The Transgender Icon of the 60s You Need To Know About

“I’m a thousand different people. Every one is real.”

She was an up-and-coming actress in Hollywood, a central figure in Andy Warhol’s Factory, and a muse of the Velvet Underground. Candy Darling was a fixed figure within the pop-culture scene of the late 60s and early 70s, who left her impact as a larger-than-life trans girl who “made it.” As one of the many trans women navigating the harsh world of media, Darling’s life and experiences seem to mirror what many of us struggle with on the daily: an acceptance of the realities of the heteronormative gaze, the desolation of a marginalized existence, and a paradox of being both seen and invisible. She represents an image that many of us know far too well. With the announcement of a biopic being made on her life, starring Hari Nef, I found myself pushed into her world, and felt compelled to understand who she was and how her story translates into our current media climate.

Hari Nef, Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Born in Queens in 1944, and subsequently raised in the suburbs of Long Island, Darling’s upbringing was quite different from the standard of mid-century American culture that was present at the time. Darling grew up with her mother, a divorcee who worked for a telephone company,  and her half-brother in a small bungalow. In her diary, Darling describes her father as “a violent alcoholic who spent a lot of time at the racetrack.” As a child, Darling’s family and community members noticed her display of feminine characteristics. She was obsessed with old Hollywood films and was known to impersonate the idols she saw on screen throughout her life. One of her biggest inspirations was Kim Novak, an actress who Darling began to stylize herself after as a teenager. After witnessing Candy dressing differently, Candy’s mother allegedly once told a friend, “I knew then…that I couldn’t stop [her]. Candy was just too beautiful and talented.”

Darling soon began to take the train into Manhattan to avoid being seen by her neighbors. She made Greenwich Village her second home, frequenting gay bars and beginning her transition. The neighborhood is also where she first met Andy Warhol, who would soon begin to cast her in his arthouse films. In Flesh (1968), she appears in a short cameo with fellow actress Jackie Curtis. In Women in Revolt (1971), she plays a socialite who joins a radical feminist organization. As she grew in notoriety, she even made appearances in films such as Klute (1971) and Lady Liberty (1971), starring Jane Fonda and Sophia Loren respectively. She worked on a few films in Europe in 1971, and even starred in a Tennessee Williams play. Candy was at the peak of her career.

Candy Darling in Women in Revolt (1971)

Candy’s success in the industry has been attributed to her charismatic aura, derived from her admiration of Classical-Hollywood starlets. In the words of David Wiegand, editor and critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, “Candy aimed not to be a grotesque parody of femininity but an idealized imitation.” She would practice in private, perfecting an arsenal of jokes and banter to use at social events. She would refer to her mother’s Long Island house as her “country house.” She named herself after her “love for sweets,” as reported by her friend and long-time roommate Jeremiah Newton. Yet, as glamorous as her lifestyle was, Darling was aware of the sense of gendered depression she would face throughout her life. In her diary, she writes: “There’s so many things I may not experience. I cannot go swimming, can’t visit relatives, can’t get a job, can’t have a boyfriend. I see so much of life I cannot have. I am living in a veritable prison.”

Darling tragically passed away from lymphoma in 1974. In a letter to Warhol and her close friends, she writes: “Unfortunately before my death I had no desire left for life . . . I am just so bored by everything. You might say bored to death.” I write of the sadness present in Candy’s life not to discourage trans identity or to present it as futile, but to highlight the ways in which trans womanhood requires a very particular method of navigation. The presence of pessimism within Candy’s writing indicates an ever-relevant aspect to the bearing of being transgender: escapism. A larger-than-life personality who magnified what it meant to be a star in the definitive post-modern sense, Candy lived her life through her constructed fantasies. She thrived with the attention she received, was highly referential in her mannerisms and her style, and understood that the alternative to her fantasies was the bleak reality for many trans women in midcentury America.

Peter Hujar, Candy Darling on her Deathbed, 1974, gelatin-silver print, 15 x 15 inches

I do wonder how Candy’s story will be presented within the context of our current media landscape. As we start to see a cultural convergence of media which depict multi-faceted women, in socially-divergent plots, with a prominence of hyperfeminine or “soft-core” aesthetics, how do we view and depict women who inhabit the space of tragedy and social neglect? With the mixed reaction that biopics have been receiving as of late, I am personally interested in experiencing the scope this film takes. I do hope that, unlike recent films that have disregarded the agency of their subjects in the name of art, Candy’s biopic allows her the respect and the stardom she cherished.

The film’s release date is yet to be determined, however, I would definitely recommend partaking in some of her filmography, along with the 2010 documentary Beautiful Darling made on her life which includes her diary entries, narrated by Chloë Sevigny, and interviews with many of her friends and colleagues.

Meera Sharma

Meera Sharma is a writer and cultural critic with a BA from Georgia State University in Film & Media Studies. Her work focuses on contextualizing history, theory, and identity to analyze contemporary media.

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