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Candy Says

Piercing the myth of the iconic muse
Four stills of Candy Darling in Flesh. She appears with red lipstick and in a red feather boa.

Candy Darling: Dreamer, Icon, Superstar by Cynthia Carr. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 432 pages. 2024.

In the mythic realm of trans self-creation, the name “Candy Darling” has loomed larger than life for a half century. One of so many born with a gender identity incongruous with the obvious fact of her womanhood, Candy came into being not at birth but in the patient, deliberate struggle of self-actualization amid the tumult of the sixties and early seventies. And what a form: a muse to the likes of Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, a starlet of the stage and silver screen, Candy’s iconoclastic beauty seared itself into the cultural consciousness.

Today, fifty years after her death at the age of twenty-nine, it can be hard to pierce the glamour of myth. Candy Darling: Dreamer, Icon, Superstar, a new biography from Cynthia Carr, is the latest attempt to do so, to get us closer to Candy the flawed, damaged person. Carr, relying on Darling’s own words and the stories of those who knew her best, succeeds in producing a three-dimensional portrait: what results is a complicated, frequently harrowing tale of a woman whose grandest ambitions—to be known and understood in her womanhood, without hesitation—floundered on the shores of self-doubt, transphobia, familial abuse, and poverty.

Darling, born in 1944 in Queens, stood apart from her surroundings from a young age. She endured verbal and emotional abuse from her father, who drifted in and out of the family over the course of her life. Her mother, Terry Slattery, loved Candy, albeit with an unsteadiness that meant that once she began transitioning, visits to her home in Massapequa Park home always came under the cover of night. (One of Candy’s neighbors was Christine Jorgensen, who had moved to the Long Island suburb in 1953 to escape incessant press attention after becoming the highest-profile trans person in history upon her return from sex reassignment surgery in Denmark in 1952). In an early chapter where Candy drops out of high school to attend beautician school, a friend recalls Candy being afflicted “by what she called ‘the terrible loneliness,’” that constant reminder that Candy’s true nature was not reflected in how the world saw her, a feeling she never truly escaped.

Much of Candy’s heartache sprung from a cruel world that refused to see her as a woman.

By the age of nineteen, Candy was already exploring the idea of a sex change operation, including booking appointments with Harry Benjamin, whose 1966 book The Transsexual Phenomenon set the standard for trans health care for decades. These visits coincided with Candy spending more time in New York City, where she tried on new identities (the name “Candy,” adopted in 1962, came from a friend who called her “Candy Cane” in a letter). In the city, she began to meet others like her, most notably Holly Woodlawn, who described their complicated relationship in stark terms: “We became friends because we were the only ones we knew that were like us.”

Through the sixties, Candy refined her identity among the street queens and hustlers of the Village, where she often relied upon sex work to survive. Carr captures the cramped geographies at play, writing: “The queenly promenade sashayed up Greenwich and down Seventh Avenue, but Fourteenth Street was the limit, and the safety zone was Christopher.” There, Candy met others like Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis, who together formed a triad of trans woman eventually made famous by Warhol. Already revered by many others on the street, her first chance encounter with Warhol on Greenwich Avenue in August 1967 jump-started her ascent to the heart of the Factory scene—and eventual stardom.

In 1969, the Stonewall riots initiated a new period of social unrest amongst the city’s restless, fed-up queers. But Candy “didn’t give a fuck about the Stonewall,” her friend and close confidante Jeremiah Newton attested. This attitude wasn’t helped when she was turned away from the bar one night, a doorman brusquely telling her, “You’re just a man despite the package,” treating her as if she was just another drag queen, someone who would expose the bar to greater police scrutiny. Spurned, Candy found herself alienated from the emergent queer rights movement, deeply at odds with social forces that sought to make lives like hers more possible.

Scratch beneath the surface just a bit, and Carr’s biography reveals a startling truth: Candy Darling was quite conservative. “A woman should look to a man for love and then she wouldn’t worry about being liberated. Love would liberate her,” she writes in one journal entry, articulating what seems to be the driving fantasy of much of her life: get bottom surgery, marry a straight man, and disappear from the New York scene into domestic life. But time and time again, Candy was betrayed by her own fantasies. She was uninterested in seeing herself as part of the budding trans and women liberation movements, a schism that feels particularly painful to revisit today. Candy couldn’t even tolerate relatively anodyne feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, coldly remarking, “They both come across very hard to me and I don’t like hardness especially in women.”

Despite her obvious beauty, which she never truly saw in herself, Candy never had a serious romantic relationship: men would come and go, promises and grand gestures made, only for each connection to vanish. “I have been told by professional analysts that I enjoy being cold more than anything . . . One way of avoiding what to me would be embarrassing is to show them how famous and important I am. This makes a man afraid of you. Too beautiful to touch. Too distant,” Candy wrote in February 1970, bemoaning the lack of intimacy in her life. The Candy Darling mystique, already buffered into “a glittering facade” (to steal a snatch of dialogue from Women in Revolt, Warhol’s 1971 sendup of the feminist movement starring Darling), is one that’s only grown more iridescent since her death. Yet in Carr’s careful treatment, we come to see the consequences that Candy experienced from this distancing act, which often made life hellish while she was still alive.

Of course, much of Candy’s heartache sprung from a cruel world that refused to see her as a woman. Despite her successes—starring in Warhol pictures, receiving critical acclaim for off-off-Broadway appearances—other vital opportunities never came to fruition, simply because others refused her opportunities to advance. Myra Breckinridge, the film adaptation of Gore Vidal’s controversial, sardonic 1968 novel, was an ideal vehicle for a Hollywood breakthrough: about a trans woman who was enraptured with thirties and forties starlets, just as she was, Darling became obsessed with obtaining the role, and even Vidal himself saw her as a natural fit. Yet while casting agents screened countless drag queens for the role, even hiring fellow Warhol superstar Flawless Sabrina as a consultant, Darling was never even offered an audition, perhaps due to prejudices of the time. These kinds of barriers kept Candy from stable housing, consistent access to hormones, and other basic necessities.

The rejection got under Candy’s skin, breeding self-resentment. It also strained her relationships with Woodlawn and Curtis; Candy’s closest companions in the downtown scene, they navigated their gender identities quite differently, leading to tension when they found success that eluded Candy. Not that these relationships didn’t have their moments of fleeting solidarity: one particularly heartbreaking anecdote finds the three women on Halloween 1966, with Jackie in drag for the first time and “bit by the womanhood bug.” Holly and Candy are on hand to fix her makeup, put her in high heels, giving her a confidence to “[stay] in costume for the next ten years,” as Woodlawn said. In these small moments—which Carr intersperses with nods to the larger climate of trans activism, like the impassioned, reviled speech made by Sylvia Rivera at the 1973 pride parade—we see a life like Candy’s become more possible in real time.

It’s hard to not compare Darling’s troubled life with that of Valerie Solanas, another scenester whose trenchant SCUM Manifesto and play Up Your Ass skewered the male-dominated world these women inhabited—even before she shot Andy Warhol in 1968. They were acquaintances and sometimes friendly, despite Solanas’s transphobia. As Newton, also a close companion to Solanas, recounted, the question of where trans women like Darling might stand in the all-women world that Solanas devised came up in discussion, to which Solanas quipped, “I wouldn’t say that if you got a sex change you’d be saved because—I mean, a guy with a sex change is still a guy.” Though Breanne Fahs’s 2014 biography of Solanas has the two chatting amiably in Washington Square, they two women possessed radically different worldviews. For Valerie, the dream was to create a world defined by women “grooving” on each other, the male sex neutered and put in its place. For Candy, the dream was simpler: as Warhol himself put it, “Candy didn’t want to be a perfect woman—that would be too simple, and besides it would give her away. What she wanted was to be a woman with all the little problems that a woman has to deal with—runs in her stockings, runny mascara, men that left her.”

At the dawn of the seventies, Candy was at her peak: twenty-five years old, she had begun her acting career, and was proving herself as a capable muse and social butterfly, someone who’d inspired songs by both Lou Reed (who wrote “Candy Says” as a tribute to her) and Mick Jagger, who sang on the chorus of the Rolling Stones’s song “Citadel”: “Candy and Taffy, hope you both are well / Please come see me in the citadel.” Yet even as she clawed and scrapped her way up the ladder, a creeping sense of dread began permeating her outlook.

Three years before her death, a sense of impending doom had already captured Darling’s imagination.

On the same journal page she refuses women’s liberation in favor of a man’s love, Candy writes, “I have a tremendous death wish.” In 1971, former Factory photographer Gerard Malanga was hanging out with Darling and some others after a party, and having spilled out onto an esplanade at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument at around six in the morning, Malanga began photographing Candy in black heels, dress, and feathered jacket, splayed out in a pose she’d been practicing so much that Holly and Jackie had already begun calling her “the dead woman.” Three years before her death, a sense of impending doom had already captured Darling’s imagination, a state that felt more natural to her than life itself.

Knowing of Candy’s inevitable demise makes reading Carr’s biography a frequently daunting and painful experience; even before the little whispers of death announce themselves in the seventies, there are so many moments of neglect, heartache, and unfulfilled vision that Carr documents, offering a darker side to her mystique. It’s hard not to find Darling as a pretty ghost for much of the book, someone whose rich inner life is only fleetingly revealed through journal entries and other recorded outbursts.

Candy was the first trans woman I ever saw: the iconic Peter Hujar photograph of Candy on her deathbed, actually taken several months before she ultimately passed, was used by ANOHNI on her 2005 album I Am A Bird Now (credited to Antony and the Johnsons), which greeted me as a confused teenager with songs about growing up to become a beautiful woman. Yet I was struck with fresh grief last March when I watched Beautiful Darling, the 2009 documentary about Candy’s life, and learned that she had passed on March 21, 1974, exactly forty-nine years before. The decision to watch the film that day was pure coincidence—at that point, I was almost two weeks out from my first facial feminization surgery, wondering what pathways laid in front of me, looking to older models like Candy for inspiration.

Candy’s birthday, November 24, comes exactly two weeks after mine. As I sat in silence with Candy’s death and put the dates together, a dreadful feeling overcame me: living on Candy time, I’d have less than a year to live, unable to make it even one full year with the new face the surgeons had made me. It was a morbid, invasive feeling, a fear of dying young, subject to powers beyond my control, thoughts that I’m not proud to admit have haunted me these past few years. Yet these early deaths in trans history take a toll, scrambling any hopeful vision of living a long, untroubled trans life. Greer Lankton, dollmaker and photographer, was another trans woman gone too soon, passing away at age thirty-eight. A recent show of her work included photographs of a Candy Darling doll who looks older than the real-life Candy ever did. McKenzie Wark writes of the show, “The taint of fragility and decay that seems sculpted into the unliving flesh of Lankton’s dolls offers a different read if you think of them from the point of view of trans femininity, as invoking an aging womanhood as almost an aspiration.”

Candy Darling cannot raise the dead, at least not literally. But the book restores humanity and nuance to a woman who we know as only an image. In her own time, Candy could not appreciate the kinds of trans solidarity that we know now sustains our ability to survive in harsh conditions; instead, she experienced grating, ceaseless transphobia, gradually chipping away at her soul. If there’s anything we can take away from her flawed, noble pursuit of crafting a beautiful life, it’s the refusal to deny oneself this opportunity, no matter how hard it gets. As Candy herself wrote: “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.”