Pop Life: Candy Darling and the New York of Yesteryear

“Candy came from out on the island,” Lou Reed sings during the second verse of “Walk on the Wild Side.” “In the backroom she was everybody’s darling.” It wasn’t the first time Reed wrote a song referencing the Andy Warhol superstar Candy Darling. In 1969, The Velvet Underground’s song “Candy Says” was dedicated to the trans muse, and it looked at her inner life in striking detail.

Unlike “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Candy Says” isn’t a tribute to the wild taboos of late 1960s New York City life. No, “Candy Says” was dedicated to Darling and only Darling. It’s a riveting four-minute ballad, one that captures a trans woman’s struggles with gender dysphoria. “Candy says I’ve come to hate my body/ And all that it requires in this world,” the song begins. “Candy says I’d like to know completely/ What others so discreetly talk about.” The lyrics discuss many of the problems Darling experienced throughout her time in New York City: struggling with her gender identity, taking unsafe hormone-replacement therapy, and going through those rare moments in which some of her close friends thought her Hollywood-esque persona was overcompensating for her trans status. Sung to melancholy, angelic music, “Candy Says” is an honest and vulnerable song. It’s one that reveals the loneliness and alienation Darling felt throughout her life. “What do you think I’d see,” the song ends, “If I could walk away from me?”

It’s tough to say what was real or fake about Darling, what was simply a part of her public life or a representation of her true personality. Perhaps every single moment, every part of Darling, was just as real as it appeared. After all, in her diaries, Darling said that she was “a thousand different people” and “every one [was] real.” But Darling’s legacy didn’t start in the city. Her story began in a much quieter part of New York state.

Darling grew up in Massapequa Park, Long Island. She was always fascinated with Hollywood, especially movie actresses. As she grew older, she began experimenting with her gender presentation. Her teenage years took her out of Massapequa Park’s suburbs and into Greenwich Village in New York City in the mid-’60s.

Although New York’s drag community was growing at the time, Darling entered the city during an era in which being a “female impersonator” was punishable by jail time. This, of course, included transgender women who were clocked on the street as trans by police officers. Still, Darling began presenting as a woman while visiting Manhattan’s gay scene, and she started visiting a doctor on Fifth Avenue for HRT regularly. By 1967, Darling had met Andy Warhol; by 1968, she starred in his film Flesh.

It’s hard to pin down Candy Darling. She was always a larger-than-life presence, and her acting was hailed by Interview magazine editor Bob Colacello as a throwback to the ‘50s, straddling the line between the past and the future. Darling was a classy, Marilyn Monroe–esque figure, a lady with grace, style, and a cool temperament found in an era nostalgic for old Hollywood superstars. But despite her pristine voice and charming mannerisms, Darling couldn’t have been a star in Hollywood; when the ill-fated Myra Breckinridge movie was slated for production, Darling wrote to the studio repeatedly asking to be considered for the titular role, only to receive no response. No one would give her a chance because she was trans, openly so, in an era in which queer rights were only a dream. Andy Warhol’s Factory was the only chance she had to be an actress, truly, and working around the Factory meant getting paid through fame, not money. Warhol was notoriously stingy.

Make no mistake: It wasn’t only Hollywood that turned its back on Darling. The 2010 documentary Beautiful Darling reveals just how terrible life was for a trans woman in the ‘60s. People from Darling’s hometown thought she should be institutionalized for transitioning. Her father suspected obsessively that she was wearing makeup before she transitioned. Fran Lebowitz captures Darling’s times so perfectly in the film, saying New York City “was a place for people who didn’t fit in. Not people who pretended not to fit in. People who could actually go to jail. People who actually couldn’t get a job. People who actually did something that no one was interested in.” New York City was an escape for a trans woman like Darling: A woman who had very little at home because there was nothing for a trans woman to hold on to in suburbia.

But it certainly wasn’t safe in New York. A fact made readily apparent in the 1971 drama Some of My Best Friends Are…, a movie starring Darling. In one scene, her character is clocked after a man invasively gropes and molests her while dancing in a bar. He proceeds to rip off her wig and viciously beat her. Grotesque and chaotic, the scene captures the violence and transphobia of the era in sharp detail. To be outed was to have your entire physical safety threatened, whether it was by being called a “faggot,” being sent to jail, or being assaulted by a transmisogynist. It was a dangerous and brutal endeavor, and to some extent, very little has changed today.

But Darling’s passion, her desire for love and to be loved was not just a reflection of her personality as an actress. It was also a beacon of hope for trans women across the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. That much can be felt through the men and women who accepted her and the infatuation they held for her as an out trans woman. And Darling never gave up the fight to be the truest version of herself, even in the darkest moments of her life. As she said in her diary, “I will not cease to be myself for foolish people. For foolish people make harsh judgments on me. You must always be yourself, no matter what the price. It is the highest form of morality.”

Her  desire to find herself motivated her throughout her life. It drove her transitioning. It guided her career. It led her to be the best actor she could, the most entertaining performer she could, the most successful person she could. Her style didn’t just inspire the men and women around her. She showed the world what it meant to be transgender. She showed New York City that a trans woman could be stylish, beautiful, and classy. She demonstrated that a trans woman could experience hardships and yet still blaze her own path. And her sense of dignity and perseverance in the face of adversity remains a hallmark of her legacy as one of the most prominent trans actresses of the 20th century.

Darling passed in 1974. But today, we know her through Beautiful Darling. We get a glimpse into her life through “Candy Says” and “Walk on the Wild Side.” We experience her happiness, her sadness, her hardships, and her ambitions through her diary entries. We see an inside look into her life and personality through her films, her performances, and her relationships with the men and women around her.

Lou Reed was worried Darling would despise “Walk on the Wild Side.” But she loved it. Perhaps that’s because Reed looked at Darling and saw what she wanted the rest of the world to see: a young woman born and raised in Long Island, destined for stardom, but suffering along the way. When she died, the outside world still wasn’t ready to accept that. They were afraid to see Darling as a woman. But 40 years later, her dream has come true. Her desire for fame, for an everlasting legacy, is kept alive through the trans community. And so Darling lives on today as an inspiration to trans women across North America and a trailblazer for trans women in the arts.

 

 

 

by Ana Valens
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Ana Valens is a freelance journalist and writer. Her work has been published in The Toast, Kill Screen, ZEAL, The Mary Sue, and Truthout. She can be reached on Twitter at @SpaceDoctorPhD, where she tweets about her upcoming zine, "Bell."

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