Happy Birthday, Andy Warhol!

Today is Andy Warhol’s birthday. He would have been 85.

Andy Warhol

I was born in the early 70s. By the time I was old enough to appreciate art, Warhol had become something of a caricature of himself. Sure, I knew who he was, and was familiar with his work. Hell, it would have been hard to grow up in the 70s and 80s and not know who Andy Warhol was. But I was too young to remember the “Revolutionary” Warhol of the 60s and early 70s. I didn’t know him as the counter-culture icon he truly was back then. Warhol was kind of like The Beatles to me: I knew who The Beatles were, and had heard dozens of their songs. But the band broke up before I was born, and I totally missed the whole “Beatlemania” phenomenon. It’s kind of like how teenagers of today know what MTV was, but didn’t live through it, and can’t ever know how truly awesome it was at the time.

So anyway, one thing I always found odd about Warhol was how stiff he seemed. I’d see him on TV and thought it was weird how he didn’t really move his body much. It almost seemed as if Warhol was a fully-functioning human head on top of a mannequin’s body. It wasn’t until much later – the past few years, actually – that I realized why that was.

Valerie Solanas was a radical feminist, born in New Jersey in 1936. In the mid 1960s, she moved to New York City. She ran in to Warhol outside his art studio, The Factory, and asked him to produce her play, Up Your Ass (the play has never been published, but is about a prostitute who kills one of her johns, apparently an eerie foreshadowing of Aileen Wuornos’ story). Warhol said that he would. But, so the story goes, he lost her manuscript. Solanas, enraged, demanded $25 from Warhol as compensation. Instead he paid her $25 to appear in his film I, a Man.

At the time, Solanas was living at the Chelsea Hotel, the former home of Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Charles Bukowski, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Leonard Cohen, Arthur C. Clarke, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller (and the place where Sid Vicious allegedly killed Nancy Spungen). Also living at the Chelsea was Maurice Girodias, founder of Olympia Press. In 1967, Girodias signed Solanas to a $500 contract. Solanas, who was later diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, freaked out about this, thinking Girodias would “own” her work. She began to think that Warhol and Girodias were behind some sort of “conspiracy” to steal her work.

On June 3, 1968, Solanas sat in lobby of the Chelsea and waited for Girodas for three hours, despite having been told by the front desk that he had left the city for the weekend. She then went to Grove Press and asked for Barney Rosset (another member of her imagined “conspiracy”). She was told that he was out of town, too. So she went to The Factory. Warhol’s friend, director Paul Morrissey, told her that Warhol wouldn’t be there that day, either. Solanas waited outside for two hours, then went up to the studio, where Morrissey again told her that Warhol wasn’t coming in that day. So Solanas rode the elevator up and down until Warhol showed up. They walked in the studio together, where Morrissey again asked her to leave. He then went to the restroom. While he was gone, the phone rang. Warhol answered it, and while he was on the phone Solanas took three shots at him. The first two missed, but the third hit Warhol in both lungs, his spleen, stomach, liver and esophagus. Warhol was taken to Columbus-Mother Cabrini Hospital, where he barely clung to life. According to Warhol lore, he was actually pronounced dead, but when the surgeon realized who it was, he opened Warhol’s chest and massaged his heart until it started beating again. Warhol faced a long, painful recovery. The bullet had literally torn up his insides, and for the rest of his life he was forced to wear a “surgical corset”… which is why Warhol always appeared so stuff on TV.

As for Solanas, she turned herself in the next day. At her arraignment, she went off on a bizarre rant about why she shot Warhol. She was promptly committed to Bellevue Hospital. She was transferred to several hospitals, and was eventually deemed fit enough to stand trial. She was convicted of “reckless assault with intent to harm”, and sentenced to three years in prison, with the year she spent in mental hospitals credited to her sentence. After getting out she moved to California and lived in several flophouses before dying of pneumonia on April 25, 1988. She was 52. A giant pile of typewritten papers were found on a desk in her hotel room, but we’ll never know what they said because her mother burned them all.

One more interesting thing about Warhol: he was a really devout Catholic. Born in Pittsburgh, Warhol was baptized at St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church. After moving to Manhattan, Warhol attended mass almost every day at Church of St. Vincent Ferrer (even before the shooting, when a lot of people might “find Jesus”). St. Vincent’s priest at the time, Father Sam Matarazzo, speculated that Warhol kept his religious beliefs a secret because of his homosexuality (although Warhol was gay, many who knew him said he was kind of asexual, more prone to “voyeuristic masturbation” than actually having sex with people). Others have speculated that Warhol kept his piety to himself because it wasn’t “cool” to be religious in the 1960s art world. Amusingly, Warhol himself said that he kept a low profile at the church – by sitting in the back row, refusing communion, and not going to confession – because he “was self-conscious about being seen crossing himself the Orthodox way”.

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