Candy Darling: Dreamer, Icon, Superstar

Image of Candy Darling: Dreamer, Icon, Superstar
Release Date: 
March 19, 2024
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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“So many times in life, one must put on an act.” 

In 1952, George Jorgensen, a 26-year-old former private in the U.S. Army, traveled to Denmark to undergo a gender reassignment procedure, what was then known as a “sex change” operation. Returning to New York as Christine Jorgensen, her daring gained a famous Daily News headline: “Ex-GI Becomes Beauty.”

James Slattery was eight years old when Jorgensen underwent the “gender-reassignment” procedure. “Jimmy,” a boy from Long Island, would in time become “Candy Darling,” part of Andy Warhol’s entourage, welcomed at Max’s Kansas City and a performer in avant-garde theatre and movies. “She” became a fleeting celebrity among the avant-garde and the glam scene that flourished during the 1960s and early ’70s. This was a period when homosexuality and cross-dressing were illegal yet not uncommon—and no one yet knew what it meant to be transsgender.

Candy’s short life (1944–1974) is the subject of Cynthia Carr’s heartfelt account of a truly sad, unfulfilled life. Carr, a staff writer for The Village Voice, consciously refers to Jimmy/Candy as “her,” acknowledging how she characterized herself. The author carefully reconstructs Candy’s life from numerous diaries, notebooks, and letters she kept as well as extensive interviews with many of those who knew her—most notably her friend Jeremiah Newton—and countless media reports, theater scripts, films, and video clips. 

Carr’s painful biography is anchored in an exhaustive chronological ordered, often day-by-day, reconstruction of Candy’s evolving life story. It reveals how an effeminate boy was never felt truly accepted. While supported by his mother, his father was verbally and physically abusive, rejected by his half-brother and mocked as a “fag” by many of his schoolmates.

She used any excuse to avoid school, spending her days watching Hollywood classics and reading celebrity magazines. She came to identify with the blond movie stars, notably Kim Novak and Marilyn Monroe, and fashioned her physical persona after them. She was befriended by a neighbor who ran a beauty parlor, and eventually attended a cosmetology school and got her first job at the beauty parlor. 

Conformist Long Island did not accept her, so she began to take the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan, finding other wayward souls in the Village. There she hooked up Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis, two trans women. In 1965, she assumed the name Candy Darling and in ’67 appeared with Curtis and a young Robert DeNiro (who played six parts) in Curtis’ underground burlesque, Glamour, Glory, and Gold.

One night Taylor Mead brought Andy Warhol to see the production at Bastiano's Cellar Studio on Waverly Place. After the show, Warhol went to Salvation, a club in Sheridan Square, where Candy and Jackie walked in and joined him at his table. At the time, Brian Jones, Keith Richards, and Mick Jagger were talking to him. Warhol was impressed by Candy and Curtis, and cast them in his film Flesh.

Candy wanted to a woman and lived as one. She had milky white skin, large brown eyes, was thin and dressed in bold, often outrageous outfits inspired by classic Hollywood fashion. As Carr eloquently notes, “While she didn’t identify as a gay man or drag queen or a cross-dresser, she never described herself as a transsexual either—just a woman who needed surgery to correct her ‘flaw.’” Her “flaw” was her penis.

She once admitted, “So many times in life, one must put on an act. There are so many situations where the true feelings must be covered by a more acceptable one.” 

In a letter she wrote: “You must always be yourself no matter what the price. It is the highest form of morality. . . . The only true meaning of life is passion. The passion to learn, to paint, to love etc. Don’t dare destroy your passion for the sake of others.”

And she performed with passion. Candy appeared with the young Jane Fonda in Klute; appeared in Warhol’s (produced by Paul Morrissey’s) Flesh (1968) and Women in Revolt (1971); and such indie films as Brand X (1970), Some of My Best Friends Are . . . (1971). She also appeared in numerous Off-Off-Broadway plays, including Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit (1969) and Curtis’s Vain Victory: The Vicissitudes of the Damned (1969); she also performed with Tennessee Williams in his Small Craft Warnings (1972). She posed for Richard Avedon in Vogue and for British photographer Cecil Beaton. She was enshrined in songs by Lou Reed (“Walk on the Wild Side”), Reed/Velvet Underground (“Candy Darling”), the Rolling Stones (“Citadel”) and St. Vincent (“Candy Darling”).  As Truman Capote observed, “She has an aura.”

Candy was part of Warhol's second Factory at 33 Union Square West and, for a few years, lived a celebrity life. She gained entry to Max's Kansas City notorious back room and often accompanied him to uptown galas and fancy dinner parties with Hollywood stars and the very wealthy.

Perhaps her greatest disappointment was her failed effort to be cast in the lead for Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge, a novel about a trans woman obsessed with classic Hollywood stars. But, as could be expected, studio executives went with the “bombshell” Raquel Welch.

Throughout her glory days of the late ’60s and early ’70s, Candy lived on the edge. While a recognized character on the downtown scene, she was often impoverished, living from hand-to-mouth. She never had her own apartment but often stayed at fleabag hotels and regularly crashed at a friends’ place, often sleeping on a couch or the floor. She often fled to her “country” house, her mother’s home on the Island.

She was often broke, borrowing from friends, including Warhol, and her mother. Worse case, she resorted to sex work, claiming to be having her period to avoid intercourse. 

Summarizing Candy’s life story, Carr states, “The bigotry she suffered as a trans woman led her to depression and the wish-I-was-dead writing throughout her journals.” She adds, “In 1974 there was no place for her in Hollywood or on Broadway, the worlds she wanted to join.”

In an effort to appear more feminine—and a first step to sex-change surgery that she never undertook—Candy took hormones (mostly estrogen). She was repeatedly hospitalized, her fees often paid for by Warhol and a few friends, and died of lymphoma on March 21, 1974, at the age of 29.