The photo of Candy Darling on her death bed has always haunted me.
I think the first time I ever saw it was when it served as the cover for Antony & The Johnson’s album I Am A Bird Now – too bad I didn’t like the music much (I just can’t do his voice at all.) There is something so eerily calm about the photo, yet it is also terrifying.
Yesterday when I was looking for something to watch on Netflix I came across the documentary Beautiful Darling which chronicles Candy Darling’s life from the perspective of her friend Jeremiah Newton. Candy Darling was one of Andy Warhol’s Superstars. She was also biologically a he, born James Slattery in 1944. When Candy came to New York in the 1960s, a man could be arrested for wearing a dress in public as a “female impersonation” law existed on the books. It was a completely different world – yet, it was the logical place that for LGBT people to go when trying to escape their small towns. This was all pre-Stonewall – differences were not appreciated.
While the focus of the documentary was on Darling’s time in New York working out of Warhol’s Factory, I found the look back to her childhood to be the most poignant. I cannot imagine how she must have felt as a young man growing up on Long Island in the 50s, knowing that something just wasn’t right. As society moves toward the next-next civil rights movement – applying the rights won by gays and lesbians to trans people – I wonder what Darling would think were she alive today. To be having a conversation about this on a national level, even if it is in its infancy, would seem to be almost unthinkable to her.
I was also, as expected, totally drawn in by New York in the 60s and 70s. It is a grittier, dirtier New York than the sanitized one we get today. It was probably quite a bit more dangerous as well so perhaps my glamorizing of it is not quite in line with the reality. I don’t know tons about Andy Warhol and The Factory, and it was interesting to get a mini-education on where that fits in the pop culture.
But mostly, I felt bad for Candy. She developed lymphoma – most likely from the estrogens she took – and died at the age of 29. According to the documentary, Candy was extremely sick when the famous photo of her on her death bed was taken. It’s almost as if she had already died when the photo was taken.
She was never really all that famous in her own right and she certainly was not wealthy, but her story is nonetheless fascinating. She may have been the first stop toward bringing drag culture out of the closet. The movie is a bit of a hard watch sometimes, but ultimately worth it. Beautiful Darling is streaming on Netflix now so you have no excuse to not watch it.