Brigid Berlin, Andy Warhol’s Most Enduring Friend

In 2001, soon after he moved into the small prewar doorman building on East 28th Street where he still lives, Rob Vaczy met a 60-year-old Brigid Berlin as he was waiting for the elevator. His new neighbors had warned the multimedia producer about the nutty lady on the ninth floor — every building has one, they joked — with her querulous duo of pug dogs toted in a baby carriage, and nonstop pronouncements issued in an archaic highbrow accent straight out of “The Philadelphia Story.” Vaczy, then 36, was instantly enchanted. Growing up in a working-class Long Island family, he had been involved in the early 1980s punk scene and was familiar with Berlin’s lore of the Pop movement, though it took him a while to connect the dots, to figure out that the woman who lived four floors above him had starred in Andy Warhol’s films and was in his inner circle for more than 20 years. Vaczy knew her as the society girl manquée who got fat expressly to spite a controlling mother, and who earned the nickname Brigid Polk at the Factory, Warhol’s studio, because she loved to “poke” herself — and anyone in the vicinity — with a hypodermic needle of amphetamines. She had always scoffed at the idea that she was an artist, but friends like Robert Rauschenberg and the sculptor John Chamberlain regarded her as an equal. John Waters once described her as “big, often naked and ornery as hell.” That afternoon at the elevator she asked Vaczy if he wanted to come up to her apartment for five minutes. “But with Brigid, there was no five minutes,” he says. “We wound up drinking all night and watching ‘Dr. Zhivago.’”

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That was the beginning of an unconventional, two-decade-long relationship during which Vaczy briefly became Berlin’s lover, then her confidante and companion and, later, her caretaker. Together, they watched a lot of television (her favorite: documentaries about poor little rich girls like Barbara Hutton) and smoked a lot of Marlboro Lights. When they weren’t together — he lives on the fifth floor — they were often on the phone. As it was for Warhol — with whom she spoke every morning around 9 a.m. from 1964, when they met at a party at the Factory, until days before his 1987 death from complications after gallbladder surgery — talking on the phone was a favorite activity of Berlin’s. She and Vaczy also went to gallery openings and parties, where she was hailed as a doyen of a much cooler era. Before she convinced the hard-drinking Vaczy to get sober a decade ago — her own sobriety was touch and go through the years — they also bar hopped like mad. As Warhol often had observed, she was an unparalleled social critic, a magpie with a beak sharp enough to hack through any pretensions. “On top of that, she had a memory like a meat locker,” says Vaczy. She could pontificate as brilliantly, and for just as long, on her recent colonoscopy as on the minutiae of shooting Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls” (1966), in which she famously injects speed into her buttocks through her jeans. “There was never a moment,” Vaczy says, “when she was inauthentic.”

The obsessively orderly, twee two-bedroom apartment she lived in for 35 years is about to be sold, and the contents auctioned off — a final, fittingly offbeat chapter in the Warhol saga, a narrative that continues to influence what is left of the avant-garde, even 35 years after the artist’s death. Berlin’s relationship with Warhol was a central animating force for Pop Art, as well as a captivating, if strange, love story. That Berlin, among the only Warholites who managed to live into old age, found such loyalty and frisson again might have made the artist happy — or some Warhol-like approximation of that mundane emotion.

Berlin moved into the 1,200-square-foot flat, and it’s a ladylike pink-and-green Palm Beach fantasia, in 1986 after many years in a shoe box-studio studio in the rundown, now long-gone George Washington residential hotel near Gramercy Park. There is nary a sign that its occupant spent much of her 20s and 30s naked to the waist, dipping her breasts in paint and pressing them onto paper to create her “tit prints,” as well as asking famous friends — Leonard Cohen, Jean-Michel Basquiat — to draw their genitals in her “penis chapbooks.” (The artist Richard Prince purchased one of them in 2009 for $175,000.) Her place at the George Washington had been similarly organized — demure despite the chaos she sowed in the outside world. In her East 28th Street apartment, though, her style fixations, imprinted from childhood, were able to reach full flower: There are cabbage roses aplenty, preppy striped wallpaper and a healthy helping of chintz. The series of 10 or so pug-shaped pillows she embroidered lean atop the leopard-print green-and-cream velvet sofa. In the walk-in closet, on a shelf above candy-colored down vests and pastel blouses on hangers, are labeled bins packed with enough supplies for doomsday: flints for a cigarette lighter, Scotch tape, thumbtacks, X-Acto knives. When she was alive, there were often around 150 cartons of Marlboros stacked up in there as well.

THE RADICAL JUXTAPOSITIONS that defined Berlin were among the aspects that were part of what Warhol found so compelling about her. She was one of the few intimates he kept close through the years. His biographers — Bob Colacello, Victor Bockris and Blake Gopnik — all recount his casual ghosting of friends, not overtly cruel (his mien was too passive for that), but still devastating to the moth-to-a-flame types who clustered around him. (He called them Superstars, often urging them to use the term as a last name.) Like the anorexic, barbiturate-addicted heiress Edie Sedgwick, who was wallpapered to his side for much of 1965 and died of a drug overdose at 28, a few years after their estrangement, many of those who thought they were fixtures in Warhol’s life turned out to be disposable, too scarred and complicated for him in the long run. “Some people,” wrote the cultural critic Gary Indiana, “came to believe that holding his attention for a time meant that his interest ran deeper than their entertainment value. It didn’t.”

But Berlin, who at one point weighed 300 pounds, never went out of fashion. For more than two decades, and even after Warhol died, she answered phones and provided inspiration, first at the Factory and then at Interview, the magazine the artist founded in 1969, though she rarely paid any attention to who came and went, instead fussing with her needlepoint and tending to her dogs. She and Warhol referred to each other as Mr. and Mrs. Pork. “Their relationship was what Andy thought a marriage must be like, should be like,” says Vincent Fremont, 70, who managed the artist’s studio for decades, produced video and made a 2000 documentary about Berlin, “Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story.” Although Berlin’s criticisms and merciless observations of those around her poured out in a stream of consciousness up until the end, “she never said a bad word about Andy, ever,” says Vaczy.

There has been much speculation over the years about why their bond endured, but by all accounts he was fascinated by both her heady upbringing — Richard Nixon, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable and J. Edgar Hoover were frequent visitors in her parents’ sumptuous Fifth Avenue apartment and house in Rye — and her apparent lack of interest in fame, which stood in stark contrast to his single-minded pursuit of it. Unlike the rest of the Factory coterie, who saw Warhol as either an inscrutable god or a ticket to wealth and renown — or both — Berlin didn’t seem to crave his approval. Instead, her motivation for diving into the Factory scene, which early on was awash in drugs, psychedelia and the trans sensibility of such performers as Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling, was simply to upset her striving socialite mother (her father was president of the Hearst Corporation for more than 30 years). Such simplicity of motive delighted Warhol, who reveled in what he insisted was his own superficiality and pettiness.

As might be expected of someone who grew up in psychological discomfort amid lavish surroundings — her mother paid her $1 for every pound she lost — Berlin eschewed the trappings of money, spending little on herself apart from drugs, booze and chocolate. She had a small trust fund, barely enough to cover her rent at the George Washington (she was able to buy the apartment on East 28th Street only after her father’s 1986 death, a year before Warhol’s) and was constantly scrounging. Warhol, who had grown up poor, was similarly ambivalent about money; he was alternately generous and stingy with her. When he asked her what she wanted for Christmas, Vaczy says, she would tell him, “Anything but a painting. How about a vacuum cleaner?” The Electrolux he gave her ran until a few years ago. When the German artist Gerhard Richter, whom Berlin met in 1970, did a series of paintings based on her Polaroids — she was a pioneer of the selfie — she gave away the one he sent her to a friend. She also took Polaroids of Warhol’s abdominal scars from the 1968 assassination attempt by Valerie Solanas, another Factory regular, and sold them for $5 apiece in Union Square, running periodically across the street to the Factory to shoot more. For her Off Off Broadway show in the late ’60s, “Brigid Polk Strikes! Her Satanic Majesty in Person,” she telephoned people from the stage, including her mother, Muriel “Honey” Berlin, and, unbeknown to them, amplified the conversation for the audience. During one performance, she called the unsuspecting supermarket heir Huntington Hartford and told him she needed money for an abortion; she left the theater, took a cab to his apartment and returned to the stage with the cash.

Polaroids and tape recordings were her true artistic métier, which profoundly inspired Warhol. Throughout most of the ’60s and ’70s, she dragged her Polaroid 360 and a bulky cassette recorder everywhere, though she once said, “No picture ever mattered, it was the clicking and pulling out that I loved.” Running out of film, she insisted, was worse than running out of speed. Warhol became equally addicted to documentation and, though his pictures became more well known, hers are arguably as revelatory, often the product of double exposures and lighting both flat and vivid, and featuring such friends as Lou Reed, Roy Lichtenstein, Dennis Hopper and Cy Twombly. (In 2015, Reel Art Press published these works in “Brigid Berlin: Polaroids.”) Her recordings — there are more than 1,000 hours of tape, which Vaczy spent four years digitizing — range from the mundane (chatter about her near-constant doctors’ appointments) to the historic (Rauschenberg ranting at the Cedar Tavern). The original cassettes, with Berlin’s typed and handwritten labels affixed to each plastic case, are stored in a black flip-top handled case in her walk-in closet. “Brigid wanted to melt them down and turn them into a sort of audio John Chamberlain piece,” Vaczy says, “but I convinced her that was insane.” It was her 1970 recording of the Velvet Underground, scratchy background noises and all, that was remastered into the band’s first live album, “Live at Max’s Kansas City.”

Brigid Berlin and Andy Warhol Phone Call, 1970

Like most rebels, Berlin grew less fierce with age, especially after Warhol’s death. Even her weight, which she had for so long brandished as a weapon, lost its transgressive power for her; in the late 1970s she began to shed the excess pounds (even if, ever the compulsive personality, she continued to yo-yo over the years, bingeing on her favorite Key lime pie for days, followed by an ascetic week of weighing out portions of raw kale). Her mother died about a month after Warhol. Then, ironically, she became the very image of the daughter that Muriel “Honey” Berlin had wanted all along. Always a Republican — a novelty among the Factory denizens — she became an outspoken conservative and Fox News devotee. Her only regret was that “she never got to apologize to her parents for the pain she caused them,” says Vaczy.

The symbiotic bond between her and Vaczy seems to have replaced both her obsession with her mother and her tether to Warhol, and ended only with her death a year ago, at age 80, of cardiac arrest resulting from a pulmonary embolism. So tightly knitted together were they over the years they knew each other that Vaczy, now 56, is the sole heir to her apartment and its contents. (Fremont received Berlin’s art, and Pat Hackett, a frequent Warhol collaborator and editor of the diaries the artist began keeping in 1976, published as “The Andy Warhol Diaries” a few months after his death, was jointly bequeathed, along with Vaczy, her archive of audiotapes.) “We just got each other completely,” he says of Berlin. “She wasn’t an easy person. In fact, she wasn’t even a person — she was an army of people. Having that time with her was a gift that’s made my life.”

Five years or so before her death, Berlin became bed-bound with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, largely unable to use her hands because of a connective tissue disorder, but even largely immobile, she “made your adrenaline rush,” Vaczy says. There were round-the-clock aides, but she was uneasy unless Vaczy was there, which he virtually always was by that time. He sat by her bedside hour after hour, reading aloud from history books about royal troublemakers like Catherine the Great, and flipping through the gossip tabloids. (“She couldn’t get enough of Prince Andrew. If there wasn’t new gossip, I would just make some up.”) One day in 2016, while Vaczy was making a rare visit to his ailing mother on Long Island, Berlin called to say she was dying. Could he rush back? When he arrived, breathless, he found her in bed, surrounded by the nurses, Fremont, her lawyer and a priest ready to give last rites. “Through all the hushed voices around her,” says Vaczy, “I realized that Brigid was quietly giggling. She wasn’t dying. She just wanted a little action.”

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