Shooting Andy Warhol: Valerie Solanas (S2E2)
Updated: Apr 19
When Valerie Solanas moved to New York in the early-to-mid 1960s, she wanted nothing more than to become a writer. Within a few years, she approached perhaps the most admired—and reviled—artist in the United States, Andy Warhol, proposing that he produce her pipe-bomb of a play, Up Your Ass. Though promising at first, their relationship went south, and in 1968, Solanas walked into Warhol’s studio with the intention of shooting him dead. Show notes and full transcript below.
Above: Valerie Solanas in the Village Voice newsroom. Photograph taken in 1967 by Fred W. McDarrah.
The red-brick facade of the Chelsea Hotel, where Solanas lived temporarily during her time in New York. She also held rehearsals for her comedy, Up Your Ass, in the basement as well as on the rooftop there. Thomas Hawke (Flickr, 2013)
Andy Warhol (left) and legendary playwright Tennessee Williams (right). Photograph taken in 1967. Wikipedia Commons.
Interesting fact that didn't make it into the episode: Sketchy Frenchman Maurice Girodias published Solanas's SCUM Manifesto in 1968 with Olympia Press. Thirteen years earlier, in 1955, Girodias published one of the great novels of the twentieth century, Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov with the same press. The first edition is pictured above.
Photograph of Valerie Solanas in police custody after the shooting. In her right hand, she holds a copy of the New York Daily News with the headline, "Actress Shoots Andy Warhol." Getty Images, Bettmann Collection.
Silver trunk that once belonged to Andy Warhol. After his death, somebody discovered the long-lost manuscript of Up Your Ass inside, along with assorted lighting equipment.
Excerpt of Blow Job, directed by Andy Warhol:
Valerie Solanas in I, a Man:
I Shot Andy Warhol (full movie), directed by Mary Herron:
---Bockris, Victor. The Life and Death of Andy Warhol. New York: Bantam Books, 1989.
---De Salvo, Donna. “Warhol, Andy.” American National Biography Online. Published in February 2000, accessed on Sep. 28, 2020.
---Fahs, Breanne. Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol). New York: The Feminist Press, at the City University of New York, 2014.
---Harding, James Martin. Cutting Performances: Collage Events, Feminist Artists, and the American Avant-Garde. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.
---Miller, Arthur. “The Chelsea Affect.” Granta. Published online on June 28, 2002. https://granta.com/the-chelsea-affect/, accessed on Sep. 28, 2022.
---Shore, Stephen (photographer) and Lynne Tillman. The Velvet Years: Warhol’s Factor, 1965-67. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press; Emeryville, Calif.: Distributed by Publishers Group West, 1995.
---Solanas, Valerie. SCUM Manifesto. London; New York: Verso, 2004.
---Solanas, Valerie. Up Your Ass & A Young Girl’s Primer on How to Attain to the Leisure Class. Edited by Kristian Carlsson. Sweden: Dracopis Press, 2021.
---Wertheim, Bonnie. “Overlooked No More: Valerie Solanas, Radical Feminist Who Shot Andy Warhol.” New York Times (New York, United States), Jun. 26, 2020.
It was Monday, June 3, 1968, and Valerie Solanas looked like someone out of a Cold War spy thriller. It was mostly the trench coat, which she had on over a black turtleneck, yellow knit shirt, and khaki jeans. Slight of build and with shortish brown hair, she got off the subway at 42nd Street and made her way to Times Square sometime between 7-8 p.m. Then she walked up to twenty-two-year-old rookie traffic cop William Shemalix and, completely unprompted, confessed to her crime. She had shot Andy Warhol that afternoon and left him for dead on the floor of his studio. “He had too much control over my life,” she explained, producing two pistols and handing them over.
Already aware of the shooting, the media caught wind of Solanas’s detainment almost as soon as police escorted her to the Thirteenth Precinct station house, two blocks away from where Warhol lay in critical condition. News crews descended on the scene, hoping to photograph the would-be assassin and maybe snag a comment as she entered or exited the building in handcuffs. Meanwhile, policemen and lawyers bombarded Solanas with questions about the attack. She made no secret of what she had done to Warhol or how she felt about it. When reporter Jim Gash conducted a brief interview with her shortly after her arrest, he pointed out, “He may die,” referring to Warhol. “Good,” she fired back at him. Yet Solanas remained reticent as to why she had taken her firearms to his studio. During interrogation, Assistant District Attorney Roderick Lankler asked for a motive, and she responded, “That’s something it’s very involved and I don’t want to get into that right now.”
What she did want to get into were her career ambitions. The day after Solanas turned herself in, the New York Daily News ran the headline, “Actress shoots Andy Warhol.” Solanas went apoplectic when she saw it and contacted the newspaper to demand a correction. It had nothing to do with what happened to Warhol and everything to do with how she saw herself and what she cared most about: “I’m a writer, not an actress.”
A radical feminist, Valerie Solanas ranks among the most audacious writers of the twentieth century—after all, her most famous work calls for the complete eradication of the male sex, or at least purports to. At the same time, her efforts to find an audience for her writing—specifically, her playwriting—led to an act of violence that has defined her legacy more than any words she put on paper. Today, we’ll hear how Solanas’s dreams of becoming a writer brought her to the door of America’s most admired—and reviled—artist, Andy Warhol, how she landed a part in one of his experimental films, and why her attempt to shoot him dead sowed division among the women’s movement. This is The Art of Crime, and as always I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 2 of Assassins . . .
Shooting Andy Warhol: Valerie Solanas
Born on April 9, 1936, in Ventnor City, New Jersey, Solanas grew up in a turbulent home. Her parents were Louis Solanas, a twenty-one-year-old bartender, and Dorothy Biondo, an eighteen-year-old dental assistant. Her mother and father divorced when Solanas was only four, after which Valerie and her younger sister, Judith, went to live with their grandparents in Atlantic City for a brief period. Solanas’s grandfather whipped her with a belt when she misbehaved. Throughout the remainder of her childhood and early adolescence, Solanas changed residences—as well as schools—multiple times, often sharing a home with her mother and stepfather, Red, a piano tuner who never took a liking to his eldest stepdaughter.
Some friends and family remembered Solanas as affable, charming, and wildly witty as a girl. Others recalled a more troubled—and troubling—personality. Likely because of her tumultuous upbringing, Solanas became volatile and violent, acting out at home and elsewhere from an early age. Depending on who or what had infuriated her, she might have trashed her sister’s bedroom or upended the kitchen garbage pail, spilling its contents across the floor. Those who ran afoul of her at school faced harsher treatment. As a teenager, she became an outsider partly for refusing to dress and behave like other girls her age, wearing her hair short and donning jeans instead of skirts. On one occasion, a male classmates put a tack on her chair, knowing she would sit on it. After she did, Solanas whirled around and punched the boy sitting behind her, wrongly believing him to have been the culprit. Perhaps most shockingly, she assaulted one of her teachers—a nun—during her enrollment at her Catholic school, Holy Cross Academy. This outburst evidenced an anti-authoritarian streak that would stay strong throughout her life.
Solanas also contended with several early sexual experiences, many of them traumatic and potentially stigmatizing. She saw her father on a regular basis growing up, and the two developed a fraught relationship. On the one hand, she claimed to have suffered sexual abuse at his hands from an early age. On the other hand, however, she maintained a close—often warm—correspondence with him until his death in 1971. By the time Solanas reached her fifteenth birthday, moreover, she had given birth to two children. Her mother raised the first, a girl called Linda, passing her off as Valerie’s sister. Solanas put her second child, a boy named David, up for adoption and never saw him again. In mid-century America, teen pregnancy could jeopardize a girl’s social standing, and it wasn’t uncommon for families to conceal one, as Solanas’s did twice.
At around this time, likely after David’s birth, Solanas uncovered an unexplored side of her sexuality. When she was away at boarding school, she grew intimate with other girls and later told her publisher that she fell in love for the one and only time in her life during this period. In a testament to her audacity, Solanas would openly identify as a lesbian before she had celebrated her twentieth birthday—at a time when most men and women were still stressing out about sex before marriage. Solanas may have thought of herself as a lesbian, but she continued to sleep with men throughout much of her life—a source of confusion for some who knew her. Others reasoned that, while she preferred women, she just liked having sex and would tumble into bed with whoever was around. Solanas’s sexuality was just one aspect of her personality that made her had to pin down.
Despite the many hardships Solanas endured, both at home and at school, she attained academic excellence. Whether they loved or hated her, virtually everyone agreed that Solanas was bright. She made straight A’s her senior year of high school except for one class—physics—and even secured a letter of recommendation from her principal. Many years later, after the shooting, Solanas took an intelligence test and scored in the top two percent of the U.S. population.
After high school, Solanas matriculated at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she flexed her muscles as a wordsmith. According to her sister, Judith, she “always wanted to be a writer,” and her love of language soon took on a mischievous character. As a girl, she wrote her own lyrics to the tunes of pop songs poking fun at her younger sister. Other kids paid Solanas a dime a pop for her to write insults they could hurl at each other. By the time she arrived at the University of Maryland, she had already honed her caustic wit and became frequent contributor to the school newspaper, the Diamondback, writing both articles as well as letters to the editor. Owing to the latter, Solanas gained a reputation as a sharp-tongued advocate for women’s equality, earning the nickname “Maryland’s own little suffragette.” In 1957, a guy wrote to the Diamondback opining that women came to college for no other reason than to shop around for husbands. Solanas struck back with a letter of her own and gave him a thrashing: “I’m afraid Mr. Parr’s puerile arguments are doomed to fizzlehood. Therefore, I suggest that the infantile Mr. Parr abandon letter-writing and adopt a hobby more suitable to his status, such as throwing snow balls in front of the girls’ dorms or instigating panty raids.”
Life in New York
Solanas graduated with a bachelor’s in psychology. By 1962, she had enrolled in—and dropped out of—a graduate program in that same discipline, hitchhiked across the country, and finally returned to her native New Jersey. Shortly thereafter, she began making weekly trips to Manhattan. She fell in love with Greenwich Village on the Lower East Side, vowing to make it her home one day. By the 1960s, the neighborhood had become a haven for artists and a bohemian mecca, home to the United States’ first alternative newsweekly, The Village Voice. The Village also welcomed nontraditional sexual identities and would even become the epicenter of the gay rights movement following the Stonewall Riots of 1969. In an interview with biographer Breanne Fahs, Solanas’s friend, Jeremiah Newton, stresses that the prevalence of queer people drew her to the neighborhood: “Women were holding hands and men were holding hands and she liked that.” Solanas relocated to New York before long and kept herself fed through a mixture of waitressing, panhandling, and perhaps prostitution. The winnings were unsteady and usually insufficient to cover rent in the Village, however, so Solanas drifted among various hotels and other places of residence. Sometimes she slept rough. No matter where she went, she brought an old trunk with her typewriter inside.
Of all her abodes, one sticks out as most colorful: the Chelsea Hotel at 222 West 23rd Street, built between 1883-85. By the time Solanas started renting a room there, this twelve-story, red-brick behemoth had emerged as the favored habitation of New York’s celebrity-artists, particularly those with a countercultural bent. There’ s a picture on the Art of Crime website. The Chelsea’s roster of former residents includes Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohan, and (more recently) Russell Brand. In his 2002 essay, “The Chelsea Affect,” American playwright Arthur Miller paints a vivid picture of life at the hotel when Solanas was a tenant. Before Miller became a resident in the early sixties, a friend of his recommended the establishment as “cheap but decent.” It wasn’t luxurious, that was for sure. The amenities and housekeeping left much to be desired, and the rampant drug use was impossible to miss. The shower gave you hot water when you wanted cold and vice versa, Miller recalls, and the carpeting in his room was chronically unvacuumed. Meanwhile, the reek of marijuana in the elevator was enough to get you high. Still, the dramatist came to like it there, if only for the panoply of off-the-wall inhabitants. According to Miller, poet Allen Ginsberg haunted the lobby, hawking copies of his magazine, Fuck You. British science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke explained over breakfast that humans would soon colonize outer space. A composer called Kleinsinger kept exotic fish and reptiles in his apartment, and when a snake once escaped, the whole hotel was down on in their knees and checking under the bed for a scaly intruder. In Miller’s view, “The Chelsea in the Sixties seemed to combine two atmospheres: a scary and optimistic chaos which predicted the hip future, and at the same time, the feel of a massive, old-fashioned, sheltering family.” Ever the misfit, Solanas may not have felt herself part of this family, but she more than likely thrived on this “scary and optimistic chaos.”
Writing From the Gutter
She certainly got writing done. By the mid-to-late sixties, she had finished three works. The first was entitled SCUM Manifesto, self-published by Solanas in 1967. The “SCUM” of the title is an acronym for the Society for Cutting Up Men. No less edgy was her play Up Your Ass. She completed the script in 1965, but it remained unpublished until 2014. The last of the works she wrote during this period was an autobiographical short story, “Primer for a Young Girl,” which appeared in a 1967 issue of Cavalier, the Playboy-adjacent men’s magazine that published fiction by such authors as Ray Bradbury and Stephen King.
Solanas is best-known for SCUM Manifesto. In it, she writes prose the way a prize-fighter throws punches. Indeed, it hits hard from the very first sentence: “Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, and institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.” By 1965 or so, Solanas was selling copies of SCUM on the street and supposedly holding meetings for a growing number of like-minded women (and occasionally men) who wanted to realize her utopian vision. It’s unclear how many turned out to these events, but the manifesto did find its way into the hands of several noted journalists and intellectuals. Since its publication, many readers have assumed that Solanas was genuinely calling for the extermination of all men, but others—maybe most—have interpreted the text as a coal-black satire in the same vein as “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift. Whatever the case, Solanas’s analysis of the nature and origins of contemporary patriarchy have made the manifesto a feminist classic, with professors of gender and women’s studies still including it on their syllabi today.
Though lesser-known, Up Your Ass is more relevant to the story of Solanas’s attempt on Warhol’s life. As you might have gathered from the title, this filthy, little comedy is meant to provoke. It particularly pushes the envelope in its frank, often gutter-mouthed discussion of sex and gender politics. There’s no plot to speak of. Instead, it treats us to a series of loosely connected episodes in the life of Bongi Parez, a trash-talking, bird-flipping, big-city hustler who loiters outside her apartment building all day long. Within a few pages, Bongi seduces an overconfident john into buying her lunch before forking over an additional twenty-five dollars for a back-alley hand job. Despite profiting from male lust, Bongi makes clear that she isn’t overfond of menfolk. Throughout the script, she fires off one-liners like so many torpedoes, criticizing males for their beastly libidos, incapacity for empathy, and all-around hatefulness. “Men’re so fucking crude,” she complains without irony. “Yes, but I try to demonstrate a little compassion; after all, people can’t help being what they are,” another woman responds. “Neither can germs,” Bongi shoots back. Yet women of a certain stripe come under fire as well. Bongi is repulsed by Ginger, a “Daddy’s girl” who sees no harm in degrading herself so long as it wins the approval of men. In one of the comedy’s more absurd exchanges, Ginger tells Bongi that she’s planning to make a meal of a gilded turd that evening because her male companions love it when a woman “laps up shit.” Patriarchy prevails, the play implies, because of ladies like Ginger who embrace their subordinate position in society.
Solanas saves perhaps the most radical—certainly the most shocking—scene for the finale. A woman in her mid-to-late twenties passes by, and Bongi calls out to her. The stranger turns out to be a wife and mother, and her entire life is defined by the needs of her husband and son. She introduces herself as Mrs. Arthur Hazlett—“Arthur? That’s an odd name for a woman,” Bongi retorts—and the script only refers to her as Arthur from then on. Arthur’s vindictive, penis-crazed son, aged five or six, shows up at intermittent intervals to pester his mom, who orders him back to the playground so that she can go shopping. Right about the time Arthur discovers that Bongi is queer, her little boy comes back to bug her yet again. Arthur snaps, strangling him with her bare hands before burying his body behind a bush with a shovel, conveniently nearby. A minute or two later, she and Bongi spy a “low-down, funky broad” on the sidewalk and accompany her offstage, presumably destined for a threesome. You’re left with the impression that Mr. Arthur Hazlett will be sleeping alone that night.
This resolution might sound tragic, what with a murdered child and all, but this is a comedy, Solanas insists, and by definition the genre of comedy delivers happy endings. In many cases, happy endings qualify as “happy,” no matter how much they might offend our sensibilities, because they accord with the playwright’s ideology. That’s certainly the case in Up Your Ass. Written by a radical feminist and lesbian, it rejoices at the sundering of a nuclear family because it liberates a woman from a male-dominated home life, in which she has no identity of her own, and triggers a queer awakening.
Staging Up Your Ass
Solanas’s enemies accused her of her many vices, but nobody impugned her for lacking drive. Once she had drafted Up Your Ass, she made it her mission to see it staged under the aegis of SCUM. She was a theater troupe of one, so every facet of production would fall on her shoulders. In the early spring of ’67, the playwright printed fliers inviting actors to audition and distributed them around town. Not unlike her manifesto, Solanas’s cattle call hooked your attention right from the outset: “S.C.U.M. (Society for Cutting Up Men / Is looking for garbage mouth dykes (butch or fem) with some acting ability (experience not necessary) to appear in a garbage-mouth, dykey anti-male play (a comedy) called UP YOUR ASS or UP FROM THE SLIME or FROM THE CRADLE TO THE BOAT by Valerie Solanas—to be presented four weeks at the Director’s Theatre School. Also looking for garbage-mouth, pretty, effeminate looking males and regular straight-looking males.” Booking an audition was as simple as picking up the phone and calling the author at her private office—that is, her apartment—at the Chelsea Hotel, extension 606, no agents necessary.
Soon enough, Solanas got a call from Jeremiah Newton, a gay seventeen-year-old new to New York. He spotted one of her notices pinned to the wall of a kiosk in St. Mark’s Bookshop in St. Mark’s Place and decided to phone and schedule an audition. She penciled him in for 9 o’clock that night at the Chelsea. Newton arrived at the hotel and hung out in the lobby as 9:00 came and went. Finally, at ten after, Solanas stepped out of the elevator dressed in a sweatshirt. She sized up Newton, with his willowy physique and long brown hair, and reckoned that he had the right look for the show. Then she informed him that he wouldn’t be reading in her apartment that evening since hosting a man would “ruin her reputation.” Instead, she borrowed a key from the hotel staff and showed him to the basement. “Just don’t touch the steam pipes,” she warned, before telling him not to worry—she wasn’t going to kill him. Always nice to hear when you follow a stranger to a boiler room. A few minutes later, in the bowels of the building, she handed him a packet of dog-eared pages, copied by means of a hand-cranked mimeograph. Then, Newton stood on a metal spiral staircase and read from the script, the Chelsea’s ancient plumbing rumbling all the while. The location wasn’t ideal, but Solanas liked what she heard enough to offer Newton a role. In the following weeks, Newton and Solanas rehearsed in the Chelsea’s basement or up on the rooftop when the weather permitted. Meanwhile, the playwright made strides toward casting the rest of the show.
If it wasn’t from the beginning, it became evident over time that the playwright lacked both the money and publicity to get her comedy in front of an audience. By the late spring or early summer of ’67, Solanas was casting about for a producer, and it was this search that brought her into the orbit of Andy Warhol. We’ll hear more after a quick break.
Not Quite Elizabeth, But Pretty Damn Close
Sometime in the early 1960s, Warhol told socialite Frederick Eberstadt that “he wanted to be as famous as the Queen of England.” Putting it mildly, Eberstadt considered the artist’s aspiration embarrassingly out of reach: “[H]e was about the most colossal creep I had ever seen in my life. I thought that Warhol was lucky that anybody would talk to him.” It’s true that virtually nothing about Warhol’s upbringing or lifestyle made him a sure candidate for international celebrity. Born in 1928, he hailed from a Catholic, blue-collar family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, his mother and father both immigrants of Carpatho-Rusyn extraction. By about the time Warhol confided his ambitions to Eberstadt, he had cultivated a vampire-hipster aesthetic that struck many as strange and off-putting. Pallid and lean, he favored black leather jackets with tight, matching jeans, high-heeled boots, and darkened glasses. Partly to conceal his balding pate and partly for the sake of looking slick, he wore a silvery wig. He almost never laughed in public and seldom opened his mouth to speak. When he did, he relied heavily on a small yet well-stocked store of monosyllables—“Uh, yes” and “Uh, no” were two of his go-to responses in interviews at the time—and conversed with a flat, affected voice that was often edged with contempt or sarcasm. On top of it all, Warhol was gay and didn’t care if you knew it, even if he seldom entered sexual relationships. He surrounded himself with other members of New York’s queer community, especially gay men. In short, much about Warhol should have consigned him to the margins of society. Nevertheless, if he wasn’t on par with Elizabeth II, he was pretty damn close. Barring Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and a handful of others, Warhol was just about the most famous artist alive.
Warhol had paid the bills as a commercial artist for well over a decade before attaining this status. He moved to New York from Pittsburgh in 1949, fresh out of art school at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, later rechristened Carnegie Mellon. He soon became a sought-after illustrator, sketching ads for magazines and TV, his clients including Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Seventeen, PBS, and NBC. He booked his biggest account in 1955, when the fashionable Manhattan shoe outlet, I. Miller, hired him to draw footwear for advertisements that ran in the Sunday New York Times. The campaign won awards, Warhol’s stark yet spare drawings helping to boost the store’s sagging reputation.
Warhol had no qualms about his work adorning the pages of fashion and lifestyle magazines, but at the same time, he wanted it to hang on the walls of fine galleries. Circa 1960, he finally broke into that arena by joining the burgeoning pop art movement. This school drew inspiration from everyday objects and popular culture. By the early-to-mid sixties, Warhol arose as the poster boy of pop art, having painted pictures of consumerist emblems like Coca-Cola bottles and dollar bills. Thoroughly obsessed with glamor and stardom, he also did pictures of such celebrities as Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley.
Most iconic was his Campbell’s Soup Cans, produced from November 1961 to March or April of the following year. Currently held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it consists of thirty-two canvases, each of them measuring twenty inches high by sixteen inches wide and each depicting a different can of Campbell’s soup, one for every flavor available in the supermarket at the time of its creation. For Warhol’s supporters, this work marked a turning point in contemporary art partly because it asked you to stop and take a long, hard look at one of the most basic household goods. In so doing, it regarded the mundane as worthy of contemplation and made viewers see it from a fresh perspective. Furthermore, the machinelike precision of each Campbell’s soup can, plus the sheer number of them, captured the consumerism and mass production that had become fundamental to modern life. Warhol was very much a man of the moment, and even he knew it. “I’m as much a part of my times, of my culture . . . as rockets and television,” he once remarked.
For all his success, Warhol polarized the art world. Appalled by his acclaim, his critics fumed that he was cheapening the medium. In their eyes, he had sold out almost as soon as he had graduated because he went straight from school into commercial art. But then, it wasn’t just that the I. Miller shoe guy fancied himself a serious painter. It was was that he was mining the soulless, profit-hungry realm of consumer culture for his subject matter. Far from serving up food for thought, the banality of, say, a Campbell’s soup can rendered his painting unsuitable for display in reputable galleries. To give an extreme example of just how much some people hated Warhol’s guts, consider the remarks of Ben Morea, Solanas’s dear friend and the founder and leader of the anarchist cell called Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker. The day after Solanas’s arrest, Morea and his crew disseminated leaflets in praise of her actions in Tompkins Square Park as well as near the Museum of Modern Art. They condemned what they saw as Warhol’s worship of capitalism and disdain for creativity while lionizing Solanas with a prose poem. One line reads in all capital letters, “VALERIE IS OURS AND THE SWEET ASSASSIN LIVES.” Asked to rationalize his support of her, Morea admitted, “I mean, I didn’t want to shoot him.” At the same time, he pretty much says that justice had been served: “Andy Warhol ruined art.”
The Factory Boss and His Forays into Film
When Solanas met Warhol, he was spending his days in an enormous loft in a building at 24 East Forty-Seventh Street in Midtown Manhattan. He made it his studio in 1963 and dubbed it the Factory. The walls were silver, and a friend of Warhol’s, Billy Name, had covered sections with tin foil, imbuing the room with a sort of futuristic, space-shuttle chic atmosphere. An inveterate workaholic, Warhol toiled for hours on paintings and films in the Factory, which doubled as a hangout for his less industrious hangers-on. Warhol’s motley coterie included artists, critics, collectors, politicians, radicals, junkies, sex workers, drag queens, and disaffected millionaires. The Factory had an open-door policy, and at times it grew so crowded that somebody hung up a sign declaring, “If you have no business to conduct here, please don’t come,” a rule that Warhol seldom if ever enforced. In the daytime, the air in the Factory all but tingled with a sense of possibility. Musician and medievalist Stephen Morrison put it this way: “There was always this feeling that something incredible was going to happen, something really exciting or fun or new.” After sundown, Warhol played host to some of the wildest, drug-fueled ragers New York had to offer.
Midway through the sixties, Warhol had effectively given up painting and turned his attention to experimental filmmaking. With one major exception, Chelsea Girls (filmed—you guessed it—in the Chelsea Hotel), his movies usually showed in underground theaters and grossed little to no money. His early films depicted quotidian activities—eating, sleeping, getting a haircut. Before long, however, he was shooting ever more explicit material. In 1964, Warhol released a movie simply titled Blow Job. You can watch nine minutes of it on YouTube, and I’ve linked to it in the show notes. Far less provocative than its title would suggest, the silent, black-and-white film shows an actor’s face in close-up for thirty-three minutes. He leans his head backward and forward and opens his mouth as if to groan while somebody performs oral sex on him offscreen. At the climax (presumably after the man has reached his), he lights a cigarette and takes a few drags with a dreamy, blissed-out look on his face. Later Warhol features grew more risqué, and he did more than play footsie with the pornographic. He filmed real intercourse, though often with an unsexy sense of detachment.
Over time, an essential element of Warhol’s craft took shape: he wasn’t so much experimenting with film as he was with people. He didn’t have time for trained performers—he hated “acting-class junk,” according to his longtime collaborator, Paul Morrisey. Instead, he pointed his camera at larger-than-life personalities and waited to see what came of it. Some performers were willing to do virtually anything on film if it scored points with the boss of the Factory. In one movie, an actor named Ordine appears in the role of “The Pope of Greenwich Village.” Sitting on a sofa, he shoots up amphetamines, comes out as gay as if in a confession booth, and then, shifting tones, inveighs against the Roman Catholic church. At one point, he issues a blasphemous command: “Approach the crucifix, lift his loincloth, and go about your business!” This is before he slaps another performer twice across the face without warning, chasing her offscreen and yelling for somebody to turn off the camera. Too captivated by what he was watching to oblige, Warhol kept shooting without stopping the assault. No wonder his performers complained of exploitation as often as they did. It didn’t help matters that he seldom paid them.
When Valerie Met Andy
Given Warhol’s affinity for the obscene and outrageous, Solanas must have hoped that a play with a title like Up Your Ass would strike his fancy. She called him up in the summer of 1967 and pitched the idea of his producing her comedy. Mildly intrigued, he invited her to the Factory to talk it over further. In June, Solanas presented him with the final draft of her script. The manuscript came in at twenty-nine pages, single-spaced, its margins annotated with the occasional handwritten correction. Not long after meeting Solanas, Warhol described his initial impressions of both the play and the playwright in an interview he gave to the storied French film magazine, Cahiers du cinema: “I thought the title was wonderful and I’m so friendly that I invited her to come up with it, but it was so dirty I think she must have been a lady cop. We haven’t seen her since and I’m not surprised. I guess she thought that was the perfect thing for Andy Warhol.” He would see her again before long, and it wouldn’t be a sight that he would soon forget. Presumably having read the Cahiers article, Solanas confronted Warhol, unzipped her pants, flashed her vulva, and said, “Sure, I’m a cop and here’s my badge.”
Despite Warhol’s doubts about Up Your Ass, he appears not to have given her a definitive “No” on backing a production. Talk of a potential collaboration continued over the summer as Solanas insinuated herself into the Factory crowd. She would have broached the subject of staging the play at Warhol’s studio or perhaps at one of his favorite eateries, Max’s Kansas City, a bar and grill at 213 Park Avenue South and a hot spot for artists, celebrities, and their assorted satellites. They kicked around ideas about where to present the comedy, considering Grove Press’s Evergreen Theatre as a possible venue, and Solanas came to believe that Warhol would serve not just as producer but director as well. She would even seem to have floated the idea of a screen adaptation of Up Your Ass. It’s unclear what promises Warhol made that summer, but the ongoing discussion no doubt nourished Solanas’s dreams of having her play performed.
Solanas and Warhol could hardly have had more disparate personalities—she was fiery and he more frigid—but over the summer, they became more than acquaintances, if less than friends. They certainly developed a playful rapport, which is on full display in an interview Solanas recorded with Warhol during one of her many visits to the Factory. Here’s a snippet:
Solanas: Andy, you ever had a kid?
Warhol: Uh, no. I don’t believe in them.
Solanas: Sometimes accidents happen. You’ve never had an accident?
Warhol: I don’t believe in kids.
Solanas: But you’ve never had an accident?
Warhol: No. I don’t believe in them.
Solanas: You don’t believe in accidents? Have you ever had a wife?
Warhol: Uh, yes.
Solanas: How long ago?
Warhol: Years ago.
Solanas: How many years ago?
Warhol: Fifteen years.
Solanas: How long were you married?
Warhol: A few weeks.
Solanas: And what happened?
Warhol: Uh, I uh, . . . Have you ever been married?
Warhol: Why not?
Solanas: I don’t believe in it.
At any rate, the two would not remain simpatico for long.
It was partly because of the mounting tension between them that Solanas made her acting debut. Summer was winding down when she phoned Warhol at the Factory one afternoon. She needed money and helping her out was the least he could do since weeks had passed, and Up Your Ass wasn’t any closer to getting staged. Not only that, but as Warhol confessed, he had misplaced Solanas’s prized manuscript and had no idea where it had gone. As it happened, however, he and his collaborators were in the middle of filming when Solanas called, and not much wanting to give her a handout, he proposed an alternative. Warhol loved playing volcanic personalities off each other on film, and as he well knew, Solanas was often on the verge of erupting. He agreed to pay her twenty-five dollars if she did a scene for him. Thrilled by the offer, she came right over.
The film bears the title of I, a Man, and it depicts the misadventures of a male protagonist (played by Tom Baker) as he attempts to seduce a series of women, Solanas among them. It’s far from the apex of cinematic artistry, but it’s worth watching to see Solanas in action. After she squeezes the man’s “squishy ass” on the elevator, which happens off-screen, he follows her up a dingy staircase, hoping to proceed from there into her bed. Just why they’ve taken both the elevator and the stairs is never explained. Over several crudely edited, dimly lit, and purposefully ill-framed shots, Baker makes one clumsy advance after another, which Solanas smacks down with witty vitality, her dialogue improvised. It’s a treat to watch Baker try to keep up with her. Ridiculously, the encounter ends with Solanas revealing that, in fact, she doesn’t live in this building. “I wanna go home. I wanna beat my meat,” she declares, brushing past him, walking down the stairwell, and leaving him to smoke a cigarette by his lonesome. Warhol was delighted. While filming the scene, he reportedly let out a series of odd yet approving grunts, evidently satisfied with her switch-blade comebacks and ease on camera. Solanas, meanwhile, was honored to have acted for the head of the Factory.
Not long after, she made a career choice that she came to regret, and her mental health deteriorated. On August 29, 1967, she signed a dicey contract with the sketchy French publisher, Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press. Realizing her error, Solanas turned to Warhol for advice. A lawyer of his assured her it would never stand in court, but Solanas still worried that Girodias would somehow suppress or rob her of SCUM Manifesto as well as Up Your Ass, writing she had worked on for years at this point. Then she grew convinced that Warhol would also backstab her. He still hadn’t located her missing manuscript, and she came to believe that he would film Up Your Ass and slap his own name on it without paying for the rights. By mid- to -late-May of 1968, Solanas was calling him both at the Factory and at home, threatening violence. As she grew more aggressive, Warhol pulled away, alarmed and intimidated. In the end, he stopped talking to her and had an associate deal with her whenever she rang. As May turned to June, Solanas felt trapped, taken advantage of, powerless, and ignored. To her mind, Warhol held sway over her, and she could only see one means of freeing herself.
She had been waiting two hours when he finally showed up. The date was June 3, and a few months prior, the Factory had transferred from Midtown Manhattan to a ritzier location at 33 Union Square West. In their introduction to the screenplay for I Shot Andy Warhol, director and screenwriter Mary Harron and her co-writer Daniel Minahan describe this spot as more retro than the first, “with white walls, polished floors, and art deco desks, and a new door policy with a bias in favor of the rich and famous.” Solanas arrived at the Factory at about two o’clock only to learn that Warhol was out. When she returned a short while later, circa two-thirty, she caught Paul Morrisey down on the sidewalk. She told him that she was looking for Warhol so she could ask him for money—a falsehood that Morrisey was prepared to believe since Solanas had a habit of hitting up his boss for cash. Morrisey responded with a lie of his own, claiming that Warhol would not be coming in that day. Never deterred easily, Solanas buffaloed her way into the building and up to the Factory on the sixth floor, demanding to speak with the man in charge. According to one witness, she came back up “like seven times” looking for him.
At 4:15, Warhol returned from picking up a prescription. Dressed in all black except for his brown leather jacket, he spotted a pair of familiar faces as he approached 33 Union Square West. One was Jed Johnson, an intimate of his, headed his direction from Seventeenth Street and carrying a bundle of fluorescent lights. The other was Solanas. After Warhol greeted them, the three went inside and boarded the elevator. As it conveyed them up to the Factory, Warhol took note of Solanas’s turtleneck and trench coat—she must have been sweltering in the summer heat, he thought—as well as the lipstick and makeup she was wearing—“evidently something she saved for important social occasions.” Whatever event she had spiffed herself up for, it had her on edge. She was twisting and untwisting a brown paper bag in her hands, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet.
When they stepped out of the elevator and into the Factory, they found Morrisey with two other men. The first was Fred Hughes, an assistant of Warhol’s, and the second was the editor of Art and Artists magazine, Mario Anaya, who had flown in from London in the hope of brokering a Warhol retrospective in the British capital. “Look—doesn’t Valerie look good!” Warhol said of her makeup. Maybe embarrassed by having his lie about Warhol exposed, Morrisey agreed before telling Solanas to make herself scarce as he and his associate had business to attend to. Meanwhile, Johnson had taken the lights into Warhol’s private office, and Anaya had gone to fetch a cigarette at the back of the room, near an art deco sofa. When the telephone rang a moment or two later, Morrisey picked up and handed it to Warhol. A woman named Viva, the superstar du jour who appeared in Warhol’s recent films as well as on his arm around town, was calling from a salon, waiting to have her hair dyed for an upcoming role. Morrisey excused himself and went to the bathroom, leaving Solanas alone with Warhol, Anaya, and Hughes. The latter two occupied themselves with this or that task while Warhol took a seat in a chair behind a desk, his back to Solanas as Viva chattered away. None of the men were looking in Solanas’s direction as she reached one hand into the brown paper bag she was holding in the other and pulled out a .32 Baretta automatic.
She pointed the pistol at Warhol’s back and stood there, waiting, still unnoticed by him and the others. We can never know what passed through her mind at this moment. Did she clear it of distractions so that she could focus on the task at hand? Or did she pause to reflect on all she had done these past few years and how it had brought her to this extremity—how she had hauled her typewriter across Manhattan, hammered out dialogue deep into the night, cranked the lever of the mimeograph machine, tacked up fliers in bookstore kiosks, pushed open basement and rooftop doorways to hold rehearsals, and hand-delivered the fruits of her tireless labor to the man seated before her, the man she now believed would appropriate that work and pass it off as his own? Or, after weeks of trying to get Warhol on the phone, did the whole situation strike her as maddening, even absurd? Here she was, literally pointing a gun at the guy, and he still wouldn’t give her the time of day.
Whatever crossed her mind, she fired.
The rest was pandemonium. In the ensuing milliseconds, nobody could work out who had pulled the trigger or why. Some weren’t even clear that a gun had gone off. Hughes reckoned a bomb had exploded in the Communist Party offices two floors above them. Anaya thought a sniper was trying to pick them off from a nearby rooftop, crouching down as he yelled “Hit the floor!” Viva heard the blast over the phone and assumed that somebody had cracked a whip—a relic left over from a Factory bash, perhaps. Leaping to his feet and whirling around to find a gun leveled at him, Warhol was first to realize the truth. “Valerie! Don’t do it!” he screamed. “No! No!”
She fired again. The bullet flew past him for a second time. In an instant, Warhol was on the floor, crawling under a desk for cover. Solanas placed the brown paper bag on the desktop, stood over the artist, and took careful aim. A third report rang out, and Warhol writhed—this was a hit. “It hurt so much I wished I was dead,” he recalled later. It was “like a cherry bomb exploding inside me.”
With Warhold down, Solanas redirected her attention toward Anaya, cowering nearby, determined to murder this man she had never met before. She fired a fourth round—yet another miss—and a fifth. This one hit him in his flank, right above the hip. Adrenaline coursed through him, and Anaya launched himself away from his assailant and toward a closed doorway leading to a backroom, forcing it open as he made contact. Solanas came after him, and he slammed the door shut only to realize that he had broken the latch on impact. His pant leg already stained with blood, he threw the full weight of his body against the door and pressed with all his might, praying to God it would keep the shooter out. Unable to overpower him, Solanas gave up and went looking for her next victim. She tried the door to Warhol’s office, where Johnson was holed up, finding it locked. Petrified with terror, he watched the doorknob spasm as she twisted it.
Thwarted again, Solanas turned around to meet the gaze of Fred Hughes, standing, defenseless, in the middle of the room. “I have to shoot you,” Solanas told him, as if stating the obvious, and pointed the pistol straight at his chest. He fell to his knees. “Please don’t shoot me, Valerie,” he implored. “You can’t. I’m innocent. I didn’t do anything to you. Please just leave.” Mercifully, miraculously, his entreaties hit home. Lowering her weapon, she turned on her heels, strode to the elevator, and pushed the button. The two of them waited for the doors to wheeze open. Then, of a sudden, Solanas spun around and aimed the gun at his forehead, clearly having regained her resolve. Hughes had just enough time to swallow a sob before she pulled the trigger. Next came a click. Hughes remained on his knees, frozen with fear and perhaps unable to believe he was alive. The Baretta had jammed. What happened next is murky. Either Solanas reached into her pocket, or she went for the brown paper bag on the desk. Within seconds, however, she was holding a Colt .22. To Hughes’s horror, Solanas had come with a backup revolver. She was on the brink of shooting again when the elevator opened. The sound of it stunned her, and Hughes saw his only chance at survival. “There’s the elevator, Valerie,” he breathed, almost coaxingly. “Just take it!” She left him on his knees and darted inside, vanishing from sight as the doors closed before her.
By the grace of good fortune, Hughes was alive. So was Warhol, he soon realized, though not for long if he didn’t get help. Hughes phoned the police while the artist lay in a pool of his own blood, sputtering, “I can’t! I can’t!"
Strictly speaking, Solanas killed him. Police reached the scene almost thirty minutes after the shots were fired, followed by an ambulance. According to Morrisey, who had witnessed the carnage from a hiding place, paramedics looked Warhol up and down and presumed him dead but were surprised to find him breathing. They rushed him as well as Anaya to Columbus Hospital a block or two away. Anaya’s wound proved minor, but Warhol was less fortunate. As became evident, the bullet that struck him had entered his abdomen on the right and ricocheted inside him, puncturing his left lung, esophagus, stomach, spleen, and liver before finally exiting through his back on the left. By 4:51, his heart had stopped, and doctors pronounced him dead on the spot. Unwilling to admit defeat, however, they made a last-ditch effort to revive him, opening his chest and massaging his heart. For some ninety seconds, it lay still until suddenly throbbing with life. They whisked him into emergency surgery, where he would remain for five-and-a-half hours. After a grueling uphill battle, they saved his life. In the meantime, Solanas had turned herself in at Times Square. All told, she shot two men and tried to shoot another in the head, and all three had made it out of the incident alive.
Solanas attacked Warhol because of a personal grudge, one that grew increasingly bitter as her mental health declined. In the immediate aftermath of her arrest, however, the shooting assumed a broader, political significance, especially within the women’s movement. As we’ll see, Solanas’s deed became a flashpoint, creating a schism among feminists as some sided with the gunwoman while others denounced her.
Before diving into that, it’s worth asking why observers would have politicized this clearly apolitical shooting in the first place. It was largely due to timing. In the late spring and early summer of 1968, the world was rife with political violence. Just weeks before Solanas opened fire in the Factory, students had occupied Columbia University over institutional ties to the Vietnam War along with issues of racial justice involving nearby Morningside Park. Taking drastic measures, the New York City Police Department removed some protestors from campus by force. Across the Atlantic Ocean, France saw an upwelling of civil unrest as leftist demonstrators occupied universities and factories that May. As the protests grew in intensity, some politicians feared civil war or even revolution, President Charles de Galle fled to West Germany in secret, and the authorities clamped down with violence. Furthermore, assassinations shook the U.S. both before and after the Factory shooting. On April 4, James Earl Ray shot and killed civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on the second-floor balcony of the Loraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Just after midnight on June 5, two days after the Factory attack, Sirhan Surhan gunned down presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy in a crowded hallway at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
These events would have encouraged the public to interpret the Warhol shooting in political terms. Of course, the genocidal rhetoric of SCUM Manifesto would do the same as more and more readers got their hands on it. On the face of it, a woman had assailed one of the most powerful men in the art world, furthermore accusing him of exploitation—“He had too much control over my life,” Solanas told law enforcement. In the eyes of some feminists, especially before the public had a full understanding of what led to the attack, Solanas’s bid to take Warhol’s life gave explosive expression to a mounting rage that many women felt over the pervasive sexism in the United States. One of them was Ti-Grace Atkinson, president of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, known as NOW. As it happens, Atkinson had heard about a brilliant if also a bit bonkers writing entitled SCUM Manifesto from a Village Voice reporter just one day prior to the Factory shootout, though she hadn’t yet read it herself. Looking back on her initial response to the Warhol shooting decades later, Atkinson described it as follows: “I knew there was exploitation and it mattered because finally some woman had done something that was proportionate to the feelings we were having.” Upon finishing a news story about the attack, she put down the paper and instinctively headed for the courthouse, hoping to establish contact with the prisoner. On the steps outside, she ran into none other than Florynce Kennedy, noted civil rights attorney who had defended members of the Black Panthers and wanted to make Solanas her next client.
Atkinson and Kennedy met with Solanas in jail, the former offering emotional support and championing her cause among other feminists while the latter agreed to represent Solanas in court. However, their sympathies toward the prisoner faltered as they became better acquainted with her. Disturbingly, Solanas recounted the events of the shooting with ghoulish gusto, even reenacting parts of it. In hindsight, Atkinson condemned this behavior: “She took great pleasure in describing how humiliated they [i.e., Warhol, Anaya, and Hughes] were, how they were begging for mercy. It seemed inhuman to me. It had nothing to do with feminism. It had to do with artists’ rights.”
In the end, Solanas rejected the assistance of Atkinson and Kennedy. As time wore on, she lashed out at both with intensifying malice, defying Kennedy’s counsel and insulting Atkinson. “We learned very quickly that if you cared about her at all, she became really abusive,” Atkinson recalled. “Still, we persisted.” That Solanas didn’t share their political views may have exacerbated matters. Despite her hatred of patriarchy and her desire to dismantle it, Solanas never aligned herself with feminism and even maligned the movement, partly out of an aversion to liberals in general. The alliance could only end in ruins. Fed up with her client, Kennedy eventually resigned as her lawyer. When Atkinson approached NOW to encourage the organization to lend formal support to Solanas, she met with opposition. While some members sympathized with Solanas, others wanted nothing to do with her. Taking up the cause of a would-be murderer would damage their reputation and hinder progress, they maintained. In early October, Atkinson stepped down as the New York chapter president of NOW and left the organization to found another. No doubt several factors motivated her departure. Infighting over such hot-button issues as abortion, marriage, and the family was fracturing the group and frustrating Atkinson. At the same time, her readiness to come to Solanas’s aid and internal disputes over whether her actions warranted such assistance also contributed to her break with NOW.
On June 13, the Supreme Court of the State of New York deemed Solanas insane, and she spent the following months in psychiatric hospitals. Medical examiners eventually diagnosed her with chronic paranoid schizophrenia. In August 1968, Maurice Girordias cashed in on Solanas’s notoriety and published SCUM Manifesto with Olympia Press, which flew off the shelves. The following year, Solanas finally stood trial in June, representing herself and pleading guilty to “reckless assault with intent to harm.” She received a three-year prison sentence, only serving one of them before her release. Out from behind bars, she briefly worked in editing and publishing before spending her final years penniless in Phoenix and San Francisco. She succumbed to pneumonia in 1988, aged fifty-two.
Subsequent decades have seen renewed interest in Solanas and her writing. Much of this owes to Mary Harron’s gripping and exhaustively researched 1996 biopic, I Shot Andy Warhol. If you know Harron for anything, it’s probably the film that followed this one, the 2000 cult classic, American Psycho. At the time of this writing, I Shot Andy Warhol is available to watch in full on YouTube, and I highly recommend it. In 1999, in a surprise turn of events, the Up Your Ass manuscript Solanas had given Warhold more than three decades earlier finally resurfaced in a box of lighting equipment belonging to the artist’s friend and collaborator, Billy Name. The year after, American theater director George Coates staged a musical version of Up Your Ass with an all-female cast at George Coates Performance Works in San Francisco. On June 26, 2020, The New York Times published an obituary of Solanas as part of its Overlooked initiative, conceived to spotlight noteworthy women, people of color, as well as members of the LGBT community who at the time of their deaths did not receive obituaries in that newspaper.
As far as I know, Solanas never showed even a hint of remorse over the shooting, even though Warhol suffered debilitating health problems for the rest of his life. She certainly didn’t in a 1977 interview. In the conversation, Solanas insisted to a journalist, “I go by an absolute moral standard.” Challenging her, the interviewer asked, “Valerie, do you want to get into a discussion now about shooting people?” “That’s a moral act,” she retorted. “And I consider it immoral that I missed. I should have done target practice.”
Next episode, we travel back in time almost two thousand years to the first century A.D. and make the acquaintance of a Roman emperor notorious not only as an assassin but also as an artist.