Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Andrej Varchola Jr., a.k.a Andy Warhol

Andrej Varchola Jr. was born in 1928 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Although he became world famous – even a household name – after he established himself in New York City as an artist, film maker, photographer and writer, his body was returned to his Pittsburgh neighborhood for burial twenty five years ago. Varchola had died at age 58 in New York in February, 1987, due to complications following routine gallbladder surgery. His brothers arranged for an open-casket viewing and funeral, and no expense was spared. Varchola’s body lay in a solid bronze casket with gold plated rails and white upholstery, covered with white roses and asparagus ferns. Andrej was posed beneath a crucifix, dressed in a black cashmere suit, paisley tie, platinum wig and sunglasses, clutching a small prayer book and a red rose. The funeral liturgy was held at the Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church on Pittsburgh's North Side. Back in NYC, a memorial service was held on April Fool’s day at St. Patrick’s cathedral. Yoko Ono was one of the speakers.

Varchola had so many possessions that it took Sotheby’s nine days to auction everything off – fabulous antiques, extraordinarily valuable art. The sale was the largest single collection sold by Sotheby's since it was founded in 1744, grossing more than $25 million; the sale catalog comprised six volumes. Calvin Klein bought the canopied four-poster bed from the master bedroom (right); Andrej used to hide jewelry in the bed hangings. At the time of his death, Varchola’s estate was worth more than half a billion dollars. His trendy social circle in NYC was surprised to learn that Andrej was  a religious person. Most of his friends learned only after his death that he was a practicing Ruthenian Rite Catholic, attending mass almost daily, and that he regularly volunteered at homeless shelters.

In 1991 a museum opened in Medzilaborce in  eastern Slovakia, near the Polish border, where Andrej's parents and two of his brothers were born. Ján Varchola delivered 17 original works of art by his famous brother to this town of 7,000 ethnic Rusyns, who were embarrassed to learn that their most famous son was a homosexual drug abuser. The art is displayed in a former concrete Communist era cultural center with a leaky roof. Because of its remote location, few foreign visitors seek it out. A more accessible $12 million museum, which opened in Pittsburgh in 1994, also displays only Andrej's works, a 12,000 piece collection valued at more than $100 million. This museum, which attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year, is the largest U.S. museum dedicated to the works of a single artist: Andy Warhol.

Evolution of a name:
Andrej Varchola = Andrew Warhola = Andy Warhol

Before he Anglicized his Slovakian name to Andy Warhol, he had illustrated Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Cook Book (1961) under the name Andrew Warhol, dropping the final “a” from the family name, Warhola, used by his brothers. These simple pen and ink drawings of kitchen utensils, cuts of meat, garnishes, food preparation, etc., predated his first New York City solo pop art exhibition (1962) in which he revealed his groundbreaking Marilyn Monroe Diptych and 100 Soup Cans works of art. The rest is pop art history.

Trained as a commercial illustrator, Warhol’s output celebrated pop culture and consumerism. His 1964 exhibit, “The American Supermarket”, was held in a gallery in NYC’s Upper East Side. The show was presented as a typical U.S. supermarket environment, except that everything in it – from the produce, canned goods, meat, posters on the wall, etc. – was created by prominent pop artists of the time. Warhol's painting of a can of Campbell's soup cost $1,500, while an actual autographed can sold for $6. His now iconic images of Campbell’s soup cans had been painted by hand on pre-stretched canvas onto which a projected image had been superimposed, a technique he used throughout the 1960s. The exhibit was one of the first mass events that directly confronted the general public with both pop art and the perennial question of what art is – or is not.

It was during this decade (1960s) that Warhol made paintings of iconic American objects such as dollar bills, mushroom clouds, electric chairs, Campbell's Soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles, celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, Troy Donahue, Muhammad Ali and Elizabeth Taylor, as well as newspaper headlines or photographs of police dogs attacking civil rights protesters. During these years, he founded his studio, "The Factory" and gathered about him a wide range of artists, writers, musicians, and underground celebrities. Warhol coined the widely used expression "everybody will be world famous for 15 minutes", and his artistic output became popular and quite controversial.

Warhol’s large studio loft in downtown Manhattan was populated by drug addicts, trannies, models, male prostitutes, painters and various and sundry hangers-on, yet he somehow managed to make thousands of screen-printed Brillo Pad boxes, paintings, soup cans and portraits. His workplace was dubbed "the factory" to reflect the mass production methods used to create the art, especially the series of silk screens. In the mid-sixties he started to make ground-breaking films, and later he took to photographing and videotaping everyone and everything he came into contact with. The photographs were later compiled into a book, "Andy Warhol's Exposures", which was a visual diary of the Studio 54 era in New York City from around the mid-seventies to the early eighties. From 1963 to 1968, he made nearly 60 movies. One of his movies, Sleep, is a five-and-a-half hour film of a man sleeping.

Tragically, Valerie Solanas, a crazed member of SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men), shot Warhol in the chest, seriously wounding the artist in June, 1968. A lesbian psychologist, she had written the SCUM Manifesto, which urged women to "overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex." Leaving California for NYC, she worked as a writer, beggar and prostitute. She met Warhol and asked him to produce her play, Up Your Ass. She gave him the script, which he misplaced, while seeming indifferent to her play. After she demanded financial compensation for the lost script, Warhol hired her to perform in two of his films. On June 3 she approached Warhol at his Factory office, shooting at him three times as he was talking on the phone. The first two shots missed, but the third bullet went through his lungs, spleen, stomach, liver and esophagus. She later told detectives that Warhol had too much control over her life. An interesting aside is that Solanas was buried in 1988 in St. Mary’s Catholic Church cemetery in Fairfax, Station, VA, just a handful of miles from where I live.

Warhol recovered to the degree that he was able to found Interview Magazine the following year, continue to produce movies and issue works of art.

Heat (1972 film)
From Andy Warhol’s Factory: Paul Morrissey wrote and directed Heat, a campy spoof of Sunset Boulevard. As former child star Joey Davis (Joe Dallesandro) works to revive his acting career, he takes up residence in a seedy motel, where he offers sex to his obese landlady (Pat Ast) in exchange for low rent. Meanwhile, he makes friends with the rest of the residents, including a has-been actress (Sylvia Miles) and her lesbian daughter (Andrea Feldman).

Warhol's boyfriend at the time, interior designer and film maker Jed Johnson (right), edited Heat during the summer of 1971. Jed and his handsome 19-year-old twin brother Jay (left) had hitchhiked from California to NYC, where they were promptly mugged and left penniless. A job delivering telegrams for Western Union led Jed to a delivery to Andy Warhol’s Factory on his third day of work. Jed was immediately hired to sweep the floors for Warhol. Climbing his way to the top, Johnson eventually became Warhol’s lover and moved in with the artist. Jed had selected a six story townhouse for Andy at 57 East 66th street and designed its interiors in a grand and ornate American Empire style, while secondary rooms were done up in French Art Deco and American Indian styles. The circa 1910 townhouse, with six wood-burning fireplaces and a rooftop terrace, is valued at $35 million today (Warhol paid $350,000 for the 8,000 sq. ft. house in 1974). Through Warhol’s connections, Jed Johnson became an important creative force. Johnson’s fame as an interior designer culminated in his being awarded the Interior Design Magazine Hall of Fame Award in 1996. Among Johnson’s celebrity clients were Mick Jagger, Barbra Streisand and Richard Gere. Warhol’s relationship with Johnson lasted 12 years.

French Art Deco pieces arranged by Jed Johnson at their townhouse on E. 66th St., NYC.

In 1980, Jon Gould (a bisexual V.P. for Paramount Pictures) became Warhol’s boyfriend, and their relationship lasted until 1985, when Andy began to focus his attentions on 19-year-old Sam Bolton – Warhol was 57 at the time. Gould died of AIDS in 1986, and Jed Johnson died at age 47 in the TWA Flight 800 explosion in 1996; Johnson’s gay twin brother Jay took over the interior design firm, which today serves well-heeled members of the business community.

Warhol was asked by Mick Jagger to design the cover art for the Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers album (1971). A jeans clad crotch shot with a real zipper created a sensation, but it was found that real zippers were damaging the vinyl records in shipment, so they were replaced by a mere photograph. Those with a real zipper (at right) are today valuable and highly collectible items.

Today Warhol’s art often fetches prices in the millions, and his personal furnishings (from the Sotheby’s sale in 1988) are displayed in museums scattered throughout the world. In 2008, the silkscreen Eight Elvises sold for $100 million.

Even Warhol's early 1970s brown and black Rolls Royce is considered collectible.

Trivia: Andy's mother tongue was Rusyn, the East Slavic language spoken by his immigrant parents.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting life, too bad he died in such an unusual way, Gall bladder surgery complications, same thing happened to that Pa Congressman, Murtha !