Cynthia Carr’s Candy Darling: Dreamer, Icon, Superstar

McKenzie Wark

Candy Darling, undated. Image courtesy of Jeremiah Newton. Photo by Theresa Slattery.

April 4, 2024
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

I probably speak for many trans readers of Cynthia Carr’s biography of Candy Darling when I say that I have very mixed emotions about it. On the one hand, I’m grateful for Carr’s tireless work in documenting the life of Andy Warhol’s most luminous trans superstar. On the other hand, it’s painful to read page after page of people who hated Candy, abused her, insulted her, exploited her, or, on a good day, merely disrespected her.

Born in 1944, Candy grew up on Long Island. Her father was an asshole. Her mother, at best, put up with her. She was one of those whom straight people, cis people, perceives as other from the start. High school was a torment. As a young Candy confided to her diary: “Nobody loves or understands me. This is a wicked world, I think.” She was right.

The wicked world was out to crush her long before she could fashion herself as “Candy Darling.” Around 1962 she started taking the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan to escape, mostly to hang out around Washington Square. She started constructing a persona through which to survive: “I must learn to charm people in a quiet way.”

Carr does an excellent job reconstructing Candy’s early life from diaries, letters and interviews. She also had access to interviews conducted many years ago by Candy’s devoted friend Jeremiah Newton, who co-produced a film about her, Beautiful Darling (2010), and co-edited My Face For the World to See (1997), the more extensive of the two extant collections of her writing, which also includes many photographs. Newton did a lot to preserve Candy’s memory, but did not succeed in writing her biography. Carr took up where Newton left off.

Like a lot of those who grow up as outliers to the compulsory order of sex and sexuality, Candy took refuge in media. In her case, in classic Hollywood cinema, which appeared as a door to an alternate reality via television. She committed entire films to memory. Picnic (1955), starring Kim Novak, was a favorite. She was looking for another world.

After enduring as much high school as she could stand, she tried cosmetology school, which landed her a job, and a friend, at Lorraine Newman’s Beauty Parlor in Massapequa. Newman was one of a handful of people from the straight world who did not treat Candy like dirt.

Postwar suburban Long Island was a social and architectural monument to white heterosexuality. Christine Jorgensen, the world’s most famous transsexual, lived not far from Candy’s childhood home: Candy hung around outside but did not meet her. Jorgensen was an anomaly, not meant to be repeated. There would be no home on Long Island for Candy.

On her day trips to Manhattan, Candy hung out with the street queens of Greenwich Village. Carr quotes from a ditty of theirs: “We are the Village girls / We wear our hair in curls / We roll our dungarees / Above our nelly knees.” They wore pants underneath in case the cops came. Cross-dressing was illegal. Candy was thrown out of Julius, a gay bar that still exists, for wearing a dress. Carr doesn’t have much to say about Candy’s connection to street queens. Those in the life did not usually live long, or leave much documentation, other than with the police, though Carr does report that she met Zazu Nova, a Black street queen credited by many as the one who really threw the first brick at the Stonewall riots.

Candy seems to have figured out early on that there was a way to survive by being special. Sisterhood be damned. Hanging on the street, she would get singled out to join gay parties. Her beauty was her calling card, although she had a lifelong problem with her poor teeth.

By 1965 she was on black market hormones. As a trans woman I’m always curious about the history of our biochemical self-fashioning. Like a lot of things about trans life, I don’t know if anyone else needs to know these intimate details. Biographies of cis people don’t usually say what meds they were on. But it’s interesting for girls like us to know that like a whole generation of our foremothers she was on Premarin, a conjugated estrogen, now rarely in use.

Later she was on Delalutin (hydroxyprogesterone caproate) and Delestrogen (estradiol valerate). The latter is still widely in use by trans women in the United States. Carr speculates that her hormone regime may have contributed to her early death from cancer, which is a commonplace of “tragic” trans narratives. The fact is, nobody really knows all that much about trans health, and hormones are more on the keeping us alive side of the ledger. There’s many other things conspiring to kill transgender women.

Just as there was no place in this life for Candy, there was barely a place in language. The word “transgender” was not in wide circulation. She was not exactly a transvestite or a transsexual as the words were used at the time. “My business is the Candy Darling business. This I built myself,” she said. She was singular, evading imposed categories, although that’s what a lot of trans people do.

Candy was also famously part of a trans trio. She met Holly Woodlawn first, and then Jackie Curtis, and the three of them would carry on as Schatze, Pola, and Loco from the 1953 movie How to Marry a Millionaire (played by Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and Marilyn Monroe). Carr gives us the legend of their escapades together with some much-needed fact-checking of their veracity. It was a fragile sisterhood. As Holly said: “Three divas… how friendly can you be?” Then as now, there’s a tension between the solidarity through which trans people keep each other alive and the price paid for getting over in the cis world, which as often as not stipulates that one leave one’s sisters behind.

The Candy Darling business was a precarious one. She did office work for an insurance company for a hot minute, in stealth mode. Acting was about the only work she could get, although she did not want to be an actor. She wanted to be a star. Her break came via Charles Ludlam’s Theater of the Ridiculous, a downtown, proto-queer affair. And then she became a Warhol Superstar. She appears in Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s Flesh in 1968. Her scenes are improvised, as was the Warhol style. She chats about her haircut and kikis with Jackie Curtis about movie stars. She was paid twenty-five dollars. That’s the Candy Darling business: being fabulous and fabulously underpaid.

Candy was not really accepted by the Warhol “Silver Factory” crowd, although Warhol himself took her to parties. She thought she had a shot at Hollywood when Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge (1968) was optioned as a film. It’s yet another in a long line of novels in which a trans woman functions as an allegorical figure for other people’s anxieties. Vidal liked her for the role; the producers didn’t. “They decided Raquel Welch would make a more believable transvestite,” Candy said.

She did have a few film roles, rarely in good material. She is featured in Werner Schroeter’s Death of Maria Malibran (1972), which I’ve not seen and now want to track down. She is onscreen for a few seconds in Klute (1971). In a magnificent long take, Jane Fonda’s sex worker character makes her way through the crowd at a nightclub—it was actually filmed at legendary gay club the Sanctuary. The camera dollies backwards as Fonda hews through the crowd; when she finds Candy, they embrace.

The thing about the Warhol films that Paul Morrissey directed is that they’re interesting in spite of the latter’s intentions. Morrissey was a reactionary young fogey who thought he was better than the “lowlife” he cast, when to this and many other viewers the opposite is clearly the case. Women in Revolt (1971) is a case in point. Candy does the best with her screentime in spite of the hostility of the gaze directed at her. On film, as in life.

She had some stage roles, famously in Jackie Curtis’s Vain Victory (1971). Jackie was a talented playwright in a hyperbolic, absurdist style, queer avant la lettre. Candy was in Tennessee Williams’ Small Craft Warnings (1972) where the rest of the cast were predictably rude. It had a short run. Attempts to create a nightclub act for her did not work out.

She was attempting the impossible: to embody the most classic American femininity within the frame of the cis gaze. Candy: “I keep asking myself—when is it my turn? I’m not emotionally stable enough to do the things others do. Besides the others aren’t able to do what I can do… I am a freak of nature and it makes me hard.”

There’s another page in her diaries that might provide a hint of how she thought about her art of appearances. Candy classifies movie stars as if they had two layers. There’s the basic butch with femme overtones: Raquel Welch, Joan Crawford, Jane Russell. There’s the basic femme with butch overtones: Greta Garbo is her only example. Then there’s the basic femme with femme overtones: Marilyn Monroe and Lana Turner.

Candy modeled herself most of all on Kim Novak. Where would she have placed Novak, or herself, in this schema? Maybe she read this double system of appearances as something she had to work in her own way. From her diary: “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?” Postwar American gender is a failed product.

There’s two published editions of Candy’s diaries and letters. The one Jeremiah Newton co-edited, and a little Hanuman Books one from 1992. The Hanuman is my favorite. I carry it around with me sometimes as a transsexual breviary. Carr quotes from the diaries and letters liberally, and also from some unpublished writings. They record for posterity the pain inflicted by the cis world. Candy: “I can’t find God … I believe I was born to suffer and I don’t feel I can ever really recover from the hurt in my life.”

The most surprising thing we learn from Carr is the depth of Candy’s religious feelings. In a way that’s not uncommon among people who find little solace in this world, she looked to the otherworldly. She didn’t find much in God either. “I had this strong feeling that I was either being punished or God wanted me to pay for my condition or I was born to suffer or something. I could never appreciate anything.”

“I never felt worthy of a man,” she writes. “The worst luck of all is not to have someone to love you, to desire and not reach that desire. Can you cut it out of you? You can just suppress it as I do.” As many trans women, maybe especially those who desire men, still do. “It seems as though I am not meant to be loved.” I’ve felt that, and found it isn’t true. Candy never had that, and I grieve for her.

“I was not meant for this world.” It’s hard to pull off, but some trans women deal with expulsion from ordinary life by creating the impression of being otherworldly. “I was always and still am to many who knew me, family school mates, friends, an inferior (inadequate) person in a second-class position. This is not to say that I was unable to draw affection, and even respect, but the affection was mingled with sympathy. The respect was given me because of my aloofness.” Endurance at the price of perpetual solitude.

In her bleakest moments, she writes things such as: “I will welcome death.” And: “I no longer care what happens. I have become completely complacent. I am not afraid of death and do not have any wish for happiness because I know it will not come.” And: “Shouldn’t I be dead? I can’t see any relief for me. I’m in prison all the time.” It’s still like this for too many of my sisters. This is why what matters most in trans culture is: will this art help keep us alive? Carr doesn’t really seem to understand the stakes we might have in this story, but then the book is not really addressed to us.

The fable of her life can slip too easily into the figure of the tragic transsexual, doomed from the start. The cis world can then go on, complacent as ever, consigning her to the freakshow of cautionary tales. Candy had it right when she hinted at American sex as a failed product, and one that probably doesn’t work too well for anyone.

The public, visible trans woman provokes an anxiety about the sexed body in general. There’s a few responses, the most common being ridicule and violence. Then there’s the kind of response this book seems to invite—detached curiosity, tourism. With its typical cack-handedness about all things trans, the New York Times assigned the book to a cis writer. At the launch event at Rizzoli, pointing out that trans people today face a rising tide of transphobia was up to me, piping up in the Q and A, as one of very few trans people present.

Candy managed for a time to extract from the cis gaze another response—gifts. As if giving her tribute could stave off the challenge of her existence. It worked, but with paradoxical results. Candy: “I have all of the icing and none of the cake. I go to the right parties. I have fans who ask for my autograph wherever I go. I have a white fur, and it is beautiful. But I don’t have an apartment or a lover, and sometimes not a friend… I have all of the things people dream about but not the things they take for granted.”

She died of lymphoma in 1974, not yet thirty years old. Her funeral was a grand affair. And yet Carr notes that the street queens who had come to say farewell stayed outside the funeral home. Not welcome inside. Which says it all.

Cynthia Carr’s Candy Darling: Dreamer, Icon, Superstar is published by Farrar Straus & Giroux.

Transgender, Biography, Pop Art, Publishing

McKenzie Wark is the author, among other things, of A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard), Gamer Theory (Harvard), The Beach Beneath the Street (Verso) and Raving (Duke). She teaches at The New School in New York City. She edited the “trans | fem | aesthetics” issue of eflux journal and coedited the “Black Rave” issue, with madison moore.

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