Anyone would envy his career and his life. So it could come as a surprise when a warm, affable voice answers on the other end of the line and proceeds to respond to questions with the disarming honesty and thoughtfulness that one might expect from a close confidante.
Then again, Bob Colacello is used to spilling secrets and sharing snippets of his soul over the phone. For 13 years, Colacello worked alongside the late, great Andy Warhol, one of the most famous and influential artists of the 20th Century, who, in addition to influencing the arc of history, loved to hear secrets, anyone’s secrets. “He really read people very well; he was fascinated by people–he tape-recorded everyone he met,” says Colacello, who edited Warhol’s Interview magazine from ’71-’83. “If Andy could have interviewed and photographed the entire world population, he would have done it.”
At the time of Warhol’s death on Feb. 22, 1987, Colacello was working for Vanity Fair, which he left this May after 35 years. The two had seen one another several weeks earlier, so the news, delivered over the phone to an exhausted, jet-lagged Colacello in Gstaad, came at him like a terrible, shocking dream. He’d begun the trip excited to share the terrific news with friends that Mort Janklow had helped ink a deal for Colacello to write a biography of Warhol. Instead, he returned to the States to bid adieu to the old friend who’d given a cocksure Columbia University graduate student his big break after reading Colacello’s review of Warhol’s movie Trash in the Village Voice. Reeling from the news, Colacello’s first impulse was to scrap the book. Tina Brown, then-editor of Vanity Fair, now a legend in her own right, was having none of that. She insisted that he write something for the magazine, and proceed with the book.
The result is 1990’s Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up, an intimate, fascinating portrayal of a great man of mystique, written with unflinching honesty and love by someone who knew him as an intimate friend, confidante and employer.
Though Colacello had well more than a decade of firsthand experience with Warhol from which to draw, he approached the biography with a journalist’s discipline; interviewing dozens of Warhol’s relatives, friends, subjects, superstars, hangers-on and associates.
As the narrative unfolds, it quickly becomes clear that working for Andy Warhol afforded incredible highs–traveling the world, befriending famous people, having access reserved for aristocracy–but it could also be maddening, impossible and thankless. In Colacello’s decade-plus at the helm of Interview, he increased circulation twentyfold, from 5,000 to 100,000, took the magazine from operating in the red to firmly in the black, a fact that Warhol, as astute a businessman as probably any artist ever, should have keenly appreciated, and probably did on some level. Yet in the end, Colacello’s exit from the publication was driven, at least in part, by frustration with Warhol’s refusal to reward his contribution commensurate with Interview’s success, and the gradual wearing down that can quite naturally result from working for an eccentric genius, particularly one with an almost unmatchable work ethic and proclivity for flights of fancy and insecurities that are, at times, utterly repugnant, other times, wholly endearing.
“Andy, even more than being famous, wanted to be beautiful, according to the classic idea of beauty,” Colacello says thoughtfully, later adding, “He wanted to believe so much that everyone was a beauty. Including him.”
Yet for all his many contradictions and flaws, the Warhol who leaps to life from the pages of Holy Terror is consistently curious, industrious and prone to acts of kindness, a rare sort of superstar who may not have always agreed with the very talented people he kept in his sphere, but always relied on their judgment, to some degree. Anyone who achieves that level of fame attracts sycophants, and certainly Warhol was no different, but the people whom he chose to work closely alongside were far from an entourage of nods.
“That was part of his genius, too, because so many successful people, whether it’s in business, politics, art–they get so full of themselves, they only want yes-men around … ,” says Colacello. “Andy was actually a very good businessman in a sense; he was a good manager. [Warhol friend and collaborator] Pat Hackett always said he chose people who could do something that he could not do.”
For all Warhol’s immense talent and trailblazing as an artist and filmmaker, had Warhol been less of a human being, a talent of Colacello’s caliber would never have deigned to remain by his side for so many years, or to bring his kid sister, local arts powerhouse Barbara Colaciello (Bob dropped the ‘i’ years ago), to work alongside him at Warhol’s Factory. Thirty-one years after Warhol’s untimely death just shy of about 60 years old–the artist famously guarded such minor personal details as where he was born and when–the past feels present when Colacello speaks of him, as he will at the Cummer Museum on July 19. (The Cummer is also exhibiting Warhol’s Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, 1980.)
“People sometimes say to me, ‘What do you think Andy would be doing today if he were alive?’” he muses. “And I say, ‘He’d be dating Kim Kardashian, and he and I would have the biggest fights.’ He’d say, ‘She has to be on the cover of Interview,’ and I’d say, ‘Over my dead body,’ and it would go on like this.”
Hear these bon mots and more at the Cummer this Thursday.