Read an Excerpt
The people who would come into the orbit of the Silver Factory grew up in America’s postwar years, an era of cultural conservatism and financial comfort. The handful of childhood snapshots that follow show the early lives of the people who would shape the Silver Factory. They appear in order of birth; Taylor Mead is the eldest, and Joe Dallesandro is the youngest.
Taylor Mead usually declines to state his age: “Sometimes I say I am thirty-seven, or vice versa.” In fact Mead was born at 3:30 p.m. on December 31, 1924. Raised in the wealthy Detroit suburb Grosse Pointe, he thought his social position was rather murky: “I felt like I grew up in the middle of the tracks,” he said. “In society yet outside of it.” His father, Harry Mead, ran Michigan’s Democratic Party: he was a political boss who effectively manipulated power and provided the force behind Detroit’s mayor, Frank Murphy. Harry Mead hated the Republicanism of Grosse Point, while his wife, Priscilla, aspired to its social life. Their conflict resulted in a separation shortly after Taylor was born, and he believes that it was only the stigma of impropriety and danger of abortion in the 1920s that allowed him to be born.
Taylor adored his mother and considered her “a cross between Irene Dunne and Mary Astor and Garbo.” Her social position depended on her charm, her beauty, and her talent as a pianist. “She was sort of one of the darlings of Grosse Pointe,” said Mead. “And as a result I hardly ever saw her. I was brought up by black maids.” Taylor would wait up late at night to hear the details of her evening at the country club or one of the grand houses of Grosse Point. Talking recently, he described himself as “a little boy with perfect clothes. His well-bred manners were peppered with bursts of outrageousness, which in retrospect he attributed to his insecurity over his equivocal social position. Even though the four-bedroom house he grew up in was altogether respectable, he was acutely aware that he lived on the edge of Grosse Pointe, and he didn’t belong to the country club. “I don’t think it bothered my brother so much, but it bothered me,” said Taylor. “Because I had fantasies of being a king.”
Taylor also had fantasies of travel. At the age of four he stowed away on a Greyhound bus because he wanted to ride on a bus and see the world. He walked up and down the aisles and chatted with the other passengers, and he seemed so at ease that it took a long time for anyone to realize he was alone. When he got to a little town called Washington Court, fifty miles from home, his family was notified. “There he was sitting on the steps of the hotel in his little red suit,” recalled Taylor’s older brother, Hudson. “He had wet himself, but he seemed very pleased at the publicity and being the center of attention.”
From the fifth grade on Taylor became the star of school plays, turning everything into comic theater. He was so natural and commanding a performer that one of the teachers wrote a play for him called Professor Obidiah J. Biddlebody. In seventh grade, while playing an African king, he did an impromptu wild dance that brought the audience to its feet. When he was elected class president of the ninth grade, Taylor conducted meetings with an absurdist Robert’s Rules of Order and insisted the class secretary sit on his lap. The teacher soon relieved him of his position, saying, “Taylor, you are conducting meetings in too much hilarity.”
Mead was erotically aware from the age of five—at least he knew that he wanted the neighbor boys to tie him up or wrestle. He had his first sexual experience when he was twelve. While watching a movie, the boy in the next seat put his hand in Taylor’s lap. Taylor immediately took him to a field outside the theater, under a full moon, and said, “Let’s wrestle and no holds above the belt.” Although he still didn’t know the mechanics of sexual penetration, he had an orgasm riding home on his bike, and he now knew the exciting feelings that would later shape his performing persona: he was beginning the transformation from “a little boy in perfect clothes” to a radical fag.
Andy Warhol sometimes said he was from McKeesport, sometimes from Philadelphia, and occasionally Hawaii; the birthdates he gave ranged from 1925 to 1931. When he imagined it in a 1971 film, Warhol said his mother gave birth to him alone at midnight in midst of a raging fire, and his first words were “Look at the sunlight.”
Julia Warhola never registered the birth of her son. It was not until after his death that Isabella du Collin Fresne tracked down his birth certificate and the truth became clear: Andrew Warhola was born on August 6, 1928, in the bedroom of Andrei and Julia Warhola on 73 Orr Street in Pittsburgh. Both parents had emigrated from a small mountain village in the Carpathian Mountains in Ruthenia, formerly in Czechoslovakia, now in Ukraine. Theirs was an extremely marginal nationality—the Warholas were not just emigrants but eastern European, and the obscure location of Ruthenia, looked down upon by neighboring countries, put them at the bottom of the ladder. Bram Stoker portrayed Ruthenians as God-fearing peasants in Dracula.
The lot of working-class immigrants got worse at the onset of the Depression. Andrei lost his regular job laying roads for the Eicheleay Corporation, and he was forced to support his family with odd jobs, while Julia did part-time housekeeping for two dollars a day. She supplemented this income by cutting up tin cans, fashioning them into flower sculptures, and selling them door to door for twenty-five cents.
Warhol later described his home as “the worst place I have ever been in my life.” The rooms in the brick row house were dark and cramped, and the five Warholas lived in these close quarters for six dollars a week. The apartment had a kitchen, bathroom, and two other rooms. Andy and his two older brothers slept in the same bed, and they bathed by sitting in a steel tub and pouring heated water over their bodies. Until Andy was eleven there was no radio, and so storytelling became the center of the Warhola home.
In the Ruska Dolina section of Pittsburgh little happened—it was a routine of work and church and making meals and sitting around. Andy grew to appreciate the slow pace of watching life. “Years ago people used to sit looking out of their windows at the street,” he said. “They would stay for hours without being bored although nothing much was going on. This is my favorite theme in movie making—just watching something happening for two hours or so.”
The loquacious Julia Warhola presided over the storytelling evenings. She was a maternal woman with a broad face, a gap between her front teeth and thick gray hair that had once been blond. She often fractured Bible stories, telling Andy about “Moses born in the bull,” and she created a myth of the days when, as an opera singer in Ruthenia, she had ridden from town to town on horseback belting out songs. She inevitably returned to her first meeting with Andrei, and the funny white coat and ribboned hat he wore on his wedding day. From the five-and-ten Julia bought comic books and read them aloud to her children in broken English. Andy became her main and devoted audience, and Julia noted that “Andy, he look like me. Funny nose.”
From an early age, Andy had had a pasty complexion and was prone to sickness. He had trouble with his eyes at the age of two, a broken arm at four, scarlet fever at six, and rheumatic fever at eight. A side effect in ten percent of rheumatic fever cases was Saint Vitus’ dance, a disorder of the central nervous system that resulted in a loss of physical coordination. Warhol was among that small group.
Andy’s hand used to shake when he wrote on the blackboard, and when his classmates made fun of him, he became afraid to go to school. His sickness bound him to his mother, and her universal solution for sickness was an enema, followed by a cabbage and short-ribs dish called kapushta. He always referred to these episodes as “nervous breakdowns,” and they figure prominently in his memory of his childhood.
These “nervous breakdowns” gave Andy uninterrupted time to cut and draw and think about movie stars. Julia plied him with movie magazines and coloring books and crayons. “Andy always wanted picture,” said Julia. “Comic books I buy him. Cut, cut, cut nice. Cut out picture. Oh, he like pictures from comic books. I went to five and ten by my house.” She rewarded him with a Hershey bar when he finished a page, and Andy grew to love sweets so much that she called him “my Andy Candy.” It was during these months that Andy began absorbing the contents of movie magazines. He fell in love with Shirley Temple, and he painted a picture of Hedy Lamarr from a Maybelline ad but decided he could not paint and threw it away. But the seeds were planted for his obsession with movie stars and colored pictures. In the colored pages of comic strips he also found men who attracted him, even if they were not flesh and blood. “I had sex idols—Dick Tracy and Popeye,” Warhol said. “My mother caught me one day playing with myself and looking at a Popeye cartoon . . . I fantasized I was in bed with Dick and Popeye.”
Julia Warhola went to mass every day and observed Sunday strictly as a day of rest. Andy spent many hours with his mother in St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church, where he absorbed religious images. The church was filled with incense and lit by rows of candles, and the lengthy liturgy was recited in Old Slavonic. Before Andy’s eyes stood the iconostasis screen, which divided the sanctuary from the rest of the church; gilt gold outlined the arrangements of religious icons and provided the background for the holy figures. In the Byzantine Catholic Church the visual image was venerated as the mediator between the believer and the holy figure—the presence of an icon offered contact with the divine. Andy first experienced art through the religious paintings in the church, the mass-produced holy pictures that filled the Warhola household, and the commemorative card of the Last Supper stuck in Julia’s Old Slavonic Prayer Book. This image would inspire his last paintings.
Andy’s anxieties about school resulted in part from his learning difficulties. He had problems reading and writing, and the style of his misspellings and his later alienation from words suggest that he was dyslexic. He was verbal as a very young child, and Julia remembered him as a “wild baby” who began talking early and chattered away more than her other children. But his verbal imagination did not transfer to writing and reading. Social fears also contributed to Andy’s school-phobia. He had problems with his skin: at eight he lost pigment, the other children called him “Spot,” and his red, bulbous nose prompted his brothers to call him “Andy the Red-Nosed Warhola.” Yet, Andy wanted to command attention, even at a young age. “I’ve always had a conflict because I’m shy and yet I like to take up a lot of personal space,” he said years later. “Mom used to say, ‘Don’t be pushy, but let everybody know you’re around.’ ” Andy had friends, most of them girls. He recalled not being close to anyone, “although I guess I wanted to be, because when I would see the kids telling one another their problems, I felt left out.” Andy’s outsider credentials had many dimensions: he was poor, dyslexic, eastern European, a mama’s boy with a big nose and pale splotchy skin, sick, and spastic.
Andy’s father, Andrei, was barely a presence at home, since he often worked twelve hours a day, six days a week. Andrei was eventually confined to bed as a result of peritonitis, and shortly before his death he left firm instructions. He had managed to save fifteen thousand dollars in postal savings bonds to pay for Andy’s first two years in college. When Andy was thirteen Andrei died in the night. The next morning Andy said that someone had awakened him by tickling his nose, and then he saw a body go out the door. That was his last sighting of his father, for Andy steadfastly refused to see his father laid out. He hid under his bed.
Andy was not an outstanding student—he graduated, ranked 51 in a class of 278, from Schenley High School—and was accepted by both the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Institute of Technology. He chose the second, for Carnegie Tech offered a highly developed program in painting and design. Julia moved from the front bedroom so that Andy could have a proper studio, and she cashed in Andrei’s postal savings bonds to pay the first-year tuition.
A few days after he celebrated his seventeenth birthday, Andy enrolled at Carnegie Tech, where he was regarded as the baby of the class. He had trouble with a freshman course called “Thought and Expression,” which required verbal skills. After his first year Andy was placed on probation and made up work in summer school. He stayed up at night to work in his room with the lights on because he was afraid of the dark. During the daytime he sold fruits and vegetables from the tailgate of his brother’s flatbed truck. In the process he came upon models for speed sketching. Taking about ten seconds for each subject, he would never move the pen from the paper. When he submitted his sketchbook, Andy was not only reinstated at Carnegie Tech but was awarded the forty-dollar Leisser Prize for best summer work by a sophomore. Over the next few years the faculty would repeatedly debate whether to drop Andy, but his supporters were ardent, and he polarized the faculty more than any other student in his class. Some of them appreciated the originality of his jagged line, and some wanted to protect his open naïve spirit. “He was like an angel in the sky at the beginning of his college times,” said his closest Carnegie friend, the artist Philip Pearlstein. “But only for then. That’s what college gets rid of.”
In addition to his art, Andy joined a film club called Outlines, where he heard lectures by underground filmmaker Maya Deren and composer John Cage. He became the art director for The Cano, an undergraduate literary magazine, and was the only male member of the Dance Club. He also began to experiment with his persona. He bought himself a cream corduroy suit that friends called the dream suit and painted his fingernails different colors. He sometimes called himself Andre.