Our Hustler

Rhonda Lieberman on The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol

New York

Left: Dustin Pittman and Taylor Mead. Right: Steven Watson, Bibbe Hansen, John Wilcock, Taylor Mead, Gretchen Berg, and Gerard Malanga. (All photos: Luke Brown)

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN 1971, The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol was a real-time oral history of the Factory compiled by John Wilcock, a cofounder of the Village Voice, publisher of Interview, downtown scribe, and Factory regular himself. (“It’s not an autobiography and there’s no sex in it.”) I remember being a young Pop-obsessed weenie and gobbling up the book in the school library, where I learned to confuse postwar aesthetics with gossip. Quaintly DIY-looking and strangely neglected considering Warhol’s robust afterlife, the groovy period piece was discovered in the early 1990s by editor Christopher Trela, who decided to give this underexploited gem a slick art-book makeover, glossy production values, and its rightful place in the Warhol archive.

Pushing forty and sporting its spiffy new face-lift, the text was celebrated last Wednesday at a New York Public Library panel moderated by Dr. Steven Watson, Warhol maven and “expert on the group dynamics of the American avant-garde.” On hand were several of the original interviewees: Taylor Mead, Warhol superstar (Tarzan and Taylor Mead’s Ass); photojournalist Gretchen Berg, perhaps Warhol’s most earnest hagiographer; Gerard Malanga, Warhol’s assistant and cruise director; Mr. Wilcock; and “surprise guest” Bibbe Hansen, a tween Warhol superstar (Prison) and mother of pop star Beck.

Mead was a geriatric potty mouth (“What a big cock he had—he tried to make it with me but [he was] not my type . . . ”) and a wag: “Someone wrote an article in a downtown mag, ‘I shot Andy Warhol.’ Well, I wrote an article: ‘I would have shot Andy Warhol’ ” (big laugh from the crowd). Gretchen Berg recalled when she got off at the fourth floor of the Factory: “At that moment my life changed. This person was like myself. This person had suffered. ‘Come here,’ he said. ‘I will comfort you. I am the old Zen master.’ He drew people toward him. I felt: ‘You are the unmet friend I am looking for.’ He was unique in American art.”

I wonder if she ever perused Holy Terror by Bob Colacello, who offers a slightly different take on Andy. Malanga, a silver fox, reminisced about the “dawn patrol,” what he called the amphetamine subculture: “We’d be up all night. [It was] an intellectual atmosphere. I always wondered what these people did, though. They always seemed talented at something. People who were on amphetamines would get into a rapture and be talking constantly. And Andy would have some of these people in his films.” Hansen, poised in a salon-fresh bob, flashed beauty-pageant smiles as she brightly recounted how she was a street kid who’d been in jail and how Warhol instructed the sixteen-year-old editor of Sleep to do a simple splice: “If you see anything interesting—cut it out.”

Left: Steven Watson and Bibbe Hansen. Right: The audience at the New York Public Library.

As I surveyed the plush auditorium, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the overflow crowd was rather mature, with a smattering of savvy-looking design queens, stylish ladies, and some schlubs who might have wandered in off the street. I wished everyone had name tags. I fantasized I was surrounded by Factory alums, as if I’d stumbled into a Superstar Senior Center. And indeed there was something time-warpish about the panel. Forty years later, Warhol was still the fascinating black hole of fabulosity (“I’m just a receiver,” Wilcock said he told Charles Henri Ford) who flattened the difference between art and life, and people who were “on the scene” still basked in his cult of fame and his weirdly contagious vision, which can seemingly transmute anything—however banal or freakish—into Pop.

Wilcock: “I asked Sam Green: ‘Do you regard yourself a friend of Andy?’ Sam Green: ‘Does anyone?’ ”

Most of the anecdotes they recounted can be found in the book (did they crib to refresh their memories?), but it was strangely affecting to see that Mead and Malanga (familiar fixtures documented in the Warhol archive) had naturally aged, as if one expected them, instead, to be like Dorian Gray.

Watson kept the panel moving nicely, no mean feat since they were all ramblers. The Q&A period was eaten up by one questioner, a former New York Times art director who used a circuitous Warhol reference to plug her own book and got the gong: “Question?!!”

Wilcock, in turn, plugged his book Manhattan Memories, about the early days of the Village Voice. “A story about [Warhol] is very brief—and now I’ve forgotten it! He was a very kind person. I never saw him angry or nasty to anyone or mean. Though whenever you asked him something, he’d say ‘What do you think?’ ”

Hansen recalled Warhol’s “endless curiosity. [A state of being] ‘interested in.’ He wasn’t a person who sat around being interesting. He was engaged.”

“Very interesting,” said the fellow next to me.