On June 3, 1968, Andy Warhol had been hanging out at his studio when an actress stormed in and shot at the artist three times. Warhol miraculously survived his ordeal. But while the artist may have lived to tell the tale of his assassination attempt, the impact it had on him would lead to his demise 19 years later.
By the time of the shooting, Warhol was one of the most successful artists in the world. His pop-art concept had seen him make famous faces and everyday items into gallery worthy subjects. However, just when Warhol was at the top of his game, an attempted murder almost put an end to everything.
Warhol had experienced prior run-ins with his assailant, but evidently he’d been unaware about just how dangerous she really was. The shooting was devastating for the artist. He sustained injuries to nine of his organs and was even declared dead at the hospital. Somehow, Warhol pulled through, but the physical and mental scars from his ordeal never faded.
Warhol was born in August 1928 to parents Andrej and Julia Warhola in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The couple had emigrated from Slovakia prior to his birth. And in their new country, Warhol’s father found employment as a construction worker, while his mother worked as an embroiderer.
While Warhol’s parents had made the U.S. their home, their Slovakian heritage remained important to them. They were practising Byzantine Catholics and regularly went to mass. The family also lived in a part of Pittsburgh popular with other Eastern Europeans.
When Warhol was eight years old his life was altered forever when he contracted Chorea. The ailment – which is sometimes called St. Vitus’ Dance – affects the nervous system and leads to involuntary movements in the body. Sadly, the condition confined Warhol to his bed for months. But the period was also instrumental in the youngster’s life.
While Warhol was ill in bed, he took drawing lessons with his mother Julia, who was a talented artist herself. And art became one of Warhol’s most-loved pastimes. At the same time, he developed a love of pop culture – listening to the radio and collecting photographs of famous actors and actresses of the time.
At the age of nine, Warhol developed his artistic talents further after his mom gifted him a camera. He even transformed his family’s basement into a DIY darkroom so that he could develop his own films. However, while Warhol had found a creative outlet, his life was rocked once more with the death of his father in 1942.
Warhol was only 14 when his father died. But his dad had already noticed his son’s artistic talents and left his life savings to pay for Warhol’s college fees. He would later enrol at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology and study commercial art. Warhol graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1949 and moved to New York City later that year.
The move to New York represented a new and exciting chapter in Warhol’s life. While working at Glamour magazine, he became one of the most prominent commercial artists of the 1950s. Warhol won many awards at the time and was known for his whimsical style and use of stamps and blotted lines in his pieces.
However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Warhol landed on the style which would make him world-famous. After shifting the focus of his work to painting, he introduced his “pop art” concept, which put everyday items on canvas in celebration of their form. He subsequently created one of his most famous paintings in 1962, which featured Campbell’s soup cans.
Throughout the years, Warhol also depicted other consumer goods such as vacuum cleaners, Coca-Cola bottles and hamburgers. He also painted a number of famous faces – from Marilyn Monroe to Chairman Mao. And soon everyone who was anyone wanted to be immortalized in Warhol’s signature pop-art style.
Throughout the 1960s, Warhol became as iconic as some of his famous subjects. His art studio “The Factory” was one of New York’s hippest locations – frequented by celebrities, socialites and a number of other unique characters. The musician Lou Reed was a regular at the hangout and wrote about the eccentrics he met there in his song “Walk on the Wild Side.”
For Warhol, the subject of fame – including his own – was a constant inspiration. He is often credited with predicting the celebrity culture that we see today. He once said that, “More than anything, people just want stars.” And in a 1968 exhibition program in Stockholm, Sweden, Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
But, alas, Warhol’s stardom came at a price. And in June 1968 the artist was almost killed in an attempted murder. Warhol was at The Factory when an assailant pulled a gun and shot at him three times. The last bullet struck Warhol, puncturing both his lungs, stomach, spleen, liver and esophagus.
Warhol’s attacker also turned her gun on Mario Amaya, an art critic who was present at The Factory. He was shot in the hip, but his injuries were minor. The assailant also tried to shoot Warhol’s manager Fred Hughes in the head, but her weapon jammed. Hughes then asked the assailant to leave, and she departed after leaving her address book on a table.
Following the attack, Warhol was rushed to New York’s Columbus-Mother Cabrini Hospital. He had sustained significant wounds and at one point was even declared dead. But surgeons battled to keep him alive, and Warhol underwent a five-hour operation in order to save his life.
As Warhol struggled for survival in the hospital, Valerie Solanas presented herself to police and claimed that she was the artist’s assailant. She reportedly told officers that she’d attacked Warhol as he “had too much control in my life.” Solanas was subsequently charged with possession of a deadly weapon and felonious assault.
Solanas was a writer and radical feminist who had moved to New York in the mid-1960s. Prior to her attack on Warhol, she was perhaps best known for writing her SCUM Manifesto, in which she urged females to “overthrow the government” and “eliminate the male sex.”
Moreover, Solanas was a marginal figure on The Factory scene. And while she occupied a position on the far fringes of the cultural movement, she did have some encounters with Warhol prior to the shooting. Solanas had appeared in his 1968 film I, a Man and had also approached the artist to produce a play that she’d written.
Solanas’ play was entitled Up Your Ass, and it told the story of a hustler and lesbian prostitute called Bongi Perez who hates men and ends up killing one. The writer had handed Warhol a manuscript of the work outside The Factory in 1967. And in turn, the artist had promised that he would read it.
According to Factory legend, Warhol did read Solanas’ play. However, he reportedly believed it to be so pornographic that he thought it was a police trap. At that time, Warhol’s films were regularly shut down by the authorities for being obscene. So, clearly he felt that he should err on the side of caution when it came to Solanas’ work.
But Solanas’ script was no trap. In fact, the writer was deadly serious about her work and eventually decided to chase Warhol to ask about the script. She was not impressed after being told that the artist had lost her work and insisted that he compensate her. But Warhol was not forthcoming.
Instead of paying Solanas for the lost script, Warhol gave her $25 to appear in his movie I, a Man. But it seems the writer didn’t forget her run-in with the pop-art creator, and things took a dark turn the year after. When the artist Margo Feiden declined Solanas’ invitation to produce her play, the writer reportedly threatened to shoot Warhol in order to receive notoriety.
After Solanas shot Warhol in June 1968, she certainly received her 15 minutes of fame. And she would go on to plead guilty to “reckless assault with intent to harm.” The assailant was sentenced to three years in prison for the crime, but ultimately served just one. Solanas was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was institutionalized a number of times before dropping off the radar.
While Solanas was mostly able to fade into obscurity, her actions had a lasting effect on Warhol. He was hospitalized for weeks after the shooting and had to undergo a number of procedures. Furthermore, because of the injuries sustained from the attack, he was forced to wear a surgical corset for the remainder of his days.
But alongside his physical ailments, it seems that the shooting also left Warhol with a degree of mental trauma. Following the attack in 1968 he told the New York Times, “Since I was shot, everything is such a dream to me. I don’t know what anything is about. Like I don’t even know whether or not I’m really alive or whether I died. It’s sad.”
Furthermore, Solanas’ assassination attempt may also have played a part in Warhol’s death in 1987. The artist had previously been diagnosed with gallstone issues 14 years prior to that. However, he had delayed treatment for the ailment as his brush with death had left him with a fear of hospitals and doctors.
Explaining Warhol’s fear, the artist’s doctor told the New York Times in 1991, “He was convinced if he was hospitalized, he would die.” As a result, Warhol delayed treatment for his gallstone until it became infected. He was then admitted into hospital and had surgery to have it removed in February 1987.
The surgery Warhol had to remove his gallbladder was a success and, at first, he appeared to be recovering. But just days after the procedure the artist suffered complications and went into cardiac arrest. As a result, Warhol subsequently died on February 22 at the age of 58.
Warhol was buried alongside his parents in Pittsburgh, following a funeral service at the Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church. Furthermore, a memorial was also held at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral on April 1, 1987. And thousands of people attended the event in order to pay their respects to the influential artist.
But while Warhol was gone, his legacy lived on. His work is often seen as both an early celebration and critique on celebrity culture. He also openly enjoyed his own fame and wealth, even though his art sometimes satirized the concept. In his 1975 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, he wrote that “making money is art and working is art, and good business is the best art.”
Warhol’s mysterious personal life has also come to form part of his legacy over the years. He is believed to have lived as an open homosexual before the gay liberation movement had gained pace. Indeed, much of his art contains homoerotic aspects. But Warhol himself claimed that he remained a virgin his whole life.
The artist’s love life is explored in some detail in Blake Gopnik’s 2020 book Warhol. The 900-page tome looks beyond the artistic legacy that Warhol left behind in his work to the man behind the pop-art movement. And some of the claims made in the biography are quite interesting.
In his book, Gopnik refutes the artist’s own claims that he was asexual. In fact, he suggests that Warhol had a series of male lovers and that he lived with one of them for 12 years. Gopnik also alleges that the artist took “sex lessons” from a pal and her sailor boyfriend, in order to improve his prowess in the bedroom.
However, while Gopnik suggests that Warhol came to embrace his sexuality, he claims that the artist preferred to represent himself as asexual due to some “remaining homophobia in our culture.” In Warhol, Gopnik explained, “If we’ve finally come to accept that one of our artistic icons was gay, we still prefer not to picture him caught in the act with men.”
Furthermore, growing up in Pittsburgh, Warhol would likely have been aware that being gay could get a person arrested. As a result, Gopnik suggests, it wasn’t until the artist moved to New York that he began to explore his sexuality fully. But while Warhol reportedly had many lovers, Gopnik claims that Warhol only really had eyes for one man – the writer Truman Capote.
In Warhol, Gopnik writes that Warhol was obsessed with Capote and even alleges that the artist sometimes stalked the author. The biographer claims that he sent postcards to the author’s home and followed him around. Gopnik alleges that Warhol even waited for Capote outside of Stork Club – a fashionable Manhattan nightclub where the writer was eating.
According to Gopnik, Warhol would even stand outside Capote’s apartment, and one day he was reportedly invited inside by the writer’s mother, who had felt sorry for him. Apparently, the artist seized on this moment and soon began to call Capote every day, until his mom eventually instructed him to stop.
Warhol and Capote would eventually become friends in the 1970s after their paths crossed. Photographs from the time show the pair rubbing shoulders with celebrities of the time including Debbie Harry and Jerry Hall. But while both men were openly gay, it’s not clear if their relationship was ever anything other than plutonic.