All words by Jeff Jetton
All photos by Shauna Alexander
For four decades, filmmaker and producer Vincent Fremont has been a part of the inner circle surrounding Andy Warhol’s life and legacy. He’s one of the main keeper’s of the knowledge surrounding Andy’s lore and legacy. He spent many years as Andy’s Videographer as well as V.P. of Business Operations for the Warhol Factory after working his way up from sweeping floors as an assistant. We caught up with Vincent ahead of the WARHOL: HEADLINES opening at the National Gallery of Art for a conversation about Warhol and his Factory…
BYT: You’ll have to forgive me, I just found out who Andy Warhol is, today. I did a little research. So tell me a little about your involvement, when you started with Andy Warhol and how that arose.
Vincent Fremont: I’ve told that story so many times. Which version do you want to hear?
BYT: The one filled with exaggerations and untruths.
VF: Nah, I only speak the truth. I’m one of the last people that try to keep the facts straight. I came to New York with two friends from high school for Woodstock, we lived in San Diego. We had hair down to here (gestures to shoulder); we looked like a rock and roll band. We were called The Babies. We actually came with a manager. We drove across country with him but he couldn’t handle New York, that all disintegrated in a matter of three days at Chelsea Hotel. My friends had met Andy six months before New York, we went up to Andy’s studio at 33 Union Square West, brought some Mexican theatrical masks. And this is about a year after the attempted assassination by Valerie Solanas. There wasn’t a lot of security.
BYT: Wasn’t security tight after his assassination attempt?
VF: Not really, security wasn’t all that tight then. His attempted assassination was in ’68, I met him in ’69. I ended up staying the whole afternoon with him, my friends had left. And I didn’t realize that I would be working with him for the rest of his life and beyond.
BYT: You’d think he would have gotten the Hell’s Angels to do security for him…
VF: I mean we never had security. We thought about putting in a bulletproof door of the elevator.
BYT: Wasn’t he more reserved or even paranoid after the shooting?
VF: Well I didn’t know him before, so my perspective of him is skewed. I was a big fan of him, I couldn’t believe it. My father was an artist in LA. I didn’t start working full time until January 1971. I had to go back to California, get out of the draft. Vietnam, don’t forget that was still going on. So it took me a year to get back to New York because I didn’t have any money, but then I reconnected with Andy and started working for him full time.
BYT: So did you cut your hair?
VF: Slowly but surely, yeah. It started one way, and Andy kept asking me to cut it shorter. Pretty soon I had a Trotskyite haircut.
BYT: Andy didn’t like the longhairs?
VF: Not really. I was never a hippie; I just had the long hair. The factory was a whole different mood. Fred Hughes, very good friend and business man, he was into English tailoring. He was the clotheshorse that we all emulated. So he started the dress code of a jacket and tie and shirt. You could wear jeans, but people weren’t wearing them with suit jackets back then. I think Andy tried to respond to that ubiquitous look; I use it to this day.
BYT: So was it a slow progression, you didn’t all just hop right in?
VF: No, because I kept giant pictures of me and Andy in the office where Pat Hackett was working, I have a fisheye photograph of myself with my hair about here; I have a comb in my pocket. And I was really skinny. Because I met Andy when I wasn’t quite 19.
BYT: What do you think Andy’s hair would be like today?
VF: Hard to say. If you look at the last TV shows we did, his wig was pretty long and kind of big. But it morphed and changed. When he became a male model in 1980 he started cutting the wig shorter, lost weight, people thought he was sick. People would say ‘Is Andy sick, he’s lost weight?’ and I’d say ‘No, he’s a male model’.
BYT: So you don’t think he would have tried to do the braids thing like Axl Rose does?
VF: Are you mad? (Laughs) No. Don’t forget, the way he dressed and looked was part of his artwork. He was basically wearing Stephen Strauss, mixed with mainly Brooks Brothers cotton turtlenecks, jeans, jacket, white tennis shoes, I don’t know who made them.
BYT: Was the Factory political at all? It seems like it existed in a pop culture bubble.
VF: Politicians came to visit. But no, Andy was open to everything. We went to the Iranian embassy people with other people from Hollywood, including Elizabeth Taylor. He came to Washington; we had dinner with Imelda Marcos and he wanted to do her portrait. He was interested in people, power, money.
BYT: But not the actual causes and politics?
VF: He was a Democrat.
BYT: Did he ever vote?
VF: Probably not. I never thought to ask.
BYT: What did you guys eat at your lunches?
VF: They would always have takeout from Balducci’s on the back table. At our lunches, we’d have the same food every time. People started to complain after a while. We would get it pre-prepared from there, on 6th Avenue.
BYT: Oh, we have Balducci’s here.
VF: It’s not the same anymore, they split off.
BYT: Was it expensive?
VF: Yeah. The family that owns it moved it, but it’s the original. Tables are Roman, chairs are Roman.
BYT: You think he would have done things with the internet?
VF: I think he would have been fascinated with the internet right from the beginning. Sort of like photography, instant access gratification would have been a dream. He moved very quickly. The Amiga computer, he practiced for about two weeks with a technician when he did Debbie Harry’s portrait. He actually did a good job in promoting that computer. If he had a cell phone, he would have been into that.
BYT: Like ICANHASCHEEZBURGER? Do you think he would have been into LOLcats?
VF: What’s LOLcats?
BYT: Those pictures of cats that people write the weird captions on?
VF: Never seen it. People love to speculate what he would have done. But he was extremely nonconventional; he was always full of surprises.
BYT: That segues into my next question: would Andy have voted for Mitt Romney?
VF: He probably would have invited him to lunch, but that doesn’t mean anything. I mean, Reagan was on the cover of Interview magazine and everyone thought Andy became a Republican. That was my good friend Bob, the editor, who became friends with Reagan. But Andy wasn’t against it.
BYT: I’ve heard the term ‘bellwether of the art market’ thrown around?
VF: Well that term started soon after his death. When he was alive, his prices were actually terrible. You could buy wonderful things for next to nothing and then all of a sudden his death hits and he becomes the bellweather. What was it two years ago when the first wave of the recession hit and Sotheby’s put up a Warhol painting, the whole market jumped. After that, the whole sale did better of all the artists.
BYT: So you’re saying the best thing that Shepard Fairey can do for Shepard Fairey is to die?
VF: You said that (laughs). Shepard Fairey’s got a long life and career ahead of him.
BYT: What was Andy’s relationship with Campbell’s, the soup company? Was he getting a cut of the sales? The product placement was genius!
VF: No, they first tried to sue Andy. But I’ve seen photos of Andy with the Campbell’s soup executives. I think they finally realized that the publicity was great. They jumped on the bandwagon. And Andy understood sales. In Interview magazine, there would be a blurb about what clothes everyone was wearing, and that was to attract advertisers. Campbell’s soup can is the epitome of America, it’s one of those things like the dollar bill. He ate it every day as a child. He picked things that were very identifiably American. He really embraced the American culture.
BYT: Do you ever eat the soup?
VF: Too salty.
BYT: Low sodium chunky?
VF: I think they tried it and no one liked it, so they put the salt back in…
BYT: Do you ever find Nico’s voice to be completely unlistenable?
VF: Yeah (laughs). She used to stay Paul Morrissey’s house, I lived with her. A bunch of us lived there on East 6th Street. This was after The Velvet Underground; she would sing the most depressing songs on Sunday morning you would ever hear. Nico was a very dark person; her early life was very traumatic. I got to know her fairly well. But, unfortunately, heroin destroyed her. She went on methadone. Andy was brilliant to put her on stage with The Velvet Underground. I don’t know how Lou Reed felt about that, but it was something that was really beautiful. I had a crush on her in high school…
BYT: What did you start out doing at The Factory?
VF: I started working full days for 65 dollars a week. Basically answering phones, sending messages, sweeping the floors. I started from the bottom doing the basics. Paint walls. The bottom of the heap.
BYT: Accounts receivable?
BYT: It seems like an apprenticeship almost.
VF: Yeah. And the more he trusted you, the more work he gave you. I was Vice President of the Corporation by 1974. I was Vice President of Interview Magazine.
BYT: Did you do a lot of interviews when you were with Interview magazine?
VF: I had a TV column, yeah I did a few. Not a lot. I did one of the first endorsements of Pioneer electronics. As time went on, I got less involved. My focus was on the television aspect. He didn’t want anything on cable. We waited until we knew the business from the bottom up. We worked on a tiny, tiny budget.
BYT: Did you guys watch any sports?
VF: Andy actually was always went to more sports places than I can remember. He was always invited to the Knicks, we went down to Belmont for the races. He went to hockey games and stuff, although not very often. He was fascinated, once again, with every aspect of culture. He’d go through the entire Times.
BYT: Out of a purely spectator interest of pop culture, not being a fan?
VF: He thought they were really handsome. He liked young people, creative people. But if you were a beauty whether it be in the arts, or sports, he wanted to be photographed with you, get an autograph, something. He was very, very shy, but he would always ask for autographs.
BYT: Did he ever date any athletes?
VF: His boyfriend, Jed Johnson,was very handsome. He lived with him from ’68 until ’80; he was very athletic but not an athlete professionally.
BYT: Were there a lot of hangers-on at the time you came in?
VF: Quite a lot.
BYT: Did you sweep them out, too?
VF: Well, Paul Morrissey was the manager. And there were a lot of contenders who thought they could do things for Andy. We had two sets: old hangers-on, which you got rid of, and then the drag queens, who were okay. They wanted to be in Andy’s movies and all of that. The silver fans, they never quite made i,t but Andy liked having them around. But those who pretended to be working for Andy, we got rid of those by ’72, ’73.
BYT: Do you own any Warhol stuff?
VF: Of course. When he gave them to me, people didn’t care. I did. I have a collection of small paintings, larger ones. I’ve sold some when I’ve needed to. When Andy gave people art, he knew that eventually they may have to sell it for something. So people call me up to this day, asking if it’s okay to sell something Andy gave them. And I say its okay, he meant for that to be saved for a rainy day.
BYT: Who did you prefer, short-haired Andy or long-haired Andy?
VF: He had wigs for the day, for the night. I liked them all. He tried to focus Andy into the European art world; we had more shows in Europe. (?) Leo didn’t understand Andy as much as the other art; he was kind of his own gallery.
BYT: What do you think about Kanye West being the black Andy Warhol?
VF: I have never heard that, that’s interesting.
BYT: Was Andy a foodie?
VF: That term was never really used. Andy liked clean food. He didn’t like anybody touching his food. He was germ0phobic. If we had a box of tuna sandwiches or brownies, he had to be the first to open it. People got too intense, scared him a bit. He did like well-cooked food.
BYT: Was there a cafeteria at the Factory?
VF: No, but we had a restaurant in Gramercy Park that kind of became our canteen. We took people there for lunch and dinner. Uptown it would be (?) Downtown where his studio was, we had lunch with people for interviews, celebrity star types, writers. That’s how you organize a great party- you don’t have everyone from the fashion or art world, you bring different kinds of people together.
BYT: Did you guys travel a lot outside of New York?
VF: I didn’t, but Andy had to travel a lot. At the end of his life, he was wary of traveling; he wanted to go to the closing of one of his shows as opposed to the opening. People were asking the same questions, getting the same answers, etc. But he did travel quite a bit. He was quintessentially Mr. New York. He was a vacuum- he was very accessible.
BYT: Has anyone since filled that vacuum or carried that torch?
VF: Well there are a lot of great and talented people out there. For me, there hasn’t been one. There’s new people who will have their own style.
BYT: Like Paris Hilton. No, I’m just kidding.
VF: Well we probably would have had her over for lunch. The whole thing about the paparazzi, Andy saw that coming a million years before. everyone else. The main paparazzi of the 70s had to stay 100 feet away, but he let him come to the openings. Why not? He had his camera, he was taking photos of everybody.
BYT: What do you think about this paparazzi culture we have now?
VF: I think if I were a celebrity, I would want to shoot myself sometimes. You are famous, but at the same time it’s more intrusive than it used to be. I’ve been with very famous people in the 70’s and it was fine. People would notice, but they wouldn’t chase you down or hide in the bushes. I mean, we had Truman Capote, The Rolling Stones. You could walk into a bar in Montauk with Mick, Andy, order a drink, it took him about 20 minutes to figure it out. People were cool about it.
BYT: So it’s always been there.
VF: Yeah. But now with the immediacy of technology- everybody has cellphones, everyone’s taking videos. It’s a whole new world. I think Andy would have understood it, would have embraced it. Even though we thought it was fast then, it’s hyper now. Andy wasn’t a malicious person. He loved gossip but was very loyal to his friends. He was very shy- but he listened. It was extraordinary. People often thought they had to perform to him, they had to be really crazy and wacky when he came to visit. Andy was an energy center, he was a hub. He brought so many people from many different walks of life. If you were on TV two nights before, you would maybe have lunch with Andy. He loved creative people, he loved fame. He didn’t think he was all about fame. He was more than a pop artist, he was a conceptual artist, he became a producer of television, he had his magazine, he wanted to do it all. And he broke barriers for others to follow. He had drive… and timing.