“The trans community knows who she is, and she means a lot to them.” Cynthia Carr is talking about Candy Darling, the Warhol superstar who posed for photographers like Richard Avedon and Peter Hujar and appeared in underground films and alternative theater before her tragic death at the age of 29 in 1974. This transgender pioneer—too little known outside LGBTQ+ circles—is the subject of Carr’s new book, Candy Darling: Dreamer, Icon, Superstar (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 19), which comes more than a decade after her acclaimed biography of artist David Wojnarowicz, another marginalized figure whose cultural contributions might easily have been forgotten. Carr was an arts reporter for the Village Voice from 1984 to 2003, and her love for and deep knowledge of the downtown Manhattan art scene distinguishes both books. Carr spoke with Kirkus on Zoom from her New York apartment; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

After Fire in the Belly, how did you settle on Candy Darling as the subject for your next book?

I was asked to do it by her friend, Jeremiah Newton. We’d both been part of this Lower East Side award ceremony, the Acker Awards, for people who are keeping the bohemian spirit alive. Jeremiah got an award for his documentary, Beautiful Darling, about Candy. I got an award for my book about David Wojnarowicz. Jeremiah called me the next day and said, “I don’t know who you are, but when I saw you onstage, I thought, You’re the one who should write the biography of Candy.” I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to do it, but I went over to talk to him, and he showed me that he had a lot of her journals and letters and rare photos.

What really got to me was the odd dichotomy in Candy’s life: She’s going to all these big-deal Manhattan parties with famous people; Warhol loves her; she’s going to Mick Jagger’s birthday party. And then she goes back to her [mother’s] home in Massapequa Park [Long Island], where she’s been told, “Wait till it’s dark before you come home. Don’t let anyone see you. Don’t answer the door.” I could connect with the pathos, or something, and I decided to give it a try. I never thought it was going to take me 10 years, for sure!

Candy’s life must have been challenging to research and to document.

Part of it was the fact that she never had a place to live in her life. I mean, she had a home base in Massapequa Park, and she lived for months at a time with certain friends. But she never really had her own place, so her stuff was scattered all over. Thank god Jeremiah had given some of it to the Andy Warhol Museum already; I spent two weeks in their archive. There were a few things at the La MaMa [Experimental Theater Club] archive. There was some at Lincoln Center—I had to look at lots of different archives. She did have journals and letters, although sometimes they’re not dated.

I interviewed over 90 people. I don’t even know how many times I interviewed Jeremiah, but the [transcript] of his interviews is longer than the book itself. I also had Jeremiah’s interviews, which he did mostly in the ’70s, right after Candy died. They’re [with] really crucial people like her mother, and the woman who hired her at the beauty parlor after she left high school, and off-off Broadway director Tom Eyen. Most of these people were dead by the time I started [working on the book].

I was struck by how many people talk about Candy’s ethereal glow. She was every inch the star.

She created this whole persona and this image of someone who was not working-class, for one. Someone who was part of the crowd, going to the big parties. It’s one reason she never talked about her childhood—even with Jeremiah, and he was a close friend. She would talk about her place in Massapequa Park as “my country home.”

I never met her. I didn’t move to New York until the late ’70s, and she died in ’74. But from what people say, she seems to have been riveting onstage. It seems like she really did have talent. Tom Eyen thought she was great in at least one of his plays, Give My Regards to Off-Off Broadway. He said she could do no wrong.

I loved the chapter about Candy’s involvement in the 1971 production of Jackie Curtis’ Vain Victory. The play sounds completely gonzo, in the best possible way.

I see the book as a kind of cultural history. It’s about the beginnings of off-off Broadway, and all these early Warhol films, and the beginnings of the women’s movement, the beginnings of the gay movement. It was important to me to get that off-off Broadway stuff in there. Jeremiah said he saw Vain Victory five times, and it was never the same from night to night. I saw an Esther Williams movie—let’s add an underwater ballet! There was a weird moment when they were actually thinking about bringing it to Broadway, but Jackie utterly refused, because it would have to be the same every night. Overall, the book has a lot of tragic stuff in it, but also humor, a lot of it coming from that kind of thing—just what you could do and get away with, what you could try. There was space for it. I love that. Those days are gone.

Was there anything that surprised you in researching Candy’s life?

The thing that most surprised me was her interest in Christian Science—that was a shock to me. But it turns out she was trying to find some kind of spiritual path for many years of her life. She had been raised Catholic, and that wasn’t going to work, so she was looking for something else, starting with preachers who talked about self-empowerment, leading on to what I call the metaphysical, where you can control your body with your mind, which is part of Christian Science. I have her Mary Baker Eddy book; it has her underlinings, things she wrote in pink ink. “Only two genders? I believe more than two exist.” That’s interesting, because she never talked about gender. She never talked about being what then would have been called transsexual. She never even said that word, as far as I can tell. But she was definitely thinking about it. She kept so much hidden.

The book is landing at a moment of widespread transphobia.

As you know from my days at the Voice, I wrote about the last culture war [in the early ’90s], when the right wing was attacking performance artists and other artists. And now they're attacking transgender people, [who have] become the scapegoats in this newer culture war. I dedicated the book to the trans community, and I hope that maybe it can play some part in showing people what it is to live that life. [Trans people] are a minority—they’re misunderstood, and it’s easy to lie about them. That's what’s going on now with these attacks. It’s horrifying.

Tom Beer is the editor-in-chief.