“Everyone thinks Andy Warhol made me a superstar, but it was Paul Morrissey who put me in ‘Trash,’” Holly Woodlawn was saying by telephone from West Hollywood, Calif., in the days after Lou Reed’s death in October 2013.Holly was a war horse of the Warhol era, a rare survivor from a group whose most incandescent talents burned hard and burned out fast. She left an indelible stamp on underground films like “Trash” and “Women in Revolt,” and was a talented if eccentric cabaret performer and an erstwhile heroine of the transgender movement. Yet she had few illusions about what would constitute her claim on posterity.“‘Walk on the Wild Side’ made me immortal, honey,” she said, “for what that’s worth.”By the time that phone call took place, Woodlawn had been ill for some time with the liver cancer that this week claimed her life at age 69. She had long since fallen on hard times, career opportunities for aged Warhol superstars being what they are. “All I do these days is drink wine and smoke electronic cigarettes,” she said, letting loose a throaty cackle.
“Everyone thought I was going to be the first to go,” she added, referring to her extended downtown cohort. “Ha ha, I fooled them all!”The mordant humor, impeccable comic timing and matchless deadpan that Holly Woodlawn brought so vividly to the screen as a welfare cheat married to Joe Dallessandro’s heroin addict in “Trash,” and as man-hating nymphomaniac fashion model in “Women in Revolt,” was never really an act. Holly was that loopy in life.The character in “Trash” with eyebrows penciled on to resemble existential question marks, the one who stuffed a pillow under her sweater in order to dupe a caseworker into thinking she was pregnant and adding her to the welfare rolls, was actually drawn from her own experience.It was Holly, after all, who, as she wrote in her 1991 memoir, “A Low Life in High Heels: The Holly Woodlawn Story,” changed her name from Haroldo Danhakl, hitchhiked to New York from Miami at 16 and fell in with a group of prostitutes of any and every gender (led by a ringleader with the unappetizing pseudonym Porky), turning tricks and buying 25-cent lipsticks from subway vending machines, living off the streets and “wondering when my next meal was coming.”Unlike those in the Warhol orbit like Brigid Berlin or Baby Jane Holzer or Edie Sedgwick, girls with upper-class backgrounds and private incomes, Holly did not hail from what she called “the aristocratic.” Hers was a different kind of aristocracy, one formed not from bloodlines but brazen moxie, heedlessness in the face of convention and determination to claim for herself the glamorous existence denied her by some obvious misalignment of fate.“Honey, I told everyone I was the heiress of Woodlawn Cemetery,” she once remarked to me between takes in some mercifully long-forgotten underground movie. Of course, she repeated that story to anyone who’d listen, never expecting anyone to believe it.“I can’t lie,” Holly Woodlawn said in 2013, between drags on a vape pen.“I’m a lousy liar, honey,” she said, but her truth was more potent than a thousand shrewdly concocted celebrity fictions.“You can’t take everything too heavy in life,” Holly said at the time, musing aloud about how she would attend memorial services for Mr. Reed when she hardly had bus fare. “Listen, you have to have a real sense of humor to get through this life,” she said then. “I mean, honey, get real.”