This kid, just another New York City street freak with an electric violin, figures he’s going to be a superstar. Somebody has told him how to get in touch with Andy Warhol at his studio off Union Square called “The Factory.” (No real problem, actually. He’s listed in the phone book, but who would think to look up a legend in the phone book?)
The audition is arranged, and the young violinist emerges from behind a cardboard backdrop to face Andy Warhol’s video cameraman, Vince Fremont. Then—oh, my God—he sees Warhol himself walk into the corner of the giant loft. The kid is wearing a helmet from which protrude two wires wrapped in foil, antennas, he says, for picking up his alpha waves.
It amuses Andy Warhol to meet the mighty or an acolyte, dry-mouthed in the presence of an idol, with the same even informality. “Oh, hi,” says Andy, affectless, extending a diffident hand. If it’s Halston or Jimmy Carter or Bianca Jagger, Andy may offer an extra pleasantry: “I just loved your (collection/speech/Mick). It was”—Warhol’s favorite adjective—”great.” But from there on it’s up to Halston, Carter, Bianca or the kid with the antennas on his head to continue the exchange. Instead he picks up the violin and begins sawing away in front of the camera. Although they are separated by only six feet, Warhol watches him on the TV monitor.
As he stands in the shadows watching Antenna Boy on screen, Warhol’s chrome-colored hair glows. His face is spotted with adolescent acne. He is a boyish if silver-haired 48.
Had Campbell’s Soup not designed the can which became his most famous painting and the central icon of the pop ’60s, Andy Warhol wouldn’t have either. He is passive. For 15 years he has sifted through the lives around him for the images and ideas he makes into art. Antenna headgear, however, will not replace tomato soup this season. “It sounds great,” says Andy, turning on his heel halfway through the audition and leaving the uncertain violinist to the video camera’s one-eyed stare.
“Before I was shot, I always thought I was more half-there than all-there—I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life…. Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television.” Andy Warhol, 1975.
Warhol is in front of a set watching As the World Turns. His consuming passion is to turn on the world with a talk show of his own. What would Warhol call it? “Nothing Special.”
“We’ve been shot down by the networks so far,” explains Bob Colacello, a Factory honcho who edits Warhol’s trendy Interview magazine. “We refuse to do cable. A local station is nibbling. But it’s really only halfway between a dream and a reality.”
Meanwhile there is Bad, the latest Warhol film and the first produced with a Hollywood-sized budget. “It cost a million and a quarter,” Warhol discloses in an unusual burst of cost-consciousness.
Bad has already been delivered to distributors for its European premiere. With Baby Doll Carroll Baker in the lead—of course, “She’s great”—the film is set in a Queens apartment where Baker runs an electrolysis business in a back room while her mother chain-smokes away her life after a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. Baker moonlights as capo of an all-girl hit gang for hire.
“I throw a baby out of the window of a high-rise apartment,” says Susan Blond, a rock industry gadabout, in describing her motion picture debut. “You have to get twins,” she explains, “because after three hours the baby gets tired and you use the other one.” Blond has called on Andy to ask if he will make a signed Polaroid portrait of her to give to the New York Times with the announcement of her impending wedding. Warhol obliges, posing her authoritatively against a white wall and then, without a moment’s indecision, selecting one from the six rapid-fire shots he has taken.
For the most part, Warhol’s underground superstars of yesteryear—Viva, Joe Dallesandro, Edie Sedgwick, Gerard Malanga—are dead or gone away. They starred in such films as Lonesome Cowboys and Trash. But the zaftig and veteran Brigid Polk is in Bad, as are the beautiful Smith sisters, Geraldine and Maria.
Paul Morrissey took over directing Warhol’s later films, among them Heat, Frankenstein and Dracula, to which Warhol simply lent his name and his stable. Morrissey has gone to the Coast, however, to attempt independence. It is an amicable split-up, according to Warhol. Warhol’s young companion, Jed Johnson, 26, directed Bad.
Fred Hughes, a longtime Warhol aide, discounts the notion that there is much jockeying and maneuvering for Andy’s attention among the Factory hangers-on. He will not gainsay the persistent rumor that one of the most prominent young men in Warhol’s earlier galaxy was ousted for forging the master’s silk screens. The alleged perpetrator retaliates with the intelligence that, irrelevant but interesting, Andy’s silver hair is actually a toupee. It certainly looks like one. But that would make little sense. Warhol says the color silver makes things “disappear.”
What’s to disappear if you’re already bald?
“I used to like to give different information to different magazines because it was like putting a tracer on where people get their information.”
Andy Warhol was born Andrew Warhola in 1929, 1930, 1931 or maybe 1932 in either Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or nearby McKeesport, Pa. Current wisdom chooses Pittsburgh, 1928, though young Andrew, one of three sons born to Czechoslovakian immigrants, grew up in McKeesport. He confesses to a propensity for paper dolls and nervous breakdowns as a boy. His father, who died when Andy was 14, was a construction worker. Casual visitors today frequently ask the artist about Julia Warhola, a painter herself, who signed her work “Andy Warhol’s mother.” She and her son shared an East Side townhouse for years. Andy replies, “Oh, she’s great. But she doesn’t get out of bed much.” In fact, Mrs. Warhola died in Wightman Manor nursing home in Pittsburgh three years ago.
Warhol worked his way through Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University, graduating in 1949. An occasional soda jerk who also peddled fruits and vegetables from the back of a station wagon, Warhol found time to contribute to an arts and crafts center and to join a modern dance club at Carnegie.
From there, of course, it was straightway to New York City and la vie bohème—a ramshackle apartment on the Upper West Side. Before bursting onto the pop art scene and world fame, Warhol distinguished himself as one of the finest fashion and advertising illustrators in the business.
At least once in his life reality became more lurid even than his disaster paintings or his sordid films. Warhol was shot—oh, where was the cameraman?—in his previous Factory, 33 Union Square West, at 4:20 p.m., June 3, 1968. Valerie Solanas, 32, was the trigger woman, a self-appointed hit squad and propagandist for the Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM). A psychology major from the University of Maryland, Solanas had cameoed as a lesbian spitfire in Warhol’s film I, a Man before deciding, as she told police when she surrendered, “He had too much control of my life.” Warhol had not seen her for months. Two .32-caliber bullets ripped through his spleen, stomach, liver, esophagus and lungs. Doctors gave him a 50-50 chance to recover. He spent two months in the hospital, and eight years later he says he still hurts.
For the most part, Andy Warhol’s life these days is very uptown. It’s lunch with Charlotte Ford one day, Bianca the next. Socialite C.Z. Guest is a current passion. “Well, I asked my son, ‘Who is Andy? Why is he so famous?’ ” says C.Z., revealing an earlier ignorance. “And he said, ‘Well, Mama, he’s America.’ ” Andy’s brother John, a warehouseman for Sears in Pittsburgh, is equally in awe. “I’m just a common worker,” allows John, who visits his brother in New York every so often. “I don’t know how to express what I feel about him. To me, it’s just like he’s a professional baseball player.”
In late July Warhol traveled to Tehran to do a commissioned portrait of Farah Pahleva Shahbanou—better known as the wife of the Shah of Iran—for $60,000, his going rate. He recently created a five-panel portrait of Golda Meir from available photographs for a wealthy Richmond, Va. admirer of the former Israeli prime minister. Warhol’s early silk screens—the Marilyn Monroe series, the poppies, the Jackie Kennedy series—are enormously valuable, according to Warhol’s agent, Leo Castelli. “Andy has held onto a few of these works,” Castelli says. “He pumps most of his income back into Factory enterprises.” One of his flower paintings brought $130,000 at auction not too long ago.
To break the monotony of portrait making and editing his movies, Warhol attends every possible nightclub and film opening and fashion show in New York and abroad. Not long ago he watched the Saint Laurent showing in Paris. “In the old days you waited to see if the hemline went up or down,” says Warhol. “Now you wait to see if the collection will be rich or poor.” As dusk approaches, Warhol plots his evening. Monique Van Vooren is performing at the Rainbow Room. An old friend, she starred in Warhol’s film Frankenstein. Elton John is at the Garden. It’s hard to make a choice.
“In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.”
—Andy Warhol’s most famous saying
The other day Warhol was invited down to Plains, Ga. “Oh, it was great,” he says. “Especially Miss Lillian.”
The Democratic National Committee has asked Warhol to donate a portrait of Jimmy Carter. Reproductions of it will be sold to raise campaign funds. Carter was happy to sit still for the Polaroids from which Warhol will create his silk-screen likeness. It would, after all, spread his fame. For the photo session, Warhol noted, he was allowed exactly 15 minutes.