Warhol Superstar Viva Remembers Andy, His Mother & The Artist's Early Brush With Death

Around 40 exhibits of Andy Warhol's work will be shown in museums and institutions around the world this year, a resurgence that the New York Times has dubbed the "Warhol Wave." To remember the artist at a pivotal time in his life, Andy Warhol superstar Viva takes an intimate look back at the day he was shot in 1968 and her own relationship with Warhol's mother Julia.
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Andy Warhol Photo

Andy Warhol, pioneer of the Pop Art movement and one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century.

Having been shot by a disgruntled Valerie Solanis, who’d performed in I, A Man, one of Andy Warhol's “underground” movies, he had arrived DOA in St. Vincent’s emergency room on June 3rd, 1968. They would have let him remain dead if it hadn’t been for Mario Amayo, an art dealer visiting from Europe who was also wounded. When Mario said they couldn’t let Andy die because he was a rich and world-famous artist, the doctors realized the holes in the tops of his shoes were indicative of eccentricity rather than poverty and frantically resuscitated him, making us suspect that when they yell “Get the Paddles! Clear! Again! Clear!” on hospital dramas, it only happens in real life if they know your estate will sue them if they don’t.

Once they got him breathing again and cut him open, a doctor came into the ensuing cacophony of the waiting room – now jammed with reporters, cameras and fellow thespians – to ask me if Andy was allergic to anything (note: one of those bracelets would have been a good idea). They were about to pour some penicillin into the gaping wound which encompassed the entire front of his body and almost all his organs, as one bullet from a .32 automatic had ricocheted in a zig-zag path, like a croquette ball, from rib to rib, tearing through whatever lay in its path.

Viva and Andy's mother, Mrs. Warhola, after Warhol was shot. (Photo: Courtesy Viva Hoffman)

Viva and Andy's mother, Mrs. Warhola, after Warhol was shot. (Photo: Courtesy Viva Hoffman)

As I was phoning his doctor to find out that he was allergic to penicillin, Gerard Malanga arrived with Andy’s mother in her trademark babushka. Over her cries of “Me Andy! Me Andy!” the head of the hospital suddenly appeared and asked me to take her home. Bringing her to St. Vincent’s hadn’t been one of Gerard’s better ideas.

Andy Warhol Photo

The Daily News headline on June 4th, 1968, the day after Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol.

As I headed for the door, trying to usher Mrs. Warhola through the paparazzi tumult, I passed a little room where Ultraviolet, wearing one of her trademark Chanel suits, was holding court with the reporters. I had to smile; even though I might be headed for a job with Joe Papp and Shakespeare in the Park if Andy died, it was comforting to realize that some things would never change.  

Gerard, a poet who had been a whip-wielding member of the Warhol Electric Circus and who had painted most of Andy’s silkscreens, was holding onto one of my arms when the Hospital PR man reversed the chief’s previous request and begged me to talk to the reporters, one of whom was hissing in my ear that if I’d just cooperate none of this would be happening. After I agreed, with the condition they allow us to leave unmolested, he asked me to lean more heavily on Gerard and try to look more devastated. I arranged my expression accordingly and they snapped some photos before we jumped into a cab.

Mrs. Warhola lived in the basement of Andy’s townhouse, next to the New York Fertility Center on the Upper East Side. Dominating her kitchen was a low gingham patterned oilcloth covered table puddled with urine from the seven or eight cats she owned. As she wiped it up with undiluted Clorox, making the odor even more unbearable, I was disturbed by the rosary beads hanging on all the doorknobs, including those on the kitchen cabinets. The rosary beads had been one of the elements in a dream I’d had the previous April which included Andy moaning and sobbing on that very kitchen floor because of a drop of blood from a cut on his finger which was going to kill him. His much younger mother and I then took him to the hospital. 

In real time, his grey-haired mother was pressing his blood-stained shirt to her heart sobbing “why they do this to me Andy?” Then she made us some Campbell’s soup – not kidding – to which she’d added some flour and said Gerard and I should spend the night in Andy’s bed because when I told her I lived around the corner and would take Gerard home with me, she was worried about what his mother would say.  

Viva Taylor Mead Photo

Viva and Taylor Mead in "Nude Restaurant," the 1967 film directed by Andy Warhol. (Photo: Courtesy Viva Hoffman)

After I vomited the soup in the downstairs toilet, I skirted the paintings, sculptures, and kitsch lining the staircase and went up to Andy’s room. Despite not being able to find the light switch, I recognized the dark wood paneling and canopied bed as another detail in my dream. Even more disturbed now, I ran back down the stairs and told Mrs. Warhola we had to go home.

Andy dominated the headlines until he was driven off by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, only two days later and two months after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, which happened the day after my dream. And I had been on the dance floor at Sibyl Burton’s nightclub, Arthur, with Bobby Kennedy only a few months before.    

I took to visiting the devastated Mrs. Warhola nearly every day. Her peasant-influenced common sense was an antidote to my feelings of unreality. She spent the time complaining that my skirts were too short, fingering the materials, asking me how much they cost and insisting that it was a waste of money to spend so much on so little. She was worried that Andy couldn’t possibly pay me enough. Her accent was heavy, her English broken. She was rumored to have done most of Andy’s drawings; officially she had written and drawn a couple of whimsical books about cats. The Warholas were ethnic Rusyns, traditionally Byzantine Orthodox, from a village called Mikova in the Carpathians. Since absorbed by Northeastern Slovakia and Ukraine, the Rusyns spoke an almost incomprehensible dialect, possibly written in Cyrillic. Possibly not written at all. Accounts are contradictory. This unique language problem may have been the cause of her son’s dyslexia and probable Asperger’s Syndrome; nevertheless Julia herself was articulate enough to beg me each time I visited her to “marry me Andy.”

Andy Warhol Photo

Andy Warhol, Taylor Mead and Viva on the set of "Nude Restaurant." (Photo: Courtesy Viva Hoffman)

Every few days I brought all the exotic flowers I could find in Madison Avenue’s florist shops, along with newspapers and magazines to the hospital, but was denied visitation rights for weeks. Just before they finally let me in, I asked the nurse if he was wearing his wig. “Believe me,” she said, “ that’s the last thing on his mind.”  

 "Believe me," I said, "that’s the only thing on his mind." 

Finally entering the room I saw that Andy had put a handkerchief over his bald head, each of the four corners twisted into tiny knots. It sat there like a little sail, about to fly away. He was in a state of excitement about one of his nurses and an orderly. They were always kissing and making out he told me in sotto voce, and stealing drugs from that medicine cabinet up on the wall.

Andy Warhol: After being shot by feminist Valerie Solanas in 1968, Warhol took many photographs of his scarred torso, turning injury into art. (Photo by David Montgomery/Getty Images)

After being shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968, Warhol took many photographs of his scarred torso, turning injury into art. (Photo by David Montgomery/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, back at the more sedate Warhola house, one of Andy’s nephews from Pittsburg had become obsessed with me and had announced to his family that he wasn’t going into the seminary after all. Even though he hadn’t acted upon his obsession and it had been confined to conversation, everybody but Andy and his mother blamed me. As far as Julia was concerned, I was her future daughter-in-law.

Viva on set between takes. (Photo: Courtesy Viva Hoffman)

Viva on set between takes. (Photo: Courtesy Viva Hoffman)

But rumor had it after Andy was finally released from the hospital that he complained I had been exploiting his absence by spying on his art collection and his mother. I never saw her again.

(Copyright Viva Hoffman)

Viva Superstar Photo

Viva is the author of two books: Superstar, an insider's look at the Factory, and The Baby, a novel incorporating video art, available as part of Open Road Media's Factory Books series. For more info, visit Factory Books on Facebook.

Viva Hoffman is one of Andy Warhol's superstars. He gave her the name Viva before the release of her first motion picture. An early pioneer of video art, she appeared in and co-created many of the famous Warhol films, among them 'The Loves of Ondine,' 'Tub Girls,' and 'Nude Restaurant.' Viva is the author of two books: Superstar, an insider's look at the Factory, and The Baby, a novel incorporating video art.

She also wrote for and edited a variety of publications, including Vanity Fair and the Village Voice. She is the mother of two children and lives in Palm Springs, California, where she paints.