Saturday, December 6, 2008

Andy Warhol Didn't Sleep Here: The Utah Hoax

Here's how actor Allen Midgette got his 15 minutes of fame. He sat down for a drink at 2 a.m. in a Park Avenue bar.

The way Midgette remembers it, Paul Morrissey, assistant to Andy Warhol, was there with the famous artist's leather coat and a question.

"Do you want to go to Rochester University tomorrow as Andy?"

"And I said, 'No, why would I?' Well he said, 'You'll get 600 dollars.' And I said, 'Fine. When do I leave?'"

Midgette's long, strange trip eventually took him to Utah, the pages of Time Magazine, and into a Fresh Look on Life.

You can listen to our MP3 interview with Midgette here....

Midgette's acting career began in Italy, where he appeared in the first films of a young Bernardo Bertolucci.

Back in New York, a rising Andy Warhol, who had seen Bertolucci's "Before the Revolution" a reported 35 times, asked him to be one of his avant-garde film "Superstars."

Midgette said 'No.'

Warhol was the man who painted Campbell Soup cans and Coke bottles. Who silk-screened Marilyn, Elvis and Elizabeth.

And became king of Pop Art.

But Allen Midgette wasn't impressed.

"At that point in my life, I'll be honest with you, I was taking a lot of LSD and I was more interested in what was going on in my brain than making a movie,"
Midgette says, speaking from his home in New York State.

But then, he says, he was fired from his job in the service sector for, he says, not serving Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis a drink.

"I said, 'I'm not your waiter but I can get him for you.'"

He was fired that night.

And then he needed the money.

And he told Warhol 'yes.'

Midgette appeared in a number of Warhol films, though doesn't recall his Factory days with great fondness.

He did have a good time, he says, shooting a film inside the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Wearing nothing but a loincloth he climbed atop a large ancient Egyptian sphinx. He says he happened to be high on LSD at the time.

"It was really nice."

Back to Midgette's 15 minutes.

The American Program Bureau asked Andy Warhol to do a cross-country college lecture tour. Warhol reluctantly agreed.

But Paul Morrissey says when he told Warhol it was time to go on the tour, the artist became very upset.

"'No, no, no.' He started to shake," Morrissey says. "I can't do it." Warhol's former assistant-slash-manager spoke to us from his New York City apartment.

"Andy couldn't be direct with people. He couldn't look them in the eye and speak with them," Midgette explains.

"I think he was afraid of college students being too smart for him."

Morrissey says the ruse was Midgette's idea.

"Allen said, 'Why don't I go in your place?'"

And Warhol said, according to Morrissey, "That's a great idea."

"Give me your leather jacket," Midgette suggested, he says. "If you give me your leather jacket, I'll look like you."

Morrissey says he wasn't sure it was going to work, but agreed because he didn't want to walk away from the hefty appearance fees.

So Midgette whitened his hair and face and adopted a Warhol persona, and, accompanied by Morrissey, went on tour. And most believed the forged artist was authentic.

In Rochester he went to a cocktail party with an artist who had met Andy Warhol.

"He gave me this painting of Andy that really looked like Andy."

No one seemed to know the difference.

Morrissey says after one college event a young man, someone who'd been to Andy Warhol's studio, "The Factory," a few times and had met Warhol, came up to him.

Student: Andy was great.

Morrissey: Oh really?

Student: Yeah.

Morrissey: Didn't you notice anything?

Student: What are you talking about?

Morrissey: That's not really Andy.

"He didn't realize it," Morrissey says. "He couldn't believe that it wouldn't be."

October 1967, Midgette stepped off a plane at the Salt Lake City Airport. A gust of wind turned the talcum powder he put on his head to whiten his hair into a big puff of white smoke.

The students who came to drive him to the University of Utah didn't ask about his hair, but the makeup on his face. So Midgette told him he had a skin problem.

Joe Bauman, a Deseret News staff writer who was then editorial assistant at the student Daily Utah Chronicle and a Warhol fan, brought along his Mamiya twin lens reflex.

Joe Bauman, 1967 by Martha Blank

"I guess they saw my camera and they (Paul Morrissey) said emphatically he was a very shy person. He could not have any photos taken."

Bauman snuck one anyway.

In his hotel room, Midgette says he took a bath, smoked a joint and read the Book of Mormon.

Courtesy Manuscripts Division, University of Utah Libraries

Forty-five minutes late, he walked into a packed Union Ballroom, showed a half-hour film and, instead of giving the advertised lecture, offered a question-and-answer period and a blasé' attitude.

Audience member: What was your film about?

Midgette: I couldn't really describe it.

What role did he play in the production of his films, someone asked.

Midgette: I start them, I think.

Midgette said during his visit a student asked him how he'd describe underground film

"Black and white and very cheap."

"He said almost nothing, if I recall. I mean he was not answering questions," Bauman says. "It was a total bomb."

1967 issue of the Daily Utah Chronicle featuring the photo by Joe Bauman

"...There was something fishy about the event," artist Denis Phillips says, "and we weren't quite sure what it was."

At a dinner with staff and students, professors began asking Midgette very pointed questions about 'his' art. The guest of honor abruptly got up and left.

Midgette impersonated Warhol on four campuses around the country, before taking his money and flying back to Italy to act in movies.

Meanwhile, reporters at the Chronicle were making phone calls.

An art student sent a letter to the student newspaper saying 'Warhol' was not who he said he was.

Reporters compared Joe Bauman's photo and a picture of Warhol in the Village Voice. They were not the same person.

After several calls, student reporter Kay Israel finally reached Paul Morrissey and he admitted the artist was a fake.

"Andy Warhol thought that his substitute would be better for public consumption," he told Israel. "Like a person that was younger and better looking and better spoken..."

In a statement to the paper, Warhol himself said he sent a double "because I don't really have much to say, he was better than I am..."

The story, by Israel and Angelyn (Nelson) Hutchinson, hit the front page of the student newspaper, and then went national.

By then, Midgette says, he was on a "psychedelic ranch" in Baja, Mexico.

Warhol, the real one, offered to come "back" to the University of Utah, but officials there decided one Warhol was enough.

After the artist died in 1987, Midgette impersonated Warhol again, on the streets of New York City.

"It blew some people's minds."

Now he's writing a book called, appropriately, "I Was Andy Warhol."

The escapade seemed to fit the Andy Warhol image. Just as The Factory silk-screened coke bottles and Marilyn Monroes, so, too, could it reproduce Andy Warhol.

"...Fits right in with his ideas and concepts of art," Denis Phillips says. "In reality, why would he have to be there? Does it really make any difference?"

But Morrissey and Midgette say people read too much into it.

Morrissey says Andy Warhol had (undiagnosed) Aspberger's syndrome and autism (Aspberger's syndrome is considered a form of autism or very similar to it.) and was incapable of making speaking appearances and, he says, incapable of concocting the hoax.

"He needed someone to do everything."

He says people who suggest this was a calculated artistic statement "invent something to go with the facts rather than look at the facts...They superimpose some dopey journalistic interpretation about a bunch of junk."

"But nobody wants to write about what he (Warhol) was like. They want to believe it was great art and everything was art and blowing his nose was art."

Morrissey chuckles.

"Is that hard to believe?

Joe Bauman and Angelyn Hutchinson, formerly of the Daily Utah Chronicle, now work for the Deseret News. Denis Phillips is a local artist and co-owner of the Phillips Gallery. Thanks to the Manuscripts Division, University of Utah Libraries for use of their archived photographs. Thanks to Joe Bauman for the use of his covert snapshot of the counterfeit Andy Warhol and for keeping his ticket to the event.

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