By Robert Heide
The bigger than big book entitled simply Warhol by Blake Gopnik just published by Ecco, a Harper Collins imprint, is 39 pages short of 1,000, took over ten years to write, and is an astute comprehensive biographic study that is overflowing with practical, insightful information which focuses hard on the life and art of the man many regard certainly as the most famous and probably one of the most important artists of the 20th century, Andy Warhol. This heavy-to-hold book covers everything about Andy, his super-shy personality, his sporadic up and down sex life, and his Carpatho-Rusyn family who lived in a down and out slum area of Pittsburg. Yet Andy persevered—a sickly young man who dreamt of some kind of success that might offer him an escape into a better life. His mother Julia, who had artistic yearnings, doted on Andy who once told me and related to others as well, that Julia usually served him for lunch or dinner either a bologna, tuna fish or egg salad sandwich on Wonder Bread along with a bowl of Campbell’s Tomato or Pea Soup. I learned in the book that in later life Andy was quoted as saying he preferred the more elegant Campbell’s Mock Turtle concoction.
I first met Andy through the photographer Edward Wallowitch in 1958 at a Village restaurant and at that time he struck me as a real oddball who obviously had trouble communicating. Later, in the early sixties, we became good friends. I knew Andy was intensely artful and he made a good living in the drawing of ladies shoes and purses that he created for newspapers as an advertising illustrator in the early years before entering the world of Pop Art. As time went by, I began to hang out with Andy at The Factory where I happily joined in with the early ‘superstars’ including the glamorous, gorgeous Baby Jane Holzer who sported a golden blonde Lions mane hairdo. Andy proclaimed her ‘The Girl of the Year.’ Following Jane, and taking her title, along came Edie Sedgwick, an elfin, childlike glowing baby-doll beauty who charmed everyone she met, including Andy. Later, after she dropped out of the scene, Ingrid von Sheven, a vulgar coarse imitation was found to replace her and was dubbed simply, Ingrid Superstar. Andy, who was genuinely fond of Edie, escorted her arm in arm everywhere he went to parties, nightclubs and theaters. She became the Top Superstar and Andy began to utilize her in many of his films. Often Edie asked me to join her to go along with her on shopping sprees at Bloomingdales. She would pick me up in a chauffeured Cadillac limousine and take me to lunch at a spot called the Ginger Man where we ordered up Bloody Mary’s which she either signed for or paid in cash or credit card. Later I learned that the limo actually belonged to Bob Dylan.
One summer day, as recounted by Blake Gopnik in his giant tome, Andy called and asked me to meet him at the Kettle of Fish on MacDougal Street. When I arrived there I found Edie sitting alone at a table in a baby blue, little girl outfit wearing silver shoes. A week or so before Andy had asked me to write a script for Edie where she committed suicide at the end, and I gave him one entitled The Death of Lupe Velez which was based on Kenneth Anger’s account in Hollywood Babylon of the suicide of Lupe Velez, the Mexican spitfire movie star from the 1930s. I asked Edie how it was going. To my astonishment she informed me, “Oh, we filmed that yesterday.” Sipping a brandy, black mascara tears rolling down her cheeks, she said to me, “I just can’t get close to him…I try but…I don’t know…but…” and at that moment Andy entered the bar wearing a blue suede jacket and matching pants he had just bought at the Leatherman on Christopher Street. There was a deadly silence and no one spoke as Andy ordered a dark ale and pulled up a barstool, hovering over our table. A moment later, I glanced out the window at a big black limo pulling up outside, and suddenly bursting through the door, came Bob Dylan. It was his Blonde on Blonde period and he was sporting an Afro haircut dyed golden blond. He was all in black and wore dark, oversized shades. I could feel tension mounting, nobody uttering a word. Finally Bobby grabbed Edie and murmured, “Let’s split” and out they went. According to the book it wasn’t their last meeting, but Lupe, as the all-color film came to be called, was their last project together. Andy, still silent, but with a pensive expression on his face, stared at the door. Finally he spoke, asking me to take him to 5 Cornelia Street. He wanted to see where one of his superstars, the dancer Freddy Herko, had committed suicide. It was from the fifth floor window of Johnny Dodd’s apartment, just down the block from the Caffe Cino where Johnny was the lighting designer, that Freddy danced out the window in a ballet leap while high on a combination of acid, methamphetamine and angel-dust laced pot. Staring up at the window Andy said, “I wish he had told me he was going to jump out a window so I could have filmed it.” Turning to me he bluntly stated, “I wonder when Edie will kill herself. I hope she will let us know so I can at least film that.”
Though I had forgotten it for many years, I also appeared in two of Andy’s films, Batman Dracula and Camp, both with the filmmaker Jack Smith and I was also pleased to see that Blake had written a very good account of my major project with Andy, The Bed. It was a play for two men that I had written and it was produced by Joe Cino at the Caffe Cino. In it the men are lying in a bed of dissolution, drugged up, boozing for weeks with one of them reciting, “Sex is dead. No God—God is dead. No, Nietzsche is dead.” One of the men in the bed thinks of committing suicide but instead decides at the end of the play to simply go out and buy a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of Coke. Andy saw it many times at The Cino declaring “The Bed is beautiful emptiness…a work of pure genius” and ultimately he filmed it with the same two actors (James Jennings and Larry Burns) at Richard Bernstein’s Bowery loft (Bernstein did the celebrity art covers for Andy’s Interview magazine.) As detailed by the author in Warhol , “Andy shot the action on one Auricon camera while his lover at the time, Danny Williams, wielded another at the same time, generating a two-viewpoint two-screen film.” It premiered at Jonas Mekas’ Filmmakers Cinemateque on 41st Street; Warhol’s film of The Bed is currently being digitized by the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the play itself has seen many iterations since. On June 20, 2020, the New York LGBTQ+ theater company TOSOS streamed a new production of the play live on YouTube.
Andy was, like myself, an obsessive collector of things Americana. Once, while visiting me on Christopher Street after one of his Leatherman shopping trips, Andy pointed to the vintage metal Coke signs on my walls and declared, “those are the real Pop Art.” But after his second death in 1987 (he survived his first in 1968 after being shot by the disgruntled Valerie Solanas and revived by a fast-acting doctor) bags of diamonds were found amongst his collectibles. It seemed he and his friend, the movie star Paulette Goddard, were both diamond addicts and went shopping for them together frequently. Gopnik states that two years after his death an accounting of his worth set its value at $215 million. “Today,” he says, “just the art he left would be worth billions.” For me Andy Warhol was fun to be with and I related to his inner child because I grew up in a middle-class immigrant household where children were only to be seen, not heard. Of course I realized at one point that no matter how much money he made or how famous he had become, he was never a happy traveler. Deep inside he was always that sad, deprived little boy. Blake Gopnik tells many, many more Andy stories—and there are probably many more yet to be revealed as time goes on, but for the moment Gopnik’s Warhol is the latest Andy bible.
Robert Heide is a playwright and a frequent contributor to WestView News and is the author of many books on American popular culture. His latest publication, Robert Heide 25 Plays is available on Amazon. Robert Heide’s The Bed can be viewed NOW on TOSOS YouTube channel.