Author of “Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up,” Bob Colacello spent 12 years as editor of Warhol’s Interview magazine and as a member of his inner circle. He’s a regular contributor to Vanity Fair magazine and wrote “Ronnie and Nancy: Their Path to the White House (1911-1980).” He will be in Pittsburgh for the 20th anniversary gala of The Andy Warhol Museum, mingling and signing copies of “Holy Terror,” which was first published in 1990 and has just been reissued.
In your book, you talk about how Andy Warhol had celebrities opening up in interviews because he was so fawning and star-struck. Don’t you think it helped that he was famous as well?
Yes, I think you are right — it was celebrity to celebrity. But Andy always played the fan to almost an exaggerated degree. He would just lay on the compliments and the “Oh gee,” and “Oh wow.” I think very often stars of some stature and even people not as famous would be taken aback, thinking, “This is the most famous artist in the world and he’s acting like I’m the big star.” When we would go backstage at the shows on Broadway and go out through the stage entrance, there would be all these professional autograph seekers. I said, “These people are so strange or creepy,” and Andy said, “Bob, don’t say that. That would be me if I wasn’t famous.”
You mention that fear was a determining factor in Andy’s life.
I think his biggest fear was of being poor again. Dirt poor, you know? Growing up not knowing if there was going to be enough money for food on the table. Andy told me that they would sometimes have salt and pepper soup. If they added a little ketchup, they had tomato soup. His mother was cleaning houses for a dollar a day. His father had died when [Andy] was 14. He was a coal miner and was often away. Andy never wanted to go back and feared that very much.
Growing up in a tough neighborhood in Pittsburgh, he was the sickly, effeminate child who, I think, was given a hard time by some of the local kids until he turned that around by drawing their portraits. He was 9 or 10 years old and had a natural gift for drawing.
I met him two years after he’d been shot three times in the gut close up by this mad woman. I think that would make anybody afraid to leave the house.
What about his fear of intimacy? Did it have to do with being gay and the era he grew up in?
Yeah, it is hard for people to realize today how forbidden homosexual sex was and being raised in a very Catholic family would only compound those feelings of guilt and shame. Andy didn’t even like to be touched by people. When I saw a photograph of Andy putting his arm around Jean-Michel Basquiat, I was stunned. Andy didn’t put his arm around people. Andy didn’t really even shake hands with people. He always had his tape recorder and his camera in his hand or a copy of Interview. I now think that Andy might have had Asperger’s [a form of autism].
Yes, some of his behavior falls into that category.
On one of the first trips I went with him and Fred [Hughes] and Jed [Johnson] to Paris, I came back from shopping and Andy was asleep on his bed. He was fully dressed including his cowboy boots. So I started to pull his boots off, and he woke up and said, “Bob what are you doing?” I said, “I thought you’d be more comfortable.” He said, “Oh no, no, don’t do that.” He used to say all the time that he wanted to be a machine. He didn’t want to have emotion and if he had emotions he’d have a nervous breakdown.
He doesn’t seem like a person who felt empathy even if he understood it.
There was a coldness there, which was partially defensive and an act — you know, I’m the super-cool pop artist. But I think he was defensive because he didn’t really seem to know how people communicated and more so on an intimate level. He really seemed to be always trying to figure that out. He was always tape recording and interviewing all of us around him about the details of our private lives or every aspect of our lives. He had this curiosity that was almost abnormal.
Like an alien among us?
Yes, like he was from Mars! He did have this desire to record everything that happened to him and everybody around him and if he could have, almost the entire human race. I mean, he was just relentless in his tape recording and photographing. He was obsessive about this need to record everything.
How do you think he would have reacted to the Internet? Do you think he would have ever left the computer?
You know, I hadn’t thought about that [laughs]. He might have just been swallowed up whole by the Internet. He certainly would have been constantly instagram-ing, blogging. He would have probably had Pat Hackett or me do it for him and coming up with lines that actually sounded like him or taking a line he said and turning it into a paragraph.
He was so into Hollywood and I know he wanted to make movies. But did he ever want to act?
I don’t think he ever had a desire to act, but he did become a male model in the 1980s. Andy was sort of obsessed by beauty. Jed Johnson could have been a major male model. He was so handsome and I think when he left Andy, out of spite Andy thought, “Well, I’ll show Jed I can be a beauty. I can be a model.”
But I never heard Andy say he wanted to act. He refused to go on television. He sent a surrogate. He would not go on the talk shows.
He could be considered a corrupting influence on newbies, including you. Do you think he took pleasure in that?
I would say, and I can only speak for myself, but I think I was willing to be corrupted [laughing]. It was the times. Most of the people he hired were in their early 20s. We had gone to college. It was in the ’70s and late ’60s [during] the sexual revolution, and the whole counter culture movement was at its height. It wasn’t like we were a bunch of choir boys he was seducing. I don’t think any of us could have worked for Andy so closely and been able to collaborate on his various projects if there wasn’t a certain similar aesthetic sensibility.
There was a side of Andy that liked to see people self-destruct. Knowing Brigid Berlin had a drinking problem, he would ask her to go buy some Irish whiskey and make some Irish coffee on a cold day and then wonder why she couldn’t stop after one drink. He loved pushing my buttons by saying something totally ridiculous and insisting he was right until I screamed at him like he was a little child.
In the 1970s Andy wanted to sell more. He felt he was slipping. Was shock his weapon?
In the ’70s, Andy was not very successful in America, but he was super successful in Europe. The commissioned portraits, which were sort of the ongoing bread and butter of the Factory in the ’70s, were financing Interview and were financing the video projects. Andy was looked down upon by the serious art world, by the curators at [the Museum of Modern art] and the intellectual art critics like Robert Hughes and Barbara Rose. Doing portraits of rich society people in 1978 was considered so late 19th century.
So he thought by doing the more X-rated imagery he was being avant-grade. The New York gay club scene was very extreme before the onset of AIDS. Andy was really recording what was going on in a certain segment of the gay world. Not only the gay world. There was Plato’s Retreat [a swingers club in New York], which was this orgy palace. It was a pretty decadent era.
What about Studio 54?
Studio 54 was tame compared to what was going on in these places downtown.
Do you think he enjoyed doing portraits the most?
I think all his artwork was portraiture. You see that most clearly in the screen tests. Even [the film] “Empire” is a portrait of a building. The camera didn’t move. Yeah, I think Andy was fascinated by people and trying to understand what they were about. He did want to turn everyone into a beauty, which is why the commissioned portraits were so successful. He would take 10 or 20 rolls of film from every which angle until the client saw a picture where they looked like a glamorous version of themselves. He ultimately wanted all the commissioned portraits put together as one big painting called “Portrait of Society.” That is why they all had to be 40 by 40 inches, so they could all fit together.
So how did you end up feeling about Andy?
My feelings have changed over the years. Now I have a much wider and wiser perspective on things. I now see the Warhol years as probably the greatest education I could have ever had. Ultimately, I feel sort of sorry for him as a human being. We all felt protective of Andy. It was one of the reasons we extended ourselves to such a degree — you know, ghost writing his books and letting him call my photographs his photographs.
When I wrote the book in 1990, I was more angry and emotional. There was a period where I never wanted to hear the name Andy Warhol again. When the book first came out, I didn’t really like it. Now I am glad I did write it and record not only Andy’s world but that era. It seems so far away now.
Patricia Sheridan: email@example.com or 412-263-2613. Follow her on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/pasheridan.