Elizabeth Moroni | June 2018
June 3rd, 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of the unforgettable moment that shook the art community around the world‐the harrowing assassination attempt on Andy Warhol by radical playwright Valerie Solanas.
Playwright Solanas was a ticking time bomb. The violent attack on Warhol’s life that came seemingly out of nowhere was the explosive end to a unrealized series of toppling dominoes.
Two years prior to the attempt on his life, Solanas had approached Warhol with a play she had written, Up The Ass, featuring Solanas’ promiscuous alter ego who hustles, panhandles, and eventually ends up murdering a man. Her intention was to have him produce it. Warhol was no stranger to controversy, producing and directing a series of sexually explorative anti-films and creating erotic prints. Surely he would be inspired by her vulgar, yet comedic writing with a hot spotlight on raw sexuality.
Later Warhol would say that the script was so salacious that he believed she was conspiring with the police to set him up in an entrapment scheme. He turned it down, and informed Solanas he lost the copy she lent to him. Unknowingly stoking an already smoldering contempt Solanas had for men, Warhol attempted to soothe her by including her in one of his anti-films, ironically titled I, a Man. Solanas did the film, but afterwards retreated into her mind to write the infamous SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto in 1967. She declared that society did not serve women, urging feminists to “overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.” Things would only worsen.
On the morning of June 3rd, 1968, a woman named Margo Feiden had just returned to her Crown Heights apartment with her daughter. A disheveled stranger eagerly awaited her return. It was Solanas.
Passionately irrational in a ratty peacoat and wool hat, Solanas clutched an unkempt folder containing a collection of writings. She had intended to talk Feiden into producing one of her plays, as Feiden was one of the only successful female playwrights in New York.
Solanas paced around Feiden’s living room, divulging a play idea about eliminating all males. Feiden asked about the women who desired men. What would they do about that?
“She said she would keep a certain number of men in a bullpen, numbers on their backs, and women could request them,” Feiden recalled. The plot was frantic and radical (like Solanas), and Feiden, who had produced the Peter Pan musical, wasn’t interested. Solanas, on the brink of a mental breakdown, explained her hatred for men with a series of heartbreaking stories of disrespect, maltreatment and rape. “Her pain was so tangible you could almost touch it,” Feiden would later say in an interview.
Cornered by a swarming cloud of her male eradication ideas, contempt from her abuse at the hands of men, and her work being rejected yet again, the undiagnosed schizophrenic Solanas had reached a breaking point. Calamity loomed as she drew out a pistol. Feiden stood, alerted and cautious‐her daughter was in the next room. Solanas stated she was going to find and kill Andy Warhol as doing this would ensure that herself and her play would finally gain the fame they deserved. Unable to calm Solanas down, Feiden called everyone she could to warn Warhol. One police officer questioned if Feiden even knew what a gun looked like in an ironic display of misogyny. Her pleas fell on deaf ears as Solanas was on her way to the Factory to find Warhol.
Solanas arrived, much to the disappointment of Warhol’s peers. In their opinion, Warhol had been far too nice to her. She was known to be the deranged woman who insisted he produce her terrible play. She was allowed to ascend to his sixth-floor office, and upon wordlessly walking in, she immediately shot Warhol in the abdomen and gallery owner Mario Amaya in the chest with a .22 revolver and a .32 automatic. She strolled back into the elevator, and calmly exited the building. The receptionist found the men in pools of their own blood, clutching their wounds and buckling in excruciating pain. The men were rushed to the hospital where Warhol underwent 5 ½ hours of emergency surgery. The New York Daily News the next day reported that he was given a “50-50 chance to live.”
As Warhol fought for his life, Solanas turned herself into the police. “He had too much control over my life,” she told them. She was taken away in handcuffs, smirking proudly.
After his extensive surgery, Warhol survived.
Two days after the incident, in a heavily medicated haze, he watched the news coverage of the assassination of Robert Kennedy on the television in his hospital room. The experience was overwhelmingly surreal for Warhol. “It was also strange to me, this background of another shooting and a funeral. I couldn’t distinguish between life and death yet, anyway. And here was a person being buried on the television, right in front of me.” Life felt odd to Warhol as he was slowly emerging from his own traumatic experience.
During the operation his vitals had failed, but his surgeon was able to bring him back. He reflected on this often. “I wasn’t sure if I was back. I felt dead. I kept thinking, I’m really dead. This is what it’s like to be dead. You think you’re alive, but you’re dead, I just think I’m lying here in a hospital.”
After two months of hospital care, Warhol returned home. He stayed in bed, isolated except for his doting mother. He found himself eerily reliving his childhood experiences with illness. His wounds slowly, but surely began to heal. “The bullets ripped through Warhol’s stomach, liver, spleen, esophagus and both lungs, leaving his torso horribly scarred,” reported the Washington Post. The damage was not just aesthetic, it was deeply internal. Physically and mentally, Warhol would never be the same again as he was no longer able to produce art in the factory-like manner he worked before the incident. Warhol reflected on his scars as a man of aesthetics and interpreter of beauty.
“The scars look pretty in a funny way. It’s just a reminder that I’m still sick, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be well again.”
Warhol made his first public appearance after the incident, surrounded by caring friends at the Midnight Cowboy film release. Reporters flooded around him. One asked how the experience had affected him. He shifted, and paused.
“Before I was shot, I always believed I was watching TV instead of living life. Right when I was being shot, I knew that I was watching television. Since I was shot, everything is such a dream to me. I don’t know whether or not I’m really alive, whether I died. It’s sad. Life is a dream. I wasn’t afraid before. And having died once, I shouldn’t feel fear. But I’m afraid. I don’t understand why. I’m afraid of God alone, and I wasn’t before.”
On the 50th anniversary of the heinous attack on Warhol’s life, we reflect on his haunting comments and the works that followed. The artwork he produced represented a significant shift in Warhol. Imprinted with the thick ink of mortality, Warhol’s works would carry a weight that would represent the true depth of the artist: a man who feared God, but little else.