I first heard the name Carlton Willers while interviewing author Victor Bockris, when Bockris was in Philadelphia to introduce an early (and bad) Andy Warhol film entitled Kitchen. Willers, Bockris told me, was Andy’s first boyfriend and lover, and not only that, he lived in Philadelphia. A few days later I found Willers’ name in the white pages and called him to introduce myself. I didn’t know it at the time but I’d be calling Willers more than a year later when I signed a contract to write and complete Gay and Lesbian Philadelphia (published in 2002). Since I have always been a fan of Warhol’s, I wanted a photograph and some comments from Willers for my book.
Willers, who has given many interviews to writers and authors over the years, told me that he had just turned down a request for an interview “from yet another Warhol biographer.” Everything that can be said has already been said, he told me (Willers wouldn’t tell me who the New York writer was, but I wonder if perhaps it wasn’t Warhol biographer, Wayne Kostenbaum). Willers liked the fact that I was a Philadelphian, and the fact that my book would contain lots of photographs intrigued him. Willers, an avid collector of photographs himself who used to run a small New York art gallery, owns a first class collection of photographs the University of Iowa published as a special book in 1996.
Talking with the lean and elegant Willers, I tried to imagine what Andy saw so many years ago when the two met in the New York Public Library when Willers, just 20 years old, was working as the secretary for the curator in the picture collection. Andy used to come to the library all the time to borrow photographs for his work. “Lots of artists came in there. Andy was one of them and that’s how I met him,” Willers told me. “One day he came up to me and said, ‘You wanna go on a picnic with some people in Central Park?’”
The year was 1953. After the picnic Willers says that he went to Andy’s apartment almost every evening.
“I often stayed there because Andy would work all night. He was doing ad work in those days and making lots of money doing it. There weren’t that many galleries then. It was a lot of fun for me and I helped him with a lot of that, as did a lot of people. He loved to go out to the theater. He would never go alone and I would always go with him. He liked the wonderful musicals of the 1950s. It was a lot of fun for me, a kid from Iowa, who entered the Air Force, then went straight to New York. Andy was a lot of fun in those days. He was playful.”
In those days Andy was living in a top floor apartment with his mother, Julia. Willers remembers Julia as being extremely funny and kind. He says that everybody loved her because she was even more playful than Andy. “She was innocent and spoke this broken English and was always taking care of Andy. She was this old Czech lady. She was as funny as Andy and she loved to laugh at funny things. Andy had many cats then, eighteen of them. They were all named Sam. Some of them were inbred and many of them were getting a little queer; they were cross-eyed, some of them. In those days Andy had a mess of stuff around him. There was always paper and art work because he was busy doing advertising, and the cats would come along and knock over whole bottles of India ink, but Andy never got upset. Then his mother would come in with this big bucket and mop—she just looked like a Czech chore woman. She had her bedroom in the back and she’d go to her Catholic church every Sunday.”
Willers says that Julia would cook, though she’d never eat with him and Andy. “She was always very nice to me but the only time Andy and me had any time together was late at night after she had gone to bed and fallen asleep in the bedroom in the back. She also called me Andy’s boyfriend. To her a boyfriend was just a chum. To her I was just staying over because I was helping him with his work. She was special because I don’t think she understood much about Andy’s world. I don’t think she understood the gay thing at all.”
Julia, of course, had just come to New York one day on a visit and never left. She also kept trying to get Andy interested in girls. “Andy thought this was hilarious. Sometimes people would come to the studio and she’d see them and point out a girl and say, ‘Andy, why don’t you get married to her?’”
“Andy’s ad drawings were very elegant and beautiful in those days and everyone knew it. Here’s this little boy – he really was a boy in those days with his cap on…literally, his shoe laces would always be broken and his tie would be askew but he’d walk into the Bonwit and Teller Ad Department and everybody loved him. He already had an image of himself, a persona. He always had a persona.”
Willers believes that he was Andy’s only authentic boyfriend. “He was kind of asexual but gay. He didn’t have a gay life so to speak though he had a thing about beautiful people and he loved beautiful boys. I think he might have intimidated people—I wasn’t intimidated. I saw there was no line there. I just went right across it and I think he was very touched by it in a way. He was certainly not passionate. He was more passionate about food and eating. He loved going to certain restaurants where he liked the people. The reason that I had no trouble was that he was so self-conscious and with a lot of people he would sort of stand off and not cross that line. I think he loved having me there every night because otherwise he was alone with his mother.”
Willers says that once in a while, while cuddling, Andy would cry. “This would usually come unexpectedly or spontaneously about something in his past that was sad. And he did have a somewhat sad past. They were very poor. His mother was always kind to him though. He was her favorite.”
Sometimes when Willers was with Andy there would be mild arguments but these happened when friends of Andy’s would say, ‘Let’s go to this party,’ and Andy would say no because he would not like somebody who was going to be there. “I knew a lot of people thought, ‘Well, we all want to go to this aprty so why can’t we go?’” Willers says.
Andy was obsessed with becoming famous and he’d often say, “Gee, I wish I could be famous,” though Willers doesn’t think that Andy ever thought he’d become as famous as he did.
He was also insecure about his looks. “I thought he was much too self-conscious. He hated being bald and his tendency to put on weight. He liked sweets a lot. Often after he was out running around the town he’d buy all these voluptuous cakes and pastries and he liked ice cream, and that got him through the night sometimes.” To hide his baldness, Andy wore caps in the 1950s. “He wouldn’t take the cap off,” Willers says. “We’d go to rather nice dinner parties with rather nice prestigious people and he wouldn’t take his hat off. He wouldn’t even take his cap off in the theater. One day I said, ‘Andy, why don’t you get a hairpiece or something?’ He actually did. He went to some place and got a very nice, well-matched hairpiece. He looked great in it. It looked like his real hair. Later, as his hair got completely white, he started going for white hairpieces.”
Willers says that when he started Columbia he didn’t see Andy on a regular basis, that he was too busy studying and working. When he finished Columbia he was offered a teaching job at Carnegie Tech, Andy’s old alma mater. “Andy was intrigued by this. When I went out there I’d get cards from him and I’d visit him when I visited New York.”
But something had changed. Andy was no longer the little blond boy with the untied shoe laces walking around with his ad drawings, but had taken up with a film crowd and was now dressing in leather. “He remade himself. He didn’t really look good in leather. He was a totally different person. People like myself or people who had known him before didn’t know how to treat him because he wasn’t the old Andy. They realized they were part of Andy’s old world and not a part of the new world. It didn’t bother me. He was starting to get famous for his pop art work and then started to make these films. The film people changed him. He almost didn’t want to recognize you in the street when he ran into you. That happened to me several times but it truly didn’t bother me because I didn’t want to be in that world anyway. I knew he had to be in that world. But I still ran into him from time to time when he wasn’t with those people and he was still the same old Andy.”
After this, Willers says, the wigs got crazier and crazier.
When Willers moved back to New York and opened a small art gallery, Andy came to visit from time to time. Willers would also run into him a lot at auctions. “He would often be alone, buying art. That’s when I would run into him and we would talk and he was very much the same.”
When Andy died, Willers was invited to the private memorial mass at Saint Patrick’s cathedral but opted not to go. He wasn’t ready for all the hoopla. “Once you get to a certain point,” he says, talking about Andy’s fame, “it feeds on itself and it gets bigger and bigger. Andy didn’t deal well with this towards the end of his life. He tried to keep up this persona. Had he lived to be old, where would that have gone? How could he take off these masks and be himself again? This would have been very difficult…everybody wabted him to be Andy Warhol. I think this happens to people who become famous and some people deal with it well and some don’t.” (Thom Nickels, Out in History, 2005)
Writer Victor Bockris is standing at the podium at Moore College in Philadelphia. He’s in Philly as part of a ‘Silent Cinema’ series at Moore and has just introduced Andy Warhol’s 1964 film, Kitchen, starring Edie Sedgwick.
The crowd is hip/artsy. Straight couples predominate: skinny blond girls with 1920s flapper hairstyles. Their lean, pale boyfriends with conspicuous sideburns. I’m crammed beside a fidgety Asian student, about 20, who looks like an engineering whiz.
Kitchen is a disaster. Of course. Norman Mailer once called it a “descent into the hell of boredom.” The story takes place in the kitchen of a New York apartment and is reflective, one is to preseume, of Warhol’s perception that life is pretty much a compendium of mundane chores, ennui, and pointless chatter.
After the film has ended, Bockris asks the crowd “So, what did you think?” For a second there’s absolute silence. Then Bockris blurts out what is on everyone’s mind: “Terrible, right?” He then goes on to explain that Kitchen must be seen in order to understand Warhol’s genesis as a film maker, how he eventually came to make such films as Heat, Trash and Lonesome Cowboys.
Twenty-four hours later I’m sitting with Bockris on the patio of a house in West Philly. I tell him I’m finally able to put a face to the name. Years ago we both wrote for The Distant Drummer, Philly’s only underground newspaper. Bockris was already in New York, working at Warhol’s Factory. (His book, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol was published in 1989. He has also written biographies of William Burroughs, Patti Smith and John Kale of the Velvet Underground.)
Talking with Bockris is like watching a film of New York in the Seventies. He mentions dinner parties with William Burroughs, Mick Jagger and Andy. Or how he introduced writer Christopher Isherwood to Burroughs when he brought Isherwood to Burroughs’ bunker. Or how he saw Andy at the Factory sitting alone in the dark in a depressed slump because his friend, Lou Reed, did not invite him to his wedding. Or how Andy used to come to Philadelphia on weekends to visit Henry McIlhenny at his mansion on Rittenhouse Square, or shoot film footage on the roof deck of another wealthy Philadelphian’s house near 15th and Spruce. Or how Andy’s Institute of Contemporary Art exhibit in Philadelphia marked the beginning of his career as a pop star, with hundreds of groupies waiting to see the King in his white wig, solar sunglasses and necklace of safety pins. Or how Andy, albeit fame and success, felt that he was a failure because he never had a sustaining love relationship.
Bockris mentions the time that Muhammad Ali gave Andy the cold shoulder during a picture-taking session in Ali’s Pennsylvania training cabin, the fighter brandishing his religious self righteous attitude and finally letting Andy have it with a forty-five minute diatribe about the decline of western morals as evidenced by pictures of two men fucking on newsstand magazine covers.
“’That’s so funny; I think he’s a male chauvinist pig, right? He’s a male chauvinist pig? Because, I mean, how can he preach like that? It’s so crazy,” Bockris quotes Andy as saying to him at the conclusion of Ali’s tirade.
Bockris, who is straight, corrects me when I imply that Andy wasn’t much of a gay activist. “Warhol was a militant homosexual. Absolutely. If you said anything negative about homosexuality, you were physically thrown out of the Factory—like, in a minute—taken by the arm, and pushed out the door. Oh, he was militant!”
Bockris says that as early as 1962 or ’63 Warhol was pushing his sexuality on people at a time when it was dangerous to be gay. “I mean, it could destroy your career.” He mentions artist Jasper Johns who once denied that he was gay and who even went out of his way to “act macho.”
Charades like that pissed Warhol off, he said.
“Warhol affected his gayness with his voice, with the way he behaved—all to upset people.”
According to Bockris, what gave Warhol the courage to be open were the changes brought about by WWII. Men fighting together in foxholes and saving each other’s lives knew everything about their fellow soldiers. If a gay man saved your life, his gayness became irrelevant. “There were a lot of gay people in the Army in those days. So after the war, in ’45 or ’50, before the Cold War and the McCarthy era, there was a real openness in the culture. Andy, who went to college from ’45-’49, interfaced with a lot of guys who had been to Europe and who were gay. They were like…macho guys strutting around campus, only they were gay and people knew that they were gay, but nobody cared. That’s how Andy became encouraged to open up to his gayness. By the time he came to New York in ’49 the gay underground was fantastic. I met a lot of those guys involved in that…they had a wonderful time because they knew they were a new breed, a new group of people.”
Unfortunately, that freedom of expression did not last and life for gays in the ‘50s and ‘60s, at least ‘above ground’ was no Walt Disney frolic.
“It was a time when being gay was like death - you were totally dismissed,” Bockris confirms. “I mean, you couldn’t even invite people to dinner who were gay. People just didn’t want to be with them. It wasn’t until ’74 or ’75 that things changed.”
The eighties saw another change. With the advent of AIDS, Bockris says that the gay people of New York closed off. “Things became separated because people were fighting for their lives. And everyone was suspect in some way. And I suddenly found myself not quite as welcome inside small social groups, which was upsetting.”
Does Bockris think that Andy would fit in with today’s culture?
“Today, everyone has returned back into their groups. ‘I’m this. You’re that. We’re separate’ and I think that’s a great pity. The religious right has really taken over the culture. it’s a very different kind of culture now…”
One that, Bockris insists, Andy, with his love of cross-referencing different types of people, would not like at all.
Out in History, by Thom Nickels 2005, (Interview w/Bockris 2002)