Tales From the Warhol Factory

In each of three successive spaces called the Factory, Andy Warhol created movies, paintings, time capsules and psychosexual dramas with a half-life of many decades. Here his collaborators recall the places, the times and the man.

Concealed behind the pasty mask, the trademark fright wig and the impassive expression Andy Warhol showed to the world was a man of roiling complexities. Depending on who does the talking, Warhol was either an emotional vampire draining vital juices from the animated nut-jobs he gathered to him or a kindly, if slightly creepy, avuncular figure whose motives have been misunderstood.

He drew them to him — a recessive dynamo at the center of a dysfunctional hive — first at the raw Silver Factory on East 47th Street in Manhattan (for which he paid rent of $100 a year); afterward at the more polished headquarters of his varied ventures on Union Square West; and, finally, at a refitted power station in the East 30s.

Leave it to the critics to pronounce on the vast oeuvre when a major Warhol retrospective — the paintings, the films, the time capsules — opens amid a flurry of parties on Nov. 12 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

What comes clear in interviews with more than two dozen former friends and colleagues from the various Factory spaces is that, from the start of a career that ended with his premature death at 58, the rabidly ambitious and deeply needy Warhol marshaled all that was paradoxical in his nature and put it to the service of the sustained piece of performance art that was his public self.

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Mary Woronov, who starred in “Chelsea Girls,” in 1966.CreditSanti Visalli/Getty Images

Fran Lebowitz, 68, writer. Factory years: 1970s.

When you walked in, there was a metal door. After that door opened, there was another metal door. On it, handwritten on a piece of paper torn from a legal pad, was a note that read, “Knock loudly and announce yourself.” I knocked, and someone said, “Who’s there?” I said, “Valerie Solanas” [Warhol’s would-be assassin]. And Andy opened the door.

Andre Leon Talley, 1975, Providence, RI.Creditvia Bobby Grossman Archives
Andre Leon Talley, 1975, Providence, RI.Creditvia Bobby Grossman Archives

The place seemed dirty. There were several drag queens limping around. They limped because they wanted to shock you. They really didn’t like you, and their recourse was to limp.

It was so dark that you couldn’t see any art. The place had silver foil all over it.

The Factory was very much a creative playpen, but there were still rules. You had to show up every day, or you would be fired. Andy was always walking around being very vague about everything. But you had to be enthusiastic. There was a seriousness about the place, a decorum and deportment.

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