Andy Warhol and the Death of My Sister
I was trying to figure out how I was going to begin writing about William John Kennedy's recently discovered photographs of Andy Warhol in the 1960s when I got a call from a sheriff's office in North Carolina informing me that my sister Maureen, my only sibling, had died suddenly in the middle of the night.
The deputy on the other end of the line, a kindly-sounding man with an Italian last name and a deep Southern accent, told me that when the officers arrived at my sister's house in response to an emergency call from her room-mate, Cathy, they found her face-down on the bathroom floor. Without sounding too judgmental about it, he mentioned that there was "a strong smell of marijuana at the scene" and added that Cathy had told them my sister, who had complained of a lingering headache, had also been drinking wine and had taken a painkiller shortly before she collapsed and died.
The exact cause of death, he said, was unknown pending an autopsy. He offered his sincere condolences, gave me his cell phone number, and told me not to hesitate to call him if I had any further questions or needed anything at all.
* * *
"Dying is the most embarrassing thing that can happen to you, because someone's got to take care of your details," Andy Warhol once said. "You've died and someone's got to take care of the body, make the funeral arrangements, pick out the casket and the service and the cemetery and the clothes for you to wear and get someone to style you and put on the makeup. You'd like to help them, and most of all you'd like to do the whole thing yourself, but you're dead, so you can't."
* * *
Even before I met him and became a contributing editor of his magazine Interview in 1972, when it was still called Andy Warhol's Interview, I had always been somewhat repelled by the bloodless persona of Andy Warhol. Ronnie Tavel, the scriptwriter for some of his films, once called him a "humanoid," and that description seemed apt to me.
I remember standing with Andy one day in the lobby of 33 Union Square West, the building where The Factory used to be, waiting for the elevator. We had just had lunch at Brownie's, a nearby health food restaurant, and he was going on in that stammering way of his about how he wanted my wife and me to come to dinner with him at the Algonquin the following week because there were some people he wanted me to meet: "Uh, Candy Darling will be there, and Peter Beard, and, ah, Peter's uncle Jerome Hill. He's, um, old, very rich... gives us money for the films..."
But I just kept staring at his forehead, transfixed. As we stood there with the sunlight pouring in, twirling the dust particles around, I was noticing for the first time the netting, partially covered by pancake makeup, at his hair-line.
Up until that moment, I had not been aware that Andy's famous white hair was a wig, and I remember thinking that this strange mesh looked like the stitching on the Frankenstein monster...
* * *
What made me want to write something about William John Kennedy's photographs of Andy as soon as I saw them at Westwood Gallery, in Soho, a couple of weeks before I got the news about my sister, was that they made Andy look more human than he had ever appeared to me, either in person or in the many other pictures I had seen of him over the years. You could look at Kennedy's pictures and, for the first time ever, see past the cool humanoid image of the media celebrity to the pudgy little workingclass boy who grew up in industrial Pittsburgh, fantasizing about being Shirley Temple.
* * *
The last time I saw my sister was about ten years ago, when Jeannie and I went to North Carolina to be with her after her son, Charlie, who had recently graduated high school, died in an accident, along with his girlfriend and another boy who had been driving the car and had rammed it into a tree. Jeannie and I knew what Maureen and her husband Richie, a gentle, sentimental soul so devastated by grief that he would soon follow his son to the grave, were going through, having lost our own son, Holden, to AIDS a year or so earlier, just after his thirtieth birthday.
The last time I spoke to Maureen by phone was just a few days before she died. She sounded happy about the new life she was planning to make with Cathy, the woman that the deputy who called to notify me about her death had referred to as her "room mate". They had met some months earlier on the Internet and were thinking of moving together to Seattle, where Cathy's son lived.
"Hold on, Maureen, Jeannie wants to say hello," I said, never imagining it would actually be goodbye.
* * *
William John Kennedy met and started photographing Andy Warhol in 1964 at the original Factory on East 47th Streetthe one that we have all read and heard so much about. Unlike the Union Square Factory, which had polished wood floors and glass tables, and where the only bizarre touch was the big, stuffed Dalmatian dog standing like a sentry near the elevator, the 47th Street Factory had been a funky loft covered in silver foil.
At the Union Square Factory, which could have resembled any of the sleek fashion photographer's studios in the same area, there was some semblance of, if not security, exclusivityespecially after Andy was shot there in 1969. The "Silver Factory," however, had been a place where all manner of people came and went freely; where, on an ordinary day, one might have been hard put to tell the socialites from the transvestites, the debutantes from the drag queens.
Into this scene came William John Kennedy with his camera. Besides being a photographer, Kennedy was an avid scuba diver, free diver, and tennis playerthe kind of manly sporting type, a bit like Peter Beard, that Andy always admired from afar. By all accounts, he was a very personable young man, and one can only assume that Andy was quite captivated by him, given how willingly he assumed the poses that Kennedy suggested.
In one picture, he had Andy hold the acetate proofs for his silkscreen paintings of Marilyn Monroe in front of his body, so that the screen goddess not only appears to be superimposed over the artist in a manner that reflects the "off register" quality of his portraits, but also his wistful desire to don her glamour like drag. In another shot, Kennedy posed Andy standing on the Factory fire escape with two of his self portraits strapped over him like a sandwich- board, suggesting the blatant element of marketing that Andy, the former shoe illustrator, introduced into the formerly discreet business of fine art.
Even more surprising in terms of how willing Andy was to drop his untouchable stance for Kennedy's camera is a series in which Andy and the elfin actor Taylor Mead take turns sitting on each others' laps on the john in the tiny Factory water closet. In one picture, Taylor, a sort of fey Charlie Chaplin of the underground, even fashions a crown for Andy's head out of toilet paper. More businesslikeif one can put it that way is a contact sheet documenting the filming of the Warhol movie "Taylor Mead's Ass," with Taylor posing nude, like a harem girl, while Andy plans the shots and mans the camera.
But perhaps the most remarkable pictures in the exhibition, curated by James Cavello, the puckish co-director of Westwood Gallery, are the ones that Kennedy took of Andy standing in a field of flowers, cradling a big bouquet in his arms, with one of the flower paintings he was doing at that time propped up behind him.
Inspiration for this series, exhibited as large scale archival pigment prints, came about when Kennedy discovered a field of giant black-eyed Susans growing wild in a vacant lot in Queens, and somehow convinced Andy to go out there with him. It was chilly that day and instead of the black leather jacket that was his usual uniform back then, Andy is seen wearing a bulky gray cardigan sweater that belonged to the strapping young photographer. That the sweater, an uncharacteristic garment to begin with, is much too big for him, gives him a youthful, waif-like quality. Andy looks winsome, as though it is the most natural thing in the world for him to be standing in a field holding an armload of flowers.
This despite the fact that Andy Warhol was about as far from the hippie-go-lucky ethos of 1960s Flower Power, so prevalent around that time, as one could get. In fact, he had only painted flowers at the suggestion of his friend and mentor Henry Geldzahler, who felt that after Andy's earlier series of paintings of car crashes, it was time to lighten up a little.
* * *
Like Andy, I escaped my workingclass origins early. I became an artist, became a hippie, became a writer, and had a lot of senseless adventures in the wider world, as I traveled around writing feature stories on rock stars and movie stars for Rolling Stonemarveling all the while, like the proverbial fly on the wagon wheel, at all the dust "we" kicked up!
My sister, born three crucial years later, stayed at home and got stuck in the Crazy Glue of our family soap opera. As a kid, I'd had the privilege of spending my formative years in the culturally vital ghetto of the Lower East Side. My sister grew up in bland, conservative suburban Staten Island, where our parents had moved with all the best intentions, thinking they were moving up in the world, and where I touched down infrequently thereafter, like a visitor from another reality.
Well into her twenties, Maureen lived under the roof and unforgiving gaze of our mother, who applied much sterner standards to her daughter than to her son. In Irish workingclass families, it is generally accepted that boys drink, get into trouble, and make asses of themselves periodically or even often. But let a girl do the same and she's the next worst thing to Mary Magdalene.
* * *
My sister and I had a running joke about our father. It consisted simply of a punchline: "Ask your mother." Those were the famous last words with which he had invariably avoided making any decision regarding any of our childhood activities, and he grew even more noncommittal and distant as the years went on.
For awhile, after she was grown and was still living at home, Maureen waitressed in a Mafia nightclub on Staten Island modeled on the Playboy Clubs, where she was required to wear fishnet stockings and dress like a Playboy Bunnyonly without the patented cottontail and ears.
By the time her shift ended at four in the morning and she waited for another waitress to drive her home, our father, a longshoreman, had already left for his long commute by bus, ferry, and subway, to Pier 57 on the Manhattan waterfront. But Maureen had such a horror of him seeing her in that scanty costume that she always made sure to change back into her street clothes before going home. The single exception was one morning when her coworker was in a special hurry for some reason or other and she didn¹t have time to change.
She let herself into the foyer without making a sound, but she had to go through the kitchen to get to her room. And there was our father, sitting alone at the kitchen table in the dawn's early light, smoking a Lucky Strike and finishing his breakfast beer.
My sister never got over the way he looked at heras if it was the most natural thing in the world to see his daughter come creeping in at that ungodly hour, dressed like a dancehall floozy from the Old West and said, "Good morning, Maureen."
* * *
My sister could never find a way to get out on her own, until one day, years later, while still living at home, when she suddenly phoned from a nearby hospital to tell my mother that she had just given birth to a healthy baby boy. Although my mother had been noticing for awhile that Maureen appeared to be gaining weight, she had dismissed it as beer bloat, denial of all kinds having always run rampant in our family. Now, from the hospital, perhaps hoping to soften the moral blow for Mama (who would soon suffer a stroke), Maureen hastened to add that she had been secretly married to her boyfriend Richie for some time.
* * *
I never cared much for the people around Andy. Like me, most of them had grown up Catholic, and while I had no problem with individual Catholics, being around too many of them at the same time revived bad memories of catechism class. Andy himself actually still attended Sunday mass; his silkscreen assistant Gerard Malanga looked like a parochial school "Fonzie" from Mulberry Street; Paul Morrissey, who directed most of the later Factory films, reminded me of an about-to-be-defrocked Irish priest; and both editors of Interview that I worked with, Glenn O'Brien and Bob Colacello, were Catholics, too.
Colacello actually had a theory that we lapsed Catholics tended to gravitate to The Factory because the confession box and other religious ordeals of our upbringing had left us with a deliciously guilty "taste for decadence." Maybe so; although I tended to hang out mainly with the errant Jews in the Warhol orbit: Lou Reed, with whom I drank frequently and talked poetry; Fran Lebowitz, who'd complain to me at every party we went to about how boring and witless everybody around us was.
My friendships with these two, especially, impressed my sister, who was familiar with Fran from her appearances on Letterman and had seen Lou perform with his band on Saturday Night Live. One cousin would later tell me how bored she and her brothers got of listening to Maureen brag about all the famous people her Big Brother knew. And although I never would have admitted it, I felt a little sheepish hearing that, knowing how shamelessly I dropped names around my sister. I suppose I did so because she seemed to get off on the vicarious glamour of it all and, frankly, because I enjoyed impressing her with what a Big Shit I had become. (Maybe I was trying to make up for when we were kids and I was as tongue-tied and withdrawn as my little sister was cute and outgoing, and everybody always said, "Maureen's the one with the Personality.")
In truth, though, audacious as it may sound coming from someone raised on the pre-gentrified Lower East Side, when I went up to the Factory, I actually always felt like I was slumming. Aside from a handful of genuinely talented people who passed through there on the way to somewhere better, a lot of The Factory regulars struck me as pathetic exhibitionists who Andy exploited mercilessly, getting them to act out their psychodramas for his camera and then dropping them without ceremony as soon as their fifteen minutes was up.
And Andy himself, alternately fawning and bitchy, dithering and malevolent, always struck me as smaller than life. Nor did I have a particularly high opinion of his work, no matter what people like Arthur Danto said. And I still don't, despite Jan Avgiko¹s recent Village Voice review of "Dia's Andy: Through the Lens of Patronage," in which he raved, "It's a rare occasionthat Wow! moment when art stops you in your tracks and makes you forget everything you thought you knew."
Avgiko goes on to extol the show's "Spielbergian intensity," which I suppose is a high compliment if you happen to like Spielbergian schlock. It happens I do not, but I'll have to reserve judgment, not having seen the show at Dia yet. However, a few days before my sister died, I was passing one of those tacky frame shops with a lot of prints displayed haphazardly in the window, and saw among them one of Andy's Marilyns.
I wasn't sure if it was an original silkscreen or a reproduction of one, and didn't stop to find out because, when it came to Warhols, that had always struck me as a moot point anyway. All I thought was that it looked right at home where it was.
Then, right after I talked to that sheriff who called from North Carolina, while I was still shaking and all kinds of incongruous things were racing and colliding in my mind, and all I wanted was to run away from all that I knew it would now fall upon me to do, for some reason it occurred to me that the real substance of Andy Warhol's work may have to do with death, numbness, and avoidance. Belatedly, I was forced to consider that there might be more hidden depth to those banal, deadpan images than I had previously guessed...
And now when I look at William John Kennedy's photograph of Andy in a field of black-eyed Susans, holding a bouquet in his arms, all I can think is: Those flowers are for Maureen.