Books

Banal Retentive: Andy Warhol’s Romance of the Pose

How did people ever swallow the supposition that the real Warhol was a white-wigged idiot standing around saying, “Great”?

by

THE ANDY WARHOL DIARIES
Edited by Pat Hackett
Warner Books, $29.95

Like his best art, Andy Warhol’s diaries are full of surface information and tough to figure. They dare you to find them deep. After a life spent hustling for the spotlight with close personal friends like Liza and Liz and Halston and Mick, Warhol thoughtful­ly remembered them all from Beyond. The artist’s bequest to his boldface buddies is a record of his innermost thoughts and theirs. The result is a thick, newsy volume that’s either celebrity wallpaper or a Pop Goncourt Journals. Maybe both. Who else, as Suzy says, would have thought to record the man-keeping secrets of our major thinkers? “If you only have two minutes, drop everything and give him a blow job,” Jerry Hall told Andy. “Keep a diary,” Mae West once advised, “and someday it might keep you.”

Without question The Andy Warhol Dia­ries is this summer’s heavy reading. I weighed the book myself and it’s over four pounds. In fact, the diary is a two-writer effort. Edited (or “redacted,” to use an old Interview term) by Warhol’s phone confi­dante Pat Hackett, it’s a monument to the Blavatsky style — part dictation, part re­creation. Hackett was Warhol’s secretary/stylus, skittering over the board while he telephonically gave her the words. As every People reader knows, the diaries were be­gun as a daily telephone account of the artist’s activities, made to satisfy the IRS. With their constant notations of taxi fares and dinner tabs, they also satisfy Harold Nicolson’s advice to the thorough diarist to remember what everything cost. Warhol re­members it all. The diaries started out as accountings and evolved into reckonings, but nobody expected that at the start.

Hackett met Warhol when she drifted down to the Factory from Barnard looking for part-time work. He hired her, sort of, by pointing to a desk. Warhol employees couldn’t always count on remuneration: “volunteers” was the office word for trust-fund menials with no pressing need for a paycheck. Hackett stumbled into a relation­ship with Warhol the way most of his em­ployees, stars, and friends did. Warhol seemed to have some powerful gravitational pull, a personal force field. One of the many unwholesome delights of The Andy Warhol Diaries is watching cosmic detritus get sucked into his strange orbit.

Early ads for the book have suggested that behind Warhol’s platinum-wigged va­cancy lay a knuckle-whacking moralist: he only looked as if no one was home. The artist is portrayed as a churchgoing Big Brother, always watching. The creepy im­plication is that the Pop jester never took his world seriously. While his companions snorted and screwed themselves to oblivion, he sneaked off to light votive candles and annihilate everyone on paper. If the mar­keting’s too patly convenient — suggesting that what we secretly desire is a repudiation of the sex-drugs-and-disco decades — it’s also pitched right for the times. The tease on The Andy Warhol Diaries is that the book offers the sin and the penance in one stop. It’s a trendy notion, but Warhol’s Weltanschauung makes things a trifle more complex.

In a nice, and possibly random, touch the photo section of the book opens with a picture of the Zavackys, the Czechoslova­kian family of Julia Warhola, Andy’s mom. Posed in their kerchiefs, mustaches, and rube finery, the Zavackys appear ready to set off on the great adventure: “Up from Steerage.” They remind the reader what Warhol came from, more accurately than the usual inventions about his “coal miner” father (actually a construction worker) from McKeesport (actually Pittsburgh). In the whopping 807-page volume Warhol cites the Zavackys just once, and not by name, reminded of them by the onion dome churches in The Deer Hunter. But he doesn’t need to dwell on his forebears since they hover like shades, embodied in the moralizing, shrewd, and unforgiving peas­ant who lopped the final vowel from his surname and hit it big.

Warhol’s hardworking, penny-wise (and generous by turns) nature had deep Old Country roots. Even when he became the most famous artist in the world, he re­mained the child of immigrants and a first-­generation working-class American. This helps explain his infatuation with surface and his success in Society: he lent himself as a kooky ornament to people who valued his tactful understanding that he’d never belong.

One of the enduring Warhol fictions casts him as a mooch. And it’s true he loved a freebie. Like a crazed conventioneer, the diary Warhol swipes silver from the Con­corde — working toward a complete set — ac­cepts ludicrous invitations, even attends the opening of an escalator. With his tape recorder or Polaroid he brings back souve­nirs. But Warhol paid his own way. Even in the druggy days of Max’s Kansas City (not covered by the diary), it was Andy who picked up the check. Which doesn’t mean he expected less than full value. He was a big tipper who got a kick out of handing employees pink slips. He had a solid prole sense of quid pro quo.

The ’60s Warhol recorded in his earlier books — among the most accurate records of the time — starred the gargantuan, drugged personalities of his superstar friends: Viva, Brigid Berlin, Ondine, Jackie Curtis. His novel a and The Philosophy of Andy War­hol (From A to B and Back Again) are all slick finish or amphetamine rant. He left the tape running on a cast of talking heads who played themselves with manic, dam­aged brilliance. But by the time The Andy Warhol Diaries begin, the superstars have faded (most aren’t dead yet), his films are in a vault, and the cast has changed.

From 1976 until his death, Warhol pre­ferred to surround himself with consorts and gold diggers. There are really two dia­ries. One is thronged with celebrities. But beneath that glittering text lies a subsidiary world, populated by Warhol’s steadies, a passel of attractive and ambitious vagrants without portfolio or evident talent — “art­ists” like Victor Hugo, the window dresser who kept Halston company; “models” like Barbara Allen, a beauty whose staggering romantic successes were accomplished de­spite mental limitations impossible to overstate. And Bianca Jagger, of course.

Jagger is one of the few characters who survives all the Diary years: she’s a tena­cious scenemaker. Over time, Jagger devel­ops as something more than a cartoon ce­lebrity in a marathon name-drop. There’s a strange quality about her, pouting with Halston, pouting with Mick, pouting for the cameras, pneumatic mouth on labial cruise control. She’s no Lily Bart, but somehow Bianca seems … better than her fate as a groupie/girlfriend/wife-of-fading-rockstar.

Warhol has no taste for the pathos of Jagger’s trajectory from Nicaraguan nobody to celebrity nobody. He has no taste for pathos at all. He gets off on showing his friends with their pants around their ankles. He prefers that their embarrassments take place in public, as in this entry from December of 1978: “Marisa [Berenson] looked beautiful in silver, and Paul Jasmin was with her. She’s finally leaving town. She’s mad at Barbara Allen because Barbara was seeing her husband, Jim Randall, out in California, so Barbara wasn’t invited. Steve [Rubell] told us that Warren [Beatty] had fucked Jackie O., that he talked about it. Bianca said that Warren had probably just made it up, that he made it up that he slept with her, Bianca, and that when she saw him in the Beverly Wilshire she screamed, ‘Warren, I hear you say you’re fucking me. How can you say that when it’s not true?’ ”

There’s an anecdote a minute in the dia­ries. They’re thick on the ground. And if they don’t render whole, authentic-sound­ing people, it’s worth remembering that Warhol’s friends were not entirely real. The famous “stars” he cultivated have egos so strained and distended they’re like special-­effects contraptions lurching from page to page. Baryshnikov as the Little Engine That Could. Attack of the Fifty Foot Liza.

Anyway, diaries aren’t under obligation to render whole people. It’s a miniaturist’s skill, made for the slash, the wicked aside, the unflattering silhouette. Warhol becomes seductive the way Pepys or Henry (Chips) Channon or Cecil Beaton do, on the strength of his own greedy curiosity and sanguine optimism. Not to mention his gaga syntax, which becomes a form of ad­dictive baby talk. “Oh, I read a great col­umn in the Times!” he tells the diary in December of 1978. “It was something like ‘Funky, Punky, and Junky,’ and they had been talking about it at Tom Armstrong’s — ­it was about ‘silly people’ and it (laughs) had me in it a lot. No mention of Steve Rubell, no Halston — just me, Marisa, Bianca, Truman, Lorna Luft — the silly peo­ple and the silly places. And later, at Hal­ston’s, Halston said he’s glad he wasn’t mentioned because he said (imitates) ‘I’m! Not! Silly!’ And then everyone started call­ing Bianca ‘silly pussy, silly pussy.’ And Marisa came over and when she heard about the ‘silly’ column she was upset to be ‘silly.’ ” Maybe you had to be there.

Pat Hackett tells us that Warhol “mel­lowed” over the years. He outgrew “a cruel maddening way he had of provoking people to near hysteria.” Still, he kept all the barbed conversational quirks of a ’50s queen. In Warhol’s “camp” lexicon gay men were “fairies,” any “loud” woman could be a dyke, and hyperbole was the rule (especially when describing the male organ: Warhol’s diary is the Home of the Whopper). In the early days of his fame, he trained himself to talk in unintellectual monosyllables because it made for a more “butch” presentation. When he slipped with a five-dollar word (never in public), he inevitably used the occasion to mock himself.

It was in Warhol’s Pop nature to fetishize movie stars and objects and puppies, then exploit his woozy compulsion in art. He kept a tight rein on sentimentality, or ex­posed it to gamma rays that made it larger than life. Warhol’s modus operandi, his “philosophy” was a stew of aesthetics and Czechoslovakian home truths. He disguised his politics (actively Democratic, although he only voted once in his life) and real opinions as credulous blather. He acted dumb. “Victor [Hugo] came by with his brother who’s so good looking,” he remarks one August Monday in 1983. “And Victor says his brother’s cock is so big he used to hit the table with it at breakfast. I guess they were naked at breakfast, you know these South Americans. It takes years to get nervous and live in an uptight situation like civilization.” How did people ever swallow the supposition that the real Warhol was a white-wigged idiot standing around saying, “Great”?

One of Warhols’s better card tricks was to make it all look easy: he was careful to maintain his cool. And that wasn’t always for the public’s benefit. He worked hard to conceal creepy feelings like hurt and long­ing from himself. “[Producer] Jon [Gould] told me the other night that he liked Pop­ism, but to Chris he said he didn’t think Paramount could do it,” Warhol writes in March of 1981. “But maybe eventually something will happen with it. Maybe it’s too soon. Oh, and Jon said to me that he thought it was ‘badly edited’ so I don’t know if he’s good at reading.”

This unexciting entry captures an essen­tial Warhol. It replays one of his ancient ambitions, to be taken seriously (in Holly­wood, of all places). And it displays his ego at work. Warhol knew the value of his tal­ents, and could spot his own ephemeral gar­bage faster than anyone. Just as surely he knew what would last. Although he was a literary dunce (Joan Crawford’s bio was a heavy tome), Warhol was “good at read­ing.” And writing. With the exception of a, which was written and should be read on amphetamines, his books are skillful, com­posed in his own reedy ruthless voice. By the time he came to write them, his persona had achieved fictional proportions. Having invented Andy, there was little need to manufacture stories about him. Andy could follow Andy around and record Andy’s ad­ventures and Andy’s nutty thoughts.

One problem with the diaries is their postmortem polish. (Another is the casual proofreading: names are misspelled, luggage comes down a “shoot.”) As the reader slogs through the years with Warhol, it becomes tougher to sustain belief in the method of straight dictation. Hackett has said the book was distilled from 20,000 pages and that she used a light editing hand. But an­ecdotes drift toward the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as sentences start, “This was the day of … ” Dialogue tags (“she groaned”) stand out from the page. Hackett intrudes.

Still the book is great social history, with its lip-smacking tales of loveless, sexless marriages, its gimlet-eyed view of other people’s success, and its rampant uncloset­ings (when he mentions how Tony Perkins once hired hustlers to come through his window and pretend to rob him, you can see the libel lawyers twist and squirm). And it’s studded with gems of pure Warhol: “She was the nurse and he was Kaiser alumi­num,” he remarks. Or, “It was a Paloma Picasso day. Went to breakfast at Tiffany’s for her.” Or: “Ran into Rene Ricard who’s the George Sanders of the Lower East Side, the Rex Reed of the art world — he was with some Puerto Rican boyfriend with a name like a cigarette.”

The mellow Warhol was, if anything, even sharper in his ability to skewer with few words. “Decided to go to Peter Beard’s party at Heartbreak,” he writes of the so­cialite cocksman/photographer. “Peter was at the door showing slides. The usual. Afri­ca. Cheryl [Tiegs] on a turkey. Barbara Al­len on a turkey. Bloodstains. (Laughs.) You know.”

By the mid-’80s, the diary Warhol has absorbed many of his rich friends’ daffy eccentricities. He becomes an unwitting caricature, extravagant and yet convinced he’s being taken (often true), obsessed with his pets, with unreturned favors, social gaffes and horrors. (When his wig is snatched during a book-signing at Rizzoli, he can’t even say the words; his editor does it for him.) He’s increasingly snookered by crystal healers, acupuncturists, and pimple experts. And, as always, he pines for affec­tion and sex — even after Jon Gould has moved into his 66th Street townhouse. New art stars have begun to upstage him, and Pop colleagues are selling higher at auction, a fact that obsesses a man whose lifelong fear was “going broke.” Scarier still, he oc­casionally goes unrecognized on the street.

The drug scene dries up as his adventur­ess friends revert to type and scramble for the altar. And the “fairies” mysteriously begin to die off. Betrayal, disappointment, and the banality of aging erode the fun quotient. Always phobic about hospitals and illness, Warhol is nastily remote when friends contract “the gay cancer.” These entries — almost any entry involving the physical difficulties of a friend — have a bald, ugly texture. Warhol was more sympa­thetic to animal distress than human. In one early entry he rails against his assistant Ronnie Cutrone for assassinating an ex­-girlfriend’s cats. Yet, later, when friends contract AIDS, Warhol refuses to sit near them at parties or share seats in a car. He begins to avoid restaurants where “fairies” prepare the food.

After 1983, the peppy atmosphere of Warhol World darkens. His long relation­ship with the decorator Jed Johnson fizzles out and his emotional shortcomings begin to redound nastily on himself. Johnson’s desertion begins a string of “divorces.” Bob Colacello (né Colaciello, as Warhol né War­hola likes to point out) quits the editorship of Interview to pursue moneyed Republi­cans. Halston sells his name to J.C. Penney. Steve Rubell is imprisoned for tax evasion. And with each cast change Warhol’s life and the book become more banal. His schedule is still frenetic but the diary rhythm flattens. There’s more time to kill.

Part of the problem is Warhol’s new com­panions. Where he used to attract the most outlandish and beautiful people, he now settled for salaried companions and Social Register dregs like Cornelia Guest. These (sometimes titled) dullards had none of the crackling edge of his old drag queens or even his high-level hustlers. Warhol’s “stu­pid” pose was no help with this crowd, who couldn’t tell the difference. And the diary is forced to work harder on their behalf. Ca­pering from party to party with the newly anointed “celebutantes” and “millionettes,” Warhol found himself mentally slumming. It’s in these sections that you begin to notice what’s left out.

There are few entries about shopping or collecting, two of his major obsessions. And scant mention of work. Throughout the 11 years the book covers, Warhol was con­stantly turning out portraits, portfolios, new projects. But when “inspiration” crops up, the word seems like a sop tossed to the tax man, a joke.

The aging Warhol was still in demand, but he was less fun, more inward and cranky. “Cabbed up to 63rd Street ($8) … And Halston handed me a piece of pa­per in the shape of a boat and I was so thrilled. I knew it was the rent check for $40,000 [for Warhol’s Montauk house]. So that made my evening. And since it was so rainy I didn’t have any gifts with me so I wrote an I.O.U. to Halston and Victor and the niece: ‘I.O.U. One Art.’ … So anyway I went home and I opened up the paper boat and instead of a check, it was just noth­ing — like ‘Happy Birthday’ or something. It wasn’t a check and it should have been a check. All done up like a boat. It should have been a check.” The reader cringes.

Like most people’s, Warhol’s holidays were anything but celebrations. For years, he celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas at Halston’s East 63rd Street house. The attempts at recreating family are land­marks amid seasonless loops of fun. They arrest the narrative in a way that few other events seem to do. Perhaps it’s because the touching gifts (often a dress for Andy), the Christmas trees, the roast turkey are the last thing you’d expect from a group of drugged publicity junkies. And somehow this makes them dear. The book doesn’t end until Warhol’s death in February of 1987, and the giddy pace never slackens. But for this reader, the diary hit an inad­vertent conclusion when Halston called off all tomorrow’s parties, leaving Andy with­out his little band. “Got up and it was Sun­day,” Warhol tells the diary on December 25, 1983. “Tried to dye my eyebrows and hair. I wasn’t in the mood. Went to church. Got not too many phone calls. Actually none, I guess.” ■

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 26, 2020

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