Transgender Icon Holly Woodlawn Fights for Life at Cedars-Sinai

Holly Woodlawn - H 2015
AP Images/Invision

Holly Woodlawn - H 2015

A crowdfunding campaign is well on its way toward raising $50,000 for the Andy Warhol "superstar."

She is a transgender icon five decades ahead of her time. Now Holly Woodlawn, among the most gifted and irrepressible of Andy Warhol's stable of "superstars," is fighting for her life at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Doctors there have found lesions on her liver and brain, but have not yet determined the cause. Woodlawn is too weak to undergo the biopsy that could offer a diagnosis.

A crowdfunding effort, mounted by longtime friend and collaborator Penny Arcadehas raised more than $37,000 in just four days – funds meant to grant Woodlawn's wish to spend her final days in her West Hollywood home. Donations would cover nursing care, and, should it come to that, funeral and burial expenses. Informed of the outpouring of support, Woodlawn was "gobsmacked" by the news, Arcade tells The Hollywood Reporter

"We just want to create an amount of money that can take care of Holly," says Arcade, confident the campaign will hit its $50,000 goal. "She gave of herself to the world, she inspired many, many people, she saved many lives and she entertained us. For all of that she deserves to be taken care of at her weakest."

Born Haroldo Danhakl in Puerto Rico in 1946 and raised in Miami Beach, Fla., Woodlawn was bullied relentlessly as a teenager. By 1962, she decided she'd had enough, and hitchhiked to New York City, a journey immortalized in the first lines of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side."

"Holly came from Miami, F.L.A.," the late rocker sings in the 1972 classic. "Hitchhiked her way across the U.S.A. Plucked her eyebrows on the way. Shaved her legs and then he was a she. She says, 'Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side.' "

Woodlawn chose Holly as a first name because she adored Holly Golightly, the mischievous society girl played by Audrey Hepburn in 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's. Her surname came years later, at the request of Warhol, who was determined to put her in his next film. ''We were watching this episode of I Love Lucy,'' Woodlawn told The New York Times in 2000. "And behind her was this sign on the No. 4 train, 'Woodlawn,' and we said: 'That's it. Holly...Wood. Holly Woodlawn.' ''

Warhol cast the passionate brunette as the tortured love interest to Joe Dallesandro's heroin-addict character in 1970's Trash, directed by Paul Morrissey. Her improvised performance so impressed George Cukor, the directing giant behind films such as The Philadelphia Story and My Fair Lady, that he mounted a write-in campaign to land her an Academy Award nomination. It never materialized.

Woodlawn and Arcade first met on the streets of Manhattan in 1968. They later became members of the Play-House of the Ridiculous — the "original queer, glitter-glam, political, rock-and-roll theater of the '60s." Warhol regularly enlisted the pair for things like "Rent a Superstar," in which they were paid to mingle with guests and add a pop of downtown fabulousness to society parties. They later appeared in 1971's Women in Revolt, another Warhol-Morrissey film collaboration.

Woodlawn always identified as transgender — something Arcade feels should be celebrated as the movement finally comes into its own. "With all of the attention that Caitlyn Jenner has gotten by stepping into the public arena for five minutes," she says, "people like Holly, who are the true pioneers, have been out and visible for almost 50 years."

Though Woodlawn's career sputtered in the 1970s — requiring her to move back to Miami in 1979 and temporarily work as a busser at a Benihana — it saw a resurgence with the rise of queer and indie cinema in the 1990s, during which she popped up in films such as Twin Falls Idaho and Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss. Woodlawn headlined her own cabaret act as recently as 2013.

"Holly and I come from a long line of people that doesn't have too many left standing," says Arcade. "She was fierce."