Bob Colacello was Andy Warhol's confidant. He partied with him at Studio 54, hung out with his friends – everyone from Jackie Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor and Bianca Jagger to Grace Jones and the Rolling Stones – and helped him recover from a near-fatal shooting. Ahead of a Warhol retrospective at Tate Modern, who better to reveal the private life of a man famous for a lot longer than 15 minutes? Interview by Will Pavia.
Elizabeth Taylor strode back to her trailer, followed by Andy Warhol and a man named Bob, who was holding Warhol's dachshund. The dachshund's name was Archie.
"Can Bob bring my dog too?" Warhol asked.
"So long as he doesn't piss on my carpet," Taylor snapped.
"Gee, Bob," whispered Warhol. "What a great opening line. I mean, that's the first thing that Elizabeth Taylor said to me. You've got to remember it for my memoirs."
Bob Colacello did remember it. He tells the story in ravishing detail in his own memoir, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Up Close, which is by far the clearest portrait of an artist who looms like a blond god over contemporary popular culture.
Colacello is telling it again now, sitting on a brown sofa in his living room on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "I was so lucky that Andy took me along on those shoots, those couple of weeks of shooting a movie with Liz Taylor, who was at the height of her derangement, between her relationships with Richard Burton," he says.
It was 1973 and Warhol had a cameo in the Italian psychological drama The Driver's Seat, playing "a rich creep of undisclosed nationality and occupation". So said a note in the script. "Gee," Warhol apparently exclaimed, seeing this. "My first movie and I'm typecast already."
They had arrived bright and early at Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Rome for the shoot, which could not begin until Taylor got there. She came at 4pm and nailed the scene on the first take, walking through a crowd of extras and screaming when a terrorist rushed in and stabbed one of them in front of her.
Warhol himself had been attacked and nearly killed five years earlier, by a woman who followed him into his studio and shot him in the chest at point-blank range. He hadn't read the script and thought the terrorist attack was real. "My God," he blurted to Colacello. "We better get out of here." Even Archie, the dachshund, "developed a case of the shakes", Colacello recalls.
Afterwards, in Taylor's trailer, the actress downed what she called a Debauched Mary, a drink she told them was "five parts vodka and one part blood", and launched into a tirade about lesbians in the film industry and one "f***ing dyke" she suspected of seeking to divide her from Richard Burton. She spoke of her accidents and injuries, asking Warhol to touch her back and feel her crushed vertebrae, according to Colacello. Warhol then unbuttoned his shirt and showed her his upper torso, "crisscrossed with the scars of stitches. 'You poor baby,' said Elizabeth Taylor softly. 'You poor baby.'"
We never see Warhol like this: a chaotic presence, shambling through the world, colliding with other forces of nature. We certainly don't see him with his shirt off and the girdle that held in his stomach after the shooting. One of his secretaries, Brigid Berlin, scion of a wealthy New York family, spruced him up a bit by "dyeing his girdles different colours", says Colacello. "When we travelled, he'd have a suite and we'd hang out in the living room," and before bed, "he would take off his jeans … and he would sleep in his Oxford cloth shirt and his … stockings. You didn't really see much of Andy's body."
We tend to see Warhol in a suit and it's usually hard to tell if he is being himself or if it's a performance. It only gets harder the larger the legend grows. He'll be everywhere this year: the Tate is holding a major retrospective, starting in March, including pictures that have never been seen in the UK before. Such is Warhol's popularity, it is predicted to be a blockbuster show. Then comes a grand new biography, Warhol: A Life as Art, by Blake Gopnik, published in April. Warhol's life keeps generating news stories, but it's hard to get a grip on the man in the wig.
Colacello is one of few people who can really do it. "Most people didn't realise that Andy actually had a series of wigs that he would change by the week, so that it looked like his hair was growing," he says, when I ask him specifically about Warhol's hair.
Colacello himself is 73 and tanned, with black thick-framed glasses, a grey jumper, dark cords and grey patterned socks. Above his head there's a huge canvas by the Swiss neo-expressionist painter Martin Disler. Around the corner there's a rather pop-arty portrait of him by Don Florence, "for a show we had in Long Island called One Hundred Famous Homos", he says, chuckling. By the door there's a larger one by the Estonian artist Martin Saar. "He said, 'Bob, if you would just tell all the stories you know about people, you'd be a multimillionaire.'" Saar painted Colacello with a hand over his mouth, keeping them all in.
"I was one of the four or five close collaborators of Andy in the Seventies into the Eighties," he says. "Being a writer, I was the only one who could actually write it down."
Now, like an apostle 30 years after the crucifixion, he finds himself in demand. His word is gospel. "I could actually, every week, fly off somewhere to give another talk about Andy Warhol for a handsome fee," he says. "In the past year I've done it in Beirut, Chicago and Saudi Arabia most recently."
The Saudi conference was called Fashion Futures and featured hot young talents and all the big movers and drapers, mustering to discuss the future of the fashion industry. It did not seem strange to them that a keynote address at this forward-looking conference was devoted to the work of a New York artist who has been dead for 33 years. "They loved hearing my stories about Andy," says Colacello.
Holy Terror, his memoir, first published in 1990, has since been reissued with a new introduction covering everything that had happened afterwards: the rise of reality television, arguably predicted by Warhol's films, and the age of social media, in which anyone can be world famous for 15 minutes.
When the Whitney Museum in New York staged a Warhol retrospective last year, one room featured his bright, flat flower paintings, hung on walls covered with his lurid cow-print wallpaper. It was all his work, yet it looked as if it had been made specifically for the age of Instagram, as a parlour where his fans could snap selfies.
Now, "We have a president who is kind of a Warholian creature," says Colacello. "I don't think Andy would have liked what Trump is doing. On the other hand he would have been impressed." And Colacello has had inquiries about turning his adventures with Warhol into a television series. It would make him wealthier, but he's not sure that he wants the fame. "All the people I know who are really famous, they're not any happier," he says. "I don't really think like Andy thought. Kim Kardashian thinks like Andy thought. Andy would be dating Kim Kardashian."
Warhol was born in 1928 in Pittsburgh, the third son of dirt-poor immigrants who hailed from the Carpathian mountains in what is now Slovakia and practised a faith that was half Roman Catholic, half Russian Orthodox. Colacello visited the church Warhol used to attend with his mother on Saturday nights and three times on Sunday: he was struck by how the icons of the saints with their gold backgrounds looked like Warhol's Gold Marilyn.
Colacello thinks Warhol learnt his English from the cinema. "Andy spoke in pure clichés from Thirties and Forties Hollywood movies. He would say, 'Oh, Bob, when is our ship going to come in?' I'm like, 'Your ship came in, Andy.' Or, 'Are we going to bring home the bacon? We have a lot of mouths to feed.' " He would also talk about "falling in a tub of butter", a phrase Warhol used for people who managed to marry someone fabulously wealthy, a consummation devoutly to be wished. Like a patriarch in a Jane Austen novel addressing his daughters, Warhol often urged his colleagues to marry money.
For himself, "He wanted to be a beauty more than anything," says Colacello. "His favourite word was beauty. He was always saying, 'She's a beauty. Gee, he's a beauty,' in this wistful, longing kind of way. He was very self-conscious about his looks."
As a child he had been rather good-looking, but around the age of eight he developed a virus that left him with shaky limbs and blotchy skin. The other kids called him Spot. The way he won friends, eventually, was by drawing them. His father died when he was 14, leaving money and instructions with his two eldest sons to help their delicate brother go to college. Warhol studied design at Carnegie Tech and went to work in New York as a commercial artist, where he developed a technique: a fast, dexterous sketch of a product, which he traced in ink on tissue paper and then printed onto a third piece of paper, creating something with the clean outlines of a wallpaper pattern. It was a big hit with advertising departments.
He made art too, but struggled for recognition in an art world dominated by macho abstract painters like Jasper Johns, who regarded him as rather camp and very commercial. He found his form in 1960, with a clean, flat painting of a Coca-Cola bottle. Then came the Campbell's soup cans, the silk screens of Hollywood stars, the Mona Lisas laid out in a block of 30, like wallpaper. He set up shop in a former hat factory, which became known as the Factory, boasting of an assembly-line approach to art. He liked to make silkscreen prints because, "This way I don't have to work on my objects at all," he said, in a series of statements from an interview that were rendered in bold type in the front of a catalogue for his first retrospective in Stockholm in 1968. "One of my assistants or anyone else, for that matter, can reproduce the designs as well as I could."
It wasn't true, Colacello says. "His work was really not done by other people." Warhol could be a little secretive about it: once Colacello caught him working on negatives for his portraits, taking a pair of scissors and snipping out double chins and bags under the eyes so that even his most elderly clients were left with noses and jawlines "like Marilyn, like Elvis". But when Colacello questioned him, he pretended he was doing it just that once. Another time, when Colacello walked in on Warhol painting, the artist stopped and responded to questions "with the utmost vagueness".
But when Warhol got more comfortable around Colacello, he let him watch. Colacello recorded the first time he saw it in his diary: the outline of a face traced from a blown-up photo negative onto tissue paper, the tracing then imprinted through a sheet of carbon onto a canvas. "Then A slaps paint (acrylic) on with a large brush, more like housepaint brush than artist's brush, rarely cleaning brush, as he switches from area to area and colour to colour," Colacello wrote in his memoir. "He also uses his hands, especially fingers, to create texture, gesture, blend colours." Once the canvas was dry, the photo negative was printed onto the top of it by a silkscreen printer named Alexander Heinrici. Except for that last phase, it was an intimate process.
But, "Andy was good at creating his own myth," says Colacello. In the Stockholm catalogue from 1968, he declares that, "The interviewer should just tell me the words he wants me to say and I'll repeat them after him." For those who wanted to know "all about Andy Warhol", he said, "just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it."
The films that he began making in the mid-Sixties were experimental, shocking and sometimes incredibly dull (Empire, for instance, featured the Empire State Building standing still, as it does, for six hours). Models, heiresses, drag queens and beautiful, blank-faced young men were given roles in them for $25 a time. Warhol called them his "superstars". They partied all night at the Factory, with actual stars: the Rolling Stones, Judy Garland and Jim Morrison. Then a woman named Valerie Solanas, who had appeared in one of these films and later felt cast aside, trailed Warhol into the Factory and shot him three times in the chest and stomach from a range of a few feet.
Warhol was rushed to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead. A thoracic surgeon named Giuseppe Rossi, who happened to be an expert on gunshot wounds, opened Warhol's chest, massaged his heart into life, removed his spleen and ordered a massive blood transfusion, performing what was to be called "one of the great saves in medical history". Dr Rossi would later say that he presumed he was operating on an elderly homeless man. Afterwards, Warhol sent him a cheque, which bounced, and ten of his Campbell's soup can prints, which Rossi kept under the bed. His family sold them at Christie's in 2017 for more than $300,000.
The shooting left him needing a girdle to hold in his stomach muscles, while "his torso was a roadmap of scars". This is when Colacello got to know him. During his convalescence, Warhol founded a film magazine called Interview. Colacello was living with his parents in Long Island: he had just graduated from Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service and was doing a master's in film criticism at Columbia. Some of his film reviews appeared in The Village Voice, and the Interview editor Warhol had appointed began commissioning him. When this same editor was fired six months later, Colacello was offered the job. His father, a Wall Street executive, was appalled.
Colacello was part of "this new generation he brought in to be normal after he was shot", he says. "Sometimes he would actually say, 'You kids are so boring. The drag queens were so much more creative.' We were like, 'Bring back the drag queens, Andy. Get shot again.'"
It could be a little dispiriting for a young writer, though, to hear Warhol insist that it was better and "modern" just to tape-record interview subjects and print the transcription. Another young recruit named Pat Hackett, who had a degree in English literature, typed them out, removing juicy gossip that might endanger a portrait commission or a film deal.
"We weren't really practising journalism," Colacello says. "The magazine was partially designed to promote the films and help sell the portraits and in many cases people we featured in the magazine ended up having their portraits done."
In one way, it was a doddle. "Jack Nicholson or Mick Jagger or Cher or Jodie Foster came for lunch at the Factory and we tape-recorded them and sent them to a photographer. Then you had a cover story where no other magazine had it, because they weren't there to promote their movie that was coming out the next month."
Warhol began calling Colacello in the mornings to ask what he did the night before. He would ask Colacello to hold on a moment, when he answered, as he plugged in a device to tape their conversation. He liked to hear celebrity gossip, but he would also be delighted to receive information on the movements of Colacello's grandmother: "She moved out of your aunt's house? Gee!"
Colacello thinks that if Warhol could have tape-recorded every member of the human race, he would have. The artist was like a hoarder when it came to information about the lives of others. "He was kind of a sociologist in some ways," says Colacello. "Trying to figure out what the times were about, what human relations were about, what love was about, what sex was about. He wasn't really good at any of those things."
There was something in the way that he talked to women that reminds you of the chap in the Monty Python sketch who keeps talking of sex because he wants to know what it's like.
"Andy liked to talk dirty a little," says Colacello. "He liked to ask women in a childish way, like, 'Does your husband have a big cock?' Or, 'Is your husband good in bed?'"
Colacello describes Jane Forth, a receptionist at the Factory, complaining of a toothache as they rode through West Germany in 1971 in the back of a limousine. Warhol said he knew the cure. "What?" she asked. "Well," he replied, matter of factly. "First you find the biggest cock you can, right? And then you put it in your mouth where it hurts, and, uh, you leave it there until the pain goes away."
Forth didn't mind, but it was not always helpful when Colacello was trying to help him convince a wealthy lady to have her portrait done. It also led to an awkward moment with Yoko Ono, who had annoyed Warhol by asking him for a series of favours: to come to an exhibition in upstate New York and to bring several other famous artists with him, saying she deserved his support as an oppressed female victim of the chauvinistic art establishment.
"I thought your family owned a bank?" Warhol replied, Colacello writes. He then agreed to attend her exhibition "but only if you tell me how big John is … You know, down there."
She was not amused. "But others were really titillated by it and liked it," he says. "It also was the Seventies," he adds, by way of explanation. "You were supposed to have as much sex as possible. It was like, the whole idea of liberation was that women could be as free as men. This idea that they hated sex and men had to force it upon them has come back full force now. Back then, people knew when they invited Andy to dinner or they engaged him in conversation that he was eccentric and that he was an artist and that he was naughty and that he made X-rated movies. That's part of the reason why they invited him."
He had worshipped Warhol before he went to work for him. But, "The more you got to know Andy and spend time with him, the sorrier you felt for him," he says. "Your main feeling towards him went from awe to annoyance or frustration at how relentless he could be," coupled, he says, with a feeling that you needed to protect him.
He was fearful. On that trip to West Germany in 1971, they planned to visit East Berlin. Warhol turned back at Checkpoint Charlie when one of the guards confiscated a copy of Vogue. "It's too scary," he said, according to Colacello.
"You were very conscious from the first moment you walked through that bulletproof door that security was a concern," he says. Leaving the office with Warhol, "If some bag lady, as they were called in those days, homeless woman or some big black guy who wasn't very well dressed was walking in our direction, Andy would be like, 'Let's go into the store.' And we'd go into a plumbing supply store or just anything to avoid the possibility of someone shooting him again."
The woman who had tried to murder him was freed after only three years in prison and then started calling the Factory. "She was kind of a nut," says Colacello. Although he also thinks that Warhol probably promised to do something for her, in an offhand sort of way. "He said yes to everyone," he says. And, "Andy loved to push people's buttons."
Warhol would look at his receptionist, Brigid Berlin, and say, " 'Oh Brig, it's so cold today. I could really go for an Irish coffee. Don't you want an Irish coffee? Here's $100; go buy some Irish whiskey.' Knowing she was an alcoholic," Colacello says. "Then she would be whipping up a whole blender full of Irish coffees. He would have one sip, leave it on the table and go paint in his studio. Brigid would drink all the rest. The next thing you know, she'd be calling from the airport. She'd picked up some guy, a cute young boy at a bar. She was taking him to Paris, but she forgot her passport. Could we get her passport and taxi it out to her? Andy's like, 'I don't understand why Brigid just can't have one drink.' We'd say, 'Because she's an alcoholic. You know that. You keep doing this. Why do you do this?'"
I suppose people would now say that Andy Warhol was a bitch who loved drama. Elizabeth Taylor offered it in spades: indeed, Warhol seems to have realised, on meeting her, that one could have too much of a good thing. During the film shoot in Rome, Warhol and Colacello invited her for lunch at their villa. She arrived a few hours after lunch was served and started asking a producer there to call Burton. "He won't take calls from me," she said, dragging the man into the library and "begging him to call", Colacello writes. Moments later, "She let out a bloodcurdling scream and came running back to the terrace. 'I'm no easy lay,' she shouted. 'That motherf***er tried to put the make on me … I'm crying on his shoulder and he tries to grab me.'"
It was quite a thing to see, Colacello says. "But my favourite moment of the whole thing was when we got back to New York and Andy said, 'Lee Radziwill wants me to take her and Jackie to the Brooklyn Museum to see this Egyptian show. You should come with me.'"
They picked up Princess Radziwill and her sister, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, at the latter's home on Fifth Avenue. "Literally the first thing Jackie says to Andy is, 'Andy, so tell me, what was Liz Taylor really like?'" Colacello says the former first lady spoke like Marilyn Monroe. "It was like all three of Andy's icons were there, you know," he says. "I mean, I was so lucky I got to witness things like this. I didn't have to use my imagination."
Taylor starred in another spectacle in March 1978, when she celebrated her birthday at Studio 54. By then she was married to her sixth husband, John Warner, a Republican senator from Virginia. Colacello took the former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland to the party. They were seated on a silver banquette overlooking the dancefloor, onto which marched the dance troupe the Rockettes, holding sparklers, forming a circle around a birthday cake on which Taylor and the senator were portrayed in marzipan. Colacello remembers standing on the banquette with Vreeland and dancing with her to a disco version of Happy Birthday.
"Senator John Warner is, like, freaking out, because he's being photographed as Elizabeth cuts into her tit," he recalls. "I said to Diana, 'It's like the fall of Rome, Diana.' She said, 'Well, I should hope so, Bob.'"
In recognition of the presence that night of a US senator, the owners of Studio 54, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, had posted attendants in the lavatories. Colacello found this out after Margaret Trudeau, first lady of Canada (and mother of Justin), tried to take him into the ladies' room.
"Margaret Trudeau was quite something," he says. "She was beautiful. She was really fun."
Warhol was at the centre of the Studio 54 scene; he felt safe there, Colacello says. And Interview magazine became something like the club's official organ. He remembers walking to the door through a baying crowd of people calling out, "Take me with you."
"Once you got in, you felt like everybody was a star," he says. "Everybody could mingle with everybody. It wasn't just movie stars … Ambassadors from the UN would come in tuxedos after their dinner parties. There would be all these athletes."
The Canadian socialite Pat Buckley, whose family lived next door to Margaret Trudeau's, upbraided Colacello once, saying, " 'I don't know how you could put this tramp on the cover of your magazine, Bob. If you knew how her parents were suffering.' I was like, 'Well, Pat, she's great. She's glamorous. That's what this magazine's about.'" Buckley would also ask how "a nice Catholic boy" like Colacello "could work for that creep Andy Warhol", to which, "I'd say, 'Pat, he's the one who goes to Mass every Sunday. Not me.'"
I interviewed Trudeau a few years ago and she remembered Studio 54 as "a raving drug scene". She also remembered Warhol. "They invited me to the Factory where these fancy men, Fred Hughes [Warhol's business manager] and Bob, made Andy all his millions," she said.
She recalled helping Truman Capote get home at the end of the night.
"She probably did," Colacello says. "Truman would get completely blotto."
Warhol had been a Capote "groupie" in the Fifties, Colacello says. The affection was not really reciprocated. Then Capote published La Côte Basque, 1965, a savage depiction of New York's high society, which secured his own banishment from it. After that he "rediscovered his old friend Andy", Colacello says. He started writing for Interview. "He would have me and Andy over for brunch, and he'd say, 'I just baked this cake. It just came out of the oven.' Andy would say, 'Why does it have the silver cardboard underneath it from the bakery?'"
Colacello became close to Capote and the writer became "protective of me against Andy," he says. He remembers Capote announcing one day that, "He was not going to smoke. He was not going to take any more coke. He was not going to drink. He was going to get healthy … And that he and I should meet every morning at nine o'clock and do laps in the pool of the UN Plaza Hotel. So I get there ten minutes late, and he's like, 'Where were you? I already did 100 laps. Well, OK, I'll do a few more.'"
Colacello has a deep, resonant timbre: he does Capote in a higher, bird-like call. He remembers talking that day about his boyfriend, whom Warhol "ended up disliking just because he took up too much time away from work". As Capote loaded him into a taxi after their swim, he remembers the writer bellowing, so loudly that all First Avenue could hear it, "Don't listen to Andy. He doesn't know the first thing about love."
Warhol would probably acknowledge that this was true. But he was a genius, Colacello says. "I never stopped thinking he was a genius."
A genius has "a unique vision. In order to keep that going you really have to develop almost tunnel vision, and tunnel emotions, and not really care that much about what the people round you feel." One former "superstar" committed suicide, leaving a note blaming Warhol. And Colacello found, after 13 years in which his talents were subsumed beneath the sprawling personality of Warhol, that he had to get out of there.
But at the last, Colacello believes his old boss did find, in the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, someone he truly loved. Basquiat was part of a new generation of artists who wanted to paint and "actually liked the idea of becoming rich and famous", and looked to Warhol as their lodestar. "Suddenly Andy had all these young artists clustering around him. It was really nice and sweet. It was like revenge."
There's a brilliant moment too, in one Warhol documentary, where the artist sits for an interview with a journalist he despises and answers questions about the abstract painters who had shunned him. Warhol declares that he prefers their style to his own. "You can be messy and drip paint all over the place," he says. "It's easier."
And what did he think of Jasper Johns, the preeminent abstract artist? "I think he's great," Warhol replied. Why?
"Oh, uh, he makes such great lunches," Warhol says. He then turns and stares straight into the camera. "He does this great thing with chicken. He puts parsley inside the chicken."
Colacello gasped when he saw it. "I thought, 'Andy, again, you're such a bitch.'"
Written by: Will Pavia
© The Times of London