[Editor’s note: Like the universe, we mourn the loss of the inimitable Holly Woodlawn. Back in December 2003, A&U’s Ruby Comer caught up with the actress and advocate.]
[dropcap]Y[/dropcap]a know, writing a monthly column doesn’t elevate one to a member of the idle rich. That’s why when Ms. Ruby needs some new threads, she joyfully darts to one of the grandest bargain stores around: Out of the Closet. With good timing and a bit of luck, one might find a precious set of pearls owned by Elizabeth Taylor, or a fedora worn by Bruce Willis. Out of The Closet sells furniture, albums, collectibles of every sort, and all proceeds go to the medical care of people living with HIV. Established in 1990 by AIDS Healthcare Foundation, it’s grown to twenty outlets in California. (Certain stores even provide free HIV testing in private quarters.)
On this particular sun-drenched Saturday, I speed down Santa Monica Boulevard toward West Hollywood to my girlfriend’s apartment so we can shop together. You might know Holly Woodlawn as one of Andy Warhol’s Factory clan. She also starred in his movie, Trash (she was paid $125), which should have won her, at least, an Academy Award nod. (Director, George Cukor campaigned for her nomination, but the Screen Actors Guild wouldn’t honor it because she was transgender.) Lou Reed immortalized her in his classic song, “Walk on the Wild Side.” In 1991, Holly penned her autobiography, A Low Life in High Heels (St. Martin’s Press), which will soon be made into a movie. Holly has been on the AIDS front lines from the beginning, by volunteering, performing, and donating to many AIDS causes.
As planned, Holly is waiting outside dressed in her snazzy pink pedal pushers and leather blouse. We drive a couple of blocks to Out of the Closet and, after making our usual grand entrance, we paw through the abundant clothing racks.
Ruby Comer: What was Andy really like, Cookie?
Holly Woodlawn: Dull and boring [she states matter-of-factly while she grabs a skirt, drapes it on her hips, and checks it in the mirror].You know, I really didn?t know him all that well. I came late to The Factory.
If I remember correctly, your first encounter with the AIDS epidemic was when you were living in New York, performing “The Screaming Violets” down in the Village with Hibiscus (aka George Harris, whose life is documented in the film The Cockettes).
Oh, yes, honey. From nowhere he got pneumonia. A week later he was in the hospital and a week after that he was dead.
Yes, I was also living in New York in the early eighties and remember the flyers they passed around advertising a benefit for Hibiscus. But before they could stage it, he died. His death left me cold and confused.
Oh, god I know! After that, people were—I don’t mean to make light of it—dropping like flies.
How many friends have you lost to this disease, girlfriend?
I couldn’t even begin to count [she says slowly, distinctly, and with deep sorrow].
And just how do you confront those many losses?
It’s really tough. I?ve been to so many funerals and memorials?[she stumbles for words]. I can’t deal with coffins, the crying. After a time, I wouldn’t even go to a funeral. Memorials I’ll attend, not funerals. I mean you can only be so strong emotionally.
You wonder, “Why them? Why not me?!?” You feel guilty; it’s just emotionally draining. And all the talent that is gone!
So sad. Yeah. And Broadway recently opened a new show, The Boy From Oz, about Peter Allen [the Australian entertainer who died of AIDS in 1992]. Hugh Jackman plays the lead. Did you know Peter?
Oh, god, honey. I worked with him at Reno Sweeney’s cabaret in New York. I loved Peter. He was amazing. He had so much energy!
I know you’re very proud of your Latin roots, and as you know, sadly, HIV infection is hitting Latinos and the teen community hard. What do we say to make them listen?
[With a surprised look, shouting] Use a rubber, you fool! [The girls at the cash register glance our way quizzically.] What else can you say?! Years ago, a dear friend of mine, a Latino stage and film star died of AIDS—the public never knew—and his last words to me were: “The closet will be my coffin.” That machismo bullshit kept him from being who he really was.
That macho attitude cost lives.
Indeed. It’s a killer. Literally. [She shakes her head in disgust.] Another friend of mine, Robert Starr, compiled essays by American teens, and turned it into a book, AIDS: Why Should I Care? It’s a wonderful, touching read. It should be in every school in the world.
Oh, it’s a beautiful piece of work. Yes, teens aren’t going to listen to us old farts but they will definitely perk up for a peer.
God, girl, I hope and pray for a cure—soon!
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].