Valerie Jean Solanas was born April 9, 1936, to Dorothy and Louis Solanas of Ventnor City, New Jersey. Her parents split by the time she was four, sending their two daughters to live with their grandparents in nearby Atlantic City before Valerie eventually reunited with her mother.
According to Breanne Fahs' Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol), Solanas was a smart, funny child. She learned to play piano at age 7, and before long was rewriting popular songs with silly substitute lyrics.
Solanas also may have been sexually abused by her alcoholic father (a claim she later repeated to friends and psychologists), and by adolescence, an aggressive rebellious streak had emerged. Pulled from her Catholic middle school after attacking a nun, she twice became pregnant by age 15 – the first time allegedly by a relative, the other likely by an older sailor; both babies were taken to be raised elsewhere.
Amid the turmoil, Solanas began discovering an identity: She started exploring her romantic feelings for women and her grades markedly improved. Wrote her high school principal in a college letter of recommendation, "She is an exceptionally bright girl with lots of courage and determination."
In college, Solanas was ordered to counseling for her anger
At the University of Maryland, College Park, Solanas supported herself by working in the psychology department's experimental animal laboratory and possibly through prostitution. The aggression was still there – she was disciplined and ordered to counseling multiple times – but Solanas continued to thrive academically and gained a few friends among the artsy-intellectual sect. She also found an outlet through contributions to the school paper, developing a reputation for letters that railed against sexism in a biting yet hilarious fashion.
Solanas then enrolled in a master's psychology program at the University of Minnesota, where, Fahs suggests, she became frustrated by the realization of the glass ceiling on her career prospects. She dropped out after a year and hitchhiked to California, before returning to New Jersey in the early 1960s.
Solanas was drawn to the lifestyle of New York City artists
As she formulated the ideas that would show up in her later works, Solanas was smitten by the allure of the bohemian lifestyle of the artists, poets and musicians who flocked to New York City's Greenwich Village, and she decided to join them in the summer of 1962.
She initially lived in a women's residence hotel on the Upper West Side and worked in a coffee house, but eventually became a Greenwich Village fixture without ever really finding a community. She bounced between the Hotel Earle, the Chelsea Hotel and the Village Plaza Hotel, lugging her old typewriter everywhere she went, always hustling for customers to pay for her writing, conversation or sex.
In 1965, Solanas completed her first major work: A play called Up Your Ass (Full title: Up Your Ass or From the Cradle to the Boat or The Big Suck or Up from the Slime), about a street-smart lesbian prostitute and her off-color associates. She tried finding a producer for the play, even sending it to the city's resident celebrity artist, Andy Warhol (who she hadn't formally met yet), but no one wanted to touch the overtly lewd material.
Warhol declined to produce Solanas' play
Two years later, the writer completed her calling card, The SCUM Manifesto. Laying out the mission of her Society for Cutting Up Men, the treatise called for the elimination of the male sex and the establishment of a utopian society of women. To some, it was a radical feminist call to arms; to others, an obvious, attention-seeking attempt at satire.
That year Solanas also finally gained an audience of Warhol at the Factory, his legendary Midtown loft known for its art shows, dazzling parties and counterculture icons. She badgered him to produce Up Your Ass. He responded by giving her a scene in one of his films, I, a Man, for $25.
Around this time she met publisher Maurice Girodias, who had built a career via Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and other controversial books bypassed by mainstream houses. He gave Solanas a $500 advance to write a novel, but she pushed him to publish The SCUM Manifesto instead. Furthermore, she began to conflate Warhol – who never returned the edition of Up Your Ass she sent years earlier – and Girodias as men who were out to steal her ideas.
Solanas shot Warhol because he 'had too much control over my life'
On June 3, 1968, Solanas waited for Warhol outside his new Factory and rode the elevator up with him. After a few minutes, she shot both Warhol and London art critic Mario Amaya with a .32 Beretta. Amaya wasn't seriously hurt, but Warhol was rushed to the hospital with a ruptured stomach, liver, spleen, and lungs. His grueling recovery required him to wear a surgical corset for the rest of his life.
Meanwhile, Solanas casually wandered around before confessing to a Times Square policeman a few hours after the shooting, reportedly informing him that Warhol "had too much control over my life." She was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and institutionalized until deemed fit to stand trial the following June, at which point she was sentenced to two more years in prison.
Upon her release, Solanas continued levying threats toward other publishing figures, landing her back in psychiatric care until 1975. She resurfaced later in the decade with a revised edition of The SCUM Manifesto and a contentious interview with The Village Voice, in which she boasted of being offered a $100 million advance to write her life story and called shooting Warhol a "moral issue."
She was found dead 14 months after Warhol's passing
Dropping off the radar, Solanas moved to Phoenix, where she reportedly lived on the streets, and then to San Francisco. She was discovered dead in her hotel room on April 25, 1988, after the owner came to investigate her lapsed payments. Her death, from pneumonia, came 14 months after Warhol's.
While many of Warhol's superstars and sycophants enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame in the cocoon of their subculture, Solanas' name has quietly endured through the audacity of her actions, her unique writing voice and the tragic and bizarre recollections left in her wake.
Solanas was portrayed by Lili Taylor in the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol, and by Lena Dunham in a 2017 episode of American Horror Story, but the tribute she likely would have enjoyed most came in 2000 when Up Your Ass finally enjoyed a professionally staged debut before an audience at the George Coates Theater in San Francisco.