Warhol Superstar and Trans Pioneer Holly Woodlawn Remains Unstoppable, Despite Cancer

Despite battling a serious illness, the Holly from Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" is in good spirits.

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Nov 12 2015, 6:00pm

Update: On December 6, Holly Woodlawn died from complications of cancer.

Holly Woodlawn on her Cleopatra throne in Hollywood. Photo by Robert Preston Coddington

When Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn appeared on screens across the world in the 1970 movie Trash, it was a pioneering moment. Her raucous performance broke new ground, and a transgender woman stepped out into the public eye. From Miami FLA, she's the very same Holly in Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," who "shaved her legs and then he was a she." And now, sadly, she's terribly ill.

Holly met Andy Warhol at a party at the Factory in 1968. It was after a screening of Flesh, the first in a series of movies directed by Paul Morrissey. Holly became a part of the Warhol entourage and was a regular at legendary nightclub, Max's Kansas City. It's there where, according to her, she once had a tryst with Jim Morrison.

Photo by Jarry Lang

In June this year, Holly was admitted to a hospital with an unknown condition, which turned out to be cancer. After initial treatment was successful, she was about to move back to her West Hollywood apartment, when it became unlivable due to flooding. At the moment, she's in an assisted living facility, unable to undertake further treatment. Once her place is repaired, she'll have to return home.

After Holly fell ill, fellow Warhol Superstar Penny Arcade set up a GoFundMe campaign to help finance the medical expenses. So far it's raised over $67,000. But Arcade told VICE more is needed to fund the round-the-clock nursing Holly now requires and hopefully so she can remain in the facility instead of returning home. "It would be far better to keep Holly there than bring her home to a much grimmer environment," Arcade explained.

In 1971, Holly and Arcade starred in the Morrissey film Women in Revolt, alongside the transgender actresses Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis. As Arcade puts it, Holly was one of the first trans women to "gain visibility in America and internationally as a personality," different from Christine Jorgenson—who came before her—because Jorgenson only appeared in newspapers.

And unlike Darling and Curtis, who both died tragically young, "the public has known Holly as a performer for nearly 50 years," Arcade said, adding "People talk today about 'out' transgender women, but Holly was never 'in.'"

Photo by Jarry Lang

Born in Puerto Rico in 1946, Holly moved to Florida with her family when she was an infant. In 1962, at the age of 15, she ran away from home and, as the song goes, hitchhiked her way to New York City. After a period of living on the streets, she fell in love with a man and lived as his wife for the period of seven years, working as a clothing model at Saks.

In 1969, Paul Morrissey cast her as one of the leads in Trash. The avant-garde director made a series of movies produced by Andy Warhol, revolutionizing the cinema of the day, due to their raw subject matter, marginal characters, and unscripted scenes.

In Trash, Holly played a garbage picker who's sexually frustrated because her boyfriend, played by Joe Dallesandro, is suffering from heroin-induced impotence. The two decide they'll clean up their lives and try to get on welfare in order to live in a more respectable manner.

Photo by Jarry Lang

Dallesandro, who spent more time on camera with his clothes off than on, said he was "flabbergasted" by Holly's improvisational talent: Morrissey was known for providing actors with the storyline just before filming. "Holly was so great to ad lib everything within the perimeter of the story Paul wanted us to tell," Dallesandro told VICE. "I recall being amazed she was able to do that."

Holly's performance drew critical acclaim and the Oscar-winning director George Cukor started a petition to have her included in the Best Actress category of that year's Academy Awards.

On a visit to the hospital, Dallesandro said he was happy to see Holly but "saddened by the state she was living in," referring to the facility she has since moved out of. "She was in good spirits, happy to see me," he recalled. "She told me her cancer had not gotten worse."

Holly on stage. Photo by Robert Preston Coddington

Throughout the 70s, Holly continued her acting career. Then after a break from the limelight, she returned to the screen in the 90s appearing in a string of movies. Since the early 2000s, she became a regular on the cabaret circuit and has been performing in shows across the US and Europe, some as recently as 2013. And she's even penned a memoir called A Low Life in High Heels.

For the last ten years, Robert Coddington has been her manager. He told me Holly is "unstoppable" and she's now more determined than ever to complete a documentary being made about her life. "She knows she has cancer and yet this is only making her stronger," he said. "Last week she told me, 'Honey, I'm surprised it took this long to rear its ugly head.'"

Coddington was the archivist for transgender rocker Jayne County. In 2004, County insisted on a meeting. "Jayne told me to meet Holly because she would be dead within months—ha." And although he wasn't initially interested in being her manager, his role "has been better than a Willy Wonka's factory tour."

Holly in front of the former site of CBGB. Photo by Robert Preston Coddington

He pointed out that Holly's influence has been phenomenal. "In 1969, she was at the Stonewall Inn, the night the cops busted the place," leading to the riots. "She fought for the rights of transgender people before they even knew she was fighting for them," he said and went on to explain that she did so because deep down she "had no other choice."

Arcade said Holly has a wish to leave a legacy to support at-risk trans youth and her friends are trying to make this a reality. "Holly has made the world safer and more welcoming not only for other trans women and men and LGBT people," Arcade said, "but for everyone who felt themselves an outsider."

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