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

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.

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.”

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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.”