As Pop Art’s iconic figurehead, Andy Warhol’s arresting and exuberant work shocked and inspired in equal measure.
But in June 1968, it was Warhol’s private life that became front-page headlines when he was shot and almost killed by a woman campaigning for a world without any men in it.
Her name was Valerie Solanas and she was 32 years old, a former habituee of The Factory, Warhol’s studio in New York, who had appeared in one of Warhol’s films, called I, A Man.
Wounded Warhol: The artist shows his operation scars and the surgical corset he had to wear. Years before hospitals had trauma specialists, by pure chance Warhol had ended up in the hands of a highly trained thoracic surgeon who knew all about bullets
He later said he cast her because he felt sorry for her and wanted to give her a chance to make $25.
Solanas, who dropped out of university in the Fifties and sometimes lived on the New York streets, liked to rent a room at a notorious beatnik artists’ hangout, the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street, when she had cash in her pocket.
Solanas was the founder and sole member of S.C.U.M. — the Society for Cutting Up Men. Its manifesto proclaimed three aims: ‘To effect a complete female takeover, to end the production of males. To begin to create a swinging, groovy, out-of-sight female world. To end this hard, grim, static, boring male world and wipe the ugly, leering male face off the map.’
The first face to go would be Warhol’s. He wasn’t the only one in her sights, though.
‘I’m going to get all you men,’ she told songwriter Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground.
But it was Warhol who obsessed her. And as a comprehensive new biography recounts, she wrote him venomous letters, addressing him as Toad and A. Warhol, Asshole.
Warhol is pictured in 1970. As Pop Art’s iconic figurehead, Andy Warhol’s arresting and exuberant work shocked and inspired in equal measure
On June 3 she arrived at Warhol’s new Union Square studio before lunch and took the elevator to the sixth floor.
Her appearance uninvited caused no concern. Anybody could wander in or out of the studio. Warhol even greeted her, and complimented her on her appearance.
He introduced her to the art critic Mario Amaya, who thought she looked ‘creepy and quiet and moody and peculiar’ — and thus no different from the rest of the Factory freaks.
But when Amaya turned away to find a cigarette, he heard some loud bangs. His first thought was that the building must be under fire from a sniper outside.
He yelled ‘Hit the floor’, then Warhol shouted: ‘Oh Valerie, no, no.’
Her first shots had gone wide. The artist dived for cover behind a desk, smacking his head in the process. Solanas came close and took another shot at point-blank range, just inches from Warhol’s leather jacket. This time she didn’t miss.
Solanas was the founder and sole member of S.C.U.M. — the Society for Cutting Up Men. Its manifesto proclaimed three aims: ‘To effect a complete female takeover, to end the production of males. To begin to create a swinging, groovy, out-of-sight female world. To end this hard, grim, static, boring male world and wipe the ugly, leering male face off the map’
‘Guns are so quick,’ Warhol said, months later.
‘A person comes in with a gun and there’s not time to think.’
Solanas fired more shots, at Amaya. One bullet scored his back. Wounded, he managed to flee.
Solanas departed via the elevator. Behind her she left Warhol, screaming in pain on the floor and trying to draw air into his ruptured lung.
Fred Hughes, Warhol’s manager, tried to give the artist mouth-to-mouth — not the recommended treatment for someone who is conscious and still breathing. It’s guaranteed agony with a chest wound.
‘My life didn’t flash in front of me or anything,’ Warhol recalled. ‘It was too painful.’
Warhol’s acolyte Billy Name, who had been working in a darkroom, emerged to see his friend ‘lying there in a pool of blood. I went to him and took him up in my arms and I started crying’.
Mistaking Name’s sobs for guffaws, Warhol said to him: ‘Oh Billy, don’t make me laugh, it hurts too much.’ The ambulance did not arrive for 20 minutes and by then he was unconscious.
Mother who came to stay… for 20 years
One day in 1952, Julia Warhola came to New York to visit her son Andy Warhol (he had lost the ‘a’ on his surname as a teenager, eager to downplay his ethnic roots). She didn’t leave again for two decades.
She told his friends: ‘I come here to take care of my Andy and when he’s OK I go home.’
She added that she believed he might never be able to cope without her. After all, the day she arrived, hadn’t she found 97 unwashed shirts stuffed into a cupboard?
Warhol agreed to let Julia stay for a few days until, he said, he could get a new burglar alarm fitted. His friends were baffled at first.
Shocked: Julia is comforted on the day Warhol was shot
She cleaned for her son ‘like a Czech chore woman,’ said one, and cooked for his visitors, though she wouldn’t eat with them.
She made his favourite dishes: cabbage and beef, and Czech pancakes.
She liked to play the peasant and spoke broken English. ‘Every day you grow bigger, bigger, bigger,’ she scolded one visitor.
But her presence had a darker side. Warhol, who was 23, had moved away from his family home in Pittsburgh just three years earlier, and enjoyed the freedom it gave him to have boyfriends.
Julia’s presence put a dampener on that. Warhol told boyfriends he couldn’t think of having sex with his mother in the house.
Perhaps he secretly preferred it that way: she was a convenient shield against intimacy.
When Warhol was born in 1928, his father Andrej, a Slav immigrant labourer, was away from home for months at a time on construction projects. So Julia brought up her three sons and cleaned to earn extra money.
She had come to the U.S. after World War I: her family home in what is now Slovakia was razed.
She couldn’t spell and knew nothing of English grammar, but her son spotted the folksy appeal of her flowery Old Country handwriting.
In 1957 he was commissioned to design an album cover for an eccentric musician called Moondog, on the Prestige label, and used her calligraphy as decoration — credited to ‘Andy Warhol’s mother’.
When Julia became old and frail, Warhol or an assistant would fake her script and credit it to her.
In later life Julia had tubercular lungs, a weak heart and a fading mind. In early 1970, she suffered a stroke.
As her dementia got worse, Julia’s sons put her in a care home in Pittsburgh.
Warhol paid the bills but never visited.
Julia died of a stroke in November 1972. Warhol took the news without emotion — his diary notes that he had three helpings of lasagne for supper.
He told his brothers to order ‘the cheapest funeral’ for their mother and he did not attend.
The poet Gerard Malanga rushed to Warhol’s apartment and told his mother Julia, who lived with Andy, that her son had hurt himself in an accident in the studio.
He finally hustled her into a cab for the ride to the hospital. At 4.51pm, Warhol died.
That, at least, was the verdict of the interns and residents in the emergency room of Columbus Hospital in New York.
The young doctors couldn’t find a pulse. There was no blood pressure to speak of. The patient’s colour was grey tinged with blue. He was DOA: dead on arrival.
At the moment Warhol was being wheeled in, a gifted surgeon in private practice named Giuseppe Rossi was checking on a patient recovering in the intensive care unit.
Rossi heard the call for a doctor to come to the aid of a shooting victim on the public address system and rushed to ER to see if he was needed.
As the juniors filled him in on the case, he reached out to make one final check on the fresh corpse where it lay unmoving, eyes closed, soaking the trolley in blood.
He lifted an eyelid and watched as a still-living pupil contracted in the glare of hospital lights. Rossi took the patient for one of Union Square’s tramps, alive but in deep shock.
For convenience and safety — and maybe because he wasn’t sure his patient would live to care — Rossi sewed large stitches that gave Warhol’s torso a network of Frankenstein scars. The artist showed them off for years to come
He found the tidy entry wound of a single bullet on Warhol’s right side, about midway down his chest, and bleeding from a ragged exit in his back on the left.
The doctors installed a chest tube to deal with a collapsing right lung, pushed a breathing tube down Warhol’s windpipe, started pumping in oxygen, called for blood and sped their patient to the operating room.
Warhol was lucky in having Rossi for his doctor that day. The surgeon had emigrated from Italy after the war, when an expanding American medical system allowed him to get training in the new field of open-heart surgery.
As it could still be hard for a foreigner like Rossi to get a staff position, he found gigs in emergency rooms all over New York — including in Harlem, where he saw plenty of gunshot wounds.
Years before hospitals had trauma specialists, by pure chance Warhol had ended up in the hands of a highly trained thoracic surgeon who knew all about bullets.
Without wasting time on the usual five-minute hand wash, Rossi cut open Warhol’s left chest and found a nasty rip in the bottom lobe of the lung; a huge metal clamp took care of that for the moment.
Even as Rossi worked, the anaesthetist declared a cardiac arrest. Rossi cut open the sac around Warhol’s heart, untouched by the bullet, and massaged the organ by hand.
Now Rossi cut into Warhol’s right side, slicing from near the entry wound almost to the breastbone.
The single slug had punched straight through. He saw where it had nicked the inferior vena cava, a garden-hose vein in the middle of the body that feeds blood from the legs back up to the heart.
Why his art really was a steal
Warhol loved to copy. He once offered a commercial client another artist’s work as his own (he got caught).
As a successful illustrator in the Fifties, he would borrow imagery from magazine photographs.
But it wasn’t until the Sixties that he could make the technique his trademark, and turn the vice of derivation into virtuous appropriation.
A can of Campbell’s soup painted by Warhol could almost be confused with one of the company’s cans; he wasn’t afraid of exhibiting 32 of them that looked alike.
In the culture of modern art, this became something new and original. But even the concept of look-alike paintings wasn’t new: Warhol copied it from someone else.
A can of Campbell’s soup painted by Warhol could almost be confused with one of the company’s cans; he wasn’t afraid of exhibiting 32 of them that looked alike
French trickster Yves Klein came up with the idea, staging an exhibition of identical blue canvases.
They were all the same size. All that was different were the price tags.
Warhol must have thought this was brilliant. In 1962, when he showed his 32 soups, they caused a sensation.
Klein would have loved it, except that he had died a few weeks earlier. Klein is regarded today as important.
Warhol is a household name — whose retrospective, which will open at Tate Modern on March 12, is guaranteed to draw crowds.
A clot had formed there that was keeping Warhol from bleeding out. Making a new slice into the chest, down to the bottom of the breastbone, then deep through Warhol’s abs and straight toward his belly button, Rossi ratcheted the mess open with a steel retractor to get a clear look at the damage.
‘I’d never seen so much blood in my life,’ recalled Maurizio Daliana, the chief surgical resident at the time.
What was left of the spleen had to go, and an injured lobe of the liver. Rossi used large stitches to seal it off from the bulk of the organ, so it could be sliced away without the loss of more blood, which was still flowing into Warhol as a transfusion and out again through the new holes in his body.
By the end of the operation, he had received 12 units of blood; a body without leaks normally holds ten.
For convenience and safety — and maybe because he wasn’t sure his patient would live to care — Rossi sewed large stitches that gave Warhol’s torso a network of Frankenstein scars.
The artist showed them off for years to come. Solanas was arrested and sent to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
In September, when Warhol was slowly recovering, she wrote to thank him for deciding not to press charges.
‘I’m very happy you’re alive and well,’ she said, ‘as, for all your barbarism, you’re still the best person to make movies with, and if you treat me fairly I’d like to work with you.’
The district attorney decided to prosecute anyway, despite Warhol’s reluctance.
Solanas was given three years for attempted murder. ‘I didn’t intend to kill him,’ she claimed.
‘I just wanted him to pay attention to me.’
Adapted from Warhol: A Life As Art by Blake Gopnik, to be published by Allen Lane on March 5 at £35. © 2020 Blake Gopnik.
To order a copy for £28 (20 per cent discount), go to mailshop.co.uk or call 01603 648155. Offer valid until March 31, p&p free.