Introduction To The Trip
September 24, 2012
I have always been fascinated by Andy Warhol, the artist, filmmaker, writer, aphorist, media mogul, trendsetter, and visionary who remains one of the most enduring talents of the twentieth century and, somehow, one of the hottest of the twenty-first. Andy would be amused—although probably not at all surprised—to see that the paintings critics considered a joke in 1963, including his controversial Campbell’s Soup cans, command hundreds of millions of dollars today; that an entire museum is dedicated to preserving his life and works; that Warhol exhibitions are in constant circulation; that his counterculture movies laid the groundwork for the mainstream, billion-dollar industry known today as independent film; that he is credited with having invented the “selfie”; and that fans, including artists and writers, view “Saint Andy” as their muse.
I was one of those adoring fans when I found myself sitting in front of Andy at a film event at the Museum of Modern Art in the early eighties. I was thrilled to be in his presence but too shy to turn around and speak to him. Later that evening, my husband made some comment about Andy’s wig, and I asked, “What wig?” I was so young and naive that I thought his outrageous silver hair was real. Subsequently, I became better informed about everything Warhol, and when I became a writer, I contemplated making him the subject of a book. I just needed to find the right story.
In Popism, Andy’s intimate chronicle of his experiences in the 1960s, I came across a passing mention of a road trip he took in 1963, when he and some cronies drove cross-country from New York to Los Angeles. I soon became convinced that this adventure—a mere footnote in most Warhol biographies—was actually a defining moment in his life, as well as a window through which one could see the seismic shifts underway in America at the time. It is a road trip that becomes, in that sixties way, a head trip; a celebratory tour of heartland highways, California beaches, old Hollywood, new Hollywood, Las Vegas, and other quintessentially American places, and a Pop-infused exploration of American culture—art, literature, movies, television, advertising, music, sports, drugs, and the new sexuality—all filtered through Andy Warhol’s experiences.
Andy was thirty-five the first time he set out for the West Coast, but in a larger sense, his journey began at birth. His evolution from a poor, sickly child, born in depressed Pittsburgh in 1928, to the nascent artist and filmmaker speeding along Route 66 in 1963 was an eventful trip in itself. As I researched his life and times, it occurred to me that if I really wanted to understand Andy at this critical moment, I would have to get into a car and take the trip myself.
I started planning the sort of road trip that most people take when they are eighteen and unencumbered or, conversely, retired and in an RV. I would drive from New York to New Jersey, across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, and then pick up historic Route 66—the hipster’s highway—straight across Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, all the way to the Santa Monica Pier, on the westernmost edge of California. My husband, a confirmed New Yorker, does not drive, so he would be strictly a passenger. Under the circumstances, I estimated it would take us about seven days to get to Los Angeles. Andy did it in four and a half, but he and his companions had some quintessentially sixties drugs to help them along. I would leave on -September 24, the very day that he had left.
The notion of re-creating Andy’s journey was an abstract one until I came across a page of reproduced receipts in a book of Warhol memorabilia. Andy was a notorious pack rat who saved absolutely everything in cardboard boxes he called “time capsules.” All sorts of odd things have turned up in them, including party invitations, food, nail clippings, and prescription drugs. In time capsule 55, Andy had stored what I considered absolute treasure—an assortment of cash and credit card receipts from his cross-country road trip.
Each one told a story. A stamped card from the New Jersey Toll Authority recorded the exact minute he left New York City. A bill from the Beverly Hills Hotel listed room service charges and columns of long-distance phone calls. There were receipts from gas stations, motels, restaurants, camera stores, and other places he stopped along the way. Like a trail of crumbs, these details led me to the very places Andy went and also told me how he spent his time once he got there. This trove of information brought Andy to life and would allow me to actually see what he saw. Now I was truly excited about hitting the road.
What to pack for such a long trip, with so many hours to spend in the car? Music, books on tape, and magazines. To create the appropriate atmosphere and authentically retro mindset, I decided that all my entertainment had to be from 1963. The best songs of the year were catchy pop classics—“Sugar Shack,” “Sukiyaki,” “Sally Go Round the Roses,” “Surf City,” to name a few. The most promising book on tape was Nabokov’s Lolita, a 1963 classic that happened to contain a road trip of its own. For vintage magazines, I selected the ones I knew Andy read all the time, everything from Photoplay and Confidential to Vogue and Ladies’ Home Journal.
On departure day, the eagerly anticipated morning of Monday, September 24, 2012, the car rental company called with bad news. Apparently, the vehicle I had booked two months earlier was not available due to some inexplicable glitch. Fortunately, the mom-and-pop gas station down the street had an available rental car, and it was gassed up and ready to go within the hour. For better or worse, so were we.
A thoughtful friend dropped off a Warhol survival kit, complete with snacks, Andy T-shirts, and two platinum wigs. We immediately put them on for a commemorative photograph, and the first thing we noticed was how uncomfortable they were. Did Andy feel the same way about his wigs, I wondered. Were they hot and itchy? We said good-bye to family, friends, and dogs, and drove thirteen miles east to New York City so we could start exactly where Andy started—from his townhouse at 1342 Lexington Avenue.
Miraculously, I found a parking space directly in front of the building. I pulled in, fully aware of the significance of the moment, when I suddenly noticed that the door to number 1342 was slightly ajar and that construction workers (some of whom appeared to be Hassidic Jews) were going in and out with buckets. Curious, I walked to the door and boldly pushed it open. “Bold” is not a word I would normally use to describe myself, but the urge to enter Andy’s house was so compelling that it superseded my fear of trespassing.
Inside, I walked up the stairs to the parlor floor. There were drop cloths everywhere. The house was being renovated, and the first thing I noticed was that it looked very different from the dark, old-fashioned place Andy called home in 1963. Before long, the contractor spotted me amid the crowd of workers and I quickly explained that I was writing a book about Andy Warhol. I asked if it would be possible to look around, and he glanced at a coworker as if to say, “Not another one.” Apparently I wasn’t the first Warholic to trespass in the name of research. He left the room to call the current owner about authorizing my “visit,” and the second he disappeared I gingerly started peeking through doorways.
It was thrilling to realize I was standing where Andy first painted his Campbell’s Soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles. I recalled photographs I’d seen of him in this house. In one, he sat on the hall stairs sifting through his mail. In another, he ate breakfast in the downstairs kitchen with his mother, with whom he lived. I remembered yet another photograph in which every spare inch of space seemed filled with his collectibles, everything from a pair of Carmen Miranda’s platform shoes, to a twisted sculpture by the artist John Chamberlain made of scrapped auto parts.
The contractor returned with the not-unexpected news that the owner refused to let an outsider wander through the work site. I thanked him, turned to exit the townhouse, and realized that even though I was denied a tour, I had been given an amazing opportunity. Thanks to divine intervention in the form of a parking space and a renovation, I could begin my trip exactly the way Andy had begun his own, forty-nine years earlier. I paused on the landing, walked down the stairs, pushed open the front door, and headed to the waiting car, just like Andy.