Moments after Valerie Solanas entered Andy Warhol’s sixth-floor office at 33 Union Square West on June 3, 1968, carrying two guns and a massive, paranoid grudge, their lives would be changed forever. She thought he was was going to steal her manuscript, he ignored her calls.
At the time he was shot, Andy Warhol “was easily one of the most recognised and popular artists working in America,” according to Jose Diaz, curator of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (where Warhol was born). A successful commercial artist in the 1950s, Warhol’s influential pop art paintings, including images of Campbell’s soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles and other commercial products, and his colourful, stylised celebrity portraits made him internationally famous.
In 1964, Warhol opened the Factory, a large warehouse in Midtown Manhattan with foil-covered, silver-painted walls. The combination studio, laboratory and party room became a mecca for the counterculture, attracting “every walk of life, from the most beautiful people to other artists, celebrities, musicians. It really was the center of creativity in the late ‘60s in New York City,” Diaz says. Thanks to Warhol’s powerful influence, “superstar” members of his Factory clique like Edie Sedgwick, Ultra Violet, Viva, Candy Darling and Nico, appeared in the underground films that he produced at the Factory, and became famous in their own right (if only for 15 minutes).
A radical feminist writer and activist and a bit player in the Factory universe, Valerie Solanas founded an organisation called the Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM), of which she was the sole member.
Beginning in late 1965, she repeatedly tried to get Warhol to produce a play she had written called Up Your Ass, with little success. Warhol never promised to produce the play, but he gave the perpetually broke Solanas a role in his 1967 film I, A Man, for which she was paid $25. “The play was considered vulgar, humourless,” Diaz explains. “Even Andy and his crew thought it was a bit too much.”
Solanas’ masterwork was her SCUM Manifesto, which she wrote between 1965 and 1967. It envisioned a world without men, calling on “civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females” to “overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.” As Breanne Fahs writes in her 2014 biography of Solanas, Valerie tried to get Warhol to help promote SCUM, even asking him in a letter in mid-1967 if he’d like to join the “Men’s Auxiliary,” the group of sympathetic men who were, according to the manifesto, “working diligently to eliminate themselves.”
At some point, Warhol misplaced the manuscript of her play (it later surfaced in a forgotten trunk, Diaz says), but Solanas instead came to believe that he was seeking to steal her intellectual property. In the weeks leading up to the shooting, Solanas called Warhol’s office repeatedly with threats and demands about her manuscript, until he stopped taking her calls. “She obviously knew that Andy would borrow ideas, or steal ideas,” Diaz says, “and so she became paranoid that he didn’t in fact lose the play, but wanted to keep it, claim it, and make it his own.”
On June 3, 1968, Solanas showed up at Warhol’s new office at 33 Union Square West; he had moved from the Factory in Midtown to more upscale digs earlier that year. With a .32 Beretta, she shot both Warhol and Mario Amaya, the London art gallery owner he was meeting with, then left the building.
Two bullets from Solanas’ gun tore through Warhol’s stomach, liver, spleen, esophagus and both lungs. He was briefly declared dead at one point, but doctors were able to revive him. He spent two months in the hospital recuperating from various surgeries, and would be forced to wear a surgical corset for the rest of his life to hold his organs in place.
Amaya wasn’t badly wounded.
Several hours after the shooting, Solanas approached a policeman in Times Square and handed him her .32 semi-automatic as well as a .22 revolver. “He had too much control over my life,” she reportedly told the cop, a headline that was later splashed over the front cover of the New York Daily News. Solanas underwent several rounds of psychiatric evaluation and received a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. Despite this, she was found competent to stand trial, and pleaded guilty to assault charges. A judge sentenced her to three years, including time served, and she was released in late 1971.
Even after that, Fah writes, Solanas continued to believe she could change the world with her SCUM Manifesto. As her mental health continued to decline, however, she became increasingly paranoid and unstable. She spent her last years in a single-occupancy welfare hotel in San Francisco, where she died alone in 1988.
The shooting had a major impact on his life and work, even beyond the considerable physical scars it left. He became much more guarded, abandoning much of his filmmaking and more controversial art and focusing more on business, founding what became Interview magazine in 1969. Warhol had showed interest in death and violence in his earlier work, including a series paintings of death and disaster ripped from the headlines, like car crashes and electric chairs. Post-shooting, he revisited the theme of death, painting a series of skulls and one of guns, a weapon with which he now had an intensely personal connection. “I said that I wasn’t creative since I was shot, because after that I stopped seeing creepy people,” Warhol wrote in his diaryin November 1978.
More importantly, the shooting intensified Warhol’s fear and loathing of hospitals, though he embraced alternative health treatments like healing crystals. This reticence produced fatal results on February 21, 1987, when Warhol died of cardiac arrest suffered after gallbladder surgery, a procedure that he had delayed for several years due to his fear of hospitals. “He could have gotten [the surgery] scheduled and done earlier, had he been more preventative about his health,” Diaz says. “But until the end, he avoided hospitals. He was always nervous about getting sick. I think death always made him nervous, but of course, having almost died once really escalated that.”