LOU REED immortalized Holly Woodlawn in the first verse of “Walk on the Wild Side,” on his 1972 Transformer album with the lyrics:
Holly came from Miami, F-L-A.
Hitch-hiked her way across the USA
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She says, “Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.”
Holly Woodlawn, née Haroldo Danhakl, was born on October 26, 1946, in Juana Díaz, a town about seventy miles from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to a Puerto Rican mother and a U.S. soldier who deserted the family soon after Haroldo was born. Reports differ as to what happened next. Suffice it to say that Haroldo’s mother and stepfather, Joseph Ajzenberg, eventually settled in Miami Beach, which is where Haroldo lived until leaving for New York City as a teenager.
In 1991’s A Low Life in High Heels: The Holly Woodlawn Story (written with Jeff Copeland), Holly remembered living a marginal life after arriving in New York, working at a variety of jobs, from turning tricks to clerking to modeling. In that memoir, she commented on her feelings about gender: “I never once felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body. I felt more like a man trapped in high heels!”
The precise source of her name will probably never be known. Possibly it was taken from Truman Capote’s heroine Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (which she may never have read), or possibly Woodlawn Cemetery, or perhaps Woodlawn subway station, or it could be a variation on “Hollywood.” Holly apparently considered gender reassignment surgery when in her early twenties but rejected it at that time: “Honey, once they cut it off, it’s off!” Disagreements have arisen: was Holly transgender, a gay man who was a drag queen, or “genderqueer”? In an often-quoted remark from the late 1970s in answer to how she would be best described, she said: “[W]hat difference does it make, as long as you look fabulous?”
Film director Paul Morrissey had read a 1969 interview with Holly, in which she stated, not entirely truthfully, that she was a Warhol superstar. At that time, she was appearing in Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis’ play Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit at the Playhouse of the Ridiculous. (The Village Voice called it a “melodious freakfest.”) Morrissey—who characterized Holly as polite, likable, shy, and unassuming—cast her in Warhol’s Trash (1970) along with Joe Dallesandro.
She appeared in about two dozen films, including Warhol’s 1971 Women in Revolt, in which the Women’s Liberation Movement is parodied. She starred in the 1972 musical spoof of Hollywood musicals, Scarecrow in a Garden of Cucumbers, in which she played the dual roles of Eve Harrington and Rhett Butler. According to Gary Comenas of warholstars.org: “Bette Midler sang a lullaby on the soundtrack and Holly performed an elaborate musical number, ‘I’m Lost in My Dreams of Heaven,’ flanked by chorus boys in white. Lily Tomlin did a cameo voiceover as Ernestine in a scene filmed in the apartment of Jane Wagner, Lily Tomlin’s partner.” At the premiere, as Bob Colacello recalled in Holy Terror (1990), Holly arrived in a limo with live white doves attached to her wrists. “How Holly,” Warhol superstar Candy Darling was quoted as saying. Holly ended her screen career in the role of Vivian in two episodes of the Amazon series Transparent. She was one of several of the Warhol crowd to be cast in that TV series.
Holly inaugurated a cabaret act in the 1970s, capitalizing on the name she’d developed, and continued to perform throughout the subsequent decades. Probably one of her last New York appearances was in 2013, when she offered “stories and songs” at a one-night-only performance at the West Bank Cafe’s Laurie Beechman Theatre in Hell’s Kitchen. It has been suggested that she was already suffering from “wet brain” as a consequence of her prodigious consumption of alcohol, not to mention opiate-based pain killers, throughout her life. She died of cancer soon after her 69th birthday at an assisted living facility in Los Angeles (having lived a bicoastal life for many years) on December 6, 2015. Joe Dallesandro had remained a lifelong friend and was with Holly when she died. He, Jackie Curtis, and Candy Darling were also immortalized in subsequent verses of “Walk on the Wild Side.”