Playwright Robert Heide presented his plays at Caffe Cino and elsewhere downtown, where he eventually met Andy Warhol, who enlisted him to write dialogue for his films (footage Warhol shot of Heide’s Caffe Cino play The Bed was incorporated in The Chelsea Girls).
Robert Heide met playwright Edward Albee at Lenny’s Hideaway, and the two eventually became close. “Edward and I would take long walks,” he said. “We would say nothing. Later he told me that there were characters running around in his head that he was thinking about. We would drink at Lenny’s Hideaway ’til four in the morning, then maybe we’d go back to his place, like in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Wandering around downtown late at night, the couple sometimes stopped by Bigelow Drugs on Sixth Avenue, between West Eighth and Ninth Streets, to have a black-and-white ice cream soda with seltzer. The streets were much quieter in Greenwich Village, compared to the bustle of today, and it felt as though everyone knew each other. “You would run into people that you knew,” Heide recalled. “I’d run into Sam Shepard at a coffee shop. You could have a hamburger and apple pie and coffee for ninety-five cents. You have to remember, everybody’s rent was low, like that song ‘Bleecker Street,’ by Simon and Garfunkel, that goes, ‘Thirty dollars pays your rent on Bleecker Street.’ Ha! Thirty dollars!” Even though they lived in a big city, it felt like a small town. This self-contained metropolis even had its own directory, Greenwich Village Blue Book, which was published from 1961 to 1968 and contained listings for stores, doctors, churches, theaters, and other establishments in the area.
From Chapter 1 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Playwright Robert Heide first met Koutoukas around 1959, when both young men followed bohemian paths that had been blazed by the Beats. “I met up with Harry several times on MacDougal Street, in the coffee shops,” Heide said, “where he would be carrying a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and I would as well. So we began talking existentialism.” When he first crossed paths with Koutoukas, Heide thought he was a lesbian with a 1950s-style DA haircut. They’d congregate at Lenny’s Hideaway, a Greenwich Village cellar gay bar that was an important node in the downtown’s overlapping social networks.
Andy Warhol circulated among the artists, poets, theater people, and gay crowds that populated Greenwich Village bars such as Lenny’s Hideaway, the San Remo, and the White Horse—which were central nodes in social networks that connected artists who worked in different mediums. Playwright Robert Heide first encountered Warhol around 1960 at a place named Aldo’s on Bleecker Street, a relatively upscale gay restaurant with white table cloths. “That’s where I met Andy,” Heide said, “but I didn’t really connect with Andy until a little later, though I would see Andy now and then in different situations.” In the late 1950s, Heide began coming to the Village from his parents’ house in New Jersey, hanging out in the Gaslight on MacDougal Street and other coffeehouses. Before it became known for hosting Bob Dylan performances in the early 1960s, the Gaslight was a haven for Beat writers. “One night there was Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Jack Micheline, Ted Joans, Taylor Mead—all these people,” he recalled. “So I was the middle of this crazy scene.” Heide permanently settled in Greenwich Village, and by 1965 he began working with Warhol on screenplays for some of his early films.
From Chapter 3 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Bibbe Hansen found a home at the Factory, along with two of her favorite Lower East Side neighbors. “There was nobody in the world who was ever handsomer to my way of thinking than Freddie Herko,” she said. “Billy Name did lights at Judson Church, but he was also this guy who lived a block and a half away, and Freddie was sometimes there. And at the same time, my mother’s an amphetamine addict, and she’s running with the whole A-Head scene on the Lower East Side, which is a particularly demented group of folks.” The Factory began as a private world occupied mostly by Name, Gerard Malanga, and Andy Warhol—a place to get work done, an artistic factory with a seemingly passive Warhol at the center. “I think Andy was very into a kind of dumb Marilyn Monroe thing,” Robert Heide observed. “He wore the wig, and it was almost like the wig is holding in his brain somehow. Sometimes you’d see the little black wire—he didn’t bother to cover it up too much.”
Through these social scenes, Playwright Robert Heide got to know some Andy Warhol associates, like Billy Name (born William Linich). “I immediately was attracted to Billy,” Heide said. “He had a terrific aura, and was very good-looking, wearing tight black dungarees and a white shirt. So we carried on.” Billy ended up living at Warhol’s Factory studio, working as its unofficial custodian when it opened in 1964 until the end of the decade. Before meeting Warhol, he was already embedded in a variety of downtown scenes: experimental dance, Off-Off-Broadway, and the subterranean world of the Mole People, a group of gay speed fiends also known as A-heads (A as in amphetamine). Name learned lighting design in underground theater and apprenticed under Nick Cernovich, who was part of the Black Mountain College group that also included John Cage (dozens of experimental artists passed through that influential North Carolina school). Billy lit shows at Judson Church and the Living Theatre, as well as the New York Poets Theatre, and his Lower East Side apartment was filled with shiny aluminum foil and other metallic surfaces that he carefully lit to create a degenerate space-age look. The interior of his apartment can be seen in Warhol’s 1963 silent film series, Haircut, which features Billy giving poet John Daley a haircut as James Waring and Freddie Herko watched. “Andy didn’t just see a guy’s place and think, ‘That’s really cool—he’s got foil all over the place,’ ” Name recalled. “He saw that I had done an installation.” Warhol asked his new employee to decorate the studio, and during the first three months of 1964 Name transformed a rather dour workspace into the embodiment of a “living art form” by covering its walls and ceiling in foil, bits of broken glass, and silver Krylon spray paint.
Along with Lenny’s Hideaway on West Tenth Street and Seventh Avenue, the San Remo was another regular stop on the downtown circuit—a traditional village tavern with pressed-tin ceilings and wooden walls that was further south, on MacDougal Street and Bleecker. There, playwrights Harry Koutoukas and Tom Eyen rubbed shoulders with eccentric characters like Ian Orlando MacBeth, who spoke in iambic pentameter, dressed in Shakespearean garb, and sometimes wore a live parrot on his shoulder. (He also dyed his beard pink.) MacBeth and others favored a drink called the Clinker, a powerful apricot brandy concoction served in a brass cup. “People would wind up on the floor drinking these things,” Robert Heide recalled. “They were really powerful.” Koutoukas appropriated MacBeth’s affectation and began wearing a stuffed parrot on his own shoulder. The bird perched on his black cape was as much tongue in cheek as it was a genuine attempt to cultivate himself as a memorable Village character. “Harry created this persona with his colorful clothing and dramatic flourishes,” Heide recalled, “and Andy Warhol as well. Andy created a whole persona that was kind of the opposite of Harry’s: affectless.” Whereas Koutoukas dramatically waltzed into the San Remo—with a cigarette held high, wearing his cape and stuffed parrot—Warhol was more likely to be barely seen and not heard, quietly sitting at a table, observing.
The Cino and other Off-Off-Broadway venues carved out a place for gay men to explore ways of acting out openly queer identities, which eventually reshaped mainstream American culture. “Homosexuality,” Michael Smith noted, “was unmentionable at the time.” Robert Heide learned this lesson in 1961 when he wrote a play, West of the Moon, in which two men stood in a Christopher Street doorway seeking shelter from the rain. As the play unfolds, an older hustler takes advantage of a naive preacher’s son who had just arrived in town. Establishment critics were repulsed, and a Theatre Arts Magazine reviewer said Heide “should break his typewriter over his hands.” But Joe Cino liked it, and told Heide in his own eccentric way, “I want you to write a play just like West of the Moon, for two blond Nazi men.” The Bed featured two very attractive men in an existential time warp, drinking and drugging for three days. Joe Cino had no second thoughts about staging a show about two men in a bed, unlike Broadway producers of the time. “The Cino was very relaxed about people being gay,” Smith said. “So it was no big deal there and no one judged you that way. It was an outsider place because these people had no other place to show their work. There were a lot of gay plays there early on, like Lanford Wilson’s The Madness of Lady Bright.” That show was a heartbreaking little masterpiece, a Valentine to loneliness featuring an openly gay main character—the first of many written by Wilson, who developed into a major American playwright and eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, among many other honors.
From Chapter 9 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
By 1965, Edie Sedgwick had become the Factory’s newest superstar, though she soon began clashing with Ronald Tavel. Her first two nonspeaking roles were in Horse and Vinyl, followed by Poor Little Rich Girl, Kitchen, and several others. After she refused to play a role in what she called “Tavel’s perversities,” Andy turned to Robert Heide and asked, “Would you like to be the Factory playwright to replace Ronnie?” Sure, why not? he thought, since he was already hanging around the scene. During his brief stint as a Factory playwright, Heide wrote The Death of Lupe Vélez. The film’s title was shortened to Lupe, and it starred Sedgwick as Mexican actress Lupe Vélez, who commits suicide and comes back from the dead. “This was the last film that Edie made with Andy, because she couldn’t memorize lines,” Heide recalled, “so it was basically an improvisational Andy Warhol take on the script. And after that, Andy just wanted everybody to talk in front of the camera with no script.” Heide was likely hired because Warhol had seen The Bed at Caffe Cino several times, and he created a film version of the play. (When the playwright approached Warhol to give a blurb for its Cino run, he said, “Well, just say whatever you want, that’ll be fine.”) That footage of The Bed was incorporated into his multiscreen film The Chelsea Girls, an underground hit in 1966 that featured a new addition to the Factory’s stable of superstars: Nico, who joined the Velvet Underground the same year.
From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Bob Dylan also maintained his cool when he sat for his Screen Test portrait in late 1965 or early 1966—stone-faced in his dark sunglasses, scratching his nose and looking unfazed. When he got up to leave, the acerbic musician decided to help himself to Warhol’s silkscreen print of Elvis dressed as a cowboy: “I think I’ll just take this for payment, man.” Robert Heide recalled, “Andy’s face turned tomato-soup red, because Andy would promise people things, and he wouldn’t necessarily deliver. He wasn’t expecting Dylan to do that.” The friction between the two camps was partially rooted in the cult of authenticity that surrounded Dylan, a sensibility that clashed with Warhol’s unapologetic embrace of artifice and commercial culture. The musician’s involvement with Sedgwick (the likely subject of his songs “Just Like a Woman” and “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”) also exacerbated tensions. Dylan and his manager, Albert Grossman, hoped to turn Sedgwick into a film ingénue and encouraged her to break with Warhol, which she did. “If you get to the emotional truth of the thing, Andy and Edie loved each other,” Bibbe Hansen said. “Just like when two people are very, very fond of each other and something happens and people get in the way and they get riled up, the split is that much bigger.”
From Chapter 11 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Around the time Edie Sedgwick was splitting from Andy Warhol and sinking deeper into drug addiction, the artist asked Robert Heide to bring him to the spot where Freddie Herko killed himself on Cornelia Street. Andy was affectless as he asked Heide to point out exactly where he landed, then looked up at the window and thought aloud, “I wonder when Edie will commit suicide. I hope she lets us know so we could film it.” Bibbe Hansen acknowledged that Warhol’s comment sounds dreadful, if taken out of its context. “But that was Andy’s way of processing it,” she said. “Because to show emotion, none of that was acceptable for men in that age. I mean, cool was the number one thing. The whole post–World War II guy thing—it was emotionally kind of stalwart. It was a thing that was very prominent in the Village, a kind of game that the bohemians would play.” Playwright Robert Heide felt the specter of death surrounding Warhol, and there was always a feeling that something terrible could happen. “At a certain point, I didn’t hang out so much with Andy at the Factory,” Heide said. “I did feel a kind of danger. I couldn’t keep up with everybody else because I knew I would go out the window, so I was more careful about it. And at a certain point, I had gone as far as I could go.”
From Chapter 12 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Jackie Curtis loved the limelight and couldn’t have been happier than when Lou Reed immortalized her in “Walk on the Wild Side,” his best-known song: “Jackie is just speeding away,” Reed sang, “thought she was James Dean for a day.” (Friends and acquaintances tended to use both “she” and “he” pronouns when describing Curtis, which was fitting for someone who insisted, “I’m not a boy, not a girl, not a faggot, not a drag queen, not a transsexual—I’m just me, Jackie.”) “Sometimes he’d kind of have a James Dean style, but ragged,” playwright Robert Heide said of Curtis, “and other times Jackie would dress as Barbara Stanwyck. She would look really good in a red wig or that kind of thing.” Jackie wasn’t the kind of drag queen who tried to pass herself off as a woman and instead developed a sui generis style—as Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin learned when she would drop by Wagner’s apartment dressed either as a man or woman. “What Jackie did was more like performance art,” Melba LaRose said. “I never thought of him as a woman. He went back and forth so many times. When I met Jackie, he was a little boy with a shopping bag. He had bangs. He was very cute.” “That was the beginning of pansexuality, and David Bowie picked up on that,” said Tony Zanetta, who worked with the glam rock singer. “I find a lot of similarities between Jackie Curtis and David Bowie.” Noting that Jackie had the same DIY aesthetic as John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous, Zanetta added, “Jackie Curtis’s tattered clothes look was do-it-yourself, number one. Like at Warhol’s Factory, it was about how, if you wanted to be an artist, you just basically said you were. Like with punk, if you wanted to be a musician or you wanted to be in a band, well, you didn’t really have to learn how to play an instrument. So Jackie Curtis, the Ridiculous, and punk are all connected.”
From Chapter 17 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, and Holly Woodlawn weren’t clinically insane or homicidal, but they still contributed to the Factory’s edgy atmosphere. It was fueled by heavy drug use and hard living, which Warhol mined as grist for his movies Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), and Women in Revolt (1972), which featured this trashy trio. “He took advantage of them, and I didn’t really like that at all,” said Curtis’s friend Melba LaRose. “I always found Andy very cold, and with not much to say. And of course the people around him said all these witty things and then he’d get credit for it. Jackie and Candy were always very witty.” Their exhibitionism, which made for compelling cinema and great PR, stood in contrast to Warhol’s wordless, blank persona. “Jackie, Holly, and Candy had problems with Warhol because he didn’t really pay them,” said another friend, Bruce Eyster. Warhol did give them token money, but they still ended up marching over from Max’s Kansas City to the Factory to scream and beg for more money—something that underscored a genuine divide between Warhol and some of those he mixed with. Even though many vied to be in his social world, Warhol wasn’t revered or respected in the same way as Jack Smith, Harry Koutoukas, and other struggling downtown artists who prioritized art over money. “You wondered if some of the entourage people—Billy Name, Taylor Mead, and so forth—would jump out the window,” Robert Heide added. “They’d go back to their shabby little rooms because there was this double standard going on. I think ultimately that’s one of the reasons I think Andy got shot.”
From Chapter 18 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“There was always this sense that something could go terribly wrong at the Factory,” recalled Robert Heide, “like the time Dorothy Podber came up there and shot a stack of Marilyn Monroe silkscreens with a gun.” In the fall of 1964 she walked into the Factory with her Great Dane named Carmen Miranda, motioned to the Monroe silkscreens, and asked, “Can I shoot those?” Andy Warhol said yes—assuming that Podber was going to take a picture—but she instead pulled out a pistol and shot a hole through the canvases. On another occasion a young man came to the studio with a gun and played Russian roulette, fired some shots that missed, then left (a nonplussed Andy said nothing). George Harris III first visited the Factory after he met Warhol in the back room of Max’s Kansas City, but Harris misread the situation and thought it was a date. After he arrived Warhol sat passively while some of his male friends tortured the young man. While Harris begged them to stop, they extinguished cigarettes on his skin and roughed him up—refusing to let him leave and keeping him at the Factory all night. “So when Valerie shot Andy,” Heide said, “it was almost inevitable, because of the people that were surrounding him.”