Andy & Me: Living Vicariously Through The Andy Warhol Diaries
Andy Warhol paved the way for so much current pop culture it’s impossible to measure his impact. He smudged the line between commercial and fine art with his silkscreen paintings from the early Sixties: the Elvises, Marilyns and Jackies that first made him famous (for longer than fifteen minutes). He envisioned the reality TV concept when he made ad hoc, shot-on-the-cheap, boring-on-purpose underground movies with self-explanatory titles such as Sleep, Kiss, Screen Test and Blow Job.
He sponsored The Velvet Underground at the onset of their career, and then watched as they spawned several successive generations of rock and roll musicians. On a broader canvas, Andy Warhol promoted gender fluidity and LGBTQ culture throughout his life. Despite his extreme (at times neurotic) sense of personal privacy, he made no effort to conceal his own gay identity, beginning at a time when homosexuality was far from accepted in the art world let alone America at large. And he foregrounded his deep, obsessive fascination with celebrity; first in his artwork and later in the pages of his magazine, Andy Warhol’s Interview. Throughout the Seventies, Andy tape-recorded conversations at parties while snapping thousands of Polaroid photos — social media posts in search of a platform! Published two years after he died at age 58 in 1987, much of The Andy Warhol Diaries reads like well, uhm, I guess Twitter.
I never met Andy Warhol. Yet I feel an odd affinity with him, a connection that extends beyond revering his aesthetic accomplishments. Full disclosure: Andy and I stood in the same room at a Manhattan night club several times during the Eighties. And how many other people can say that? Thousands? Perhaps by then Andy wasn’t quite as choosy about where he hung out as he once had been.
“I had a death threat. I’ll get to it.”
— Monday May 4 1981, The Andy Warhol Diaries
Memorials and memoirs, reminiscences and revisionist histories, mash notes and poison pen letters began to accumulate on the Andy Warhol shelf in the years following his death. I might’ve ignored The Andy Warhol Diaries, edited by Pat Hackett, if not for Martin Amis’ evaluation on the cover of The New York Times Book Review in June 1989.
“On most mornings, Andy Warhol called his former secretary, Pat Hackett, and rambled on for a while about what he did the day before. She made ‘extensive notes,’ she explains, and ‘typed them up while Andy’s intonations were fresh in my mind.’ So that’s what we’re looking at here: 800 pages, half a million words, of Andy’s intonations. But it works, somehow.”
Martin Amis’ review of The Andy Warhol Diaries works both as a critical assessment of this singular volume and its sui generis author as well as a wide-roaming, precisely articulated essay that touches down on art, social aspiration, masculinity, and the cultural differences between the Seventies and Eighties while nailing the poignance and ambivalence of Andy’s public persona. (It’s available in the Amis collection The War Against Cliche.)
“And after awhile you begin to trust the voice — Andy’s voice, this wavering mumble, this ruined slur. It would seem that The Andy Warhol Diaries thrives on the banal, for in the daily grind of citizenship and dwindling mortality, the nobody and somebody are one. Meanwhile, here comes everybody, or at least everybody who is somebody.”
Andy’s Diaries resonate for me as a touchstone: the granular document of a rarified but somehow not uncommon Manhattan lifestyle, and a cautionary tale for young strivers just setting out in the city.
The early pages are unpromising. Beginning in 1976, the chronological entries find the artist spending much of his time on the make, hustling portrait commissions from the upper crust in Europe and the Upper East Side of Manhattan, accompanied by Fred Hughes and/or Interview editor Bob Colacello, often supplemented by a well-born female companion.
The Diaries find their rhythm during 1977–78, as the disco era reaches a dizzying peak and Studio 54 commands national media attention. Andy’s morning-after recounts of his nights out with the gang — Halston, Liza Minelli, Bianca Jagger, Truman Capote, Steve Rubell — spill over with dishy bon mots and astringent social observations. It’s the most entertaining section by far though not immune to a subtle, mounting sense of disquiet. Warhol’s admitted use of substances — slyly rubbing cocaine on his gums and quaffing a comped vodka or three — gets eclipsed by the gargantuan intake of almost everybody else hanging out with him. Lurking around the corner is an extended hangover, aka the Eighties.
Andy’s next decade gets off to a rocky start. Calling Warhol emotionally reticent is a gross understatement, so just the fact that he mentions his breakup with romantic partner Jed Johnson, after nearly a decade of cohabitation, is remarkable. Characteristically, the acknowledgments are terse. Tension between the couple had already surfaced throughout the Studio 54 heyday, yet these premonitions are scant preparation for readers and, one senses, the diarist himself. From Sunday, December 21, 1980:
“Jed’s decided to move out and I don’t want to talk about it.”
Despite their twenty year age difference, Jed Johnson by all accounts (including Andy’s) had grown exhausted and alienated by his middle-aged partner’s ceaseless social whirl and longed for a more stable home life and career, which he found. In the ensuing decade, Jed Johnson established himself as an interior designer; he died in the 1996 TWA Flight 800 crash.
Andy Warhol, judging from the Diaries, spent the remaining seven years of his life emotionally adrift. He pursued unrequited, borderline-obsessive romances with increasingly younger men, most notably the thirty-ish film executive Jon Gould, and fell back on that tried-and-true big city method of filling one’s life: going out too much. Martin Amis, again:
“Andy went everyplace that was anyplace — or not even.”
Every night, there was something to do — especially if you were Andy Warhol. With his every-shifting crew of companions (mostly Interview staffers in their twenties), Andy turns up at benefits, concerts, movie screenings, art openings, dinner parties and all manner of hazily defined “events” at nightclubs. As the decade lumbers on, Andy had less time for his peers and old pals (and vice versa), perhaps understandably preferring the energy and input of people young enough to be his children. Broadly speaking, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were his children; they incorporated and furthered his legacy before their own brief, brilliant careers both ended in tragedy.
And we don’t have to regard Andy Warhol as a vampire or bad influence to observe that his two main inheritors, alongside his encouragement, also on occasion received his snarky wasp-stings.
Tuesday, October 2 1984 : “Jean-Michel came over to the office to paint but he fell asleep on the floor. He looked like a bum lying there. But I woke him up and he did two masterpieces that were great.”
Monday October 29 1984: “So we drove up to 90th Street and East River Drive to see the mural that Keith had done. It’s like 2 1/2 feet wide and 200 feet long, like three blocks long. He painted it white and sprayed little black and red figures, but it would have been better just silver. It doesn’t make the city look better, really.”
A couple years after first reading The Andy Warhol Diaries, I attended a party hosted by a former neighbor in the East Village. By this time, the early Nineties, I was newly married and living across town, pursuing a less hectic social life than I had during the Eighties. I was happy to see my friend though as the night progressed, or devolved, it appeared that she (and I) were roughly ten years older than most of the guests at her party. Without judging her, or assuming everyone should tread the same path through life, I half-consciously decided right then and there not to conduct my thirties in the same way as I had my twenties.
Getting stuck in a youthful moment — longing to live on the cusp of ambition, clinging to that all-things-are-possible flash of pure unrealized potential — is the unenviable fate of the middle-aged bohemian. The last pages of The Andy Warhol Diaries illuminate this dilemma. By the end Andy sleepwalks, dutifully trudging across the Manhattan club circuit, miming the nightly charade of fabulousness. Living vicariously through ever-younger friends, no matter how devoted they are, comes with a set of severe built-in limitations. The emotional returns only diminish over time.
Roaming the Upper West Side of Manhattan on an undistinguished day during the pandemic year of 2020, I walked past a public middle school. It was closed but student art projects were visible behind a fence. “Haring and Basquiat” read the sign above, though that was unnecessary as the graffiti-inspired sculpture and Godzilla-with-crown painting on display made for instantly recognizable homages to the two deceased artists. I realized that my peers Keith and Jean-Michael, gone more than thirty years now, were no longer Andy Warhol’s inheritors but his stand-ins, the definition of an artist for today’s young people: the new Warhols. Art is eternal, even if artists aren’t.