record experiments of conversation, story telling, toy instruments and cheap keyboards. She was so charmed by the tribal quality of it and our sensitivity to her narration that she brought us along to back her up once or twice at gigs.
When she was invited to a rock show, she’d take us along as her escorts. Usually about a half a song into the set, after graciously greeting everyone, she would turn to us and say “Babies, take me home.” I asked her once why she never stayed, “Honey,” she answered, “I saw the Velvet Underground live.”
I asked her to describe the Velvet Underground live. She said the first time she heard them they seemed a terrible noise like all the worst noise of New York in one band. But the second time, now on speed, as suggested by Velvet Underground fans, the music suddenly made sense as the torrent of sound became coherent.
She hung out with Federico Fellini and Mick Jagger in the back room at Max’s. She french kissed Jim Morrison in the booth of a dim light of an unnamed gay dive. She described herself as America’s houseguest, telling stories of long stays with the highest of high society.
But all those brushes with fame and money never left much for Holly. She would be invited to gala events. How proud I was walking beside her down the aisle at the sold out screening of her silent film Broken Goddess at the Director’s Guild on Sunset Blvd. She was unbelievably glamorous in a beautiful gown.
She did a spoken word part for a song of ours called L.A. River, describing how the gravity of L.A. had caught her, like so many others, like houses sliding down hillsides, she would never leave.
Together we concocted the idea of recording a cheesy version of Femme Fatale. We dragged in Art Johnson, a musical genius who had worked with the likes of Lena Horne; he nailed it and for years gay parties from Palm Springs to Berlin celebrated Holly’s live performances to it.
That was her life then, invited to bask in adoration as an icon of stardom and liberation, revered and written about, then back to a small apartment in West Hollywood, to a quiet life, never really getting the credit deserved, getting by with help from constant and inconstant friends, inspiring new acquaintances, finally mostly alone in a world where her memories are filled with stars. Why wasn’t she a star? She could act, sing, dance, I’m here to tell you the Chardonnay did not get in the way of the show biz pro. But she was way ahead of her time. She was Rocky Horror before Rocky Horror. She was Madonna before Madonna. If she were a kid today, she’d be the trans superstar of the world.
One of our sonic experiments includes her story of getting in drag for a party on Fire Island. A friend had some liquid LSD, and when ordered to show her tongue, Holly, ever ready for adventure, began her Holly in Wonderland misadventure. She made it to that party, but only by doing the crab walk. As fellow pedestrians encountered this drag hallucination she would smile and say: “Hello, I’m going to the tea dance.”
She experimented with all sorts of drugs. For a time she was a flower child, she told me. She admitted that drugs transformed her life, but ultimately they were too much trouble.
When I joined the Revolution Rising art collective and became a riot grrrl, Holly was as proud as could be. She showed her support by headlining a show we did in West Hollywood to benefit F.A.R.M. After hugely successful shows in East L.A. and the valley, we thought a riot grrrl goes acoustic bill headlined by Holly would be a bridge building success. But the grrrls for some reason didn’t feel at home in West Hollywood, and the locals were not in the mood for angry punk rockers. They would wait to catch Holly at one of her cabaret shows where her glamour, wit and command of classic songs could be properly appreciated.
We were crestfallen; so much work had come to nothing. Worst, the moment had echoes of a deeper darkness overtaking the scene. We all could feel the tide drawing out. Holly recognized those looks on our faces. I barfed before going on stage to play in front of Holly and a few friends. I was so embarrassed to have let her down. Now she was sure to say to someone else: “Baby, take me home.”
But Holly stayed and enjoyed herself. She looked fabulous in her jacket and skirt with matching hat. We didn’t expect her to perform to only us but she insisted so we sat rapt as she performed flawlessly. The song, so cheerful and sweet, her performance so sincere, her blue eyes shining bright as her smile, she sang to each one of us and made sure we understood it would be okay. We could just pick ourselves right back up. We all fell in love with her that night.
Holly Woodlawn has always lived her life in a way that makes it easier for the rest of us to be ourselves. Around Holly I never felt like an outsider. I say from personal experience that for someone who is so notoriously indecent she’s one of the most decent people I’ve ever met in my entire life.
Thanks to her long time friend Penny Arcade we have a chance to show Holly some appreciation at a time when she really needs it. I’m not going to say she is leaving us because she has always been so strong and has bounced back against seemingly impossible odds so many times, but whatever happens next now is the best time for us to let her know we care. She needs to be at home around her friends.
I don’t know why Caitlyn Jenner and other trans stars aren’t speaking up about her, or why the media hasn’t picked up on this story about a Warhol superstar in dire straits. I think if Lou was still here more people would know about this. So it’s up to us. Fans of that song, people who never heard it but who live lives we couldn’t have if Aunt Holly and her friends hadn’t been there at Stonewall, there on the screen, and there in our communities. So please join me in spreading the word and contribute if you can.