THE RETURN OF THE WORLD’S WORST BUSINESSMAN
A Sneak Peak at JOHN WILCOCK’s Re-Released Iconic Book THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY & SEX LIFE OF ANDY WARHOL
John Wilcock by Tyler Malone
John Wilcock is not what you would call a household name, and yet, he has had a measurable impact on art, journalism and culture-at-large over the last century. He co-founded Interview with Andy Warhol. He also was one of the co-founders of The Village Voice. He has written for countless print and online publications: Frommer’s, The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail, The East Village Other, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Ojai Orange, etc. So why, one feels inclined to ask, is he relatively unknown? The answer seems simple: Wilcock has called himself “the world’s worst businessman.” This self-description makes sense because listening to him one hears the voice of a writer and a traveler and an enthusiast, not at all the voice of a businessman. In an age when it seems like everyone is all about business—art as a business, fashion as a business, everything as a business—it is refreshing to hear someone self-identify as “the world’s worst businessman.” It seems less like he has failed as a businessman and more like he has refused to become one. Like Melville’s Bartleby, he simply “preferred not to.”
In addition to all his other accomplishments, one of his books has even been known to sell in used bookstores for hundreds of dollars—not that the world’s worst businessman has ever seen a penny from that. The book in question—his hard-to-find The Autobiography & Sex Life of Andy Warhol (which is finally getting the re-release it deserves)—is the reason I decided to talk with John Wilcock.
Tyler Malone: To start us off, I’d like to hear a little bit about how the book was originally conceived back in late 60s. I’ve heard it was Gerard Malanga who suggested writing about Warhol and his inner circle, a few months after you’d been hanging around, but that’s really all I know. Could you give us a little more detail about how the idea came about and how the original idea transformed into what we now know of as The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol?
John Wilcock: Ironically, I now have the reputation of being virtually the writer-in-residence on the Warhol scene, at least for the years 1965 (when Gerard encouraged me to write about them and I rushed to my Village Voice office to write “How Andy Warhol Makes Movies”—or some such title) to the 1971 date when The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol appeared. I say “ironically” because I hung around the scene not because I planned to write about it (although I did do so when I went on various trips with them—upstate NY, Ann Arbor, LA), but because it was the most interesting thing happening in my busy life (as a Village Voice then underground-paper columnist). Most of the time, on my three or four weekly visits to the Factory, I took no notes, took no photographs, did no video. I was so fascinated by what was happening, and so mystified by it, that I constantly peppered my new friends with questions about how they interpreted it and started to audiotape the subsequent fascinating conversations.
When the time of Andy’s retrospective at the Whitney approached I suddenly realized that maybe this should be printed and distributed and asked Paul Morrissey what to call it. The title was his suggestion. Ivan Karp found me a printer (Colorcraft) who more or less took possession of the book (which sold for $5 at the Whitney) and in typical ‘Hollywood accounting’ never paid me a single penny on the grounds that it had not paid back its printing costs. The book later surfaced for $100 a copy at Strand Books and then, on Amazon, for prices as high as $350, none of which—needless to say—ever benefited me. Recently a rare book dealer in London offered a copy signed by Andy for $1,500.
TM: The next question I want to ask is the one that I’m sure you’ve been asked a lot: Who was your favorite person to interview for the book?
JW: Probably Mario Amaya who recounted Andy being shot as well as himself; or the late David Bourdon, longtime friend of Andy and myself, who in response to my question about who Andy had influenced said: “Everybody.” Viva was a joy as well as being the only person who brought up anything political (she implied the opposition to the supposed sexual antics around the Warhol scene was societal guilt over the Vietnam War.
TM: Who was the most difficult to interview?
JW: Marisol, who replied to my questions mostly in monosyllables.
TM: The title always reminded me of Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in how it plays with the concept of autobiography. It seems to purposefully and playfully mislead the audience into not only thinking it will be an autobiography but also some sort of sexual expose. It’s actually neither. I know Paul Morrissey was the one who actually came up with the title, but could you explain the title’s conception? And what would you say is the title’s relation to the book as you look at it with almost 40 years of hindsight?
JW: As commentators/reviewers are apt to do, they mostly seem to feel that the title was meant as an ironic commentary and highly appropriate.
TM: What was Andy’s response to the book?
JW: I handed him a copy. He said thanks. And neither of us ever mentioned it again.
TM: You’ve done so many interesting things in your life. You wrote this book on Andy Warhol. You co-founded Interview with Andy. You co-founded The Village Voice as well. You also wrote some of the first of Frommer’s travel guides. You’ve written columns and articles for The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail, The East Village Other, The Huffington Post, The New Yotk Times, The Ojai Orange, etc. You’ve had your own public access cable TV show. Recently, you even wrote an autobiography called Manhattan Memories. When looking back over your quite impressive career, what do you consider the highpoint? Is there any job or era that you find yourself being most nostalgic about?
JW: My years around the Warhol scene were the most fascinating of my life. Andy was a major influence on my life. I love traveling and wrote books about Mexico, India, Japan, Greece, Venezuela, Rome, Florence, virtually all of the US (in 25 Insight Guides); and for my magazine (The Ojai Orange) China, Costa Rica, Malaysia, Tanzania, Norway etc; three books about magical sites (nine European countries, nine South American countries). I have been writing my weekly column in one form or another for 56 years (the last three years are on my website, www.ojaiorange.com). The story that best summarizes the way I feel about myself is the one written by the business web magazine Alister & Paine and which is subtitled The Life of a Bohemian Editor. It calls me “the world’s worst businessman” which is a quote from myself.
TM: One of the people you started The Village Voice with was Norman Mailer. It has been reported that you two didn’t get along so well (which I suppose isn’t too surprising since I can’t seem to think of anyone he did get along with). Have any good Mailer stories?
JW: Mailer had a best-seller when he was too young. He was arrogant and although a brilliant writer desperately needed editing which novelists rarely get (I started on a newspaper aged 16). In retrospect we should have been allies against Ed Fancher and Dan Wolf whom we both fought, except that I had no influence, whereas Norman was a financial backer.
TM: Obviously Mailer isn’t one of your favorite writers. Who are some of your favorites?
JW: Henry Miller was a huge influence on me as a writer because he illustrated how free and personally confessional a writer could be. Richard Condon enhanced my (tabloid-trained) skills as a columnist showing me how to condense masses of material into a short space. Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook (but none of her elliptical later books) made a profound impression on me.
TM: My last question: Will there ever be another Andy Warhol? Is he incomparable? Or is there another Andy Warhol every 15 minutes?
JW: Andy marked a milestone, was often described as a mirror (i.e. he reflected back what interviewers expected, mirrored what was going on in society etc. etc.). There won’t be another Andy but there will, of course, be someday another artist who reflects society at a different phase of history as there have been in the past. Also, as well as being unique, Andy was in a long line of artists who appeared at first to be eccentric (Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, etc.) but later appeared to be arbiters of a new direction (or diversion).
My personal favorite is my friend Christo who I would nominate as the world’s best-known living artist (if only for the ubiquity of his international projects). He reflects everything I admire most in an artist: a wide and beautiful vision; a willingness to work tirelessly forever to bring it to fruition and a finite end to it by subsequently removing all traces; a spurning of grants to pay for it. His late partner, Jeanne-Claude was such an essential part of his process that Christo would not allow credit for their work to go simply to his own name.
John Wilcock has been a writer and columnist for more than half of a century. He was a founder of both Interview and The Village Voice. His iconic book The Autobiography & Sex Life of Andy Warhol has just been re-released by Trela Media and Distributed Art Publishers.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Shunk-Kender & Gretchen Berg, Courtesy of Christopher Trela of Trela Media
Design by Marie Havens
John Wilcock, NYC, 1970, Photography by Shunk-Kender ©Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, Courtesy of Christopher Trela of Trela Media
Andy Warhol and John Wilcock, at the New York Film Festival Outing to Stan Vanderbeek’s Home and Studio, NYC, 1968, Photography Gretchen Berg, Courtesy of Christopher Trela of Trela Media