“Andy Warhol, prince of pop art” – that’s still how we pigeonhole the man often described as the greatest of the west’s postwar artists, even though pop only occupied the first three years of his fine-art career. In the quarter-century that followed, Warhol produced a vast range of work that has gone on to matter at least as much, if not more, to our culture. For better or worse, we’d not be quite where we are without his radical films, his society portraits – cool-eyed or caustic, depending on who you ask – or Interview magazine. The 1,000 pages of Warhol: A Life As Art, my new biography, offers the first definitive account of all that and more.
In the two excerpts that follow, we catch Warhol just as he has left pop art behind and is fishing for new ways to make his mark.
One of Warhol’s greatest creations was undoubtedly the crowd of eccentrics he assembled in his famous Silver Factory – he knew he’d be remembered for them as much as for his Soup Cans and Marilyns. As 1965 dawned, the most notable of all Warhol’s followers arrived to take her place by his side.
“At Tuesday night’s dinner and preview at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” wrote the New York Times, “Mrs Johnson appeared in a black faille strapless dress with a matching stole.” “Mrs Johnson” was Lady Bird, first lady of the United States [wife of Lyndon B Johnson], and the Times report on her Met visit also recorded two unlikely guests the museum had invited to join her: “Andy Warhol, the pop artist [with] Edie Sedgwick, a vision in a lilac jersey jump suit and a furry shoulder purse.” Not quite the venue or company you’d imagine for the first media appearance of Warhol and his most famous sidekick.
Mrs Johnson and friends were previewing a blockbuster called Three Centuries of American Painting, for which Warhol’s friend Henry Geldzahler had organised the section on more recent art, up to and including Jackson Pollock. At the April opening, Warhol was there representing the next generation. And Edie Sedgwick represented his next art supply.
Sedgwick was 21 going on 22, the deeply troubled scion of an old and “good” New England clan. Her father ended up owning a vast ranch in California, where he ran roughshod over his eight children, beating them and wrecking their psyches. One brother was sent to a mental hospital in Connecticut to be “cured” of his homosexuality. He hanged himself there. Another also died by his own hand, crashing a motorcycle at speed in New York. Sedgwick said she was the victim of incest: “I had lots of attention from my father physically. He was always trying to sleep with me… from the age of about seven on.”
Social status, wealth, eccentricity, drug abuse: It’s no wonder Warhol took Sedgwick on
During her deeply troubled adolescence, Sedgwick was in and out of institutions, where she got treated for bulimia and all kinds of mad, bad behaviour. In her 20s, she got out and spent time in Boston, taking private art classes with a cousin and turning out skilled but outdated, and frankly adolescent, renderings of horses and mice. (A bunch ended up in Warhol’s collection, where they were strange bedfellows with his works by Jasper Johns and Marcel Duchamp.) Sedgwick became part of a fancy, brainy Harvard set who were also hard partiers. In the summer of 1964, after coming into an inheritance that was supposed to have paid $10,000 a month, she moved to New York and began a desultory career as a model.
“She was charming. She suggested springtime and freshness,” said Diana Vreeland, in charge of Vogue at the time. “But if you’re an honest-to-God model, you go to the gym before you come to work; you have one boyfriend who buys you dinner. You go to bed good and early. No nonsense. You’d never see one in a nightclub. That wasn’t Edie.”
Warhol said he first met Sedgwick around midwinter, when she and her Harvardians showed up at a party in the midtown penthouse of film producer Lester Persky. “It was at my house, at this marble table, that I brought the two – Andy and Edie – together,” said Persky. “Andy, as I recall, sucked in his breath and did the usual pop-eye thing and said, ‘Oh, she’s bee-you-ti-ful’… He was very impressed.’”
Warhol watched Sedgwick dance “a sort of ballet like rock’n’roll” that she’d perfected for an underwater Bach-and-rock disco that was being planned by her Harvard friends. (“Manqué people,” Persky called them.) Because of that – or more likely, despite it – Warhol invited them all down to the Factory the next day and she and Warhol went on to see each other now and then; he visited her in the hospital after one of her car crashes. “She was in a cast from her feet up to her neck; all of her ribs were broken,” said a curator friend of Warhol’s. “The doctors told Edie that she’d never be able to walk again. Her face was covered with scars, which was why she developed that heavy, strange makeup: those heavy eyebrows, they were to cover up scars across her forehead.” Once Sedgwick could indeed walk again – her recovery seemed close to miraculous; she was seen dancing in a cast – Warhol couldn’t resist putting her in front of his camera, shooting a series of Screen Tests that capture her astounding, ethereal but also quite peculiar beauty: Her eyes were Prince Planet-big and when she smiled a dimple in one cheek animated her entire face. “You just fell in love with her. No matter what – if you were straight or gay or what. No matter, you just fell in love with her,” said one Factory regular. Another described her as a “fabulous person who glowed from within and radiated light… one of those beautiful and rare creatures.”
She also had a deep fragility that couldn’t be hidden. In one of Warhol’s four-minute reels, her eyes well up, presumably from trying not to blink, but it’s impossible not to read those tears as hard-earned and deep-seated. “She had a low, husky voice that always sounded like she’d been crying,” said one onlooker. Often, she had been. “She was so beautiful and so helpless and so rich and so bananas,” recalled her friend Danny Fields. Sedgwick combined the quirky, upper-crust verve of Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby with the wounded-bird appeal of the Laura character in The Glass Menagerie.
For a while, Sedgwick lived in her grandmother’s fancy apartment on Park Avenue, driving the staff mad with her wild hours and unannounced guests. Her spending was out of control. She ran up huge accounts with limousine companies while giving their drivers vast tips in cash. She had caviar delivered when she was at home and when she was out she frequented the best and most fashionable restaurants, paying the way for friends and hangers-on of all kinds. “I just felt like we were redistributing the wealth,” said Fields.
Less than a year after getting her inheritance, it was already running out and her father put her on a meagre (for her) allowance of $500 a month. “She complained about money, said she wasn’t living too well. Meanwhile, we were drinking Château Margaux,” said a photographer in her crowd. She was also taking every kind of drug, from the barbiturates her doctors had started her on as a teen to the acid her Harvard friends kept in the fridge; she also got regular shots of speed-laced “vitamins” from an obliging Doctor Feelgood in New York.
Social status, wealth, eccentricity, drug abuse: it’s no wonder Warhol took Sedgwick on as the latest subject for his art – she was the perfect cross between girl-about-town Jane Holzer and the speed freaks of his Factory. Any film he put her in basically wrote itself.
“Edie was incredible on camera – just the way she moved,” was the official Warholian take on the Factory’s new star. “She was all energy – she didn’t know what to do with it when it came to living her life, but it was wonderful to film. The great stars are the ones who are doing something you can watch every second, even if it’s just a movement inside their eye.”
Sedgwick’s arrival couldn’t have come at a better time, since Warhol had just suffered a setback in his lifelong quest for recognition. The star photographer Richard Avedon, that old rival of Warhol’s, had guest-edited the entire April issue of Harper’s Bazaar, whose themes were “what’s happening” and “the off-beat side of now”. That obviously required constant nods to pop, but aside from borrowing Warhol’s signature photobooth stylings for the contributors’ page – without giving credit for the “loan” – Avedon had left him out of the issue. There was full-page coverage of Rauschenberg, Johns, Lichtenstein and Oldenburg, plus Henry Geldzahler – but nothing for Warhol.
Incredibly, Tom Wolfe’s account of New York’s new “Pariah Chic” had managed to ignore Warhol and his Factory, full of the chicest pariahs in town, even though it found room for Baby Jane Holzer and other non-pariahs who owed their chic to Warhol, as Wolfe himself had mentioned just a few months earlier. The magazine bookended Wolfe’s Warhol-free piece with shots of models in Factory-silver space suits. As the final straw, Warhol’s total absence from the magazine’s discussion of underground film could only count as a deliberate diss, for all on the scene to see.
Twinning himself with Sedgwick was one way for Warhol to ensure that it wouldn’t be easy to ignore him again. Journalists started to bill the two as inseparable, inveterate partygoers. In a few weeks, the Sonnabend Gallery in Paris would be opening a show of Warhol’s Flower paintings – meant to piggyback, Warhol said, on the French taste for impressionism – and for the first time he decided to make the trip, but now with an entourage: his assistant and major-domo Gerard Malanga, of course, but also Sedgwick and her Harvard friend Chuck Wein.
A few days before they left, Lester Persky borrowed the Factory to throw a grand goodbye for the Paris-bound quartet, modestly calling it the “Fifty Most Beautiful People Party”. That auspicious name doesn’t seem to have helped it rate any press coverage at all, even though beautiful people did show up: Tennessee Williams, the newly defected Rudolf Nureyev and, especially, the wildly temperamental Judy Garland. The party gave the first sign, at least since Warhol’s failed encounter with Garbo in the 50s, of him seeking out the stars of Hollywood’s bygone golden age, which became a signature move of his in the 1970s. But there was always at least as much campy, ironic distance in his approach to those screen idols as there was starstruck worship.
Persky and Warhol recalled Garland’s presence at the party in an interview they gave a dozen years later:
Warhol: It was the biggest fight in the world. Judy Garland and Lester Persky fighting! It was so unbelievable.
Persky: She kept saying: “Why don’t I ever act in one of Tennessee’s plays?” And I said: “Well, the funny thing is, he doesn’t think you can act.” I said it jokingly, and she never forgave me for that.
Warhol: But remember she was carried in by about five boys. And nobody paid any attention.
Persky: It’s hard to ignore Judy Garland, I can tell you.
Warhol: It was really sad.
“Andy Warhol Causes Fuss in Paris.” That was the headline that ran over a big article in the international edition of the Herald Tribune in mid-May, a few days after Warhol had appeared at the launch of his show there – dozens and dozens of Flower paintings, in even more sizes and colours than Leo Castelli had hung. The article was by Warhol’s friend John Ashbery, who talked about the crowds of Parisians drawn to the opening and how Warhol and pop art were “causing the biggest transatlantic fuss since Oscar Wilde brought culture to Buffalo in the 90s”. The admiration was mutual. On the subject of Paris, Warhol became “momentarily animated”, according to Ashbery, and dropped his laconic pose: “I travelled all around the world, even to Kathmandu, but I never wanted to see Paris. Now I hate to leave. Everything is beautiful and the food is yummy and the French themselves are terrific. They don’t care about anything. They’re completely indifferent.”
Warhol’s first ever museum survey, unveiled in October 1965, was at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. The ICA was a new, non-collecting institution on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania that had announced its Warhol show by mailing out 9,000 prints he’d made of S&H Green Stamps, which were distributed as part of a rewards programme by the catalogue retailer Sperry & Hutchinson. (Warhol had been too busy to produce them in time, however, so the museum director had them made and then himself signed Warhol’s name to the ones sold as $10, “limited-edition” sheets.) Thanks to a flood of publicity, the Warhol survey’s public opening – itself a new PR concept – became a madhouse. “I produced it as if it was show business. Because that’s what it was, what it was meant to be – a media event,” said the fiendishly well-connected new director of the ICA. “There were four TV news stations. Reporters from every magazine, everyone from New York, every celebrity I could get down… there was no question then but that Andy and his superstars were the event.”
Campus police did crowd control as the artist’s fans waited for the doors to open at the nightclub‑ish hour of 9pm. More than 1,600 people poured in within the first hour, after which staff were too mobbed to keep track. The ICA had announced in advance that the opening would “evoke Mr Warhol’s working atmosphere – music, dancing, people, films and with journalistic and television coverage” and sure enough, the ICA director Sam Green himself had painted the floors silver and ordered two turntables set up to blast out the latest rock.
Other than such extras, however, visitors and TV crews found a suite of galleries whose walls were mostly empty except for a few nails. Some work had been damaged the night before at a “private” view that had been mobbed, so the gallery decided not to risk more harm from yet-bigger student crowds. One wag commented that he had never seen a more beautiful display of “black nails on white wall”, while another visitor complained that the crowds had clearly been “attracted more by the personalities than the art”. Precisely.
Four cops held the crowd at bay, handing up souvenirs to be autographed
“At 9:45, floodlights snapped on in the back room. In swirled Andy Warhol and his entourage. He wore a black T-shirt, black wind-breaker, black slacks and yellow wrap-around sunglasses. He was dressed for motorcycling,” read a Philadelphia monthly’s post-mortem, clearly commissioned even before the show had launched. “Edie Sedgwick, his girlfriend, was at his side, a thin twentyish girl in a shocking pink, floor-length jersey tube.” Malanga was there, along with the dealer Ivan Karp and curator Henry Geldzahler; also present were the art critic David Bourdon, socialite Brigid Berlin and others from Warhol’s “band of pop-artistic merrymakers”, in the words of a local paper.
But that was not near enough entourage to keep Warhol safe from the hordes. Escorted by police, he and his followers eventually beat a retreat up a wrought-iron staircase that doglegged up from the floor before hitting a dead end at the ceiling. (The gallery was in a grand Victorian pile originally built as the university library; the useless staircase survived from those days.) Warhol and friends sought shelter on the landing and, trapped there, looked down on their admirers with a mix of wonder and fear: photos show a sea of faces gawking back up at them. Four cops held the crowd at bay, handing up souvenirs to be autographed. Warhol – or more often his acolytes – obligingly put “his” signature on commuter rail tickets, shirt cardboards, baby-food boxes and of course Campbell’s soup cans that fans had brought along to be signed.
Sedgwick, who did much of Warhol’s signing that night, also teased the crowd with the absurdly over-length sleeves of her Rudi Gernreich dress, like a sailor jigging for cod off a boat. The crush of people pushed three fans out of a window and into the hospital. Television footage showed the crowd carrying on “like so many Beatlemaniacs”, according to one viewer, and that sounds right, and perceptive. “We want Andy!” shouted Warhol’s devotees and “Get his clothing!” At one point in the evening the artist surrendered his new, goggly sunglasses to an admirer, maybe the way a salamander abandons its tail to a hawk. (Once things calmed down, he sent Sedgwick to retrieve his eyewear.)
After being stuck in this limbo for much of the evening, Warhol and company were saved by firefighters who uncovered a trapdoor at the top of the stairs: “They came and they ripped it open with crowbars and they guided us through to another floor and went through the library stacks and through and down the fire escape, down the side of the building and into police cars,” recalled Sam Green, the ICA director who had shared Warhol’s fate.
His full name was Samuel Adams Green and he was a 25-year-old art lover who had gotten the ICA’s top job the year before. That was as much because of his pedigreed Yankee name, and his connections at the highest levels of Philadelphia society, as for the deep roots he had in cutting-edge art in New York. It was Green who had hosted the fur-strewn after-party for Warhol’s Flowers show. His trademark “chin-strap” beard, sans moustache, can be spotted in any number of photos that show Warhol out and about in the Manhattan art world over the next several years.
The ICA had been founded only in 1963, in theory to expose students to the latest in visual culture, but in fact with a board more eager to put on surveys of Renoir and Gauguin. The Warhol show came about only because there was no funding for such big-name ventures and because of brilliant horse-trading and politicking by Green. He arranged for the chair of his board – Mrs Horatio Gates Lloyd Jr, AKA “Lallie” – to be invited to a fancy New York dinner, with Warhol seated by her as entertainment. Green recalled being happy to see that his artist had shed his “monosyllabic, shy act” for the night and was doing his best to charm his neighbour.
Lallie Lloyd said: “Oh, Mr Warhol. I’m terribly pleased that you’re considering our tiny little insignificant museum in Philadelphia for a show of your work. Which I understand from Mr Green is terribly interesting and I shall be looking forward to it.” So Andy said: “Ohh, Mrs Lloyd, I think it’s so terrific that you’re interested in my work because I just think Philadelphia is terrific. I think you’re terrific too. I’m doing movies now… I think it would be so terrific if you’d be in one of our films.” “Why, Mr Warhol, nobody’s ever asked me anything like that before. What would I have to do?”
“Would you fuck with Sam?” She didn’t miss a beat. “Could I wear a blindfold?”
• This is an edited extract from Warhol: A Life As Art, published by Allen Lane on 5 March (£35). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15
• A retrospective of Andy Warhol work will open at Tate Modern, London on 12 March