By: Emma Ghighi
Migrating across the coasts and landing in the Big Apple, Jed Johnson’s presence affected Warhol’s art, studio, and his heart. The Johnson twins were born on December 30, 1948 and raised as California natives for two decades prior to their departure. As the pair of new locals uncovered the alleyways of New York City, Warhol swept them up in his studio with an eye for both boys. Jed would later become a twelve year partner in the artist’s life while establishing his fruitful career as an interior designer. His ability to integrate unexpected pieces transformed spaces as Johnson made his mark on both the world of design and on Warhol’s life as well.
Background and A Growing Relationship
In early January of 1968, Jed and his fraternal twin Jay were set off for Montreal. The border agents fortunately detoured the two nineteen year old’s destinations to Manhattan and a New York foundation laid in place. On their third day there, Jed and Jay were mugged, and thereafter very eager to find jobs without their wallets. When they visited Western Union to wire home for a bail out, the clerk luckily offered them positions as telegraph boys with complementary uniforms. “They came to the Factory in 1968, delivering a telegram to us in these bell-boy outfits,” recalled photographer Billy Name. “Andy was there, Paul and Gerard and me, and we just looked at them and said, ‘We want you to come work for us!’” Jed’s first duties as a newly employed Warhol worker were to sweep the floors, and strip the paint from wooden framed windows that overlooked Union Square Park. He also built shelves in the back of the loft and organized some of the clutter and chaos of the place.
Jay and Jed Johnson, by Francesco Savullo
Johnson’s original errands and work became longer and longer with each visit as Warhol gave them more hours. By April of 1968, Warhol spoke of the two boys in a way that indicated more than simple admiration for renovating workers: “They’re like the prince and the pauper: The more masculine one, Jed, has long hair. The prettier one has a crew cut and is more feminine. They’re so pretty. They’re from Sacramento.” When Valerie Solonas shot Warhol in his studio on June 3, 1968, Jed was there. Johnson became the epitome of a devoted young spouse over the next dozen years and moved from the Lower East Side into an apartment on Sixteenth Street, within the Warhol coterie. A few years later in 1973, they acquired a short haired dachshund named Archie followed soon after by another pup named Amos. In the next year, Andy and Jed moved into a grand house on East 66th Street. The mansion-like lot, which Jed picked for Warhol, had four stories of high ceilinged rooms and a portico with large columns. Johnson used his talent to heighten the elegance of the space with Empire furniture, art deco aesthetics, and stenciled rooms upstairs. After designing the house for Warhol, the two lived there for many years.
Directing and Designing
In his spare time, Jed taught himself how to edit film while using clips of Lonesome Cowboy and playing with reels. As a painfully shy man, he treasured the solidarity of the task. Jed worked with Paul Morissey and edited about five films (including L’Amour and Andy Warhol’s Dracula) before he was asked to direct the film Bad himself. Despite his original intention to grow his relationship with Warhol and call himself a filmmaker as well, the outcome was horrible. Pat Hackett was the original writer of Bad and the ominous plot allowed for an X rating of the film. The storyline of Bad involves a working-class woman in Queens who runs a beauty parlor out of her home and a ring of hit women for hire. Bette Davis and Angela Lansbury were approached for the lead, however neither actress followed through. Warhol and Johnson had to settle for Carroll Baker. Although lacking fame in comparison to Davis and Lansbury, Warhol’s infatuation for the actress grew from her debut in The Carpetbaggers, a film he notoriously rewatched countless times.
Bad budgeted around $1.3 million, however the film unfortunately went down like a lead balloon. After its release in 1977, Warhol noted “[the reviews] were bad for Bad” and he lost a painful amount of $500,000 himself. As the movie plummeted, Andy’s instincts were not aligned with resuscitating the film, but with blaming the director. Johnson coped with the film’s failure by collecting antiques as he created his ambitious new decorating business. Alongside architect Alan Wanzenberg, Jed founded Johnson and Wanzenberg, their own design company. Jed’s career grew as he was commissioned by Barbra Streisand, Richard Gere, Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, and many other celebrity households. In later years, Wanzenberg and Johnson’s relationship grew to become more than a professional partnership (with Warhol’s possible approval of the tacit affair), and fully developed in the summer of 1980. Simply put, Jed never went back to work at the Factory after Bad. Jed and Warhol continued to live together.
Warhol and Jed’s convoluted relationship evolved throughout the years, however diary mentions can be found noting the early altercations in November of 1977. As Bob Colacello saw it, “after Bad, when Jed went out late, Andy went home early, and when Jed went home early, Andy went out late.” The opening of Studio 54 boosted their issues as Johnson steered clear of big crowds while Warhol enthused over them. At times, Warhol had trouble keeping his eyes or even hands off the reveling youngsters who swarmed the dance floor. The beginning of Jed and Andy’s fallout had been established. On Christmas in 1977, Johnson showed up at the Factory with a bruised face from the night before when Warhol slammed the door on his head. Three months later, Jed attempted suicide for the second time. He overdosed on quaaludes and locked himself in a closet. Warhol frantically called Johnson’s twin, Jay, but by the time he arrived, Andy had left the scene. The suicide attempt cost Jed a five-night stay in the hospital, ending only with the approval of a psychiatrist.
The two continued to live with each other, but as the years progressed, their demise grew closer. Eventually, after being together for a decade, Jed moved out in 1980. Earlier that year, he bought an apartment west of Central park as an office for his decorating business; “all the workmen won’t be tramping in and out…all day anymore” Warhol remarked, feeling relieved. Despite his inability to admit his love, Jed’s departure left Andy heartbroken. The artist endured a new obsession in his bodily image following the split. Warhol embarked on a year of dieting. He lost over 25 pounds, although he originally only wanted to lose 4. Depression was eating Warhol alive and by June of 1981, he was bedridden with what the doctors diagnosed as “walking pneumonia” or a bacterial infection as unpleasant as the flu that kept him from traveling. Warhol’s emotional nosedive paralleled his physical health—in his darkest days, Andy’s total weight dropped to 110 pounds.
Andy and Jed went their separate ways after the move in 1980. They kept kept in touch within their partially similar cliques, and alternated weekends and holidays with the canine kids. Warhol even created two portraits of the dogs in 1976, and declared one of them would go to Jed. After Warhol’s death in 1987, Johnson continued his professional connection with Warhol’s world, joining the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board in 1995, which also included David Whitney.
In 1996, Johnson died in the explosion of TWA Flight 800 from Long Island to Rome, killing all 230 people on board. Later that year, he was inducted into the Interior Design Magazine‘s Hall of Fame. A tribute in Architectural Digest said of Johnson’s interiors: “[His] rooms were never excessive. They had air and space, and a sense of freshness. He loved luxury, but he considered excess to be a form of vulgarity. He was a natural editor, and he edited himself best of all.” His brother Jay paid tribute by taking over the design company himself for at least a decade.
Jed Johnson’s contributions to architecture and design; his secondhand aid to Warhol’s studio; and his fleeting but intimate relationship with Warhol himself, make him a figure worth remembering, as well as an integral part of the Warhol story. Very few people were able to see the side of Warhol Jed could see. Andy’s relationships and sexuality have been cloaked in mystery for years, and Jed’s story is one of many lenses that allow us a closer glimpse into the mind and heart of Andy Warhol.
Amos, 1976 by Andy Warhol Archie, 1976 by Andy Warhol