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Crystal Meth Maze: the Truth behind the Myth of Warhol and his Factory

Chis Sullivan searches for impoverished drug-fueled reality in the late Nat Finkelstein’s Photography Exhibition, ‘In and Out of Warhol’s Orbit’ from his past interviews with Nat and the people who knew the the Factory best.

Chris Sullivan searches for the impoverished drug-fuelled reality in the late Nat Finkelstein’s Photography Exhibition ‘In and Out of Warhol’s Orbit’ from his past interviews with Nat and the people who knew the the Factory best.

“Andy Warhol’s Factory was just one big room on West 47th Street covered in aluminium foil,” recalled photographer, the late Nat Finkelstein (AKA Nat the Hat), whose pictures are exhibited at In and Out of Warhol’s Orbit: Photographs by Nat Finkelstein.

“I was there with of all these mainly gay men and women, all dressed in black leather jackets, black t-shirts and jeans, as well as all these incredible crazy transvestites and I took photographs and wore a hat all at the same time.”  

I always felt the hedonism at the Factory was a bit put on. It was like they were all living in their own movie in their own head.

Nat Finkelstein

Indeed, Finkelstein was one of the few allowed to take photographs in Warhol’s inner sanctum.

“He would let us mooch around shooting, but when it came to something important, it was always Andy behind that lens so what we had was behind-the-scenes stuff, which is what I wanted to do anyway. Most of what I shot wasn’t that posed for and shows the real side of the Factory.”

“It all started when I was at this party at The Factory, getting it on with this girl on the couch and, when I looked around, what I saw was this grimy decadence, so I decided to photograph this counter-culture as it emerged. But, I always felt the hedonism at the Factory was a bit put on. It was like they were all living in their own movie in their own head. They were all elitist a*sholes. They all lived in this amphetamine-inspired dream world. They were all skin popping speed man and if Andy decided you were not part of his gang, he actually had the cheek to say you were ‘excommunicated.’”

Lee Childers Agrees

One who didn’t fall out of favour was the late photographer, Lee Childers (Bowie’s tour manager and designer of the Diamond Dog’s magnificent inner cover), who at the time lived in a grotty one room apartment on 2nd Avenue with the so-called Warhol Superstars: Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis, all of whom are featured in Lou Reed’s immortal, Walk on The Wild Side.

“People now think that The Factory was so, so glamorous and it was fun but we were all so, so broke,” testified Childers, in an interview with me in 2013, the year before he passed away.

Andy with Bolex, 1965 (Profile Andy Warhol with Bolex camera , at work filming “Lupe Velez” film in the Dakota apartment building, New York City, 1965) Images courtesy of Proud Galleries ©  Nat Finkelstein Estate

“The only one who had money was Andy and he certainly wasn’t flashing it around. We were all on Welfare, sometimes panhandling to go to the cinema and keep warm. We’d get all our clothes from thrift shops and garbage cans. Holly and Jackie were good at it. I mean you didn’t always find clothes in garbage but we always looked.

“But Holly, Candy and Jackie were great at that and making stuff out of tablecloths, they were so creative. Safety pins and stuff and they would turn a curtain into a fabulous outfit. But we didn’t eat much. They lived on speed. In fact, almost everyone at the Factory was on speed all the time from the time they woke up, if they ever went to sleep ever that is. It was crazy!”

Of course, hanging round with speed freaks isn’t always fun.

“Everybody was so bitchy and paranoid especially with all that amphetamine,” attests another Warhol star Jayne County. “And Andy loved that and everybody wanted his attention.  It was awful. You’d turn your back and you knew they were talking about you. Each word could go a thousand ways. You’d have to back out facing everyone!”

The Factory moved up to a different level when the crystal methamphetamine moved in on the scene.

No Drugs Allowed

But according to the late Ronnie Cutrone, no one was allowed to take drugs inside the actual Factory itself.  “There was a big sign saying ‘ Absolutely no drugs allowed’ so everyone shot up on the staircase. The only one who was allowed to take drugs was Andy who used to take Obetrol – these little orange speed tablets.”

I met Warhol a few times and all he ever said was,‘ That’s great,’ in this odd rather fey voice of his, wig teetering, his glasses dark.  And, even though I thought him a most interesting odd ball, wackily funny in his banality, I never did quite comprehend the depth of total and utter fascination and allegiance he inspired amongst his many followers.

“Andy did have the knack of making people famous, but he was a manipulative son of a bitch and, I have to admit, a genius artist,” mused Finkelstein. “So after a short while the Factory became an attraction for up and coming celebrities who just wanted to be apart of Andy’s orbit.

“Everybody came there: Dali and Duchamp. I shot them both there and Dali was a wanker and Duchamp a true gentleman, who treated everyone with respect. Bob Dylan came as he was going to do a project with Andy, but Dylan didn’t like Andy’s weird bullshit. I think so it never happened. But they all passed through, as you could just walk into this world that Andy had nurtured. It would never happen today.”

Andy with Cow Wallpaper, The Factory, 1965 (Andy Warhol sits for a portrait on top of a ladder, with iconic original “Cow Wallpaper” silkscreen in background.) Images courtesy of Proud Galleries © Nat Finkelstein Estate

Undeniably, The Factory moved up to a different level when the crystal methamphetamine moved in on the scene.

“Edi Sedgwick was the face of The Factory,” remarked Finkelstein, who shared my flat for three months in 1988. “She came from a rich Protestant family and Andy liked that. He liked rich. She was the typical poor little rich girl, spoiled and pampered all her life. She never wanted for anything except attention, that she craved. She always wanted more. She came on the scene and it sucked her up and bit her right on the ass. Sedgwick got into meth with Billy Name, Ondine and Brigit Polk and that really screwed her. Then she got into barbiturates to calm the meth down and eventually she overdosed aged 28.”  

People now think that The Factory was so, so glamorous and it was fun but we were all so, so broke

Lee Childers

Another drug that neuters amphetamine is heroin – a substance that spread through New York, including The Factory, in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

Suddenly the whole of the arty East Side was at it including members of The Factory house bands The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Nico and John Cale as well as many Factory acolytes.

Heroin Takes Over

“When Heroin properly hit New York everything changed,” explained Childers. “It all became a bit darker, more desperate. I hated it. It wasn’t fun, or funny or interesting and, even though the speed made people manic it didn’t make them fell asleep and walk around like zombies or turn tricks every day. I didn’t like the speed at all but hated dope. Andy despised it as well. He took speed so he could paint all night long. That was his thing.”

Finally, no one can doubt the hallowed place that The Factory holds in the annals of 20th century Pop Culture and, even though it wasn’t quiet the Valhalla that some imagine, it seems that Warhol’s ideology, that anyone can be famous, fuelled the environment and inspired all.  

“I was taking pictures of these incredible and outrageous drag queens on Christopher Street,” remembered Childers. “Then Jackie the drag queen took me to the Factory and introduced me to Andy Warhol. He asked what I did and I said. “A photographer but I’m not really a photographer.”

“He looked me up and down and said: ‘So you’re a photographer, but not really a photographer. So just say you’re a photographer and nobody will know the difference!’

“So I did and made a very good living out of it.

“And that was the thing about the Factory, it wasn’t the building but because Andy worked with unknowns, we all thought we could be something one day. To be honest, even though it was not what its been made out to be since, everybody in The Factory thought they were superstars, and many were… in their own wonderful way.”

In and Out of Warhol’s Orbit: Photographs by Nat Finkelstein is at Proud Central, WC2, 11th April 2019 – 9th June 2019

Interviews from ‘Punk, A Life Apart’, by Stephen Colegrave and Chris Sullivan published by Cassell, 2001.

Chris Sullivan ‘s book Rebel Rebel – Mavericks Who Made Our Modern World is published by Unbound and available from all good book stores RRP £10.99.

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