Michael Jackson on the front cover of Interview magazine in October 1982
Michael Jackson on the front cover of Interview magazine in October 1982

Simon Grant
In 1971 you came to London with Andy Warhol (where his Tate retrospective was already open) for the premiere of his film Trash. However, there were problems. What was the story?

Bob Colacello
By the time we arrived in England Trash had been banned by the censors after only a brief viewing. The tabloid press made a huge thing out of it, which I was astounded by. I thought that their reaction was vicious, mean and strident. However, a Conservative MP named Norman St. John-Stevas (along with support from, amazingly, Lord Raglan and Viscount Norwich) took it upon himself to champion Andy’s cause and invited us to lunch at the House of Commons. It was amusing, because there was Andy, the director Paul Morrissey, the lead actor Joe Dallesandro, Fred Hughes and me with this grand aristocratic Member of Parliament. He had his eccentric old aunt there too. She fell in love with the fact that Jane Forth, Joe’s co-star, had no eyebrows.

Anton Perich Jerry Hall Andy Warhol Debbie Harry Truman Capote and Paloma Picasso at the tenth anniversary of Interview magazine at Studio 54 1979

Anton Perich
Jerry Hall, Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, Truman Capote and Paloma Picasso at the tenth anniversary of Interview magazine at Studio 54, 1979
Gelatin silver print
40.6 x 50.8 cm

Courtesy Anton Perich

Simon Grant
Aside from the tabloid media coverage in the UK, how was Warhol perceived in Europe at that time?

Bob Colacello
Andy was venerated by both the social and art world establishments. In Paris he was entertained by the Rothschilds; in Switzerland he was the toast of St Moritz; in England he had friends such as the Lambtons and the Guinnesses. (Lord Lambton’s daughter Anne and Catherine Guinness worked in the Factory – we called them the ‘English muffins’.) When I met Andy in 1970, the major business of the Factory was the commissioned portrait business, so you had to know these rich people. This supported everything else we did. In interviews Andy would call himself ‘a travelling society portrait painter’ and say that his favourite artist was John Singer Sargent or Boldini. He was joking… but not. He put the same effort into doing the portraits of Happy Rockefeller, Dominique de Menil or Ethel Scull as he did into the Mao portraits or Drag Queen paintings that I saw him do in the 1970s.

Simon Grant
Was there a particular reason for focusing on portraiture, apart from his interest in celebrity, and, of course, money? 

Bob Colacello
The commissioned portrait had become a very safe thing for him to do. Even though he was shot in 1968, by 1970 he still hadn’t fully recovered physically. And mentally, he was full of fear. He didn’t have much energy, so wouldn’t go to clubs, or go out after dinner.

Simon Grant
Warhol has become an icon and we all think we know the artist, but how was he among his friends and colleagues? 

Bob Colacello
All of us who worked at the Factory became very close to him – starting with Gerard Malanga and going on to Paul Morrissey, Fred Hughes, Vincent Fremont, Pat Hackett, Brigid Berlin, Jed Johnson – but often this friendship went from love to hate, because Andy loved to push people’s buttons. He was a masterful psychological manipulator. Having observed him and a few other people considered geniuses, such as Truman Capote and Salvador Dalí, I felt that they came to their original points of view partially by not really caring about other people’s points of view. What they wanted was what they could use and turn into their own. With Andy, we all provided something he could not. I was good at chatting up socialites who might have their portraits done. 

Simon Grant
Was there such a thing as the ‘real Andy’ underneath that famous surface?

Bob Colacello
He cultivated this Pop persona which was part of the package, but it was a mask – a PR gimmick really. The real Andy? I think he was a scared little boy from the Slavic ghetto of Pittsburgh who was unhappy about the way he looked. He was lonely, and was always trying to figure out what love was. He wouldn’t reveal himself. He once said to me: ‘If I show feelings, Bob, I’ll have a nervous breakdown. I’ll kill myself.’ So he lived vicariously through others, always trying to find out about their sex lives. It wasn’t that he and Jed didn’t have a true romance, but I think his interest in others was voyeuristic – the artist looking at beauty. And he was drawn to a classical idea of beauty, which is something you can see in his Elvis and Marlon Brando pictures.

Simon Grant
Warhol met, and was photographed with, hundreds of stars – actors, writers, artists. Was this about notching up names on a list, or were they the types of people he was interested in?

Bob Colacello
Andy always said he liked two kinds of people: beauties and talkers. Dalí was very similar in that regard. I was a good talker, so Dalí and I got on well – he would call me Count Valpolicella. He liked the idea of Andy and his entourage because he had his own. He had his ‘house drag queen’ called Potassa de la Fayette, Andy had Candy Darling. Andy’s goal with Dalí – he always had a goal – was to do an exchange of portraits, but Gala, Dalí’s wife, would say: ‘No trade portraits, Dalí oil painter, you photographer.’

He had an obsession with Truman Capote from the time he arrived in New York in 1949. Truman was the kind of star that Andy wanted to be. Also, he was openly gay in that he lived his life the way he wanted to. Andy kept trying to meet Truman, but would get the brush off. But by the time of the Black and White Ball (a masked ball for celebrities) in 1964, Andy was such a big star that Truman invited him and they became friends. We got him to write for Interview magazine, so I was Truman’s editor and got to know him very well. The agreement was that we couldn’t change a word, or even a comma. (In his book Music for Chameleons about twelve of the pieces were from Interview.) He and Andy were competitive, but they were also kindred souls. He even let Andy tape record him and take pictures when he was having hair transplants.

Simon Grant
In terms of fame, Warhol would eclipse the Abstract Expressionist painters, which riled some of them – there is the famous story of Rothko turning his back on him in the street. What was Andy’s relationship with other artists at the time?

Bob Colacello
Initially, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were very dismissive of the fact that Warhol was muscling in, but that softened over time. It wasn’t until Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente and Keith Haring started hanging out with Andy that one had a sense of the Factory as a place where a lot of artists congregated, rather than socialites, models, tycoons, journalists and fashion designers. He was very flattered that this new generation saw him as an idol or mentor. Though when he first met Basquiat he was scared of him, because he thought he looked like a homeless person. You have to remember that Andy came from a generation, a place and a class where blacks were considered by some as ‘bogey men’. However, once Basquiat had a little bit of success, and they traded portraits, Andy was completely fascinated by him. There’s a great photograph where Andy has his arm around Basquiat. It was very rare that he would put his arm around anyone. He didn’t like to shake hands. He’d give a little wave instead.

Simon Grant
Warhol’s presence permeates much of contemporary art in various ways. Has his influence been a positive one? 

Bob Colacello
I think Andy has had a huge influence on young artists, and in so many ways. He opened the door to so much. He promoted the idea of the artist as the celebrity, and the artist as a businessman. He was one of the first to get into video (although he was using it more as TV than as video art). He certainly had a lot to do with the restoration of figurative art as a legitimate form (though for a time the American art establishment thought commissioned portraits were beyond the pale). I think that artists such as Elizabeth Peyton have rejuvenated portraiture in a way that Andy did back in the 1960s. He also legitimised photography as art. I remember in 1974 we did an issue of Interview called ‘Is Photography Art?’ because Avedon was having his first show of portraits at the Marlborough Gallery. We thought it was astounding that such a gallery would show a photographer. In the end Avedon refused to be on the cover because we had put Cher on a previous one – an excuse that Andy found ridiculous. For better or worse, Andy changed everything.

Simon Grant
You have written biographies of Warhol and Ronald Reagan. Do you think there were any similarities between the two?

Bob Colacello
Yes. Andy was the pope of Pop and Reagan was the first pop president. A movie star as president was a Warhol fantasy come true. It wasn’t that Andy was politically aligned with Ronald Reagan, but the idea of someone who came out of a Hollywood star system and was ‘created’ by Warner Brothers becoming president is very Warholian. They also both came from very poor families in obscure places in the middle of America. Both were mama’s boys. Their mothers’ lives both revolved entirely around their church (in Andy’s case it was the Eastern Rite Catholic Church and Reagan’s it was the Disciples of Christ). And both seemed so nice and harmless in a way. I think they were both underestimated. At some point they realised that there’s an advantage to that; people feel sorry for you, people want to help you, are less threatened by you, and even when they became successful, they weren’t taken very seriously. When Andy was at the top of his career he was still being called a fashion illustrator, a party boy, while Reagan – leader of the free world – was still being called a B-movie actor. If you look at it from today’s perspective, Ronald Reagan changed the course of history and international politics, while Andy Warhol changed the course of art history, and I’ll say for better or worse, because they were, and still are, both controversial.