Vincent Fremont on Andy Warhol: He was an energy force
For four decades, filmmaker and producer Vincent Fremont has been a part of the inner circle surrounding Andy Warhol’s life and legacy. Following his recent lecture at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Fremont talked with TCD’s Kat Murrell about working with Warhol, favorite memories of The Factory and why he’s happy to be a “lifer.”
KM: By way of starting out, you met Warhol in 1969. You came from San Diego, and you were in a band, correct?
VF: I was born in San Diego. My two high school friends and I started an unrealistic idea with kind of a band; we thought of songs. I don’t know what we were. We wore a lot of velvet — we were very L.A.
We actually had a manager, but we were conceptual. The curious thing is we didn’t play instruments. That would be a problem, don’t you think?
KM: That would be challenging…
VF: We had a lot of ideas; it’s a little more conceptual. We moved to New York, drove cross country … my friends had met Andy six months before, and three of us went up [to The Factory] with Mexican masks, theatrical masks that were gifts, and I ended up staying the rest of that afternoon. They left, and Andy taped me. That was kind of the beginning.
I didn’t have any money. The fourth day we were there — we were staying at the Chelsea Hotel — told the manager we were going. We were on our own. It’s called sink or swim.
KM: What were your first impressions of Andy Warhol and The Factory? You basically stayed on and started working?
VF: In ’69 I freelanced. For survival, I started out as the owner of a macrobiotic restaurant called The Paradox in the East Village. Paul Morrissey had bought a townhouse on East 6th Street, so we stayed there.
I worked at the Paradox all evening and then went to Max’s [Max’s Kansas City] at midnight and Max’s backroom didn’t start until midnight — midnight until 4 a.m. We were probably the last group in the backroom. Danny Fields, who was in the music business and is known as a manager of the Ramones, dubbed us [Fremont’s band, The Babies] “The group that came from nowhere and did nothing.” That was in the first two weeks we were there.
I started working with Andy; I would go sit and talk. I did a magazine article with him about Oh, Calcutta! for the Diners’ Club. That was the first thing that I ever did with him, the Diners’ Club article.
KM: After a while you ended up very much in charge of The Factory’s business operations, right?
VF: Fred Hughes was Andy’s main business manager. In the beginning I was the messenger, the one who personally answered the phones, swept the floor. Andy believed in the old-fashioned work ethic — you worked your way up. The more I worked and showed what I could do, the more he trusted me. The more he trusted, the more he gave you to do.
In the beginning, I was thrilled to meet Andy Warhol as a fan. I knew a lot about his ‘60s work and the silver Factory. I met him roughly a year after the assassination [which happened in] June 1968 — two days before Robert Kennedy. When I met him, he was pretty much recovered, but he was still shy about going out with new people.
KM: What about meeting new people?
VF: He was very accessible, shockingly so. I think if you were male especially, and you could talk, he was interested. But he was interested in anyone who was intelligent and could talk. People felt the need to perform for him. If you went to parties with him and you went to places with him, it wasn’t something that he promoted; people just came to him. He was an energy force.
KM: What was a typical day like in the heart of the ’70s?
VF: When I first started out, I wasn’t privy to a lot of stuff yet. My day was opening the place, sweeping floors, answering the phones. Then the drag queens would come in.
There were a lot of people still, what we called the hangers-on. There was also kind of a tug-o-war between Fred Hughes and Paul Morrissey about who would be the main manager … I was made Vice President of Andy Warhol Enterprises around 1974. It was a “new regime.”
In some books, they put us down. In other books, they understood that Andy needed to change, to evolve. There was still a lot of craziness going on, but it couldn’t go on the way it was at the silver Factory. In a decade, you change. We had the dress code, which was a jacket and tie and jeans. Fred [Hughes] was a clothes horse. Andy would dress any way he wanted.
KM: Do you have a favorite story?
VF: No, because there are a lot of favorites. But I’ll give you one. Meeting Jim Morrison. Jim Morrison was on his way to Paris, from which he would never return. I took the only photograph of Jim Morrison holding Interview magazine…
Having lunch with Alfred Hitchcock at the Plaza Hotel; spending time with Mick Jagger and Andy talking about their tour. Andy did the Love You Live record jacket and one before that. So many people dropped by…
KM: There is the idea of Andy as the patriarch of the studio, and that you all became very close, like a family. In Bob Colacello’s book [Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up], he wrote that you were like the favorite son, that you had probably the closest relationship with Andy in that respect. What was he like as a person?
VF: Everyone had a different relationship with him. You have people who say it was the worst time in their life, being around The Factory. I’m in the opposite camp. I feel very lucky and blessed that I was able to work with one of the great artists of the 20th century.
Before I was married, he [Andy] would ask me, “Well, can you come by?” I was a walking stick. Most nights he wouldn’t tell you where you were going. Learning how to dress appropriately for things, I learned very quickly. That was a sink-or-swim situation.
I showed up in some ridiculous outfits. Horrible suits. There’s a picture of me at the Copacabana with Jed Johnson and his boyfriend and Halston and Pat Ast. Halston was chicly dressed in a black suit. I show up wearing an Yves St. Laurent bow tie and a Pierre Cardin suit jacket that looks like a rug if you put lapels on it. Ba-Boom.
The picture is ridiculous — I love it. It invokes the period. But I look at it, and everyone in the picture is dead except me. But everyone in that picture could conceivably still be alive.
KM: In a way, the public persona of Andy Warhol is very impersonal, aloof. He said, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” But as you describe his relationships, there is a lot of depth.
VF: That’s his public persona; he put up smokescreens. He didn’t want people to pigeonhole him. He was a moving target. He was unpredictable. (That was) the main thing. For the most part, I could never say Andy would have loved this or that — you just don’t know.
Some of my favorite moments were away from the office when I would pick him up on a Saturday and walk down Lexington or 66th Street, and he would kind of philosophize and talk about his life. He didn’t talk about his past very often, so you get snippets. But if you asked the questions, you’d never get an answer.
KM: Is there a sense of preservation in his work, in the silkscreen multiples, the videos, the collections?
VF: He was this recording angel that [art historian] John Richardson alludes to in his [Warhol’s] eulogy, and I know that, because everything he did was about saving and recording. The time capsules, which I coined and never gets written about…
When we were moving from 33 Union Square West to 860 Broadway, across the park, he [Andy] had saved everything. He had a private studio on the 8th floor — the main studio was the 6th floor. This was in the ’50s and ’60s. Because he didn’t want to pay for a lot of movers, we were going to get a van; we had to move everything … I found these boxes. They were manageable, and I said, “Andy, these are like time capsules.”
So, we put in all the stuff he had already saved — he was a pack rat from day one. Where it becomes the real time capsule idea is when we get to 860 Broadway. I dated the box when I made it, then closed and dated it when it was full. That became like an art project. He was acutely aware of documenting time.
KM: What do you think is the greatest misconception about Andy Warhol? In the public imagination we think of this artist, The Factory, the party people all the time…
VF: I think a lot of people thought this, or think he was just a charlatan, there wasn’t anything there and it was about publicity. The fact is, he was one of the great artists of the 20th century. He was incredibly talented. He said he couldn’t draw, he said he couldn’t read — he could do all these things. But with the art establishment, they felt that he wasn’t acting the way they expected an artist to act — to paint in a garret all by himself, being a heavy drinker and carrying on…
He wasn’t a macho man, and that scared a lot of people. He was very powerful, very self-confident. He was a great listener — that is key. He would listen.
KM: Would you say that he was very controlled? He was this nucleus of the world around him — the art, the magazine, the videos, and the television shows — in control of all these different things spinning around him?
VF: He was the boss; don’t ever think that he wasn’t in control … He empowered us and told us what he wanted.
KM: Any final thoughts?
VF: I’m still working for Andy after all these years. There’s a number of us around who know the real story. It’s aggravating when you read articles from people who didn’t know our scene or know Andy, and I don’t know where they get these stories from…
I’ve kind of dedicated the rest of my life to correcting as much as I know. And again, we all have different perceptions and memories. You get six people from the same party and you ask them, you’ll have different perceptions; but there’s a center of it, at least, you know is real. I mean, how many people were Andy’s “best friend” right after he died?
He was a magic person whom I miss terribly. All of us who are still here miss him. He was part of our lives. We were “the kids.” We were all in our early 20s when we started with this. I’ll never detach from it.
As Brigid [Berlin] and I said in our interview in 1989 — there was a retrospective with a catalog and I was able to participate by doing an interview. I said I didn’t want to write something, can Brigid and I interview each other? I think our last line was, “We’re lifers.” And that’s what you are. Either you like it or you don’t like it, but even if you don’t like it, it’s still a part of your life. And I have no problem with it.