Sugar Rush

Candy Darling: Dreamer, Icon, Superstar BY CYNTHIA CARR. NEW YORK: FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX. 432 PAGES. $30.

The cover of Candy Darling: Dreamer, Icon, Superstar

TO TRAVEL FROM Massapequa Park, a small town on Long Island, to Penn Station on the LIRR takes about an hour. It was a commute that Candy Darling made countless times between 1962, the year she turned eighteen, and 1974, the year she died, at age twenty-nine. The return trip from Manhattan—where she would first meet Jackie Curtis, Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey, Jane Fonda, Werner Schroeter, and so many other important collaborators and friends—often required Candy to travel under the cover of dark and to take a cab from the station directly to the Cape Cod house where her mom, Terry Slattery, lived, the same home that parent and child moved to in 1957 following Terry’s divorce from Candy’s violent, alcoholic father. A loving mother, though never entirely without shame about her trans daughter, Terry did not want her glamorous child to be visible to gossiping neighbors. Candy, who never had a permanent home as an adult, whose underground cachet never translated to a living wage, had no choice but to endure the ignominious treatment whenever she had nowhere else to go. On those sixty-minute LIRR sojourns, she had time to think. She would often write in her journal. Some of her entries are exceptionally profound, like this one, seemingly anticipating Judith Butler’s ideas by decades: “I am not a genuine woman, but I am not interested in genuineness. I’m interested in the product of being a woman and how qualified I am. The product of the system is what is important. If the product fails, then the system is not good. What can I do to help me live in this life?”

How she answered that question during her too-abbreviated time on earth—she died of lymphoma, likely caused by the potentially carcinogenic female hormones she’d been taking on and off since 1965—is the subject of Cynthia Carr’s compassionate and richly detailed Candy Darling: Dreamer, Icon, Superstar, the first full-fledged biography of a performer and personality who had a particular genius for interpreting and refracting the blonde goddesses of golden-age Hollywood. Carr’s is also the first major remembrance that discusses Candy using an evolved discourse about trans lives. Nearly all the prior notable Candy commemorations, in various media, contain language or choices that today would be considered archaic at best. 

The two Lou Reed–written songs that name-check her, for example, are putative homages laced with derision. “Candy Says” from 1969 begins: “Candy says, ‘I’ve come to hate my body / And all that it requires in this world.’” Reed’s most successful single, 1972’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” says this about Candy: “In the back room she was everybody’s darlin’ / But she never lost her head / Even when she was giving head.” The selection of Stephen Dorff to play Candy in Mary Harron’s Valerie Solanas biopic, I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), would be an unthinkable transgression in this decade, though the fact of the actor’s cis manhood may be less vexing than his terrible portrayal. The year after Harron’s movie saw the publication of My Face for the World to See: The Diaries, Letters, and Drawings of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar, a pale-pink volume styled as a clasped diary abounding with indelible first-person reminiscences, a few of which reappear in Carr’s book. Some of the terms and phrases used in the otherwise loving prefatory material for My Face—inconsistent personal pronouns, “drag queen,” “she was born a he”—now scan as injurious. Even a tribute from as late as 2010—the melancholic documentary Beautiful Darling, produced by and prominently featuring Jeremiah Newton, one of Candy’s closest friends and the executor of her estate, and a key resource for Carr—includes comments from talking heads that rattle with their impolitic declarations about the subject’s gender. (Casting here is also a problem: though never seen, Chloë Sevigny provides the “voice” of Candy when excerpts from her journals are read. Would a cis woman’s ventriloquism for a legendary trans woman’s innermost thoughts ever be tolerated in 2024?)

Deftly, without a trace of sanctimony, Carr, who dedicates her book “to the trans community,” recounts Candy’s life in a way that most honors and respects who she was, without erasing the terminology of a more benighted era. On reconciling the name Candy was given in 1944—James Lawrence Slattery—with the name she chose for herself, Carr writes in her introduction: “The terms ‘dead-naming’ and ‘misgendering’ did not exist during Candy’s lifetime. . . . She began her life as a tortured effeminate boy because she wasn’t really a boy. She was always she, and I will be using she/her pronouns for her throughout.” Carr always refers to her subject as Candy. But she lets stand the references to Candy as “Jimmy,” “son,” and “he” from her family and childhood friends. As Carr astutely explains, to do so otherwise would risk an ahistorical, less complex analysis: “To change their words is to deny the context that surrounded her—the disorienting childhood she had to negotiate while living in a homophobic, transphobic world with a boy’s name and a boy’s body. I have not sanitized that context.”

Born in Queens, Candy spent most of her miserable childhood in Long Island. She noted in a 1970 journal entry that she “was a recluse at seven,” shutting herself away after being tormented so often by other kids. She hated going to school—avoiding it “became the focus of her life”—and dropped out at sixteen. Her greatest salve and a foundational influence was the Million Dollar Movie, a kind of precursor to TCM, in which starry productions from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s were broadcast on television. Rapt in front of the TV set, Candy was especially besotted with one studio-era blonde in particular: Kim Novak, whose oeuvre, especially Picnic (1955), Jeanne Eagels (1957), and Bell Book and Candle (1958), would greatly inform her sardonic salute to highly stylized Tinseltown acting. 

At sixteen, seventeen, her world began to expand, as did her ideas about herself and who she could be. (Carr notes that the first reference to “Candy” appears in ’62, though monikers like “Hope” were also used; she settled on “Candy Darling” in ’65.) A job at a beauty parlor in nearby Baldwin, Long Island, gave her a stage, a showcase for her blonde-bombshell imitations, and a very sympathetic female boss and confidante. At Baldwin, Candy also went to her first gay bar, the Hayloft. She began to wear makeup and women’s clothes, changes she tried to keep hidden from her mother. When a meddling neighbor tipped Terry off, she confronted her child. Candy simply asked her mom to wait at the kitchen table; she returned “in a dress, looking gorgeous.” As Terry explained to Newton years later, she had an immediate realization: “I couldn’t hold my son back.” 

Manhattan beckoned. She gravitated to Washington Square Park, then a major queer hangout. The Bleecker Street apartment of an unsavory character named Seymour Levy—Newton calls him “a chicken queen”—served as Candy’s crash pad for several years. She did occasional sex work. She “had entered the demimonde . . . and that was a comfortable spot for someone who was reinventing herself,” Carr writes. “She’d become an outlaw the moment she put on a dress,” Carr continues, owing to ancient city laws still on the books that criminalized cross-dressing. It was in this milieu that Candy would meet two other trans titanesses: Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis. The latter, as movie-mad as Candy, wrote a tart spoof of Hollywood titled Glamour, Glory, and Gold, in which Candy made her Off-Off-Broadway debut, in ’67. 

Friends, rivals, costars, these three would all become the last Warhol Superstars. Andy, who met Candy in ’67, always had a soft spot for her; as Carr bluntly states, “he admired the way [she] could pass.” Her entrée into the Factory led to two Paul Morrissey–directed films: 1968’s Flesh, her screen debut, and 1971’s Women in Revolt (more on these movies in a moment). Candy was often Warhol’s plus-one at parties and openings; Carr notes that “she was beautiful, polite, witty, poised—the perfect date.” She now sat with Warhol’s crowd at Max’s Kansas City, where she likely met Roger Vadim (who would become one of Candy’s many short-term lovers) and his then-wife Jane Fonda (with whom she would share a scene in the 1971 neo-noir Klute). It may have been at the Factory that she met Werner Schroeter, the German auteur who cast Candy in a supporting role in The Death of Maria Malibran (1972), a feverish tribute to the nineteenth-century opera singer of the title. Candy’s work onstage continued apace: Jackie gave her the lead in the smash downtown production Vain Victory: The Vicissitudes of the Damned in ’71; the next year, Candy graduated from Off-Off to Off-Broadway, with the role of Violet, a waifish seductress, in Tennessee Williams’s Small Craft Warnings.

Many of these career milestones, though, were accompanied by indignities and humiliations. She was paid $25 a day for her work in Women in Revolt. When Candy walked into the women’s dressing room for Small Craft Warnings, the lead actress screamed, “Get it out of here!” Candy was assigned the broom closet, onto which she affixed a star. Her most crushing disappointment was not being cast in the role she considered herself the most eminently qualified to play: the lead in the 1970 film adaptation of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge, his best-selling ribald satire about a trans woman with an encyclopedic knowledge of ’40s movies (Raquel Welch was given the part; Candy never even got an audition). 

Candy with the director Werner Schroeter during the filming of The Death of Maria Malibran, Munich, 1971. Photo: © bpk Bildagentur / Digne Meller Marcovicz / Art Resource, NY.
Candy with the director Werner Schroeter during the filming of The Death of Maria Malibran, Munich, 1971. Photo: © bpk Bildagentur / Digne Meller Marcovicz / Art Resource, NY.

Carr seamlessly incorporates these professional triumphs and setbacks within the larger context of Candy’s “inchoate” and “paradoxical” life. The adjectives are apt, reflecting the era in which she lived. It was a time when the term “transgender” would not be widely used until at least two decades after her death (“transsexual” would be the politest word, though Candy rejected it, identifying simply as a woman with a “flaw”: her penis); when the concept of “gender fluidity” was all but nonexistent; when an immutable binary reigned supreme. “Candy would never be a sixties person,” Carr writes, explaining one of her subject’s many contradictions. “As the culture went through its sea change, into something rich and strange and occasionally violent, Candy wasn’t really in sync. Issues that preoccupied so many of her generation . . . didn’t interest her. Nor did she ever assess her own situation as political. . . . Yet her very existence was radical.” Her own vision of femininity was conservative—“If I am going to be a woman, I want the whole thing: a home in the suburbs, a husband, and strange as it may sound, children,” she wrote in her notebook. At the same time, she keenly sensed how constructed that ideal was, as the journal entry cited above indicates, a presaging précis of gender studies. Likewise, her attention to the superficial had its own kind of depth. “Candy knew that she was beautiful—but was it the right kind of beautiful? Her obsession with appearance was not rooted in narcissism,” Carr observes. “It was how she affirmed her female identity in a world where there was very little support for even the idea of gender fluidity. Beauty was also useful to her as armor. She preferred that people focus on the surface.” 

Beyond Carr’s discerning overview of Candy’s life and epoch, she vivifies her biography with piquant details, the result of her thorough reporting. Lily Tomlin, then at the height of her Laugh-In fame, was so impressed by Candy that she arranged for her to have an audition at the renowned midtown cabaret Upstairs at the Downstairs. (The tryout went nowhere, but a year before her death, Candy landed the most lucrative gig of her career: the opening act at the hot new nightclub Le Jardin, a forerunner of Studio 54.) Tomlin’s partner in love and work, Jane Wagner, paid for Candy’s badly needed dental care. Lauren Hutton, nearing her zenith as a top model, was immediately enchanted with the Superstar on their first meeting, a chance encounter at Halston’s atelier. The most bizarre detail of their friendship: Hutton showed Candy how to tame a tarantula. The most touching: Hutton accompanied a terrified Candy to Cabrini Medical Center, the hospital where she would later die, insisting that she have a private room and giving her sick friend some of her own negligees.

So many of Candy’s performances, the truest index of her genius, were never documented or are difficult to access. There isn’t even a reliable description of her Le Jardin show; Carr notes “there were no reviews, and the few remaining accounts do not quite correspond.” Fortunately, Flesh and Women in Revolt, featuring two of her greatest star turns in her slim filmography, are available on the Internet Archive. They demonstrate her sublime gift for conjuring a specific kind of acting magic, in which her loving, studied replications of silver-screen luminaries are spiked with wry shrewdness. The mimicker is transformed into an original. 

Candy Darling is the second of Carr’s comprehensive studies devoted to a New York City legend who died much too young, following her superb 2012 biography of artist David Wojnarowicz, Fire in the Belly. That book never privileged the life over the work; paying assiduous, passionate attention to Wojnarowicz’s polymathic output, Carr demonstrated her subject’s brilliance and originality over and over again. Oddly, when it comes to writing about Candy’s acting—her work—Carr often seems indifferent or obtuse. When writing about Flesh, in which Candy and Jackie are seated on a couch and read aloud from old movie magazines while Joe Dallesandro gets a blow job from Geri Miller, Carr merely recapitulates what happens in this segment and transcribes the dialogue. There is no analysis: no mention of how funny the incongruity is between Candy and Jackie’s actions and Joe and Geri’s or of the ways that Candy’s supercilious, prudish delivery delights as a meticulously rendered takeoff on the affected, remote sex symbol that someone like Kim Novak epitomized in the 1950s. (Why Carr included this synopsis without offering any commentary is all the more puzzling in light of the fact that, during her 1984–2003 tenure at the Village Voice, she ranked among the preeminent critics of avant-garde performance.) 

Carr’s discussion of Women in Revolt—a riotous spoof of feminism, in which Candy stars with Jackie and Holly as members of PIG (Politically Involved Girls)—proves even more dispiriting. She complains of “scenes that go on way too long” and the film’s “implausible notions” and incoherence: all hallmarks of the entire Warhol/Morrissey corpus, movies that were made to showcase personalities and cared nothing about plot or realism. Carr dismisses Candy—portraying a Park Avenue debutante who briefly has her consciousness raised only to abandon women’s liberation to make it big in Hollywood—as “seem[ing] wooden in some of her scenes, playing the rich-girl as high-toned and snooty. It’s a poor person’s idea of a rich person.” But Candy isn’t after class verisimilitude; her acting is informed by her movie fandom, her idols cannily saluted and razzed at the same time. 

Carr holds in higher regard a performance by Candy in a still, not moving, image: Peter Hujar’s Candy Darling on Her Deathbed, taken in September ’73, shortly after she was admitted at Cabrini Medical Center and the day before exploratory surgery revealed an enormous tumor that her doctor described as being “like a tree root growing.” In full maquillage, lying on her side, cocooned in her hospital-bed duvet, a long-stemmed rose next to her, Candy masks her fear by assuming a pose she must have seen countless times before—when, as a lonely, bullied child, she studied the Million Dollar Movie with exacting scrutiny, dreaming of the woman she would become.

Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns and the author of a monograph on David Lynch’s Inland Empire from Fireflies Press.