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Saturday Special from the Vaults: Andy Warhol: Everyone Will Be Famous for 15 Minutes

For this week’s Saturday Special, another opening to another biography written for Enslow Publishers, this one about artist Andy Warhol. Like my biographies of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, it was for the series American Rebels. I actually studied a bit of art history and minored in art at university, and we make a point of visiting art galleries wherever we go, so this one was fun. Even more so since a Warhol exhibit passed through Regina while I was in the early stages of working on it.

Herewith, the introduction and first chapter to Andy Warhol: Everyone Will Be Famous for 15 Minutes.

But first: a link where you can buy the book!


Andy Warhol: Everyone Will Be Famous for 15 Minutes


On July 9, 1962, a most unusual art exhibition opened in the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. It consisted of thirty-two paintings of Campbell’s Soup cans—one painting for each flavor of soup the company offered—wrapped around the gallery on a narrow white shelf, very much as if they were real cans on display in a supermarket.

The gallery owner, Irving Blum, didn’t do much to advertise them. He simply sent out a postcard of a tomato-soup can inviting interested buyers to stop by. There was no official opening. The paintings, measuring 20 by 16 inches each, were priced at $100 each.

Visitors to the gallery were “extremely mystified,” Blum said later. Another gallery not too far away bought dozens of real Campbell’s soup cans, put them in the window, and offered to sell them cheaper: just 60 cents for three cans. “There was a lot of hilarity concerning them,” he noted, but no serious interest from collectors (actor Dennis Hopper bought one, but in all only six were sold).[1]

Despite the lack of buyers, the paintings attracted a lot of publicity—both good and bad. Critics and viewers alike either liked them or loathed them.

The publicity began two months before with an article in TIME magazine, published May 11, 1962. “It was said of Zeuxis, the great artist of ancient Greece, that he could paint a bunch of grapes so realistically that birds would try to eat them,” wrote TIME.  “This was an impressive skill, but art has long since aspired to more than carbon-copy realism.”

But “a segment of the advance guard,” a group of painters unknown to each other, TIME went on, “has suddenly pulled a switch,” coming to the conclusion that “the most banal and even vulgar trappings of modern civilization can, when transposed literally to canvas, become Art.”

Among the painters briefly mentioned in the article was a 30-year-old New York-based commercial artist named Andy Warhol, who, TIME noted, “is currently occupied with a series of ‘portraits’ of Campbell’s Soup Cans in living color.”

“I just paint things I always thought were beautiful, things you use every day and never think about,” Warhol told TIME. “I just do it because I like it.”[2]

The article was entitled “The Slice-of Cake School,” but a new name for it, Pop Art, was already taking hold. Within a few years, Warhol had become the Prince of Pop, the most famous creator of this new style of art so different from what had come before.

Eventually the Pop Art movement sputtered out, but Warhol’s fame continued. For the last 25 years of his life, he was one of the most famous and recognizable people in the world.

He wasn’t necessarily one of the most liked, however. Controversy constantly swirled around him. People loathed him or loved him, applauded him or reviled him. Some swung from one extreme to the other: one former associate and admirer eventually tried to kill him.

“In the future everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” Warhol once famously said.3[3]  But his own fame lasted a lot longer than that. Indeed, he’s as famous—and as controversial—now as he was when he died more than 20 years ago, with new exhibitions of his work mounted on a regular basis around the world.

Those Campbell Soup Can paintings? Irving Blum bought them back from Dennis Hopper and the others who had bought a few, then purchased the entire set from Warhol for $1,000.

In 1996 the Museum of Modern Art acquired them from Blum for an estimated $15 million.[4]

Warhol would have loved that.

A trendsetter rather than a trend-follower, a dispassionate observer of both the seamy and celebrity sides of life, Warhol was a true American rebel.

And in true American fashion, his life started in very humble circumstances.


Chapter One: Early Days

Andy Warhol told a lot of stories about his childhood after he was famous. He’d talk about having to eat soup made with tomato ketchup while growing up in the Depression. He talked about his father being a coal miner who died when he was young, and whom he hardly saw. He said his brothers bullied him, that his mother was always sick, that nobody liked him, that he never had any friends, that his skin turned white and his hair fell out by the time he was twelve.[5]

A lot of the stories weren’t true. But Andy Warhol was never someone to let truth get in the way of a good story—especially about himself.


Born in Pittsburgh

Andy Warhol was born Andrew Warhola on August 6, 1928, to Ondrej and Julia Warhola, in his parent’s bedroom in a narrow red-brick house at 73 Orr Street in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He had two older brothers, Paul, born on June 26, 1922, and John, born on May 31, 1925.

Ondrej and Julia were recent immigrants from the Ruthenian village of Mikova, located in the Carpathian Mountains (known in popular culture as the home of the vampire Dracula) near the borders of Russia and Poland.

Ondrej was born in Mikova on November 28, 1889. The Warhola family were devout, hard-working people, and Ondrej grew up working in the fields. When he was seventeen he decided there was no future in his homeland and he emigrated to Pittsburgh. After working there for two year, he went back to Mikova to find a bride.

He found Julia Zavacky, born in Mikova on November 17, 1892, one of a family of 15 children (though only nine survived until Julia was in her teens). Her brothers, John and Andrew, had already moved to Pennsylvania. According to Warhol biographer Victor Bockris, who interviewed family members extensively for his book Warhol, Julia and her sister, Mary, wanted to be famous singers, and even sang with a gypsy caravan in the Mikova area for a season. Julia was also artistic, making small sculptures and painting designs on objects. When she was sixteen her father told her it was time for her to get married. When Ondrej Warhola, who had just been the best man at the wedding of Julia’s brother, John, in Pennsylvania, returned and wanted to marry her, she at first refused; but her father beat her and then asked the priest to tell her to marry him. “Andy (Ondrej) visits again. He brings candy, wonderful candy. And for this candy, I marry him,” she used to say.[6] The couple lived in Mikova for three years, then Ondrej went back to Pittsburgh on his own to avoid being drafted into the army of Emperor Franz Joseph to fight in the First Balkan War. The couple wouldn’t see each other for nine years.

Julia was pregnant when Ondrej left, and gave birth in 1913. The baby, a girl, died of influenza when she was just six weeks old. Not long after that Julia heard that her brother Yurko had been killed in the war. It later turned out the news was a mistake, and he had survived, but the shock of the news may have contributed to the death, just a month later, of Julia’s mother. That left Julia to look after her little sisters, Ella and Eva, who were just six and nine.

Things went from bad to worse. The First World War broke out. The area was ravaged. Julia’s house was burned down. Ondrej’s brother George was killed. Several times she had to hide out in the woods with her little sisters and the old woman who helped care for them to escape approaching soldiers.

When the war ended, Ondrej began trying to bring Julia over to the United States. In 1919 he tried to send her the fare five times, but none of the money reached her. In 1921, she finally took matters into her own hands. Just before the United States embargoed immigration from Eastern Europe, Julia borrowed $160 from a priest and used it to travel by wagon, train, and finally ship to find her husband in Pittsburgh.

By the time Andy was born Ondrej, then thirty-eight years old, was a bald, muscular man who worked twelve hours a day for the Eichleay Corporation, a company that built roads and moved houses (not the contents of the houses: the houses themselves, to make way for new construction). Although he didn’t work in a coal mine, as Andy sometimes claimed, it was true that he was often away, called out of town on work for weeks or months.

Julia, thirty-five, had not been assimilated into American life as well as her husband. She still couldn’t speak a word of English. She typically wore a long peasant dress under an apron, and covered her head with a babushka. Both Julia and Ondrej were devout Byzantine Catholics who walked their family six miles to mass every Sunday morning.

The Depression hits home

In 1930 the family moved into a larger house at 55 Beelan Street. Julia’s sister Mary lived nearby. Two other brothers and another sister lived not too far away, and Ondrej’s brother Joseph also lived in the neighborhood. Between them and their families, little Andek (as his mother called him) grew up surrounded by relatives.

As the Great Depression took hold, the family (like many others in America at the time) suffered economically. Ondrej lost his job. Fortunately, unlike many men, he had managed to save several thousand dollars from his earnings during the 1920s. Now he had to rely on those savings to feed his family, but at least he had them: on January 16, 1931, relief organizations in Pittsburgh noted that 47,750 people were at starvation level in the city.[7]

Nevertheless, they were forced to move again, into a two-room apartment on Moultrie Street, where all three boys had to sleep in the same bed. The crowded conditions probably contributed to tensions between Paul and John, who often fought each other. Julia began working part time, cleaning houses and windows. She also made flower sculptures out of tin cans. Paul sold newspapers on streetcars for nickels and dimes.

When Andy was four years old, his father regained his job with the Eichleay Corporation and was once again called away frequently on jobs, leaving Paul, then ten years old, as head of the household. He was having his own problems at school. He hadn’t been able to speak English when he started first grade, and as a result he hated public speaking, a problem which became worse when he developed a speech impediment. He began to skip school, and he began to take out some of his frustrations by disciplining his little brother.

He apparently needed some discipline, though his big brother probably wasn’t the best person to administer it. “You could see he was picking up things much better than we had, but he was mischieful[EW1]  between the ages of three to six,” Paul said later. Andy was picking up bad language from kids in the street and using it around his relatives. “The more you smacked him, the more he said it, the worse he got.”[8]

In September of 1932, when Andy has just turned four, Paul decided he should be registered for school. But the first day went badly—a girl slapped him, and of course he was two years younger than any of the other students—and Julia told Paul not to force him to go back. For the next two years, while Paul and John were in school, Andy was alone with his mother.

Julia was very creative herself. Not only did she draw pictures (her favorite subjects were angels and cats), she also loved embroidery—fabrics she’d embroidered decorated their home—and enjoyed making beautifully decorated Easter eggs.[9] When she was alone with Andy, she would draw pictures with him: portraits of each other, sometimes, or pictures of the cat.


New neighborhood, new friends

In early 1934 the Warhola family moved again, this time into a house at 3252 Dawson Street in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Ondrej paid $3,200 for the two-story brick house, which was much nicer than anything else the family had lived in up to that point. Andy would live there until he moved to New York fifteen years later. He and John shared a bedroom; Paul converted the attic into a third bedroom for himself. There were lots of boys around, playing horseshoes, softball or baseball, going swimming in Schenley Park, playing craps. But, remembers a neighbor, “Andy was so intelligent, he was more or less in a world all of his own, he kept to himself like a loner.”[10]

When Andy did play with other children, he usually preferred to play with girls. His first best friend at Holmes Elementary School, located just half a block from the Warholas’ new house, was a little Ukrainian girl named Margie Girman. They’d go to the movies together on Saturday mornings. At the theater, for just eleven cents, children got an ice-cream bar, a double feature, and a signed eight-by-ten glossy photograph of one of the stars. Andy collected them and soon had a whole box of them.

When Julia would take her children to visit her family in Lyndora, Pennsylvania, Andy’s best friend was Lillian “Kiki” Lanchester. When they went to visit Julia’s sister Mary, Andy’s best friend was his cousin Justina, nicknamed Tinka. She was four years older than Andy and more like a big sister than anything else.

Even though Andy had only been at Soho Elementary in their old neighborhood for one day when he was four, he was credited with having completed the first grade there, and so went straight into Grade 2 at Holmes Elementary, at the age of six. Even then, his teacher Catherine Metz remembered later, “he was real good at drawing.”[11]

Andy liked school and did well in it—and all the time he was drawing. Julia encouraged him, even buying a movie projector (without her husband’s knowledge) so he could watch black-and-white silent cartoons, which inspired him to draw even more.

Andy had a number of health problems as he grew up. When he was two, his eyes would swell up and had to be washed with boric acid every day. When he was four he broke his arm—the arm he would eventually paint with—after tripping over the streetcar tracks. Nobody realized it was broken until it had healed crooked: the doctors had to re-break it so it could heal straight. When he was six he had scarlet fever. When he was seven he had his tonsils removed.

And then, in the autumn of 1936 when he was eight years old, he came down with rheumatic fever.


Eight weeks in bed

Rheumatic fever is less common in the United States than it used to be, although outbreaks are still common in the developing world. It’s a complication of strep throat in which the bacteria that cause strep move into the rest of the body, producing inflammation that can include damage to the heart, joints, skin—and brain.[12]

If the brain is affected, the inflammation can cause loss of coordination and uncontrolled movement of the limbs and face. Technically this is called chorea, but a more common name for it is St. Vitus’s dance. In the 1930s doctors weren’t sure what caused it, but they did know that it usually disappeared on its own within weeks or months.

Teachers at Holmes Elementary had already discovered Andy’s artistic talent, but now he found when he tried to draw on the blackboard his hand would begin to shake. He had trouble writing his name or tying his shoes. The other kids laughed at him and began to pick on him and beat him up. Suddenly school became a terrifying place.

His family didn’t notice the symptoms at first, but once he started having trouble talking or sitting still and began fumbling things. they finally called the doctor. He ordered Andy to stay in bed for a month.

Andy loved it. He had his mother all to himself, and didn’t have to deal with the bullies at school or his brothers or father. His mother gave him movie magazines and comic books and coloring books and moved the radio into the dining room, where his bed had been placed. Once his hands stopped shaking, Andy spent hours coloring, making collages with cut-up magazines and playing with paper dolls.

After four weeks he was supposed to go back to school, but he suffered a relapse and had to go back to bed for another four weeks. After the second four weeks, he’d developed one of the other possible complications of rheumatic fever: large reddish-brown patches on his skin.

In addition to blotches, rheumatic fever can cause lumps or nodules to appear beneath normal-appearing skin. Bad skin would plague Andy for the rest of his life.

Those eight weeks in bed proved to be important to Andy Warhol’s eventual development as an artist. In the movie magazines and through the radio, he immersed himself in a rich fantasy world, one filled with celebrities and centered on the two centers of American popular culture: Hollywood and New York. His most prized possession for years was a personalized signed photograph of Shirley Temple. He went so far as to emulate many of the child actress’s gestures, carrying them on into adult life. His fascination with celebrities would be a driving force for much of his career.

Those eight weeks also contributed a great deal to the development of his personality. Back in school, the bullying slacked off. Andy was now seen as slightly eccentric and somewhat frail. His brothers began standing up for him more. He played on all of that to his benefit.

Many years later, Warhol wrote, “I learned when I was little that whenever I got aggressive and tried to tell someone what to do nothing happened—I just couldn’t carry it off. I learned that you actually have more power when you shut up, because at least some people will start to maybe doubt themselves.”[13]

Or as Victor Bockris puts it, “His two-sided character began to emerge. While continuing to be as sweet and humble as ever with his girlfriends, he began on occasion to act like an arrogant little prince at home.”12[14]

That home was soon to undergo another major upheaval, with the death of Andy’s father.


[1] Bockris, Victor. Warhol. (New York: Da Capo Press, 1997). p. 149.

[2]  “The Slice-of Cake School.” Time Magazine, Friday, May 11, 1962. <,9171,939397,00.html>. (November 5, 2008).

[3] Kaplan, Justin, ed. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 16th Ed. (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1992), p. 758.

[4] Vogel, Carol. “Modern Acquires 2 Icons Of Pop Art.” The New York Times, October 10, 1996.



[5] Bockris, Victor. Warhol. (New York: Da Capo Press, 1997), p. 15.

[6] Guiles, Fred Lawrence. Loner at the Ball: The Life of Andy Warhol. (New York: Bantam Press, 1989), p. 12.

[7] “Chronology by Year: 1931.” Historic Pittsburgh. <> (June 4, 2009).

[8] Bockris, p. 24.

[9] “Julia Warhola – Andy Warhol’s Mother.” The Andy Warhol Family Album. <> (November 5, 2008).

[10] Bockris, p. 33.

[11] Ibid, p. 35.

[12] “Rheumatic Fever.” Mayo <>. (November 6, 2008.)

[13] Hackett, Pat and Warhol, Andy. POPism: The Warhol Sixties. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.)

[14] Bockris, p. 41.


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