The world lost an early trans icon last weekend when Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn passed away from cancer at the age of 69. Born Haroldo Santiago Franceschi Rodriguez Danhakl on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, the cult actress’s career was long and varied, if not always particularly glamorous.
As a child, Woodlawn moved around while her single mother tried to find work: first to the Catskills and later to Miami Beach, where her mother remarried and Woodlawn took her stepfather’s name, becoming Harold Ajzenberg. At the age of sixteen, she hitchhiked back to New York, and the journey became perhaps what Woodlawn is best known for, immortalized as it was in Lou Reed’s unexpectedly popular 1972 hit “Walk On The Wild Side.”
Like many homeless youth, Woodlawn used sex work to survive, and later worked here and there as a department store model, a file clerk and a go-go dancer. She even won a beauty pageant, Miss Donut 1968, in the gritty industrial town of Amsterdam, New York.
The following year, Woodlawn brazenly told a newspaper that she was one of Warhol’s superstars, referring to that set of deviants and artists that hovered around Andy’s factory. The story wasn’t at all true, but in Warhol’s world honesty meant less than a brazen personality, and the lie actually scored Woodlawn a role in Andy Warhol’s Trash, a grimy film in which Woodlawn plays the harried girlfriend of a heroin-addicted Joe Dallesandro. It’s pretty bleak.
The following year she played alongside fellow transwomen Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling in the satirical Women In Revolt. In that film, Woodlawn stars as a sex-crazed model who joins a militant feminist organization called P.I.G. (Politically Involved Girls).
After that, Woodlawn occasionally appeared on stage and screen, usually in very underground work, although she did guest star on two episodes of Transparent last year, playing the bit role of Vivian.
“She was a pioneer,” Transparent director Zackary Drucker told the Los Angeles Times, “an artist in the medium of life and a wild raconteur with a famous appetite for fun.”
But only a select few can turn a rowdy lifestyle into a long-term career asset, and by the end of the seventies Woodlawn was broke and living back in Miami. After Woodlawn got diagnosed with terminal cancer earlier this year, the artist Penny Arcade set up a crowdfunding campaign to pay for Woodlawn’s medical bills. It raised over $68,000 of its $75,000 goal.
(featured image via GoFundMe)
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