On Saturday, May 14, hundreds gathered together in the La MaMa theater in New York City's East Village to mourn the death of transgender Puerto Rican actress Holly Woodlawn and to celebrate her life. It was a cool spring day, the sun was high, and those who stood before the crowd to invoke the memory of the alternative superstar had also been her friends. Woodlawn's image was being projected on the wall behind them—scenes from her many films, spanning 40 years. Sheets of tattered, pale pink silk hung from the railings above us, near the rows of yellow and blue industrial lights lining the ceiling.
In her memoir, A Low Life in High Heels, Woodlawn explained her self-mythology: She named herself after a cemetery. In the 70s she was coming of age and decided to become the heir to New York's Woodlawn Cemetery. One of the subjects of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," Woodlawn gained notoriety as one of Andy Warhol's "superstars." She became popular in New York's underground art world. In 1970 she starred in Trash, and the next year performed alongside her friends, Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis, in Women in Revolt. Together those three formed a trio of girls who'd all been born male—they were some of the 20th century's first trans icons. But only Woodlawn survived those years; Darling died in 1974 of lymphoma, Curtis in 1985, of an accidental heroin overdose.
Woodlawn died from brain and liver cancer in Los Angeles on December 6, 2015, at 69 years old. In the months preceding her death, Woodlawn's fans, friends, and family from around the world shared news of her ill health and contributed money to a crowdsourced fundraiser meant to pay for Woodlawn's healthcare and housing at the end of her life. The fundraiser was organized by Penny Arcade, another of Warhol's former performers; in the end, it raised more than $68,000. According to Arcade, excess proceeds have gone to pay for Woodlawn's bi-coastal memorials and a fund in her name. On March 6, a public memorial was held for Woodlawn in Los Angeles at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Michael Musto, the bow-tied Village Voice reporter who has been writing about LGBT nightlife and subculture in New York City for more than 30 years, was the first to speak at the memorial in Manhattan. Many of the memories he and others shared were humorous, reflecting on how bright, funny, and fun-loving Woodlawn was. Musto shared stories about performing with her in decades past—they were both in a fucked-up version of The Sound of Music called The Sound of Muzak, and Musto spoke at Woodlawn's birthday party at the Limelight in the 1980s.
"In the early 90s Holly sent out a message to everyone she'd ever met saying she was writing a memoir, but she couldn't remember a single thing that occurred in her life," Musto said. The room burst into laughter. Other people took the stage, friends from throughout Woodlawn's life. There were few dry eyes when John Vaccaro, founder of the legendary Playhouse of the Ridiculous, stood before the crowd to share how great his love for and work with Woodlawn had been. Director Paul Morrissey did not come, but he submitted a statement to be read, describing Woodlawn's generosity and love for her friends: When performing in Women in Revolt, Morrissey noticed Woodlawn was holding back in her performance and asked her why. According to Morrissey, Woodlawn said she was holding back because Candy Darling was the star of this film; she didn't want to overshadow her friend.
The crowd was filled with familiar faces like the author and activist Kate Bornstein, as well as colorful community members who had clearly come to pay respects to one of the scene's few legitimate legends, a figure who paved the way for transgender rights today. Two speakers shared their stories and then unexpectedly reached their hands into their pockets, revealed small bags of glitter, and emptied them into the air calling out, "Holly Woodlawn" before shedding tears for the person they had loved and lost.
Every moment of Woodlawn's commemoration was packed with emotion—there were countless heavy sighs and cries of grief—but it all spilled out when the Lavender Light Gospel Choir took center stage. They sang Lou Reed's historic song:
Holly came from Miami FLA
Hitch-hiked her way across the USA
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.