Monday, September 24, 2012

Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up

I have been a fan of Andy Warhol longer than I have been a fan of the Beatles. As a pre-teen I decorated my closet door in my old room with Warhol photos and art. After I had "discovered" the Beatles in the spring of 1980 I learned more about their lives and grew fascinated by the early films of Yoko Ono. She would later work with John Lennon and he himself produced his own experimental films. Although I never owned a camera I was fascinated by the idea of filmmaking. In the sixties Warhol produced dozens of his own underground films and I was more interested in his work than I was in Ono's.
Ondine, the stage name of Bob Olivo, a star of many of Warhol's early films, visited Toronto in early 1983. I had read about his appearance in the newspaper and wanted to meet him. I almost didn't get the chance because I was underage (only sixteen) and all the films were restricted. That was my first encounter with a Warhol insider. 
Since that time in 1983 I have collected and read many books about Andy Warhol. Some of these reviews have even been reproduced as my LiveJournal entries or reviews. Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up by Bob Colacello is one of the books that I bought years ago yet had left unread. I remember that I bought it as a discounted remainder, and even left the receipt inside: purchased on 24 April 1991 for $8.99 (regular $29.95). Holy Terror is by far the most important work about the Warhol seventies ever written by an insider. Colacello was editor of Warhol's Interview magazine for thirteen years and as an intimate member of Warhol's inner circle he effectively was on-call for the pop artist 24 hours each day.
Colacello worked at Interview throughout the disco druggy seventies and kept himself sane and pretty much sober throughout his time there. Like Warhol himself, Colacello kept a diary and used it as his main reference when writing Holy Terror. The Colacello diary captures the frustrations of having to work for this particular artist, not only his own frustrations but also his colleagues'. Warhol had a love/hate relationship with everybody, although more accurately it should be called hate/love. You would be lucky to receive even a backhanded compliment from him. Warhol can best be described as an indecisive child who never took responsibility for anything, and I mean anything. Not responsible for anything he said, even if you repeated to others what he only seconds ago told you in person; not responsible for his art, for he often employed others to do the work for him; and not even responsible for his own health, as he always ignored his symptoms and the advice of doctors, the repercussions of which eventually led to his own death.
Warhol was manipulative and loved to pit people against one another and stand by to watch the fallout. As I read Holy Terror I couldn't help but ask myself, constantly, if everyone was so unhappy and always complaining about working for Andy Warhol, why put up with it? Quit! Warhol's employees tortured themselves having to work for him, and never stopped complaining about it. The answer is more complicated, which is typical with anything Warhol. I don't doubt that many if not all of his employees stayed on because of the perks their jobs offered: meeting celebrities every day, partying at the most exclusive clubs with the rich and famous, going out at someone else's expense, making friends with the jet set, and being part of the coolest inner circle in all of New York City. No wonder Warhol could get away with paying his staff only minimum wage; the perks alone made the staff feel like socialite European royalty in exile.
Warhol required constant companionship because he was too afraid to face the world on his own. He suffered a massive insecurity complex all his life and his art reflected that:
"He liked to hide his essence, in art as well as life, showing the public only a cool and compelling surface image."
Thus his famous entourages were anything but an ego trip and were necessary for his own professional survival. Colacello really worked two jobs for Warhol: in addition to editing Interview he also represented him in the constant quest of finding new portrait commissions. Warhol never asked anyone if he could paint his or her portrait; he merely charmed the beautiful people at parties and dinners while Colacello and others were nagged endlessly by the Prince of Pop to "pop the question" to them at $25,000 per shot. Working with Warhol was a constant string of constants and an endless string of endless nagging, which reflects his repetitive artistic style quite fittingly.
Holy Terror was, in spite of all the documented eye-rolling and hair-pulling-out frustration, often a hilarious read, as Colacello would record Warhol's exact words and show how he could say one thing to someone and then contradict himself in the next sentence. Paulette Goddard was a constant companion of Warhol during the eighties and they would appear at dinners and clubs together, fueling rumours of their engagement. Warhol was star-struck and fawned over the jewels she always wore. I laughed out loud at the way Colacello described Goddard at one event:
"Paulette was a walking Gold Show in herself: wearing a body-hugging gold lamé gown with an Egyptian tombful of gold around her neck, studded with big rubies."
However once she went home for the evening Warhol was quick to tell Colacello "I can't stand her, Bob!".
Warhol's employees never knew where they stood with him, yet a few in his deepest inner circle knew they were invaluable to the company and would never lose their jobs. They knew that Warhol was genuinely clueless to many of the vital operations of his own company (known as the Factory) and that if they were fired the company would collapse.
After looking at a series of Warhol self-portraits, Colacello finally understood why he and his coworkers committed themselves to working for such a holy terror:
"But there was something else in those self-portraits too, in the eyes especially, and you only saw it if you looked long enough: the fear, pain, and sadness that were always there, no matter how much Andy tried to silkscreen them out. And it was because I could see that, because I knew it was there, because I felt that whatever anguish I was going through, or Andy was putting me through, he was going through, and putting himself through, ten times more--that's why I stayed. I think that's why Fred [Hughes] stayed too. And maybe he stayed to the end, unlike me, because he understood it better than I did all along."
However after thirteen years of putting up with working for a child-boss for minimal pay, Colacello decided to quit. He still maintained all his business friendships and he and Warhol would often see each other at the same events. Warhol often asked him to return to the Factory, a rare example of taking direct action instead of asking one of his employees to ask Colacello to return. It is this time, during the mid-eighties, that Holy Terror races along. Colacello was no longer working for Warhol so he had less to write about. Colacello could write about a night out at Studio 54 with Warhol and all the beautiful people for thirty pages or more, but once he left the Factory his encounters with the pop artist grew less frequent. I found it very sad to read again how Warhol died, how careless his postoperative hospital care was. It was though of great interest to read about the aftermath regarding the will and the massive Sotheby's auction, that cleared out Warhol's OCD hoard of a house.
In spite of all his moaning and indecision about leaving Warhol, Holy Terror was Colacello's affectionate tribute to the artist. Other memoirs have been sensational and flimsy on the facts. Colacello kept diaries during his entire time at the Factory and underneath all the madness are threads of love and respect. Others might be bitter ex-employees. I believe that Colacello considers it a privilege to have worked for Andy Warhol.  

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

This book was a gift from a dear friend. She raved about it and sent me a copy several years ago. As with many books that were gifts or, unfortunately all too often my own purchases, I push them to the bottom of the reading pile in favour of more urgent reads like library copies or interlibrary loans.

The Professor and the Madman was a book I could not put down. After two disappointing junky books about a still living Elvis and demonic spirits masquerading as space aliens, I had a good time with this one. Winchester tells the story behind the creation of the pièce de résistance of all English dictionaries: the Oxford English Dictionary. Seventy years in the making, the first edition of the OED came out in 1928 with half a million entries spread over twenty-two thousand pages in twenty volumes. How can such a tale be so captivating?

Take the professor in the title, James Murray, who was the chief editor of the OED for several decades, and the madman, William Chester Minor. Murray made it his life's mission to publish the OED during his lifetime, but died thirteen years before it came out. His organizational skills and methodology for words and their inclusion was fascinating to read about. Minor contributed more to the OED than any other individual--all from his cell at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. The story clears up some of the mythology that has grown about these two men, such as the fact that Murray had suspicions that Minor was a patient at the asylum from their first correspondence (and not merely a medical officer on staff there). One learns a great deal about nineteenth-century mental illness and how it was diagnosed and treated. Unfortunately the understanding of schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorders would come too late to help Minor.

The most gruesome part of the story concerns Minor's autopeotomy [1]. As I read this chapter I recalled all the restless writhing that accompanied my read of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho twenty years ago. When I read that novel I so much wanted to skip sections and I even held the book further away from my eyes as I read it, as if increased distance could make the horror more palatable. Such was my behaviour as I read of Minor's autopeotomy.

I was most touched by the revelation that Minor reached out to the widow of the man he killed. She forgave him, and visited him several times at the asylum, even bringing him vast quantities of books so that he could continue his OED research.

This was a great read. I am so glad to have friends who give me great books!

[1] I won't spoil the story by revealing what this word means.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Truth About Psychics: What's Real, What's Not, and How to Tell the Difference


When I saw the title, The Truth About Psychics: What's Real, What's Not, and How to Tell the Difference by Sylvia Browne with Lindsay Harrison, I had to read it. I am not a believer in psychics or the paranormal, but I do find psychics to be entertaining and a source of amusement whenever they appear on talk shows. Browne is one of the most recognizable psychics around today, and while I don't believe that she is clairvoyant, clairaudient or capable of any other extrasensory perception, I am nonetheless interested in finding out what makes her tick and what knowledge she can impart to help us weed out the phonies, fraudsters and scam artists. Oh the irony.
The irony is that her book itself is a deception. It is not what its title makes it out to be. Of the book's 257 pages, only fourteen pages are devoted to exposing fortune tellers' tricks. This information is buried at the very end of the book. Up until then, Browne writes about the world's major religions and discusses many paranormal phenomena, the pioneers in parapsychology, past lives, astrology, the Other Side (the realm we inhabit after death) and her own spirit guide named Francine. None of this, up until page 221, has anything to do with exposing the truth about psychics. While I learned about how Browne grew up as a psychic child (there is no doubt in my mind that she effectively recreated her entire life story to suit her psychic self, no different from the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il whose biography was completely recreated in order to suit the purpose of the Workers' Party of Korea) I still learned nothing about how to expose carnival crystal ball-gazers as frauds. I was hoping that the pot would call the kettle black for the entire length of the book, giving me a rollicking read. Instead I had to wade through all this paranormal babble until chapter ten, "How It's Done: the Frauds".
Browne reveals the modus operandi of a "cold reading", wherein a psychic attempts to reveal how much she or he knows about you by getting you to reveal as much of yourself as you can through body language. She claims that all curses and spirit possessions are bogus:
"No other spirit but your own can ever inhabit your body without your permission. It's an impossibility. Period."
She comes down hard on those who claim to be able to have the powers to lift curses. The only thing that will be lifted is money from your wallet, Browne says. So good on her for dumping on those particular scam artists.
The Truth About Psychics is not the book its cover makes it out to be, so I do not recommend it. For the truth about psychics, there are plenty of skeptics' exposés around. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

This book, while clearly assuming its readership will be predominantly female, also has a lot to say to any men brave enough to read it.  I say brave because the first three chapters do a lot of talking in a very frank way about subjects that most men I know visibly squirm away from.

But beyond the autobiographical descriptions of female adolescence and development, puberty, sexuality and anatomy, there are many social issues addressed here that men really should be made to see from the perspective of women.  If everyone could be on the same page, we would have a better chance of fixing many societal ills stemming from how different sexes treat each other.

The book is very funny, very revealing, and maybe too explicit for some, but in the spirit of the previous paragraph, it offers a lot to any book club discussion.  It would be especially interesting to see how different people react to the book, and if any preconceived notions about the issues discussed are challenged or affirmed.

Discussion Questions 
  1. Did you read this book in its entirety?  If not, why did you stop?
  2. Moran identifies feminist behaviour in a nutshell as:  “Any action a woman engages in from a spirit of joy, and within a similarly safe and joyous environment, falls within the city walls of feminism.”  Is this what feminism means to you?  Are you a feminist by any of her definitions?
  3. How can you tell if something is sexist?  Moran suggests asking “are the men doing it? Are the men worrying about this as well?”  Can you think of any situations where these questions can be asked? 
  4. She states that the most important humanity guideline is to be polite, and so sexist comments should be addressed as instances of bad manners - not as a conflict between man vs woman.  How readily can this suggestion be applied?
  5. This book spends a lot of time discussing how women have begun to emerge from under the historical shadow of men.  How accurate do you think her assessments are?  Is the creative output of women beginning to emerge as Moran suggests?
  6. Do you notice any societal pressures on women regarding having children?
  7. “However liberal a society is, it assumes that, at it's absolute core, abortion is wrong.”  How do you feel about this statement?
  8. How much emphasis does our society place on the sanctity of life (beyond the abortion debate)?
  9. Is belief in an afterlife damaging?  Does it affect how we view the world and our current existence?
  10. Is there any value to celebrity gossip?
  11. Why is there so much importance placed on the physical appearance and age of women?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Cynthia Lennon published her second memoir, John, in 2005. I had read her first, from 1978, the doubly punny A Twist of Lennon [1], in a 1981 reprint. John is a lengthier book in that it tells Cynthia's story after the point when A Twist of Lennon ends. The first memoir, even though it was published in 1978, ends when Yoko Ono comes onto the scene in 1968. Therefore it does not describe the Lennons' divorce in 1969. John does not repeat the first memoir by going into as much detail about Cynthia's meeting, dating, and marrying John as is revealed in A Twist of Lennon. That part of Cynthia's life is certainly covered in John, but thankfully was not a repeat of what she had already written.
Beatles fans like myself appreciate the candour from a member of the Beatles' inner circle. Her tales of hiding in laundry carts in order to escape from crazed fans will have you laughing, but will also scare you too, as you realize what peril it was for her and John simply to go outside. Fans would camp outside her home and one day when John was out, she was awakened by no less than a crowd of twenty teenagers who had managed to find their way inside her home. This fishbowl existence would terrify me, and Cynthia shares her feelings openly and in so doing reveals contradictions she knows she still has in regards to her Beatle ex-husband.
She knew that John had been having affairs while on the road, yet accepted them as part of being married to the biggest rock star in the world. She never confronted John about his infidelity, however it was John who revealed to her that he had been unfaithful. When Cynthia hears John's confession, she accepts it with a loving "I know, it's okay." and leaves it at that. Neither John nor Cynthia liked confrontation, and while John would get up and drop everything to avoid conflict, Cynthia would stay where she is and accept the situation while saying nothing. Cynthia herself does write that she wondered what her relationship with John might have been like if only she had been more open with her feelings instead of keeping them bottled up.
Cynthia and John's son, Julian, soon becomes Cynthia's main focus and she turns to him for support when John is often on tour. In the summer before John died, he publically acknowledged that he wasn't there for Julian while he was growing up, and regretted it. Cynthia brings it up time and time again how much Julian felt deprived by having no father figure, and there were gaps of as many as three years when father and son never spoke.
There are no minced words when Cynthia talks about Yoko Ono. She believes Yoko targeted John for his money the moment they met. Yoko became the mother figure John never had. John was raised by his strict Aunt Mimi, who was his own mother's oldest sister. Cynthia believes that John fell for the Yoko-as-Mimi and was easily swayed by this mysterious artistic older woman who called all the shots. Cynthia believes that Yoko wanted John to sever contact with anyone in his life from the time before they met. Thus Cynthia blames Yoko for John's negligence of Julian. There is genuine sympathy in her heart for Yoko, however, when Cynthia describes the pain Yoko felt when she miscarried at six months, and when Yoko had to face the facts that her daughter (from an earlier marriage) was likely never going to see her again. 
Cynthia was not awarded much in her divorce settlement, even though she had lawyers advising her to go after 50% of what John was worth. She did not want to battle it out and was quite happy to settle for (what she would soon see as) a minuscule sum out of court. Thus Cynthia worked in numerous jobs, scraping to get by, and even had to sell some of John's mementos to make ends meet.

Throughout the book she confesses that she will always love John and never stopped loving him, in spite of his infidelities and his absence as a father. However at the very end she asks herself if she would still have gone out with him if she knew in advance what pain he would cause her. Cynthia answers that question:

"But the truth is that if I'd known as a teenager what falling for John Lennon would lead to, I would have turned round right then and walked away."

I had to reread that part a couple times. I would have thought a question like that would have been rhetorical.
In spite of having a credited researcher in the acknowledgements. John still has many errors which stick out glaringly. For example, "though" is used for "through" on two occasions, and there are some punctuation mistakes, like ending a sentence with a comma instead of a period. Other errors are factual, which any chart historian (or any general Beatles fan) can verify. Cynthia reports that the first Beatles album released in the US was Please Please Me. This was the group's first UK album which was not released in the US until over twenty years later. The Beatles also held down the top five singles on the Billboard chart on 4 April 1964, not six, as she reports. I shook my head in disbelief when I read:
"We were booked into a hotel called Dromoland Castle and it seemed perfect--miles from anywhere and utterly luxurious. President Kennedy had just checked out of our suite..."
Cynthia and John stayed at the Dromoland Castle in late March of 1964. President Kennedy was assassinated in late November 1963: he did not "just check out" of the hotel.
[1] Cynthia Lennon is her nom de plume, however she had adopted the surname of her third husband, John Twist, when she published this memoir.