Holly Woodlawn, the transgender trailblazer who starred in such iconic underground films as Women in Revolt and Trash, and whose story opens Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” died on Sunday at the age of 69.
Her Trash co-star and fellow Warhol superstar Joe Dallesandro announced Woodlawn’s death on Facebook: “I am sorry to say at 3:06pm Los Angeles time, Holly Woodlawn passed away,” he wrote. “I arrived to the hospice and went to Holly’s room, #306. I was next to her talking and telling her all the love that was being sent her way from everyone. It was like she knew I was there.”
In July, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that Woodlawn was “fighting for her life at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles,” as her friend and collaborator, the performance artist Penny Arcade, raised money to cover the costs of allowing the actress to spend her final days in her West Hollywood home. At the time, she suffered from lesions on her liver and brain, but didn’t have the strength to undergo a biopsy that might have led to a diagnosis. Subsequent reports have confirmed that she had cancer.
Woodlawn’s early life genuinely did resemble Reed’s account in “Walk on the Wild Side”; born Haroldo Santiago Franceschi Rodriguez Danhakl in Puerto Rico in 1946, she grew up in Miami before renaming herself after Breakfast at Tiffany’s heroine Holly Golightly and building a new life in ’60s New York. As she told the Guardian in 2007,
I was 15 years old and failing at high school in Miami Beach because I was too busy partying. I was supposed to go to summer school to catch up and really didn’t want to, so I joined some of these Cuban queens to go to New York. I hocked some jewellery and we made it all the way to Georgia, where the money ran out and we had to hitchhike the rest of the way. Atlanta, Georgia, of all places — you could expect to be tarred and feathered and murdered in those days! But we survived and I remember the first time I saw New York: the Emerald City. I thought the sidewalks were made of diamonds because of the specks of mica in the asphalt. It was 1962. Marilyn had just died. I lived on the streets like everyone does when they run away. I met some girlfriends who took me in and we found a place in Queens. I was really lucky. I met this guy who fell in love with me and asked me to be his girlfriend. I started taking hormones for a sex-change and lived as his wife, working in the days as a clothing model at Saks Fifth Avenue. Oh, the things I did! And for six or seven years they never knew I was a boy. Not a clue!
Her early years in New York were rough, but Woodlawn’s career took off soon after she met Warhol in 1968. By 1970, she was co-starring in Paul Morrissey’s Warhol-backed film Trash, in a role that inspired George Cukor to launch a write-in Oscar campaign on her behalf. The next year, she appeared in Women in Revolt, another Warhol/Morrissey project, alongside fellow trans icons Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis.
In the decades that followed her stint at the Factory, Woodlawn went in and out of the spotlight — and endured her share of additional hardships — returning to Miami in 1979 and eventually making her home in LA. She published a memoir, 1992’s A Low Life in High Heels, and can be seen in the 1998 queer rom-com Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss. More recently, Woodlawn had been active on the cabaret scene. And it seems fitting that her final onscreen role was in Transparent — a show her very existence helped to make possible. As Penny Arcade told THR, “With all of the attention that Caitlyn Jenner has gotten by stepping into the public arena for five minutes… people like Holly, who are the true pioneers, have been out and visible for almost 50 years.”