What follows is critic Jennifer Krasinski's introduction to Hilton Als's Andy Warhol: The Series. In two previously unpublished television scripts for a series on Warhol's life, Als draws on historical accounts, rumors, and artworks. He weaves together Warhol’s childhood as the sickly youngest son of Ruthenian immigrants in Pittsburgh, the bustle and hysteria of the Factory’s heyday in New York, and fantasies inspired by the artist's fixation on Hollywood. The episodes center on two women who greatly shaped Warhol’s life. The first is his doting, sensitive mother, Julia Warhola, who lived with her son in New York for two decades (and even played an aging star in Warhol’s film Mrs. Warhol). The second is the “poor little rich girl” Shirley Temple, a childhood obsession whose signed headshot—“To Andrew Warhola”—cemented the budding artist’s preoccupation with celebrity.
What you hold in your hands are the first two scripts that Hilton Als has written for a television series on the life of Andy Warhol—or rather, on the entwined lives of the artist and his mother, Julia Warhola, née Zavacky. It’s fitting that one of the great American literary portraitists should choose as his subject another great American portraitist, one with whom he shares a certain spirit. The lives and works of Als and Warhol—let’s say Hilton and Andy, in honor of their kinship—are replete with vivid characters and, in fact, both are propelled by a fascination with character—how it is born and then becomes or how it is concocted. Both Hilton and Andy are astute mediums, and so they understand that the mastery of their chosen art form balances an unmistakable, inimitable hand with a calculated disappearance of the author.
It is also fitting that Hilton, a sharp-eyed and compassionate writer on the complexities of mothers and motherness, should take on the relationship between Andy and Julia, who in 1951 moved from Pittsburgh to New York to be with her son, living with him in a town house on the Upper East Side for two decades. Warhol recalled her appearance in his 1980 memoir POPism: “My mother had shown up one night at the apartment where I was living with a few suitcases and shopping bags, and she announced that she’d left Pennsylvania for good ‘to come live with my Andy.’” Her presence doubled his life. The notorious Pop artist, founder of the Factory, and superstar impresario was at the same time Julia’s dutiful son, accompanying her to church every Sunday. Although his mother loomed large in Andy’s life, he and his career also eclipsed her, relegated her to the margins of history, so that now she is remembered mostly as a heavy, sorry cross to bear by her genius child.
In these scripts, Hilton imagines scenes from Julia’s life from available facts and some floating fictions, recovering her as the maternal force that produced the artist. Why is it important to know something, anything, about her? What use is her story to history? Hilton knows that in literature as in life, the mother is often a cipher, a vessel for shame and embarrassment, even an outhouse: “Once Mom is crapped upon, she is never wondered about or cared for again because she’s beside the point,” he writes in his raging, aching essay “Philosopher or Dog?” from his 2013 collection, White Girls. “She’s Mom and a symbol of all one would like to get away from in this common world.” To restore Mom’s presence, to admit her character as an essential, unshakable underpinning to any narrative of self, is to shatter authorship’s hall of mirrors. To admit we come from someone whom we can never fully know is to puncture the belief that destiny can be divined from personal history.
Hilton has written about his own mother too. She is his first subject in The Women, his words articulating that which she would not, could not, in her life. “My mother never discussed her way of being,” he begins, and then tells us what he knows, what he doesn’t, and how her elisions carved for him a space for being, for becoming. Hilton has recuperated the stories of other mothers, too, namely Louise Little, mother of Malcolm X, whom he feels was unjustly, irresponsibly presented in the Autobiography. “Mrs. Little is one long sentence that is a question,” Hilton wrote in “Philosopher or Dog?” Where there is no record, he wonders: What did she think of her father, a Scotsman? What did she think of herself? What did she think of her son? How is it to be an unwitting accomplice to a future revolution?
Marguerite Oswald, defending the reputation of her son Lee Harvey, anointed herself “a mother in history.” Though her assumed nobility is delusional, she does articulate a peculiar and rarefied role that Louise Little and Julia Warhola also play. (Note how the stories a mother may spin about her son are no less bent to a self-pleasing angle than the stories a son may spin about his mother. Oswald’s was recorded by the writer Jean Stafford in her 1996 book A Mother in History: Three Incredible Days with Lee Harvey Oswald’s Mother: “As we all know, President Kennedy was a dying man. So I say it is possible that my son was chosen to shoot him in a mercy killing for the security of the country. And if this is true, it was a fine thing to do and my son is a hero.”) Make what you will of the fact that, other than producing sons who reshaped American culture,Little, Oswald, and Warhola share little more than a bullet.
Episode one: Julia appears on-screen as a seventeen-year-old girl, weeping, praying to God that her heart will take a stand regarding Ondrej Warhola, the strapping, good-natured man who’s courting her. Tears, we will learn, are her medium and her message. Like her son’s silk screens of movie stars and other consumables, they appear to be endlessly reproducible. She is a machine for making grief. She marries Ondrej, bears three sons, loses one daughter, and follows her husband from their home in Miková, Czechoslovakia, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The youngest boy is her favorite: Andy Candy, named for his father and nicknamed for the box of sweets Julia received from Ondrej during their courtship. Andy is good at school, excels in art, but he’s an odd boy. With skin splotchy and pale as paper, he suffers from St. Vitus’s dance, which makes him twitch uncontrollably and hypersensitive to touch. Hilton gently tugs at their tangled roots, revealing how Julia and Andy, being apart from the world—a working-class immigrant woman who speaks in broken English, a young gay boy—become each other’s protectors and pedestals, holding each other up, placing one another above the fray.
Episode two: Andy is healing in the hospital after Valerie Solanas shot him while he was talking on the Factory telephone. (Andy had lost or misplaced or thrown away his copy of Solanas’s play Up Your Ass, and in revenge for having her words taken from her—for being unwritten by him—she inscribed herself upon him.) Lying in bed, Andy phones Julia and asks, meekly, if she thinks God wanted this to happen. “God has given you this cross to show you the way to love,” she tells him. “Love as your mama has loved, Andy. Be a papa.” As we know, this was not Andy’s fate.
Enter Shirley Temple, the first film star to answer Andy’s call. As a boy, he wrote letters to his favorite celebrities, asking would they please send him an autographed picture. Until Shirley’s arrived in the mail, Andy had received no replies. He could see Hollywood—its aura radiated from screens and glossy magazines, puncturing his hometown’s drear—but it couldn’t see him. The receipt of Shirley’s photograph wasn’t simply a fan’s request finally fulfilled. Her words—To Andrew Warhola—were incontestable proof that this pale little ghost of a boy was real to the fantasyland about which he spent countless hours daydreaming.
In the transcript of David Bailey’s 1973 documentary Warhol, Julia is asked why her son loves old Hollywood so much. Her reply: “Nostalgia.” But Hilton knows best. In episode two, America’s Little Sweetheart becomes Andy Candy’s ego ideal, starring in a scene from the film of his life, Shirley-as-Andy—bespectacled, a shock of white hair on her head—sings about her small town of Pittsburgh and flirts and has sex with cute boys, performing the artist’s fantasy adolescence. Shirley and Andy are thirteen years old (both born in 1928), and Hilton captures them in the crisis of what a Hollywood manager describes to Shirley as “encroaching adolescence.” We later see the child star renegotiating the terms and conditions of her public persona and presence with producer David O. Selznick. Her breasts and hips define “the new reality,” as she succinctly puts it, and Hilton slyly points to how a body will abandon a role long before an actor will—when one becomes what one must be.
Asexual was the word most often used to describe Warhol’s perceived lack of libido until Wayne Koestenbaum redefined the artist’s desires as ur-sexual: “Lust,” Koestenbaum writes in his 2001 biography, Andy Warhol, “was the bottom of his being, and yet he valued the horny realm because it decomposed him, transplanted him out of his body, through sight, into someone else.” What more perfectly apposite vehicle for a voracious sexual appetite than the movie star, through which one can expand one’s reach, one’s touch, groping beyond the limits of an imperfect body? It wasn’t nostalgia that Andy loved about Hollywood; it was the transubstantiation of self into screen gods and goddesses, and the consummation of desire by proxy.
After Andy’s lusty dream sequence is over, we see the teen boy kneeling before Christ and Shirley. (Hilton hangs a crucifix and Temple’s signed headshot side by side on Andy’s bedroom wall.) Julia has just been carted off to the hospital, her spleen in need of removal, and Andy promises his saviors that he will stay ugly and a child in exchange for his mother’s life. The episode ends back in the hospital after Andy’s been shot. We don’t see him—we haven’t yet caught a good glimpse of him as an adult in the series—but we hear his voice saying goodbye to Julia. As he gets off the phone, we hear the voice of Shirley as a wee girl, singing on the television flickering in his room.
As any good Catholic believes, with sacrifice comes reward and eventually glory. Andy becomes a man, but does not become a father as Julia had hoped. Instead, as Hilton elucidates with adoring ferocity in “Mother,’ his 1997 essay on Warhol’s knotty relationship with his friends-slash-followers, Andy becomes a mother, loving his children as Julia did. “Becoming ‘nothing’ is the route moms have often followed to be Mom, she who defines herself through her children’s becoming superstars,” Hilton writes. When Shirley wrote to Andy, he became real. His brand of realness—a nothingness that could hold everything—became the vacuum in which a new star system formed. Warhol-as-she, as Hilton dubs him, launched Candy, Jackie, Holly, Viva, Edie, Brigid, Baby Jane, Ingrid, and others, who in turn became screen goddesses; in their self-styled glamour and remodeled bodies, a new generation saw how convulsive and glittering self-invention can rewrite the myths from which we dream ourselves up.
Andy, in his own way, gave Julia her fifteen minutes, too. In 1966, he made Mrs. Warhol, an hour-long improvised film that starred his mother as an aging celebrity living with her younger husband, played by Warhol’s then-boyfriend, Richard Rheem. Poignant and playful, it is perhaps the closest the artist comes to portraying his life with his mother. Julia Warhola died in 1972, at the age of eighty. Andy had returned her to Pittsburgh the year before. She had been “sort of batty” for a few years, as he wrote in POPism, but her mind had finally loosed itself too far from his reality and her drinking had worsened. He no longer felt able, or willing, to care for her. He skipped her funeral, perhaps because he couldn’t bear to see how death had emptied the body that gave Andy Warhol life. Two years later, Andy produced a silk-screened portrait of her like those he created of, and for, celebrities, bestowing upon her their aura, their immortality.
“Speak for herself,” is what Hilton wished Mrs. Little, and his own mother, could do. “Speaking for myself—this is what I can do. And in doing so, say: I’m writing of Mrs. Little. What will this make of me? A boy who speaks—badly—for silent women—a too-familiar story?” Yet Hilton’s stories aren’t familiar until he makes them so—tenderly, intimately, allowing space for unknowing—which are the truest marks of a grand and necessary intellect. A mind must love, must know and feel love, to write and rewrite this world with Hilton’s just force—to use words not only to honor, but to conjure those the world might, to its detriment, overlook, or forget completely.
In these television episodes, Hilton picks up where Andy left off, scripting Julia as a vivid unknowable—a mother in history—giving her the dignity of story. In homage to the lines she herself left behind (as spoken to David Bailey), let us give Julia, she of halting English and endless tears, the last word.
Maybe, maybe I don't know much about movies, but I am so scared of this television, it makes me very nervous, I can't even talk but, huh, I'm scared to death, scared to death about it but um, that was better, you know, was easier, better times. Maybe not. I don't know.