Who Was Sugar Plum Fairy?

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Harvey Milk and Joe Campbell

"Sugar Plum Fairy came and hit the streets
Looking for soul food and a place to eat...."
– Lou Reed, Walk on the Wild Side

"Walk on the Wild Side" was a big hit for singer/songwriter Lou Reed. Released on November 8, 1972, the single was from Reed's second album "Transformer." Considered quite shocking at the time, "Walk on the Wild Side" made direct references to homosexuality, transgenderism (then called transexuality), oral sex and male prostitution.

The song was inspired by the people Reed met during the time he spent in Andy Warhol's "factory." Warhol was a prominent artist and filmmaker who, during the 1960s, hired various kinds of fringe street people – hustlers, drag queens, and addicts – whom he dubbed "superstars" when he filmed them for his no budget, shot on grainy 16mm "epics." Often improvised, these films explored the seedier side of New York underground life. "Superstars" like Holly Woodlawn and Joe Dallesandro usually played characters based upon themselves. Other "superstars" had no qualms about appearing on camera while strung out on drugs. Audiences were mesmerized as films like "Trash," "Flesh" and "Women in Revolt" attracted a great deal of attention.

For over thirty years, one questioned remained about the "superstars" which Reed paid homage to in "Walk on the Wild Side." Who was "Sugar Plum Fairy?" He was the only character in the song not mentioned by name.

Sugar Plum Fairy was Joe Campbell (1936-2005). In 1955, at age 19, he met a young, closeted Harvey Milk, who became his first boyfriend. Milk, of course, went on to become a gay rights legend – he was the first openly gay man in California to hold elective office. Milk served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for less than a year before being assassinated in November, 1978.

Campbell and Milk were together in New York for seven years. After they broke up Campbell began hanging around with the Warhol "factory" crowd. In 1965 he played a character called "Sugar Plum Fairy" in the Warhol film "My Hustler."

Campbell was a decidedly minor player in the Warhol filmography, and is more of interest to historians because of his relationship with Milk and his late 1960s relationship with Oliver "Billy" Sipple. Sipple made headlines in 1975 when then President Gerald Ford was speaking in New York's Union Square – it was Sipple who grabbed the gun away from attempted Ford assassin Sarah Jane Moore, thereby saving the President's life.

Campbell eventually left New York and settled into a quiet life in Marin County, California. In 1993 he donated some of the letters he received from Harvey Milk to the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society in San Francisco. Some of those letters are now available for viewing at the San Francisco Public Library website.

Joe Campbell died on October 2, 2005. Stanley Jensen, his partner of 29 years was at his side.


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