As a Pittsburgh to New York transplant, I have always looked to Andy Warhol and the Factory for inspiration. While most dream of becoming Edie Sedgwick, the doe-eyed doomed Factory girl on fire, I always wanted to be Brigid Berlin, the slightly intimidating overweight ultimate fag hag, amphetamine queen and the B to Andy Warhol’s A.
John Waters even admitted to stalking Berlin, as she skulked around the East Village in a leather jacket, and has cast her in his films Serial Mom and Pecker. What more of an endorsement do you need for a role model?
Known during the 1960s at the Silver Factory as Brigid Polk because of the amphetamine needle-jabs she would give other Factory regulars in their butts, Berlin was possibly one of the closest and most devoted friends to Warhol, as well as an artistic inspiration. Participating in his films from Imitation of Christ to The Loves of Ondine and her infamous role as the lesbian drug dealer The Dutchess in Chelsea Girls, Berlin cast a striking and voraciously talkative figure, which added a speed-fueled, loud-mouthed, captivating spark to Warhol’s often silent, still films.
I was lucky enough to see Berlin speak on Warhol a few years ago at the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition Andy Warhol: The Last Decade. Sitting directly catty-corner in front of me, Blank Generation punk-poet Richard Hell, who is also a role model of mine but more on that later, watched Berlin as she lovingly imitated Warhol’s soft, sing-song voice, with the exact same screwed-up, admiring smile that I had on my face. It was then I knew I was not alone with Berlin as a counter-cultural hero.
Daughter of ‘Honey’ Berlin and Richard Berlin, the chairman of the Hearst media empire, Berlin, like Sedgwick and many others associated with the Factory was an heiress as well as a huge disappointment to her parents. Obsessed with her daughter’s weight problem, Honey Berlin attempted to get Berlin to lose weight any way possible including having the family doctor giver her amphetamines and dexedrine when she was 11.
“My mother wanted me to be a slim, respectable socialite. Instead, I became an overweight troublemaker”–Brigid Berlin
Naturally as a troublemaker, Berlin would have the last laugh as she would record her mother’s conversations with her over the phone and play them to a crowd of people in public performances.
Even before she met Andy Warhol and became one of his closest confidants, Berlin cemented her role as the supreme fag hag of New York City by marrying a window dresser (surprisingly the marriage did not work out). As Warhol recounts in his POPism: The Warhol Sixties, “When Brigid brought her window dresser fiance home to meet the family, her mother told the doorman to tell him to wait on a bench across the street in Central Park. Then she handed Brigid her wedding present – a hundred dollar bill – and told her to to to Bergdorf’s and buy herself some new underwear with it. Then she added, ‘Good luck with that fairy'” (104).
After her failed marriage and living in the notorious Chelsea Hotel, Berlin met Warhol in 1964, quickly becoming an important and consistent figure in the Factory throughout the 60s and into the more business art 70s and 80s.
In Warhol’s The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A To B and Back Again, Warhol notes, “”I really don’t care that much about “Beauties.” What I really like are Talkers. To me, good talkers are beautiful because good talk is what I love. The word itself shows why I like Talkers better than Beauties, why I tape more than I film. It’s not “talkies.” Talkers are doing something. Beauties are being something. Which isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just that I don’t know what it is they’re being. It’s more fun to be with people who are doing things” (62).
While many of the people surrounding the Factory were undoubtedly drop-dead gorgeous, nobody had anything on the talking ability of Brigid Berlin. Speaking on the phone to Warhol for hours upon hours, Berlin hilariously remembers, “Andy and I didn’t go out that much together. We’d spend our time talking on the phone. He use to call me up in the morning – he always talked about his health with me. I think I was the health person. There were other people he used for different topics. And he’d say all of a sudden out of the clear blue – ‘Brig, my balls are sore… ‘Oh god Andy, c’mon, I don’t know anything about sore balls.”
In addition to talking to Warhol for as long as possible, Berlin also made her own art, which was the subject of a retrospective at the Warhol Museum about 4 years ago. Taking copious Polaroids and recording her conversations, she also made Trip Books (it was the 60s) and Cock Books, a book full of drawings of, you guessed it, cocks.
Not content to fill the Cock Book herself, Berlin would bring the giant book to Max’s Kansas City, the Factory crowd’s hangout, and get anyone around to draw in the book, allowing the Cock Book to become a who’s who of the Downtown cultural scene from Taylor Mead to Dennis Hopper to Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.
However my personal favorite art pieces by Berlin are her Tit Paintings, which like the Cock Book, seem fairly self-explanatory. Berlin, who has never been shy about getting naked around the Factory, dips her tits in paint and makes a painted print of them on a piece of paper or whatever surface she finds. As John Waters delightfully explains, “”I think that she’s the most un-self-conscious nude person. I mean I’ve never been nude – I really take a bath in my underpants. But when I saw Brigid doing her tit painting – she just took off her blouse and started, you know, using her tits as painting. She said this is totally not about nudity, this is about, you know, art.”
Continuing to live in New York, Berlin was the subject of an incredible, jaw-dropping and role model worship-worthy documentary Pie In The Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story, which not only details Berlin’s trajectory with Warhol, but also follows her as she struggles with her diet and her deep urge to eat entire key lime pies from a bakery near her pug tchotcke-filled apartment.
So grab some pie, maybe an amphetamine poke, get someone (ANYONE) on the phone and watch the artistic troublemaker and my queen of the Factory tell it ALL: