Those of us who have visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, can testify to its seduction of visitors with a passion for treasured art. The second floor is home to Campbell’s Soup Cans and Other Works, 1953–1967, a collection of thirty-two pieces by the late Andy Warhol (1928-1987). February 22 will mark thirty-two years since his untimely death at the age of fifty-eight. Art students and museum aficionados have long studied his work as the shining example of the Pop Art movement that swept across the United Kingdom and United States during the 1950s. Warhol undoubtedly became the poster child for the movement with his sleek frame, white wig, large frame glasses and black sweater. His personal life, carefully hidden from the public, became a mystery to those seeking to know just who is and who was the real Andy Warhol? Bob Colacello worked for Warhol on their publication Interview, for twelve years and in this intriguing account of their time together, he reveals the Andy Warhol he knew with all his quirks, ingenuity and fears in life.
The book is not an autobiography and Colacello does not try to assess Warhol’s psyche. Further, this is Colacello’s story from start to finish but Warhol does play a critical role to the events that transpired in his life for obvious reasons. From the start, it is apparent that Andy is not the typical boss and writing for Interview will be no easy task. As Colacello explains, it was usually a test of wills with Andy believing everyone had a hidden story or “problem” and that Colacello should proposition them with the offer of a cover shot and even change his name to “Bob Cola” to sound more appealing. Their contrasting personalities and those of the other members of what Colacello refers to as the “factory”, created a magazine that grew into a serious contender and in the process, made Warhol’s name synonymous with modern pop art. His successes took him and his staff across several continents and through endless cities. Colacello was dutifully by his side along with a dedicated team of collaborators, each of whom would wage their own battles with Warhol over his eccentric behavior and domineering personality. They all recognized that within their boss was a visionary who straddled the fine line between genius and insanity.
Anyone who decides to read this book, probably has some inkling of who Andy Warhol was. His carefully crafted public facade, gave off an aura of chic that tabloids found irresistible. But behind the facade was a different person, and Colacello was there to witness those revealing moments when Andy let down his guard. The anecdotes from Colacello are amusing and in some cases puzzling as Andy’s behavior typically bordered on the surreal. Armed with his tape recorder which he called Sony and hindered by his social awkwardness, Andy sometimes became a square trying to fit into a circle. But yet, most could not resist being around him as his name grew in popularity. That fame resulted in a steady stream of film stars, foreign dignitaries and politicians giving Interview and Warhol the publicity they constantly needed. It was an unbelievable ride for the young artist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, born to immigrant parents from the small region of Ruthenia. Some of you may be wondering, where on earth is Ruthenia? It is located in the Carpathian Mountains, sitting between the meeting point of the borders of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Russia. Sadly, Warhol never addresses his family’s ancestry and often said that “I come from nowhere”. Perhaps it was just Andy being Andy or was a sign of a deeper inner struggle that manifested itself in his work. We will never know for sure as Andy took that and many other secrets with him to his grave.
Every story about a famous figure has the proverbial “elephant in the room”. For Andy, it was sexuality, a theme that was found in many of his works and which fueled his belief that everyone had a juicy sexual secret they were hiding. As Colacello reveals, Warhol was entranced by gossip and in particular, the sex lives of celebrities. But was this a defense mechanism to deflect from his own love life? Colacello provides great insight into Andy’s love life or lack of it. And even with his revelations, many questions still linger about what type of love life he actually had. Maybe that was Andy’s plan, to keep everyone guessing, on their toes and confused. But there are two people who appear in the story and Colacello explains their importance thoroughly and how they affected Andy’s personal life. One of them, Jed Johnson, tragically perished on TWA Flight 800 in 1996, which exploded shortly after takeoff from New York City’s JFK International Airport. The flight was bound for Paris and all 230 passengers perished in the accident. Johnson was with Andy the longest and their relationship provides some clues as to why Warhol behaved as he did.
Towards the latter part of the book, Colacello focuses on his increasing dissatisfaction working for Warhol and the impact upon the lives of his colleagues as a result of their boss’s behavior. Like a master manipulator, Warhol would push their buttons and then later soothe their egos, dangling them on strings in the process. Alcohol and drugs became coping mechanisms and flowed freely in their circle that consisted of Hollywood stars, music stars and the famous Studio 54, where Andy became a fixture. The image that appears as Colacello discusses working conditions at the factory, is one in which Andy keeps his subordinates in check, at odds and never in a position to amass too much influence in affairs. This system of dysfunction pushed many to brink and over time, nearly all left to escape from Andy’s off-handed and in some cases, callous treatment. However they remained loyal to him and his legacy, even when they no longer worked for him. Their commitment to Interview, the factory and Andy’s films, created a bond that could never be broken, not even with his death on February 22, 1987. Theirs is a story of a family with a broken parent that many of them tried to diagnose and piece back together. But Andy could never be the same after being shot several times on June 3, 1968. Valerie Solanas nearly ended his life that day but Andy survived and carried with him the scars from multiple surgeries and a life-long fear of being in public. His physical condition and paranoia of being attacked again, nearly crippled his social life, resulting in him needed a chaperone for nearly everything. More often than not, Colacello was assigned this task. However, the role he assumed gave him a very intimate look into the fractured life of his boss.
The mystery of Andy Warhol will continue for years to come. I do not believe there is one simple explanation for his life. Colacello even states that although he was close to Andy, he’s not sure if they were really that close as personal friends. Andy carefully kept everyone at a guarded distance. He avoided hospitals and even funerals, including that of his own mother Julia. His lovers had separate lives and seemed to come and go as they pleased. Andy threw himself into his work, pressuring all that worked for him to make sacrifices that at times were unrealistic. We can only assume that his constant drive to work, accumulate gossip with Sony and his prevention of letting anyone become close to him, may have been his way of protecting himself. Before his death, he said to close friends that he did not want to go into the hospital because you do not come out. But as his gallbladder became inflamed to the point of possibly rupturing, he was faced with having no other choice but going into the one place that he dreaded. And tragically, his prediction came true. But there is far more to Andy’s life and death, covered beautifully by his former employee and star writer. And fittingly Colacello has given us a very-welcomed portrait of what he calls the holy terror. Warhol fans will love this book.