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Warhol in Wonderland Print-ready version

by Chris Van Ness
Los Angeles Free Press
October 20, 1972
Original article: PDF

I had never met Andy Warhol. And when I did, he wasn't what I expected; but then, nothing was what I expected last Monday night.

I had been invited to a preview screening of Warhol's newest film, Heat. "National General Theatres cordially invite you and a guest to meet Andy Warhol and the star and producer-director of his latest presentation Heat, Sylvia Miles and Paul Morrissey," the telegram read, "at a special screening with reception to follow at the Directors Guild 7950 .Sunset Blvd. on Monday evening October 16 at 8:30 P.M."

Okay. I figured it would be the usual: check your name at the door, see the film, have a glass of champagne, go through a reception line and meet the three names listed on the telegram and go home. No.

From a block away, the arc lights were swirling their predictable patterns on the Hollywood sky. As I approached the building, I found myself driving in a line of limosines, Bentleys and a 1929 something-or-other. It was not going to be a,normal preview screening by any stretch of the imagination.

After parking my car rather clandestinely in an auto body shop, I proceeded toward the entrance of the theatre only to be met by another battery of Hollywood lights - this time the kleigs for the movie cameras. "When was the last time you saw a real newsreel?" I asked myself subconsciously as I took a deep breath and headed for the door.

Immediately in front of me was a big man with a silver-gray head that seemed all too familiar. Fortunately he was big enough so that I was able to walk in his shadow relatively unnoticed. As I quickly slid out of camera range, my eye caught the figure of Rona Barrett, microphone in hand, poised and ready for her catch. Lorne Green. The cameras whirred, and I slipped into the anonymity of the crowd. Lorne Green at an Andy Warhol screening? I remembered that Lorne Green was once considered one of Canada's finest Shakespearean actors in his pre-Bonanza days. There's a strange logic there, somewhere.

As I found a seat on the aisle near the front (the rear-center seats were saved for the super-celebs), my date muttered something about a cigarette. My mind was still boggled by reflex flashbacks to films of Hollywood premieres of the Forties, when a very pleasant man in front of us turned around and offered Linda one of his cigarettes. Jack Weston. "Hi, Jack; howareya," another all too familiar voice. Joanne Worley. Certainly I was in the right place; my telegram said so, and Western Union is never wrong.

The film, to dismiss coherent moments as rapidly as possible, is easily Warhol's best to date - although the credit goes primarily to director Paul Morrissey. It will be dealt with in detail by David Morgenstern in next week's Freep.

What happened immediately following the film can only be described as ludicrous. The entire audience, several hundred strong, filed out of the theatre, turned around and filed back in for the reception. It was the kind of cosmic revolving door trick that Warhol had created for the evening.

During the brief exodus and hegira, tables full of food had sprung up in the auditorium and two bars had materialized in the lobby.

As I was swept up into the crowd, a lot of strange things began to happen. One of the first things I can recall - and I swear I don't really remember how it happened - was being introduced to Rona Barrett. In the process, Rona's aide-de-camp, Barbara Sternig (who is truly a lovely lady), was telling me that the reason one of the supporting actresses, one Andrea Whips, was not present was because she had jumped to her death from the fourteenth floor of some hotel on Andy's last birthday. I agreed that that was about as good a reason as any for not being present and proceeded to push my way through the crowd toward one of the two magic ,bars (whoever said there was no sanity in alcohol is full of shit).

But I still hadn't met Andy Warhol. In fact, I hadn't even seen Andy Warhol. He was, however, rumored to be in the building.

But the array of people was dazzling.

Nico, an early Warhol superstar, was ever-present in a floor-length white gown and bright auburn hair. The only incongruity was her white make-up which made her look like her whole life was dedicated to awaiting a momentary casting call for the lead role in Camille. But beautiful.

Suddenly Rodney Bingenheimer popped up out of the floor in a puff of smoke (at least I think there was a puff of smoke) and asked: "What's happening? Have you been to my club yet?" I blinked, and he was gone.

Over in a corner, a photographer (male) was lovingly assisting one of the bartenders off with his coat. It was touching - very, but from the waist up only.

In another corner, a human toad in his late fifties who claimed to be a film critic was propositioning a young-but-hefty groupie type. "Look, I'm being straight," he sputtered as he grabbed for a chair to steady himself, "I think you should ball me."
"If I wanted to ball you, I would; but I don't."
"Well, I don't have to get drunk to do it, ya know," he tried again.
"Yeah, but I would," she came back as I tuned out.'

Faces and bodies from wall to wall. Some famous, some not. Some hoping. A few not caring. Patricia Medina someone whispered; gone but>not forgotten at an Andy Warhol party.

Severn Darden (the man who called his only album - a truly classic collection of improvisational comedy, if you can find it - The Sound of My Voice and Other Noises), a brilliantly comic man and one of my favorite un-met people, was ushered by me before I could introduce myself. Darden is the only actor I know capable of stealing a scene from a small child or a dog.

Joni Mitchell strolled by and didn't say hello. Jack Nicholson followed and did say hello as he passed by trailing after Joni. It wouldn't be the first time.

At a conspicuous center table, Dorothy Manners and John Hallowell were pretending to interview each other - Rona having safely disappeared into the night.

I first met Hallowell five years ago when he was a reporter for Live magazine and I was a graduate student at USC. John had been assigned to USC to do a story on Jerry Lewis' filmmaking class; and during the course of his two-week stay with 'us, I had had several lengthy conversations with him.

We talked about many things sitting in the pre-dawn hours of the morning in the Vagabond coffee shop, but somehow the conversation always came back to John's newfound idol - a then unknown writer-critic named Rex Reed. It was obvious that Hallowell intended to pattern his life and career after Reed. Reed came out with a book of interviews called Do You Sleep In the Nude? Hallowell came out with a book of interviews called The Truth Game. Reed decided to try acting and played in Myra Breckenridge: Hallowell decided to try acting and has a small part in Heat. Reed's reputation is decidedly waning. I have never met Dorothy Manners.

But I finally met Andy Warhol.

No matter what you think of Andy Warhol, you will probably have to agree that the man is a Legend. The Campbell Soup cans, that monstrously impressive acrylic on canvas, silk screen imitation that hangs in the L.A. County Art Museum, the eight-hour film of a man sleeping, the twenty-four-hour film of the Empire State Building, the Marilyn Monroe lithographs, a string of underground "superstars" from Nico to Viva to Ultra Violet to Taylor Meade to Joe Dallesandro, Naked Cowboys. Warhol was out-Yokoing Miss Ono before John Lennon ever picked up a guitar. And the legend reached its apex about four years ago when one of Warhol's actresses, Valorie Solanis, burst into his office and nearly killed him by putting a bullet through his chest.

I discovered a long time ago that the Man and the Legend are rarely the same, but I was not prepared for what I saw. Warhol is a small man; five-eight at most, and very frail. It's true he still looks twenty - but a well-preserved twenty with gray hairs and a strange, almost cosmetic kind of mummification which belies the myth of strength and legend. To further the confused image, the enfant terrible of the last decade was wearing a plain, charcoal gray suit, overall image was like some kind of delinquent mannequin from a Madison Avenue display window of fifteen years ago.

I am told by people who know him that Warhol has never really been the same since the attempt on his life four years ago. He now seems to be little more than an image collecting dust - and photographs and tapes. Clutched tightly in his right hand was a Polaroid camera, and on a table next to him was a large collection of color portraits he had taken of the various guests that evening. In his left hand, held tightly to his chest where the bullet had nearly pierced his heart, was a small tape recorder with a self-contained microphone. As people approached him, he would first snap their picture and then hesitantly move the tape recorder away from his chest to capture whatever was spoken. He did not speak himself, except to say "hello" or "how are you?"

There's a point to be made here for which I cannot find adequate words. I can only refer you to a play by Samuel Beckett about an old man whose life amounts to nothing more than a collection of tape recordings - Krapp's Last Tape - considered a masterpiece in the avant garde theatre of the absurd, a creative genre very close to Warhol's real world of five years ago. In another play, Kean, Jean-Paul Sartre posed the question: Does the Man create the Art, or does the Art create the Man? In the case of Andy Warhol, all evidence points to the latter.

I was introduced to Warhol by Susan, whose last name I have not been able to remember for the two years I have known her. He shook my hand timidly - almost fearfully - and said: "Oh, yes. How are you?" That was all. Somehow, it wasn't enough.

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