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Joseph Freeman and Andy WarholPhotograph ©Nat Finkelstein Estate / Courtesy Elizabeth Murray Finkelstein

What Andy Warhol was really like, by the people who knew him best

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From never taking his wig off to being far from asexual, the artist’s nephews, friends, and colleagues share their memories of ‘the real Andy’

There are many Andy Warhols in the popular imagination: artistic innovator, power-hungry socialite, obsessive collector, or just the awkward, wig-wearing, and softly-spoken gay man who was perhaps one of the least likely people to become so famous. 

Opening this week, the new Andy Warhol retrospective at the Tate Modern tries to unpick these mythologies, and also asks: what is there left to say about someone who has been so tirelessly talked about? The show’s curators respond by focussing on the autobiographical aspects of Warhol that we don’t hear so much on; his family background – he was born in Pittsburgh to immigrants from the former Czechoslovak Republic, his religion – the family were Carpatho-Rusyn, an Eastern European branch of Byzantine Catholicism, and his queerness – people often described Warhol as asexual, but if you look at his work closely, or listen to those who knew him, a different story emerges. (Namely one of a guy who made paintings out of semen and had deep and loving long term gay relationships.)

The Tate show also features Warhol’s early drawings of male nudes from the 1950s, exhibits a wide collection of the series “Ladies and Gentleman” – portraits of New York’s transgender community including Marsha P. Johnson, and places his late works “Sixty Last Suppers” in the context of the HIV/Aids epidemic. In other words, it does a lot more than offer the usual look at Warhol’s pop-art against the cultural climate of the 1960s and 70s America (although there is that too). 

At the beginning of the year, I travelled to New York City and Pittsburgh to talk to some of the people who knew Warhol best, about his family, religion, sexuality and more. His nephews recall how his working-class upbringing motivated his wild ambition. Corey Tippin, the man who cast “Ladies and Gentleman”, remembers what it was like to be part of Warhol’s Factory entourage, as well as being there the day that Warhol was shot, and Joseph Freeman, his teenage apprentice, explains what it was like behind the walls of Warhol’s home.

DONALD WARHOLA, NEPHEW

“I knew Andy from when I was born until he died when I was 24. My grandparents, Andy’s parents, Ondrej and Julia, were from, what is now, present-day Slovakia, a peasant family with a basic lifestyle. Ondrej immigrated to Pittsburgh in 1912 and Julia followed nine years later. Paul was born in 1923, John, my father in 1925 and uncle Andy was born in 1928. They lived in the Czech ghetto. Some people didn’t have running water and there was a high infant mortality rate. My father used to tell this story that in Pittsburgh if you wore a white shirt you’d have to change it by midday because of the smog from all the industry. 

“People say that Andy was shy, that he wasn’t comfortable talking about himself, only his art. But he wasn’t shy around our family. I remember he had a great sense of humour – he always said offbeat things and he liked to get a reaction from you. When my grandma was alive we’d stay with Andy but later he’d put us up in a hotel. My dad was like, ‘Gee, I saw the doorman and he remembered my first name! That’s probably because of you, Andy!’ And Andy was like, ‘it’s probably because you forgot to tip him’. I know someone who knew Andy said that he never touched anyone – that’s not my memory at all. He felt comfortable with his family.

“When it comes to religion and the family, I always say he didn’t talk the talk but he walked the walk. He was very Christian in the conventional sense, a caring person. He did charity work, but he didn’t go public with it. I don’t think he wanted it to be part of his image as Warhol... if you knew he was a family man. Religious, exercised, and ate healthily, that was boring, right? I remember he would kneel down and say a prayer each day when I would visit him. And what was he praying for? Not for money but to come home safe from work. As my grandmother used to say, ‘your life is on a thread, it’s precious’. When he went to Church, he didn’t take communion, but I don’t think Andy felt like he was damned because he was gay… or he wouldn’t have continued with his religious beliefs. I think he was able to rationalise Catholicism, mixing and matching with the god he saw, and also the bigger picture. When he died, my father asked if we could have the funeral at the family church and the priest said no because of Andy’s ‘lifestyle’ – they didn’t mean gay, I think they meant everything else. 

 “I remember one time I told him I was making business cards and he laughed, ‘a business card won’t get you more work!’ – he was a marketing genius” – Donald Warhola

“After college, I worked for him for four months from August 1986. I had just finished at the University of Pittsburgh and went up to visit the Factory and noticed there were no computers, so I suggested he get computerised. I helped them go from paper, pencil, Rolodex, and typewriter to Word Processor. Mostly for Interview Magazine. He said I could come and work for him full time but when I went home for Thanksgiving, he got ill and passed away. He wasn’t bad or really tough as a boss. But I worked hard – if I slacked off, he would have not been happy with me. He had a very strong work ethic, he didn’t expect you to match it because it was so strong, but he wanted you to do your best. 

“I remember one time I told him I was making business cards and he laughed, ‘a business card won’t get you more work!’ – he was a marketing genius. He built the Andy Warhol brand. I think he learned that from grandma who would make small crafts, like a Campbell’s Soup can filled with papier-mâché flowers and sold them in the posh neighbourhoods. He told my father in the 1950s that he wanted to leave behind an artwork that cost a million dollars – which at that time was even more than it is now! 

“Sometimes I think about what it would be like if Andy were around today, in the time of social media. He would have had a breakdown. He wouldn’t have wanted to miss a single tweet.”

JAMES WARHOLA, NEPHEW 

“My dad Paul would gather us up three times a year to visit Andy in New York. Mostly because Andy lived with my grandmother and she missed her grandkids. I asked my dad, ‘did you used to call ahead?’ And he said, ‘no – it was a surprise!’ Andy would be surprised but always very accommodating. He’d invite us in, we’d go down to the kitchen, my grandmother would cook us a meal, some of us would sleep on cushions on the floor, and once I even slept in the room with all the soup can boxes.

“When I was eight and my brother was 10, Andy would make us work in the basement when we visited – we were like the first Factory workers. He did pop paintings in there, drippy ones in the beginning, and then someone told him they should be harder-edged so he rolled them up and started on the soup cans as we know them. Andy’s dad was a workaholic – I think that’s where Andy got it. And he got his creativity from his mum. He even put her to work, signing his paintings. He would say to her in Rusyn, ‘have you finished mom?’

“On those visits, I never saw him without a wig on but my sister once did… she said he screamed, ‘get out!’ and threw a handkerchief over his head. He was very self-conscious about being bald. I think his feelings about the way he looked made him work harder – it made it about something else, took the attention off his appearance. 

“After the shooting Andy changed a little. He was more cautious and the studio got more corporate” –  James Warhola

“When I graduated from school in Pittsburgh I lived in New York for ten years before he died, and I’d sometimes visit him at the studio. I lived in Long Island City and he lived in Manhattan. I was trying to be an illustrator and in the beginning, he said, ‘you shouldn’t be doing illustration, it’s a dying art form – you should be going to California and being a film director!’ This was the 70s. I always wanted to be an illustrator like Andy. I actually went to the same college as him, where he studied illustration. They were always telling Andy stories, like how he’d come into school with a project and it would upset everybody, cause a commotion because he was always doing something different to what he was asked to do. 

“When Andy got shot in 1968, it was distressing for our family. I remember when we got the news in Pittsburgh my father went to New York real quick. At the hospital, the doctors said Andy had a 50/50 chance, but he made it through that first night. After the shooting, Andy changed a little. He was more cautious and the studio got more corporate. It wasn’t as wild as it used to be. I think he was scared of meeting new people and instead of the door being open at the studio you’d get buzzed in and they’d be looking at you through a camera. He probably wouldn’t admit that his work changed but I think in a subtle way it became more conservative and he did more society portraits as bread and butter jobs.”

COREY TIPPIN, FRIEND

“There used to be an underground West Village newspaper called The Village Voice. They had a gossip column and The Factory posted their phone number there saying, “we’re going to make a movie called Romeo and Juliet, it’s a western, if you’re young and have no ambitions to be an actor please call”. So my mother called. They summoned me to The Factory. I went, walked into the room and it was empty. Then Paul Morrissey came out of the shadows, then Fred Hughes, then Andy. He invited me to a party that night – he said it’s a party for Betsey Johnson and John Cale, they just got married. So I went. Billy Name was at the party taking pictures. He put together a book later called All Tomorrow’s Parties and I’m on the back cover with my friend Jay, who was a twin – his brother Jed lived with Andy. 

“My first impression of Andy was… anyone who wears a wig is a person I want to know. And he wasn’t wearing it like a diamond salesman or used car salesman – he was wearing an obvious, crazy wig! (Not that he talked about it ever.) I saw him fall asleep on a plane once and it went crooked and I was so embarrassed, I had to tell someone else: ‘Tell Andy his wig is crooked!’ I knew who Andy was, of course, but I wasn’t intimidated. I always said to myself, ‘If you’re nervous, pretend you’re in a movie, pretend the cameras are on and you have to wing it’. Besides, I was more interested in the girls than Andy; Jane Holzer, Ultra Violet, Viva, International Velvet. Because they were all so beautiful. But I knew Andy was in the middle of it all. 

“What revealed itself over time, was not so much about him or me but about longevity in that kind of life… if you’re part of an entourage, how do you stay relevant? You have to really work hard. Everyone’s got an expiration date. Even drag queens. And the drag queens were trouble sometimes because they didn’t have a lot of money or they didn’t have a place to stay. So he stopped using drag queens. But I remember people always just wanted to get close to him. I mean eventually, someone shot him because they were stalking and obsessed with him! 

“I was 17 then. I was a teenager, and often I felt like something was wrong with me, or I felt bitter. How much crazier could I act? What crazy thing could I do next for them to notice me?” – Corey Tippin

“I had a date at the Factory that day with Fred Hughes to go to lunch. I was at Max’s Kansas City and I left, crossed Union Square, and something was amiss. There was a hot dog cart turned on its side and there was a lot of noise, people were congregating. I could see Fred signalling down from the Factory. And then Viva shows up out of the subway, and she had been talking to Andy on the phone when he got shot. She was hysterical… and people were like: ‘That’s his wife!’ So we got in the building, into the elevator, she was screaming and crying, and then we got up there and the cops were like, ‘You cannot come in!’ We went back down… nobody really knew what had happened. If I had been half an hour earlier I might not be talking to you. 

“I was 17 then. I was a teenager, and often I felt like something was wrong with me, or I felt bitter. How much crazier could I act? What crazy thing could I do next for them to notice me? I was acting up. I was hanging out with a fashion crowd. They loved it, but one day I woke up and was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore’, I had to bail. In 1968, I was doing a modelling job in Paris and decided to move there. I still saw Andy from time to time because Fred Hughes – the best public relations person ever – made the liaison between Paris and Andy, all those rich aristocrats wanting to spend money. He introduced Andy to Yves Saint Laurent and they both had these weird shy personalities that clicked. Andy decided to do a movie there, buy an apartment there and fill it with furniture. I think he just decided to do the movie so that he could write off all the furniture as an expense. The film was L’Amour.

“I was in Paris for five years, 1969 to 1974, when I came back, that’s when I bailed for good.”

JOSEPH FREEMAN, APPRENTICE 

“I first saw him on the cover of Tape Recording magazine. I was 13 years old, living in Brooklyn and obsessed with tape recorders. I was like, ‘I got to meet this guy!’ So I decided to interview him for my high school newspaper. I got on the subway and went to the Museum of Modern Art. I was a little kid asking, ‘how do I meet Andy Warhol’ and people were laughing but they said, ‘you have to go to Leo Castelli Gallery’. So I walked up to this gallery, saw the receptionist and said I wanted to interview Andy Warhol. They called up the Factory, put Andy on the phone and he says, ‘come this Sunday at one o’clock.’ I immediately went to my high school newspaper and said, ‘If I could interview Andy Warhol, could you make me a reporter?’ – because I wasn’t even a reporter – and they said, ‘if you could interview Andy Warhol, you’re a reporter!’

“I went to the Factory, which was on 47th Street (called the Silver Factory today), and he wasn’t there. Paul Morrissey was there and said, ‘get out of here – this isn’t the right place for you!’ But I sat and waited, and at six o’clock he walked in,  and everybody at the Factory gravitated to him as if the sun came into the room. I said, ‘I gotta go home to eat dinner with my parents’. So he said, ‘come next Sunday, I promise to be here’. And that’s what I did. I brought my tape recorder and we chatted for about two hours and he essentially turned the tables and interviewed me. I brought the tape back to my high school newspaper and they published an article called: “Andy Warhol interviews Bay Times reporter.”

“I had to go and get photos for the article, then I went back to show him the article. Believe me, I kept making excuses to go back! One day we were sitting down and talking, he said, ‘you know, I need somebody to wake me up every day – this way, I could get to the Factory on time because they’re always complaining that I don’t.’ I said: ‘Of course I’ll do that!’

“The thing that I want to say about Andy was, he was a magical person. He was a Peter Pan-like figure. Everybody loved him” – Joseph Freeman

“The first day I knocked on this door and his mother answered. She had a bunch of cats down by her legs. She put me in the front parlour room and I waited at Andy’s desk. There was a bunch of circus paraphernalia. A big head like you would see bouncing around in an amusement park. And then at his desk, there were magazines piled up high – the magazines that he did shoe advertisements for; Mademoiselle, Glamour and Vogue – and The National Enquirer, which spoke about aliens and three-headed babies at that time. He was extraordinarily well-read. He read all the new books and all the newspapers and then when he got in front of the press he was a one-word person. 

“Eventually, I started answering his phones like a switchboard operator – Lance Loud would call a lot and Brigid Berlin – as well as opening up his mail. I never went up to Andy’s bedroom in the three years, but I could hear him shaving, eating Cheerios, getting ready. We’d get a cab right on Lexington Avenue. For the rest of the day, I was a gopher, getting him magazines, burgers, art supplies (he told people we used cheap materials but we used the best!) I’d go to the used bookstore to get pictures for him to make paintings from. He paid me $30 a week and I had to go to Max’s Kansas City to cash the cheques. Believe you me, I wasn’t the only one who was paid very low wages. Everybody that worked there was paid very little. I had to go home every day at five o’clock because my parents wanted me back and Andy was very mindful of it. I wasn’t allowed to go out to any of the evening events until maybe my last year there, 1967. And it was to my great regret because a lot of things happened at night. But, you know, as a 13-year-old, I was exposed to a lot of things that maybe I shouldn’t have – people taking drugs, smoking pot – but I don’t think I was negatively affected by it. 

“It was still against the law to be a homosexual then. So Andy really skirted around the issue and didn’t come out until years later. But the Factory was a good place to be gay in a city that was not particularly nice to gay people. Sometimes I would call him up and ask him, what are you doing? And he would joke, ‘sucking cock!’ I remember there was a YMCA opposite the Factory and everyone used to watch the guys in there working out. When I was older, Andy tried to discourage me from going out with a woman but it wasn’t going to happen.

“The thing that I want to say about Andy was, he was a magical person. He was a Peter Pan-like figure. Everybody loved him. He was a very delicate person. I find it hard to believe some of the accusations of manipulations later on. Although I will say that, if he decided he didn’t like you, you were iced. He didn’t even have to say anything. You just felt you weren’t welcome in the Factory anymore. He was like a rock star before we really knew what a rock star was – wearing boots, leather, dungarees, and a suede or denim jacket, and sunglasses. He wore vintage clothing before anyone else did – a kind of casual chic, he looked like he popped right out of bed. To me, he was the coolest guy, and he knew everybody. When I met him, he was 38 years old, but you would have thought he was in his twenties. He was the sweetest, nicest guy. He was genuinely interested in creative people and he gave everyone a chance.”

Andy Warhol is at Tate Modern from 12 March – 6 September 2020