Posted by: zhiv | January 26, 2009

Warhol and Capote

November 2007

 

Andy Warhol left Pittsburgh in June 1949 and moved to New York.  He had recently graduated from Carnegie Tech where his talent was recognized by many of his teachers and fellow students.  Just as importantly, he had recently worked at a Pittsburgh department store and developed an interest in commercial art.  His ready ability to apply his artistic talent to the world of fashion and the practice of graphic design enabled him to gain an immediate foothold as a professional in New York City.

 

Warhol had abundant drive and ambition, important complementary qualities to his artistic ability and taste.  He threw himself into his work, finding it exciting and rewarding, but it also provided a refuge from his personal insecurities.  Warhol’s ambition was colored by a desire for not just success in aesthetic and commercial terms, but also fame, glamour, and all of the trappings of celebrity.  He had been obsessed with Shirley Temple as a child, and the world of her movies where innocence, dancing and fun always triumphed over mundane social conflicts.  He loved the beauty, glamour, and intrigue of the Hollywood world of fantasy and celebrity.  He hoped that his art and talent would find him a place in that world, and he was eager to do everything in his power to get there, starting with endless hard work.

 

His primary fear and insecurity was that he didn’t have star quality, as much as he yearned to possess it.  He could be charming and fun around friends, but he was awkward and shy.  He wasn’t beautiful.  He didn’t like his appearance, felt that he looked ordinary at best, and he knew he could never be a star based on his looks.  He had a deep understanding of beauty, and in a gentle, generous, youthful manner he saw it in other people but found it very difficult to acknowledge within himself.  Despite these insecurities about his appearance, Warhol had a strong acceptance of his personality and talent.  He knew he was original, different, and creative, and he didn’t feel the need to be anything else, to be conventional in any way.

 

When Warhol arrived in New York, Truman Capote embodied all of the qualities that Warhol desired.  Capote had become a literary and social star in postwar New York in an astonishingly short period of time.  He was both beautiful and brilliant, and he also possessed uncanny social skill, charming the young and old, the rich and the tastemakers, along with writers and intellectuals.  Like Warhol, he was an artist and an original creative personality with no desire to be anything besides himself, despite powerful conventions and taboos.

 

Capote began his rise in 1946, publishing short stories in Glamour and Harpers Bazaar, the same world of magazines that Warhol would enter as a graphic artist.  His stories drew immediate attention and Capote used the entrée to begin an equally swift and impressive social ascent.  The publication of his first novel “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” in January 1948, was a highly anticipated literary event, and the quality of the book lived up to the hype.  In it, Capote created a richly described, extraordinary world based on his own upbringing in the South, with a young protagonist who comes to understand and accept his homosexuality, his difference.  Harpers Bazaar fiction editor George Davis quipped that “somebody had to write the fairy Huckleberry Finn,” and Capote accomplished the task as a 24 year old.

 

The quality of the novel was firmly acknowledged, certainly as a spectacular debut, but it was overshadowed by the sensational photograph of Capote on the back cover, which overtly sexualized the boyish author.  Combined with the book’s subject matter, it was certainly one of the most powerful cultural images of the immediate postwar era.  The presentation was Capote’s creation, a seamless mixture of image, art, and life.  For Andy Warhol, the publication of Other Voices and the life of its author was perfection itself, everything he wanted and imagined, a dream in human form.

 

When he arrived in New York, Andy Warhol was obsessed with Truman Capote.  

 

 

Andy Warhol’s life in New York began in a lower East Side summer sublet he shared with fellow Carnegie artist Philip Pearlstein.  Warhol had a list of magazine art directors to solicit, and he started with Tina Frederick at Glamour.  Over the past year, Warhol had developed a drawing technique that resulted in a “blotted line” that would become a signature graphic art motif through the 50s.  Frederick was impressed by Warhol’s portfolio and immediately gave him an assignment, and his first appearance in print was a set of drawings illustrating the concept that “Success is a job in New York.”

 

Warhol moved down his list of art directors and built contacts at many of the fashion magazines.  He worked tirelessly, providing alternative versions of artwork to his clients and embracing the process of making changes and trying to give them exactly what they wanted.  He also established a singular, eccentric personality in the world of commercial art, which at the time had a universal dress code for men of suits, white shirts, and narrow ties, along with hats.  Capote was well-known at the time for favoring jeans and t-shirts at many occasions, as were the masculine Abstract Expressionists who dominated the world of fine art, led by Jackson Pollack.

 

The New York fashion and women’s magazine worlds contained many career women in the post-war era, and secretaries were almost universally female.  There were undoubtedly innumerable homosexuals throughout this culture along with the rest of the arts, but Warhol, like Capote, stood out for being exactly who he was, overtly gay, aesthetic, and highly mannered.  He befriended secretaries, brought them flowers, and happily went to fetch coffee while he waited for his appointments.  As a young, hard-working artist, Warhol was creating flawless and beautiful product, but his surroundings were sloppy, cluttered, and haphazard.  He delivered his work in grocery bags and wrapped in simple brown paper, and with his unique dress and awkward shyness in professional situations he was called “Raggedy Andy” by a number of his Madison Avenue employers.

 

By the time the summer sublet with Pearlstein ended, Warhol was working steadily, even around the clock.  He moved into a basement apartment in Harlem that was something of a way station for dancers, mostly women, and he claimed to have 17 roommates over the next  6 months, none of whom became friends or shared with him their feelings about their cooperative bohemian life.  He did paint a mural in one of the bedrooms, which was later painted over. Warhol was presumably working and keeping to himself the majority of the time.

 

When Warhol moved to Manhattan in June 1949, Capote was in Europe.  It was Capote’s second trip, one of many he would make through the course of the decade.  After the publication of Other Voices at the beginning of 1948, Capote worked through the first crush of reviews and celebrity and then traveled to London in May.  He moved on to Paris and then to Venice, and his social connections were extraordinary through the entire trip.  He sailed home with Tennessee Williams in August, and moved into his own first apartment, at 2nd Avenue and 58th Street.  His mother and stepfather still lived in a large apartment on Park Avenue, which had been his residence, but Capote’s problems with his mother’s alcoholism and erratic behavior were rapidly increasing.

 

Capote’s personal affairs went through some changes after this first trip.  He returned to find that his literary mentor and lover Newton Arvin had been seeing Capote’s close friend Andrew Jennings.  Capote and Arvin briefly reconciled, but the relationship had seemingly run its course.  Perhaps Capote was looking for an opportunity to make his own decision about ending the affair, because it was more formally terminated only after Capote began a relationship with Jack Dunphy, who was to be his primary romantic partner for the next 30 years.  Capote met Dunphy in October 1948, and he confessed his relationship with Dunphy to Arvin in February.  Presumably, the romance with Dunphy was Capote’s principal occupation during this return trip to New York, which lasted from August until they left together for France on February 26, 1949.  A collection of Capote’s stories, titled “A Tree of Night,” was published at the beginning of this busy month.

 

Capote moved from France to the small Italian island of Ischia, where a group that included Tennessee Williams was living, and he worked there until the end of May.  Capote was rewriting “Summer Crossing,” a novel that he had put aside to write “Other Voices.”  He and Dunphy moved on to Rome at the beginning of June, and this is where he was when Warhol moved to New York with Pearlstein.  Capote went to Tangier in July, with Paul and Jane Bowles, and stayed until the end of September, when he was 2/3rds of the way through his rewrite of “Summer Crossing.”  He was in Paris at the beginning of October, still working on the book that he was never happy with, which was not published during his lifetime.  Capote’s friend John Malcolm Brinnin had become the director of the Poetry Center at the 92nd St. Y, and Capote had promised to do a reading for him on December 8th.  Capote was struggling with his novel and wasn’t sure that he wanted to return to New York.  He had a dream of going to Sicily with Dunphy to continue working, but he was also tired of travel.  His decision to return to New York was delayed long enough that he had to fly home.  He was nervous before going onstage at the reading, but it was a smashing success, an immediate public confirmation of Capote’s celebrity on the occasion of his return to New York in December 1949.

 

One has to assume that Warhol was in the audience that night.  Another assumption is that Capote had given up his 58th St. apartment when he left the previous March.  So he must have returned to his mother’s Park Avenue apartment at this time.  Capote took the opportunity to visit Arvin before Dunphy returned from Europe on the Queen Mary with their luggage.  Dunphy still had his own apartment, a small walkup on 76th St., and Capote moved himself in, without invite or hesitation.

 

Gerald Clarke’s biography of Capote records a visit to the apartment by Capote’s old nightclub buddy Oona O’Neill and her husband Charlie Chaplin.  And an encounter with William Faulkner, discussing Hemingway’s latest book “Across the River and Into the Trees” at one of Leo Lerman’s parties is a nice anecdote.  “Summer Crossing” wasn’t finished to Capote’s satisfaction—it never would be–, but he collected his travel articles for editor Robert Linscott, and Random House published them as his third book, “Local Color.” Capote also came down with viral pneumonia towards the end of this period, and that may have hastened his departure from New York.  At any rate, that spring Capote and Dunphy fulfilled their desire to try the quiet life in Sicily, and in April they sailed to Italy.        

 

It’s during this brief period from Capote’s return in December to his departure in April that his first encounter with Warhol must have taken place.  From the beginning of his arrival in New York, Warhol had been writing him fan letters, asking to draw Capote’s portrait.  Capote didn’t respond, and he was probably in Europe when the letters began to arrive.  Warhol took to hanging around Capote’s apartment, hoping to catch sight of him.  Although Capote reportedly moved his furniture into Dunphy’s apartment and he was living there, it was a tenement and small enough that it didn’t have its own bathroom, so Capote must have spent a fair amount of time at the Park Avenue residence, which was more of a permanent, known address, and that is probably the place Warhol staked out.

 

Warhol’s onslaught of fan letters continued, and it must have been stepped up after Capote’s return and appearance at the Y.  The letters began to appear every day, along with drawings, illustrations from Capote’s work, although Capote had trouble making them out.  Capote says that he “became terrifically conscious of this person.”  Eventually Warhol took the step of calling the apartment to ask Capote about the drawings.  Nina Capote answered, and she invited him to come up for a drink.  She took Warhol to the Blarney Stone, on 3rd Avenue, where she drank boilermakers and complained about her son.  They returned to the apartment, and Nina Capote was drunk and listening to Warhol talk about his struggles, when Capote arrived.  He spent some time with Warhol, and they must have discussed the drawings and letters. 

 

Capote wasn’t impressed.  Capote had all sorts of fans, and Warhol was simply a very impassioned one.  Having lived in New York for just six months, still in the midst of his first forays into the world of commercial art, and with some sweet vulnerability but an odd and awkward social manner, he must have been an especially unpromising young man.  Capote later said:  “He seemed one of those hopeless people that you just know nothing’s ever going to happen to.  Just a hopeless, born loser, the loneliest, most friendless person I’d ever seen in my life.”

 

 

But despite this impression, Capote was pleasant enough that Warhol began to call the apartment every day, and Capote took the calls, listening to Warhol’s problems.  Eventually, Nina Capote stepped in, yelling at Warhol to “stop bothering my son!”  Very attentive to his own mother, Warhol was sensitive enough to take the hint, and he stopped pursuing Capote.  Perhaps the decisive moment came when Capote was sick with pneumonia.  At any rate, soon enough Capote was on his way to Sicily with Dunphy.  

 

Capote and Dunphy settled in Taormina, and Capote was quite productive there.  He began to work on his second novel, “The Grass Harp,” in June, and he finished it almost exactly a year later, based in the Sicilian town the entire time.  Nina and Joe Capote arrived in September, when Capote had already sent two finished chapters of the new novel to Random House.  Nina Capote was on the wagon, drinking lots of coffee, and Capote took a trip to Venice with them.  Capote was tempted to return to the US in the spring, but his editor Robert Linscott urged him to finish the book.  Linscott and other Random House editors, including Bennett Cerf, wanted Capote to do more work on the conclusion to the manuscript, but during his return from Sicily, in Rome and then Venice, Capote decided he wanted to send the book out in its current form.  He was back in New York in August—and spent the end of the summer with Newton Arvin once again—and “The Grass Harp” was published on October 1, 1951.  It was a success, and quickly optioned for a theatrical version by Saint Simon, but its lasting literary merit was compromised by a rushed and unsatisfying conclusion.

 

Capote threw himself into working on the dramatization of his novel, finding it challenging, but he finished the first draft in January, and the play opened on March 27, 1952.  The show was flawed and unsuccessful, though it had its rabid fans, and the last performance on April 26 was a sellout that received a standing ovation.  Capote had left two weeks previously, returning to Taormina.

 

Warhol’s determined campaign to befriend Capote was over by April 1950 at the latest.  In March of that year, Warhol and his roommates were evicted from the small loft that was his third New York residence, and he moved into his own place on 74 West 103rd street.  Through the rest of that year and 1951 Warhol continued to work assiduously at establishing himself as a commercial artist.  He was successful and slowly moving out of his “roach period” of shared apartments and “Raggedy Andy,” and he had money to buy a Brooks Brothers suit and coat that he wore out on the town, but not as part of his professional persona.  Warhol was tentatively exploring New York’s gay underground throughout this period, eager to go to clubs and parties and meet people, but he was always more of an observer than a participant, which can be seen as a generalized version of his long term approach.

 

After January 1952 marked the middle of Warhol’s third year in New York, and Capote was working on the theatrical version of The Grass Harp, Warhol received an important visit from his mother Julia in the spring.  Warhol was living on East 24th Street (?) and working steadily, but his apartment was a mess and he claimed that candy was his primary food source.  Julia Warhola wasn’t happy about the situation, and a few months later, in early summer, she showed up on her doorstep with her luggage for a longer visit.  She never left.  She kept Warhol’s house and lived with him through many evolutions over the next 20 years, and at the very beginning they were together in very close quarters.  Julia Warhola’s first visit occurred before The Grass Harp opened, and by the time she was back for good, the show had closed.         

 

In June 1952, just before Julia Warhola arrived, Andy Warhol had his first show as an artist, at the Hugo Gallery.  It was “15 Drawings based on the Writings of Truman Capote.”  The pieces were fanciful blotted line drawings of boys and butterflies, and must have been more elaborate and finished versions of the drawings that Warhol actually sent Capote in early 1950.  Warhol paced nervously at the opening of the show, hoping that Capote would come to see the work.  Reportedly Capote and his mother came to see the show before it closed in July, but a look at the dates shows that Capote was on his way to Europe in mid-April, almost two months before Warhol’s exhibit opened.

 

Capote had been bitten by the theater bug during the production of The Grass Harp, despite the failure of the play.  His producer Saint Simon made a deal for him to adapt one of his short stories, “House of Flowers,” into a musical, and he started work on it in Sicily.  But Capote and Dunphy were less enamored of Taormina when they were unable to lease the same house they had lived in the year before, and they moved up towards Rome, where they arrived in September.  Capote built connections with Hollywood movie people there, and by November he had been brought in by David Selznick to replace Carson McCullers and do a rewrite on a troubled film Selznick was making with Vittorio De Sica, “Statzione Termini,” starring Montgomery Clift and Jennifer Jones.  Capote was working feverishly, rewriting scenes that would be shot the next day.  The film was ultimately a failure, but Selznick recommended Capote to John Huston who was about to shoot his own Italian production, “Beat the Devil,” starring Humphrey Bogart.  In February Capote was on the set with Huston and Bogart in Ravello, and the company moved to Shepperton Studios in London in April.  It was all very glamorous and Capote was continuing his professional and social ascent.  From London he returned to Italy, settling in Portofino, ready to write fiction but also trying to finish “House of Flowers.”  In October he moved on to Paris, and after 18 months of constant activity, as fall turned to winter things turned dark.  Carson McCullers’ husband Reeves, a good friend, placed a call to Capote “from across the River Styx” just before committing suicide.  The 29-year-old Capote could still pass for a teenager, and Cecil Beaton called him “a man of remarkable strength and vitality,” but with all of the activity, work, and demands of continued fame, Capote said “my youth is gone.”  And then, while he was in Paris, in January his troubled mother Nina took an overdose of sleeping pills and killed herself.

 

 

With all of his film work and a subsequent effort to get back to writing fiction, Capote had been in Europe for 18 months, ever since the production of The Grass Harp.  Once again he flew back to New York, this time to attend his mother’s memorial service.  His return was played in a very different key from the triumphant 92nd St. Y performance, but he brought the maturity of an accomplished artist and established society figure to his latest endeavors.

 

Following his June 1952 Capote-inspired Hugo gallery show, with his mother ensconced in his apartment providing some stabilizing necessities of care and feeding, Andy Warhol continued his rise in the world of commercial art.  At this point his fine art efforts were submerged beneath his commercial and financial ambition and they were still rather modest.  Nevertheless, art was fully integrated into the fabric of Warhol’s life, and he created fanciful illustrated books and hand-painted eggs that he gave away to clients and friends.  Some of Warhol’s earliest commercial success had come in drawing shoes, and the gift of one of his eggs to an art director friend led to a professional relationship with an agent who secured for Warhol a contract with the I. Miller shoe company.  At roughly the same time, Warhol’s aesthetic fetishization of shoes moved into the fine art realm when he created a show of celebrity-themed shoes, works with titles like Judy Garland, Shirley Temple, and Truman Capote.  The shoe show was once again at the Hugo Gallery, and all of his shows grew out of his frequenting the nearby Serendipity Ice Cream Parlor on 63rd St., which was a popular gay meeting place and perhaps the first of Warhol’s social centers.  Warhol still hadn’t sold any fine art work.  But with his commercial success, rising income, and the stable alternative living situation with his mother, Warhol was progressing and becoming more socially connected and confident.  At 25, he was going to clubs and parties, knew the gossipy intrigues of the city’s gay community, and had his first boyfriends.  At this time, just as Capote felt maturity had been thrust upon him by the grind of constant work, professional success and failure, and sad events with family and friends, Warhol had a similar watershed personal experience, when he traveled around the world with Charles Lisanby.

 

Lisanby was a set designer and art director at CBS, and after befriending Warhol he had written the text for some of Warhol’s gift books.  Lisanby planned to take a trip through Japan, Indonesia, and Bali with a return through Europe, and when he invited Warhol to join him Warhol jumped at the chance.  Lisanby must have known that Warhol hoped to have a romantic relationship with him, but he avoided any physical intimacy.  Lisanby was impressed that Warhol, so shy, insecure, and tentative, turned out to be a hearty traveler.  Warhol was uninterested in cultural sights and artwork, but he eagerly explored exotic foods, offbeat neighborhoods, and local people.  Lisanby became ill with dysentery in India, and Warhol had no interest in touring on his own, instead choosing to sit beside Lisanby and draw his portrait for hours.  This continued as they moved on to Europe and Warhol had his first opportunity to see Italy, France, and England while Lisanby continued to convalesce.  Warhol obviously knew the history of European art and culture from his student days, and he ignored the opportunity to experience it first hand and focused instead on his uncomfortable attachment to Lisanby.  Warhol didn’t return to Europe for many years and his approach to his youthful world tour shows that he was truly modern and contemporary, a creature firmly embedded in New York’s postwar art world. 

 

Warhol left Lisanby at the airport without saying goodbye, and in the end the trip had a profound effect on Warhol’s personality and his artistic persona.  After he had been around the world only to have his romantic obsession rejected, Warhol was thoroughly disillusioned.  His fanciful and hopeful, youthful period of boys and butterflies was over.  Later Warhol said that he learned the habit of saying “so what?” because of his experience with Lisanby.  He learned to practice a complete and impenetrable detachment, steadily cultivating an ineluctable persona with no discernible feeling or emotion, a self that was pure irony and reflection, everything or everyone and nothing and nobody all at once. 

 

Warhol thus developed a more mature, conceptual artistic personality, and he began to look for fine art forms to express his vision.  He moved along the same path as Jasper Johns, Richard Rauschenberg, and Roy Lichtenstein, turning abstract expressionism on its head and gravitating relentlessly towards a pop art breakthrough.  It came in two forms:  first the absolutely clean, machine-processed painting surface; and secondly the industrial repetition of images.  Warhol did his first silkscreen images of celebrities Marilyn Monro, Elvis Presley, and Elizabeth Taylor and others in early 1962, and in July his Campbell Soup cans were exhibited at the Ferus Gallery.  He bought a movie camera in July 1963 and continued his industrialization of the artistic process by starting “the factory” in January 1964, where his first project was food boxes of Brillo, Heinz Ketchup, etc., which were “literally three-dimensional photographs of the actual products.”  At the same time, his manipulation of pop images was growing darker.  He had done timely silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe before her suicide and Elizabeth Taylor after Mike Todd’s death, and he added an image of Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of the president’s assassination.  Asked by Philip Johnson to do a mural for the exterior of the New York State Pavilion at the World’s Fair, Warhol created “Thirteen Most Wanted Men,” which was painted over at the order of Robert Moses, the president of the World’s Fair.  Warhol was creating art oout of images of broken celebrities and death and criminals.

 

At the same time Warhol began to develop pop art, Capote made his first efforts in journalism, writing celebrity profiles.  In the late 1950s Capote was a pioneer in the subjective New Journalism practiced by Norman Mailer and others.  Perhaps the rise of literary journalism can be calibrated with the development of pop art.  More interesting, however, is the timing of Warhol’s secondary phase of stricken celebrites and the “13 Most Wanted” mural with Capote’s breakthrough in beginning to work on In Cold Blood.  Capote was in the process of inventing waht came to be called the non-fiction novel.  While there were few direct literary precedents for Capote’s work, the aesthetic behind it is remarkably similar to the concurrent development of Warhol’s avant-garde artwork.  The success of In Cold Blood catapulted Capote to the apex of 60’s literary fame and esteem, just as Warhol fulfilled his dreams and emerged as the dominant figure in the world of fine art.  The two men had become primary representative figures, cultural icons.  And as Warhol rose to success, he and Capote became good friends.  When Truman Capote threw his famous Black and White ball in 1966, Andy Warhol, the artist who had hung around outside his apartment and perstered him with endless fan mail and phone calls, the “hopeless, born loser,” was one of his honored guests.  

         

 

 

 

 

 

 

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