book excerpt

The Genderqueer Tale of “Take a Walk on the Wild Side”’s Jackie Curtis

Jackie Curtis (left) and Kristian Hoffman (right) at Pat Loud’s apartment, circa 1974. Photo: Courtesy Kristian Hoffman

Jackie Curtis was one of Andy Warhol’s Superstars a somewhat ironic term, to be sure: being an East Village drag performer in the 1960s and 1970s wasn’t a career track that led all that often to opulent Hollywood fame and fortune (though track marks were not uncommon.) But a tinsely renown didn’t entirely elude Curtis, a playwright, poet, and genderqueer performer, who died in 1985, at 38, of a heroin overdose. She’s immortalized in Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” (“Jackie is just speeding away / Thought she was James Dean for a day / Then I guess she had to crash…”) and the 2004 documentary, Superstar in a Housedress. And now her story, among many others from that fabled, filthy, fabulous lost downtown before gentrification sent the all the weird and interesting young people across the river and five or six subway stops into Brooklyn, is told again in The Downtown Pop Underground, a meticulously catalogued there are endnotes! new book by Kembrew McLeod, a University of Iowa professor, from which this excerpt was adapted. 

Jackie Curtis loved the limelight.

A Lower East Side slum kid, born John Curtis Holder Jr., Jackie was raised in a quasi-criminal atmosphere by an aunt, Josephine Preston, and his grandmother, who everybody called Slugger Ann. Born Ann Uglialoro, she owned a bar named Slugger Ann’s on Second Avenue and 12th Street, and earned her nickname after working as a taxi dancer in a Times Square dance hall (where lonely guys paid female companions for a dance). “You were supposed to keep your hands raised and you weren’t supposed to get fresh,” performer Agosto Machado remembers. “She was famous because this man kept his hand on her ass, so she slugged him and knocked him down — which is how she became Slugger Ann.”

Slugger Ann’s was a dimly lit working class shots-and-beer joint with a few tables. “Jackie really grew up in the bar,” said Melba LaRose, the star of Jackie Curtis’s play, Glamour, Glory, and Gold. “Slugger Ann was a great old babe, loudmouthed. She obviously had been a beauty in her day, a sexy beauty. Bleached hair, and a feisty personality, great fun.” She would sometimes have a half dozen Chihuahuas stuffed inside her low-cut dress, propped up by her enormous breasts.

Jackie sometimes tended the bar in jeans and a white T-shirt with a cigarette pack rolled up in a sleeve, and other times in a shredded dress. “It wasn’t a gay crowd or a drag queen crowd, but sometimes Jackie was tending bar in drag,” LaRose remembers. “But if any customers would have said anything about Jackie, Slugger Ann would have punched them out. She was very protective of Jackie.”

“I never thought of him as a woman,” LaRose said. “He went back and forth so many times. When I met Jackie, he was a little boy with a shopping bag. He had bangs. He was very cute.”

“Sometimes he’d kind of have a James Dean style, but ragged,” playwright Robert Heide said of Curtis, “and other times Jackie would dress as Barbara Stanwyck. She would look really good in a red wig or that kind of thing.”

It was a defiant stance, which today we might call nonbinary. As Curtis herself put it: “I’m not a boy, not a girl, not a faggot, not a drag queen, not a transsexual — I’m just me, Jackie.”

She looked like a man in a dress: a little stubble or a beard, torn stockings, trashed dresses, smeared makeup, and plenty of body odor.

Curtis was constantly broke, and even when she got something nice, it tended to get messed up. “They would get rips and things in them,” recalled her friend, the performer Jayne County, “and she really didn’t have the money to buy new ones, so she would just continue to wear them and they’d get more and more holes in them. Finally, they were just kind of rags on her legs. They became works of art. Sometimes she would put them together with safety pins, not because she was trying to be cute, but because she was really trying to keep the dress together. It became a style and a fashion, but she was the first person I ever saw to wear that style.”

Curtis loved 1930s dresses, which could then be found in thrift stores or by raiding Slugger Ann’s and Aunt Josie’s closets. One time, when a neighbor passed away, Jackie crawled through the window onto the building ledge and broke into the deceased woman’s apartment, bringing back an entire wardrobe of black Italian dresses, shoes, and accessories.

“Jackie was blowing up the idea of gender,” LaRose observed. “When he was a boy he liked to look really rough: saddle shoes or other big shoes, vest sweaters like a boy jock.” Machado recalled, “With Jackie, you never knew what she was going to wear or what she was going to do, but she had a force of personality.”

Bruce Eyster met Curtis at Max’s Kansas City, the Warhol hangout. Eyster recalled that being with Curtis was akin to running around with Harpo Marx in a slapstick comedy — like one time when they needed to cross a busy street and Jackie hailed a taxi, then crawled through the cab’s backseat and came out the other side, then crawled through the back of another car, and then another. “We did four cars to get across the street instead of just taking the crosswalk,” Eyster said. “He was just so hilarious. Jackie would walk into a room and you could feel the electricity. He really did have a movie star quality about him.” Kristian Hoffman, whose band the Mumps would later become regulars at Max’s and CBGB, vividly remembered the time when someone asked Curtis to do something “camp” for them. “Camp? I’ll give you camp,” Curtis shouted. “CONCENTRATION CAMP!”

One of Curtis’ close friends was Candy Darling, who also is immortalized in “Walk on the Wild Side” (“Candy came from out on the Island/ in the back room she was everybody’s darling”). Born James Slattery, Darling grew up in Massapequa Park, Long Island, before moving to New York. Hanging out on the stoops or in the parks, she would often be invited back to people’s apartments in the hope that she could inject a little glamour into their evenings. “Candy looked beautiful,” Jane Wagner recalled, “like she just stepped out of a movie.”

When they met, Curtis quickly took Darling under her wing and, one evening, brought the new arrival to a friend’s apartment. “I would like you to meet this boy that just arrived in town,” Curtis told him. “His name is James, but we’re going to call him Candy — Candy Darling. And Candy Darling is never going home again.”

“Maybe Candy actually was transgender, but in the beginning we didn’t think of Candy as a woman, or someone who was trying to be a woman,” recalls another friend, Tony Zanetta. “Candy was a boy who was being a star. He recreated himself in the guise of Lana Turner or Kim Novak. Candy’s life was performance art about stardom, more than anything. We were attracted to the movies, but we were especially attracted to the stars.”

Curtis and Darling first met Warhol on the Greenwich Village streets, asking for an autograph and inviting him to his play Glamour, Glory, and Gold. “Walking just ahead of us was a boy about nineteen or twenty with wispy Beatle bangs,” Warhol recalled, “and next to him was a tall, sensational blonde drag queen in very high heels and a sundress that she had made sure had one strap falling onto her upper arm. ” Warhol loved Curtis’s show and provided a publicity blurb — “For the first time, I wasn’t bored” — which led to parts for Curtis and Darling in Warhol’s Flesh.

Curtis, Darling, and another newcomer, Holly Woodlawn, appeared in many Warhol films, on cabaret stages, and in underground theater productions. Woodlawn, born Haroldo Santiago Franceschi Rodriguez Danhaki, was also name-checked by Lou Reed: “Holly came from Miami, F-L-A/ hitchhiked her way across the USA/ plucked her eyebrows along the way/ shaved her legs and then he was a she.” (In fact, Holly took the bus to New York.) “Through Jackie, I would end up at Max’s with Jackie and Candy and Holly,” Eyster recalled. “They were all very funny in different ways and had their own take on things. Holly was kind of like the Martha Raye comedienne slapstick girl.”

Ruby Lynn Reyner also hung out with all three, and would act out scenes from 1940s movies and 1950s televisions shows with them. “They knew all the dialogue from old Kim Novak movies, Joan Crawford movies, or I Love Lucy,” she said. “We’d switch off playing the roles. Jackie and I would always fight over who would be Lucy and who would be Ethel. Oh, and Holly and I had adventures together. We used to wear these old vintage 1930s nightgowns and wander through the East Village, clinging together in the night. One time she came to answer the door and she was just out of the shower and she had a big dick. I couldn’t believe it. I always thought of Holly as my girlfriend.”

Machado remembered Woodlawn as a very open, childlike, and loving friend. “One of the things people noted was her vulnerability,” he said. “She didn’t have that protective armor, but Holly was so much fun and so good-spirited.” Woodlawn, Darling, and Curtis were sometimes homeless and crashed where they could, making their destitute surroundings glamorous through sheer force of will. Sometimes they were allowed to stay in a place behind Slugger Ann’s, a little studio apartment with crumbling concrete steps that led to the door. Aside from a mattress for Curtis, it was filled with books, photos of movie stars tacked to the walls, and notebooks of Curtis’s writings.

Glamour, Glory, and Gold was a send-up of Hollywood melodramas. LaRose played the lead role as Nola Noon, an amalgam of movie stars like Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford. The play began with Noon working in a burlesque house. LaRose walked onstage wearing nine feather boas and started throwing glitter. “It was everywhere,” she said. “The set was covered with sparkles and glitter.” The character then became a big Hollywood star, and ended with LaRose’s character mock-tragically walking into the ocean as the Warsaw Concerto played.

The show’s title came from Lady Bird Johnson: once she crossed paths with an extravagantly dressed Jackie Curtis at Lincoln Center. The story goes, she saw Curtis and exclaimed: “Oh my. Glamour, glory, and gold.”

“Jackie wanted to write something that was a comedic takeoff on all those Hollywood stars of the thirties,” LaRose said. “We were trying to make those movies our own.”

“I think we all came from very dysfunctional backgrounds, and we just sort of lived through those films,” LaRose said. “There was, of course, all the glamour and we genuinely loved all that—the makeup, the clothes, the feathers, the glitter. It was the beginning of camp. We thought we were really living out these parts onstage and in life, so we didn’t think of it as campy. It was a style that we created. Everything was larger than life, but still had reality in it, and it still had something in it that we really believed. It wasn’t just clowning.”

Curtis and her friends knowingly appropriated these products of the culture industry. She also appropriated the clothes for Glamour, Glory, and Gold from the closets of Slugger Ann and Aunt Josie. When the cast burst onstage during opening night, the two stood up and shouted, “They stole our fucking clothes!”

Glamour, Glory, and Gold served as the stage debut of both Candy Darling and a young actor named Robert De Niro, who played all the male roles in the show. Even before Darling transformed herself from a brunette into a peroxide blonde goddess with blue eye shadow, false eyelashes, and an icy wit, she could play a convincing woman. New York Times theater critic Dan Sullivan was fooled, writing in a review: “A skinny actress billed as Candy Darling also made an impression; hers was the first female impersonation of a female impersonator that I have ever seen.” Darling even convinced aging film director Busby Berkeley that she was a woman during an open audition for a Broadway show he was involved in. Darling wore a black 1930s dress with leaping gazelles, while Curtis looked decidedly less femme in a ratty raincoat, torn stockings, and glitter-damaged face. Darling and Curtis were cooing and talking to the director, who took one look and said to Darling, “If it’s based on looks alone, you’ll get it.” He had no idea Darling was in drag.

Curtis, who was always writing, quickly followed his theatrical debut with a musical, Lucky Wonderful. She also starred in it. Paul Serrato composed the music. He also composed music for Curtis’s biggest underground hit, 1971’s Vain Victory, and he later did a cabaret act with Holly Woodlawn.

Lucky Wonderful included a lovely bossa nova number, “My Angel,” along with the sultry “White Shoulders, Black and Blue” (the song was later revived in Vain Victory for Candy Darling to sing). The songs were fairly low-key, though the acting was wildly animated. “Jackie wrote things with tremendous energy,” LaRose said, “and each show was only an hour and ten minutes straight through. It was high, high octane energy.” The cast started taking amphetamine pills, Dexamyl, and drinking backstage — anything to keep the energy up for the shows. “So it was easy to gravitate into drinking and drugs, and I was seeing people getting worse, and I was caught up in it myself,” LaRose said. “So I just decided to take an escape and leave town.”

Jackie Curtis’s next play was Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit. She wrote it while touring with John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous, which appeared at the Pornography and Censorship Conference at the University of Notre Dame (ironically, their show was censored by university officials during the conference). “Everybody went there,” Vaccaro said. “Allen Ginsberg, we all went, and I did a show called The Life of Lady Godiva. We took a train to South Bend, and on the train Jackie wrote Heaven Grand, speeding out of his mind. He got the names of the character from a racing form.”

The script was written in a large wallpaper sample book that was covered with Curtis’s tiny handwriting, filling the margins. Like many of his scripts, it was littered with references to old movies, television shows, and a random assortment of other pop culture ephemera, including the 1958 TV movie The Secret Life of Adolf Hitler, TV Guide magazine, All About Eve, a menu from Howard Johnson’s, Gone with the Wind, The Ten Commandments, The Wizard of Oz, and the surf rock group Dick Dale and His Del-Tones thrown in for good measure.

“Jackie was a force of nature,” recalled Heaven Grand cast member Penny Arcade. “When we met I was speeding out of my mind, and so was Jackie. She was a very interesting combination of a completely self-absorbed narcissistic personality who also had a huge heart and a tremendously curious mind.” Many of the lines in the play were borrowed from old films and television sitcoms, though a lot also came from what Curtis witnessed on the streets of downtown New York. The main character was partially based on a demented person he had seen wandering through a store shouting, “FASCINATION!”

Newsweek even published a glowing review: “What this is can only be experienced, and seeing Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit is seeing an explosion of pure theatrical energy unconfined by any effete ideas of form, content, structure, or even rationality. It is an insanely intense, high-velocity, high-decibel circus, costume ball, and scarifying super-ritual in which transvestism, scatology, obscenity, camp, self-assertion, self-deprecation, gallows humor, cloacal humor, sick humor, healthy humor, and cutting, soaring song all blast off through the tiny, backless-benched theater.”

Vaccaro played Princess Ninga Flinga, an aspiring actress whose career was hampered by the fact that her arms were cut off at the elbows, and the show featured designed-to-offend songs such as “Thalidomide Baby” and “In God’s Shitty Lap.” As for the plot, Reyner summed it up thus: “The show was nonsensical.” She recalled that when Curtis brought the script to Vaccaro, “it was nothing but gibberish. It was a litany, a mishmash — dialogue that was taken from old movies and transposed into a play.” Vaccaro had to make sense out of it, so he set it in a carnival sideshow filled with bizarre characters. He liked directing plays that made little sense, because he could imbue them with his own brand of social satire. “With Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit,” Arcade said, “once again, John took that play and made it into something entirely different, which had nothing to do with anything that Jackie had planned.”

Vaccaro also added original music. “I turned everything into musicals,” he said. “I did a lot of changing. I was very creative, but not everyone liked to have their plays fucked with.” Vaccaro was one of the originators of rock ’n’ roll theatrical music, though others would go on to greater renown (Gerry Ragni and Jim Rado, the cocreators of Hair came to Play-House shows and soaked up ideas). “Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit had great songs,” Michael Arian recalled, “like ‘He’s Got the Biggest Balls in Town.’ It was all pretty extreme. It was exceptional, and really spoke to the time.” The song “Freakin’ On In” was definitely of the moment — a kind of musical manifesto of the East Village scene:

We were “exceptional children”

“Under-achievers” so it seems …

We were born to be looked at

Street stars on side-show screen

Now we’re full fledged freaks, folks

Our Christmas is your Halloween

“It was pretty psychedelic,” Zanetta said, “with all the bright color and the
glitter in the show.” Vaccaro was deeply influenced by visual art, and his shows were akin to living paintings composed of flesh, colorful makeup, and brightly lit glitter. “Heaven Grand was the most incredibly entertaining piece of theater I’ve ever seen,” Arian added. “It was total non sequitur and was as funny as funny could be.” He first saw it while high on LSD, when the cast passed around a dead fish throughout the night just to see what the next person would do with it. “And boy, I got to tell you,” Arian said, “it was really entertaining. It was a sensory overload for real.” Adding to the surreal scene was the venue where Heaven Grand premiered—a funeral home-turned-theater in the midtown district.

“Jackie was a nice person,” Vaccaro said, “but she was very screwed up with drugs.” Some would say the same about Vaccaro, but what really stirred up trouble between the two was their diverging choice of mind-altering substances: Curtis was a speed freak, and Vaccaro’s go-to drug was marijuana. During the Heaven Grand rehearsals, the mercurial Vaccaro grew frustrated with Curtis — who played the lead character, Heaven Grand — after she showed up late and a bit out of it. “I’m going to kick your ass!!!” Vaccaro would shout, until one day he fired the playwright from her own show. “They were always having these horrible fights,” Reyner said, “and so finally he just turned to me and said, ‘You’re playing Heaven Grand.’ ”

The fallout between Vaccaro and Curtis blurred the lines between high drama, slapstick comedy, gangster movies, and real life — Vaccaro ranted every day that he was going to have Curtis killed (it was rumored that the Italian director had ties to the mob). “I’m gonna call Joey Gallo,” he would scream. “I’m gonna break Jackie’s legs!” Curtis hid out at an Avenue B loft belonging to painter Larry Rivers, and Arcade would stop by after rehearsals. “It was totally insane,” Arcade said. “I mean, Jackie was terrified of Vaccaro, but it was also kind of a joke. Like it was both, a joke and it was real. Reality, per se, didn’t exist.”

Meet the author: October 23, 6:30pm, with Bibbe Hansen, Mary Lou Harris, and Cynthia Carr. October 24, 6pm, with Agosto Machado and Lisa Jane Persky.

The Genderqueer Tale of Jackie Curtis