Well, folks, we made it to 100 episodes and we wanted to give you what your love best, queer true crime. Today’s story is the infamous rivalry between lesbian, feminist Valerie Solanas and gay, artist Andy Warhol. Which culminated in the attempted assassination of Warhol by Solanas in 1968. But who was Solanas and what led her to shoot one of the most prominent artists of the time? We’re so glad you asked.
In some ways, Valerie and Andy had a lot in common yet their journeys were very different. Aside from the fact that they were both the children of immigrants, their childhoods could not have been different. Warhol’s family had arrived from Austria-Hungary during World War I and settled in Pennsylvania. While the Solanas family had immigrated from Spain first to Montreal until eventually settling in New Jersey. For his part, Andy grew up in a stable home though he did lose his father to an accident at age 13. He was also afflicted with a nervous disorder (Sydenham’s Chorea), which caused his limbs to twitch involuntarily. Still, in 1945 he graduated from high school winning a Scholastic Art and Writing award and enrolled in Carnegie Mellon University.
Valerie’s story was very different. Her father sexually abused her regularly and though her parents eventually split, Valerie didn’t care much for her stepfather either. For a while she was sent to live with her grandparents, but her grandfather was an alcoholic who beat her. By the time she was 15 she was living on the streets, a truant student, and at 17 she became pregnant. The child was immediately taken from her at birth and she would never see him again. But despite the mountain of obstacles in her way, Valerie Solanas was brilliant. She graduated from high school and later graduated with honors from Maryland University and earned a degree in psychology. She toyed around with getting a graduate degree bouncing around from Minnesota to California and even taking a few courses at Berkley.
The 1960s were the most formative for Warhol and Solanas. It was when they were most alike and when their rivalry began. After graduating from college, Warhol had moved to New York City where he took odd jobs at various magazines and newspapers, developing and refining his art along the way. He began exhibiting his work in the late 1950s and in 1962 his big break came when he debuted his piece, Campbells Soup Cans. Around the same time Warhol was becoming a breakout star, Valerie Solanas was arriving in New York City herself. Though once again their circumstances were very different. Despite her college degree Valerie struggled to find work and ended up using sex work, odd jobs, and begging to pay the bills. In between work and hustling, she wrote an autobiography titled, “A Young Girl’s Primer on How to Attain the Leisure Class” and a play called “Up Your Ass”.
Both Andy and Valerie were gay and lived openly, something virtually unheard of during this era. And as is suspected, it brought each of them a lot of extra heartaches. Though he was becoming a prominent artist, Warhol was often excluded from his peers because of his open sexuality. Even being shut out by many fellow gay artists who feared they would be outed purely through association. In Koestenbaun’s Andy Warhol: A Biography, he prints this response written by Warhol when a critic said he had too much “swish”:
There was nothing I could say to that. It was all too true. So I decided I just wasn’t going to care, because those were all the things that I didn’t want to change anyway, that I didn’t think I ‘should’ want to change … Other people could change their attitudes but not me”.
Valerie struggled as an outsider in her would as well. She was beginning to attract the attention of the New York feminist movement, but she had some strikes against her. For one, she openly hated men and believed the world would be better without them. And for another, she was an open lesbian who wasn’t interested in being feminine or waiting quietly in any closets. If you’ve listened to any of our past episodes on lesbians in the 1960s feminist movement, such as Barbara Smith and the Daughters of Bilitis, then you know the movement wasn’t welcoming to lesbians. And certainly not welcoming of angry, butch lesbians, who embraced their rage and masculinity.
In truth, given the abuse of her past and her current living and work situation, Valerie’s mental health was not in the best state. It is important that we address this issue because while we would not condone or excuse her actions, we also point to the way Valerie has been portrayed in later years. She’s reduced to nothing more than the woman who shot Andy Warhol, a title she thrust upon herself when she took those actions. But she also was a writer and activist with an energy and rage needed to drive the movement at that time. While Warhol lived openly queer, he also lived in his privilege of being a wealthy white man. Solanas was a gay woman of Spanish and Italian heritage, living in a world where women could only be heard when they screamed. And then when they did scream, they were labeled as crazy.
Valerie Solanas was told she was crazy long before she ever had a breakdown and shot Andy Warhol. All throughout her life, she was called crazy when her passion made others uncomfortable and her brazen spirit caused folks to feel intimidated. She was labeled erratic and intrusive and in truth, she was those things. Eventually becoming obsessive and paranoid and later a stalker and an attempted murderer. It’s hard not to have some sympathy for Solanas though, given the rough break she had in life.
In 1967 Valerie approached Andy outside his New York studio known as The Factory. Warhol used the studio to exhibit all of his art, including several of the films he had produced that were considered too pornographic for regular theaters. Such as his silent film Blow Job, which is a close up of a man’s face as he gets sucked off, and Lonesome Cowboys, a satire about homoeroticism in western films. Warhol was amused by Valerie’s strong personality, almost as if she were another piece to his collection of oddities. She asked him to produce her play Up Your Ass, and he took her script promising to look it over.
The two struck up a casual friendship though it was never a balanced one. Warhol was entering the height of his career and Valerie was still a struggling sex worker who kept getting kicked out of various feminist groups. Ironically, the plot of Up Your Ass is about a lesbian prostitute who reports on her day to day living and winds up killing a man. According to legend, Warhol found the play so pornographic he thought it was a joke or the police attempting to entrap him. The Factory was raided regularly by police and in a secret Georgia screening of Lonesome Cowboys, Police had shown up, confiscated the film, and made a list of everyone who attended the forbidden movie.
Warhol became disillusioned with Valerie and her persistence and lack of boundaries did not help. He told her he couldn’t producer he Play and cattily responded “You typed this yourself? Why don’t you work for us as a receptionist?”. Solanas was insulted and requested her copy returned, to which Andy replied that he had lost it. So she demanded that he repay her but instead he gave her $25 to appear in one of his films I, A Man. Though she was still upset, she needed the money and she did enjoy Warhol’s art. She took the role and even invited a friend to the screening.
Yet that winter would send Valerie into a manic spiral and she had no one to get her the help she needed for her mental health. It was during this time that she wrote her most notorious work, SCUM Manifesto. Based on her newly created feminist movement Society for Cutting Up Men, she was the only member. The manifesto had actually been an ongoing project but in the early winter and spring of 1967, she gained new motivation and completed the manuscript. It’s about what one would imagine would be written by a person in the throes of mania who hates men. SCUM attributes every failing in society to man’s inability to reach and achieve his female side. In fact, Solanas states that men are incomplete females and by changing men to women we can end society’s problems.
There are lines in the manuscript that anyone could appreciate and agree with, such as; “A woman not only takes her identity and individuality for granted, but knows instinctively that the only wrong is to hurt others, and that the meaning of life is love”. Or relatable insights like this one: The purpose of `higher’ education is not to educate but to exclude as many as possible from the various professions”. And some lines that are comical in themselves, such as: Being completely self-centered and unable to relate to anything outside himself, the male’s `conversation’, when not about himself, is an impersonal droning on, removed from anything of human value.
Yet the manifesto as a whole is filled with hate and violence. The plan is for SCUM members to essentially ‘unwork’ society until it is broken. It poses the following:
SCUM will become members of the unwork force, the fuck-up force; they will get jobs of various kinds an unwork. For example, SCUM salesgirls will not charge for merchandise; SCUM telephone operators will not charge for calls; SCUM office and factory workers, in addition to fucking up their work, will secretly destroy equipment. SCUM will unwork at a job until fired, then get a new job to unwork at.
SCUM will forcibly relieve bus drivers, cab drivers and subway token sellers of their jobs and run buses and cabs and dispense free tokens to the public.
SCUM will destroy all useless and harmful objects — cars, store windows, `Great Art’, etc.
Eventually SCUM will take over the airwaves — radio and TV networks — by forcibly relieving of their jobs all radio and TV employees who would impede SCUM’s entry into the broadcasting studios.
SCUM will couple-bust — barge into mixed (male-female) couples, wherever they are, and bust them up.
SCUM will kill all men who are not in the Men’s Auxiliary of SCUM.
In short, the manifesto – though not taken seriously by many other than Solanas – was dangerous and can really be summed up in these few lines:
Just as humans have a prior right to existence over dogs by virtue of being more highly evolved and having a superior consciousness, so women have a prior right to existence over men. The elimination of any male is, therefore, a righteous and good act, an act highly beneficial to women as well as an act of mercy.
That fall Solanas began to self publish her work and while the overwhelming majority of feminists did not support the elimination of men, they did like the way the pamphlet turned the tables on the male sex. Making women the rulers of the earth and men their servants, splashing cold water on the Jude Cleaver image of the 1950s. Still, no feminist movement could actually embrace such a violent manifesto and Valerie Solanas certainly wasn’t making any friends. As things became tenser between her and Warhol she began to become paranoid that the artist and her potential publisher, Maurice Girodias, were plotting together to steal her work.
On June 3, 1968, Valerie showed up at the Actors Studio in New York, looking for director Lee Strasberg. Instead, she was met with actress Sylvia Miles who took the Play Solanas handed her and quickly shut the door. Miles later recalled, “I knew she was trouble. I didn’t know what sort of trouble, but I knew she was trouble”. Valerie then traveled to producer Margo Feidman and for four hours pleaded with Feidman to produce her play. But the producer wouldn’t budge, so Solanas pulled a gun on Margo. Still, Feidman refused to fund the play to which Valerie responded: “Yes, you will produce the play because I’ll shoot Andy Warhol and that will make me famous and the play famous, and then you’ll produce it.”
With that she left the house and Feidman immediately called the police in Warhol’s precinct, warning them about the danger. The cops weren’t interested, one even asked Margo how she knew what a real gun looked like as if he couldn’t believe that a woman would have any idea. Those records prove that Feidman did call, no officers were sent out to either Margo’s home or Andy Warhols. So at 2:00 pm Valerie arrived at The Factory and rode the elevator up and down as she waited for Andy.
When Warhol finally showed he complimented Valerie and spoke to her briefly before being pulled away to take a call at the lobby phone. Someone told Solanas to leave before they “beat the hell out of her”, and a few moments later Valerie pulled out a 32. Beretta and shot at Any Warhol 3 times, missing him twice, before finally hitting him. She then shot art critic Mario Amaya once in the hip and turned to shoot Warhol’s manager in the head, but he gun jammed. Hughes, the manager, asked Valerie to leave and she did.
Several hours later she turned herself and her gun into the police. At her pre-trial hearing, it became obvious that Solanas was not mentally well. She refused to be show remorse for what she had done, insisted that Warhol was in a conspiracy to ruin her life, and requested the right to be her own defense. Instead the judge had her sent off to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital. Though it’s passed off today as an open and shut case of a deranged individual attacking a prominent artist, things were not so black and white at the time. In fact, the New York president of NOW (National Organization for Women) came to Solana’s defense and lost her position over it.
In addition, black, feminist, lawyer, and civil rights activist Florynce Kennedy took on Valerie’s case and argued that her habeas corpus rights had been violated. But even though it was an honor to be defended by Kennedy, it made no difference in Valerie’s case. She was declared incompetent to stand trial and sentenced to three years in the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The same month Solanas went to prison, Girodias published the S.C.U.M Manifesto.
Matteawan Hospital in the late 60s was a blueprint for every horror film ever made about Mental Institutes. The building was made for 550 people by housed nearly 2,000. Electric shock was normal as was insulin shock, the process of inducing week-long comas in patients. Sterilization was also the norm in institutes for the criminally insane. During her three years in the facility, Valerie was given a forced hysterectomy. She suffered other forms of abuse and maltreatment and sadly, this would not be her only time in the mental institutions.
Upon her release in 1971, Valerie promptly began to stalk Andy Warhol again. This lead to her being imprisoned again which would happen several more times in her life. Eventually, she faded into obscurity and became nothing more than the crazy dyke who shot Andy Warhol. For his part, Warhol went on and continued to have a wildly successful career becoming one of the most prominent artists in modern times. But he would never recover from the fear of being hunted by Valerie. Warhol’s lover Billy Name said “He was so sensitized you couldn’t put your hand on him without him jumping. I couldn’t even love him anymore, because it hurt him to touch him.”
The fear of dying in the hospital stayed with Andy for the rest of his life. So much so that he refused to get surgery for his gallbladder in 1987 until it became grossly infected. Finally, he was forced to go into the hospital and have the operation. The surgery itself went fine but the next day Andy had a heart attack and died on February 22, 1987. Valerie had spent the previous decades wandering the country, homeless, and alone. She had finally forgotten about Warhol though and ended up on the other side of the country in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. On April 25, 1988, she died of pneumonia. On her desk were a pile of manuscripts, she never stopped writing.
The story of Valerie and Andy has become immortalized in pop history and queer folklore. It’s been turned into a movie and three different plays. In addition, Up Your Ass finally did get its debuted in 2000 when Warhol’s copy of the script was found in his ex-lover’s trunk. The George Coates Performance Works turned the play into a musical featuring an all-female cast. The consulted Valerie’s sister on the project and she said Valerie would have approved of the satirical twist. In the most recent portrayal of Valerie Solanas, American Horror Story: Cult featured Valerie’s story starring Lena Dunham as Solanas. Though she never had the impact she wanted, we can certainly say Valerie Solanas left an impression.
Your recommended resources are Valerie Solanas; The Defiant Life of the Woman who wrote SCUM (and shot Andy Warhol) by Breanne Fahs. And also the 1996 movie, I Shot Andy Warhol available for free on YouTube.
- Dazed – https://www.dazeddigital.com/art-photography/article/43949/1/valerie-solanas-more-than-the-woman-who-shot-andy-warhol-scum-manifesto-feminism
- Wiki (Valerie) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valerie_Solanas
- Wiki (Warhol) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_Warhol#Sexuality
- SCUM Manifesto – https://www.ccs.neu.edu/home/shivers/rants/scum.html
- Koestenbaun, Wayne (2015), Andy Warhol : a biography, New York, NY Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.