Candy Darling: Dreamer, Icon, Superstar, Trans

By Miruna Tiberiu & Răzvan Ion

Superstar and transgender icon Candy Darling was glamour personified, but she was without a real place in the world.  She found her turn in New York’s early Off-Off-Broadway theatre scene, in Warhol’s films Flesh (1968) and Women in Revolt (1971), and at the famed nightclub Max’s Kansas City. She inspired songs by Lou Reed and the Rolling Stones. She became friends with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, borrowed a dress from Lauren Hutton, posed for Richard Avedon, and performed alongside Tennessee Williams in the latter’s own play. Darling died of lymphoma, aged 29, in 1974.

Candy Darling, 1971, Courtesy Everett Collection.

Candy Darling lived on the edge, relying on the kindness of strangers, friends, and her quietly-devoted mother, sleeping on couches and in cheap hotel rooms, keeping a part of herself hidden. Sure, she wanted to be a star; but most of all, she wanted to be loved. She evokes this in her final diary entry: “I shall try to be grateful for life . . . Cannot imagine who would want me.” Candy died at twenty-nine in 1974, as conversations about gender and identity were only just beginning. She never knew it, but she changed the world.

“I first heard her name in a Lou Reed song; I first saw her face in a Peter Hujar photograph, looking glamorous, dying; I first heard her voice in an Andy Warhol film. And now, how wonderful to be taken, with care and delight and plenty of spectacle, behind the myth for a peek at the beating heart of Candy Darling. Cynthia Carr has written an absorbing account of an unforgettable woman in a fascinating time, a lonely icon who tried to find a place for herself in a world that couldn’t hold her.”, says Justin Torres, author of Blackouts who himself changed literature as we know it.

Candy Darling “never lost her head even when she was giving head”, Reed sang. He’d sung about her before – she was the Candy who said “I’ve come to hate my body / And all that it requires in this life” on the third Velvet Underground album in 1968. Reed had feared the reaction of his characters to Walk on the Wild Side, but, he later recalled: “Candy Darling told me he’d memorised all the songs and wanted to make a ‘Candy Darling Sings Lou Reed’ album. It probably wouldn’t sell more than a hundred copies!”

Cynthia Carr encapsulates the life of Candy Darling in the recently-released first biography about the star, a figure often forgotten in History’s pages. Darling found herself perpetually at odds with a world that couldn’t comprehend her identity. As Carr succinctly puts it, Darling was “the beauty queen who didn’t belong and never would.” The confines of societal norms in her era boxed individuals like Darling under the umbrella term “queer,” a label steeped in derogation.

Andy Warhol and Candy Darling in 1969 photographed by Cecil Beaton.

She never hid her origin. In an interview, she lets us into her life before stardom; she was born Jimmy Slattery, of Massapequa, Long Island. Raised amidst familial turmoil in Massapequa, Darling sought solace in the glitz and glamour of Hollywood icons such as Lana Turner and Kim Novak. Despite the discord within her own family, Darling steadfastly embraced her feminine identity, as Carr eloquently notes, “Candy just knew she was a female and had always been.”

Finding refuge in the vibrant energy of the city, Darling underwent a metamorphosis, shedding her birth name and gracing the stages of Off-Off-Broadway productions. Her ethereal beauty, reminiscent of Brigitte Bardot and Audrey Hepburn, captivated audiences and secured her roles, albeit in the shadows of the mainstream spotlight.

No amount of lavish outfits and gorgeous hairdos can, however, fully conceal the often perilous reality that Darling had to live through. Darling’s existence was a precarious balancing act, often marred by financial instability and hunger. Forever trying to stay afloat, she could often think of little more than survival, resorting to prostitution to make ends meet. Carr unveils such gritty truth of Darling’s life, from her ingenious ploy with Tampax to her steadfast refusal of sex reassignment surgery.

It was amidst this tumultuous backdrop that Darling found herself thrust into the orbit of pop art luminary Andy Warhol. With Warhol’s patronage, Darling was given the spotlight she deserved, starring in avant-garde films such as Flesh and Women in Revolt. Surrounded by a constellation of luminaries including Sylvia Miles, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda, Darling became a fixture of the downtown elite.

Candy Darling on her Deathbed, 1973 © Peter Hujar. Silver gelatin print, Collection of Ronay and Richard Menschel © Peter Hujar Archive, LLC, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Frankel Gallery, San Francisco

The task to remember Darling is also ever-present at this year’s Venice Biennale. In his post-mortem exhibition, American photographer Peter Hujar captures Candy Darling’s last days on the deathbed in 1973. In the photos, she is as glamorous as ever, white flowers lying on a tableside close to her. She knew how to say goodbye as surely as she knew how to say hello to the world. A year later, Hujar photographed Fran Lebowitz at home, leaning upright in bed with a duvet covering her body; bare shoulders exposed. During a talk at New York’s Kasmin Gallery in 2016, Lebowitz said: ‘I hate having my photo taken, and none of the times that Peter took my picture was it an arduous experience.’ Candy died of cancer in 1974, and Peter died of AIDS in 1987. Two tragic lives and destines, both with marginal public recognition during their lives and with worldwide exhibitions today, as the story goes for so many queer artists of the past.

There wasn’t really vocabulary to describe the territory Darling was exploring back then — maybe there’s too much vocabulary now, but that’s a different conversation — and her biographer extends a sure hand across the breach. To push her from the Warhol wings to centre stage, at a moment when transgender rights are in roiling flux, just makes sense. And you have to cheer when Tennessee Williams is asked by some rude person whether his star is a transsexual or a transvestite, and he roars back: “What a question to ask a lady!” (Alexandra Jacobs in The New York Times)

Yet, despite the allure of fame and adulation, Darling’s diary entries betray a profound sense of yearning for love and domestic tranquillity. “I have lived most of my life starving for affection,” she laments, echoing the sentiments immortalized by Carr. All Darling desired was a semblance of normalcy – a home adorned with a white picket fence, a sanctuary from the cacophony of urban life. Whilst she may have not had access during her life to the simple, unconditional love and pathway reserved, at the time, for heterosexuals alone, perhaps it is not too late for us to honour her in this way now. Resurrecting Darling’s poignant narrative, Carr ensures that her legacy endures beyond the confines of time, immortalizing her as a symbol of resilience and unapologetic selfhood in a world fraught with prejudice and misunderstanding. Carr wedges a space for Candy in the Hall of Fame for queer heroes to whom we owe remembrance today.

Cynthia Carr; Candy Darling: Dreamer, Icon, Superstar, 418 p., Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2024, is published and can be ordered on Amazon.

Miruna Tiberiu is the Editor-in-Chief of GAY45 and co-host of the podcast “GenClash: Queer Perspectives on Current Affairs“. She is a student at Cambridge University specialising in film studies. Tiberiu has written for numerous publications, including The Cambridge Review of Books, and the Cambridge Language Collective. She is the co-founder and co-editor of Cambridge’s first all-queer magazine, Screeve. Tiberiu was longlisted for the International News Media Association (INMA)’s “30 Under 30” Awards 2023.

Răzvan Ion is the founder of GAY45 and co-host of the podcast “GenClash: Queer Perspectives on Current Affairs“.. A professor of curatorial studies and critical thinking in Vienna, he is passionate about comic books, technology, the stock market, art, alternative indie music, true crime, movies, literature, drag queen shows, and artificial intelligence.

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