Andy Warhol Returns to Pittsburgh

Illustrated by Stacy Innerst Andy Warhol Returns to Pittsburgh
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On an autumn evening in Pittsburgh 40 years ago, a larger than usual, fancier than typical, and more expensive than ever event was staged as an acquisition benefit for the Carnegie Museum of Art. On this special Saturday night, 250 formally dressed ladies and gentlemen entered the Heinz Galleries to find a simply decorated space featuring walls with empty picture frames punctuated by round tables draped in white bedsheets and dotted with boxes of Crayola crayons — all to ignite creativity and the desire of patrons to open their wallets.

The annual benefit topped Pittsburgh’s social calendar, and expectations were raised by the debut of the celebrated Mark Davis Band. Never mind that the cascading economy and industrial collapse were rendering Pittsburgh’s pecuniary sway largely impotent; the upper crust still dressed its ladies elegantly, and family markers were on display. The party would be a refuge from a condemning reality. All that was once proud could still be reclaimed: Pittsburgh could be grand again for one special night.

There’s no better way to arouse rich, old folks than to comp some socially apt young guys and gals with dancing legs to brighten the atmosphere. My date and I were among ten or twenty such young citizens chosen to supply youthful enthusiasm. Which we did. It was an unexpected occurrence, however, that made this a uniquely different evening for Pittsburgh’s select. And I found myself smack at the center of it.

Jim Walton, the superb President of the Carnegie Institute, had a nephew in New York City, a magical personality named James Curley. The son of America’s distinguished former Ambassador to Ireland, James’ charm and lineage made him a natural fixture in the exotic world circumscribed by Studio 54, The Factory, CBGB, Robert Mapplethorpe and the themed excesses of the times. He was also friend and lover to Andy Warhol. Andy had not returned to Pittsburgh since his graduation from Carnegie Tech 30 years before, so when James bragged to his uncle about their relationship, Jim Walton suggested that he bring him to Pittsburgh and this grand party at The Museum.

As the evening progressed, lively cocktails transitioned to the dinner hour as we escorted the patrons to their respective tables. It was then that a rolling quiet overtook the room. Andy Warhol entered guardedly, flanked by a beaming James Curley and Andy’s petulant manager, Fred Hughes. There was applause because no one, including Mr. Walton, expected the illustrious trio’s arrival, and places had not been saved for them. After some staff scrambling, space was made and Andy and James were seated at Director Leon Arkus’s table, the one next to mine. Hughes was relegated elsewhere.

Dinner was served and the party regained its rhythm. There was dancing, of course, but seldom was Andy out of the sightline of any guest. He was the prodigal son, artist and celebrity who had abandoned his parochial Pittsburgh roots and now returned to give face to this museum and this group of lucky people. Everyone was mesmerized and eyes were affixed on Andy’s energetic hands doing their own dancing, partnering crayons across one of the table bedsheets. What was he drawing? Subtle shuffles past the table were made hoping to witness his genius.

As it turned out, Andy was composing colorful caricatures, diminutive sketches of the people that caught his eye. And the one character that he seemed most interested in drawing was me. James Curley had introduced me to him earlier. Andy made a number of quick sketches of me that had one distinctive attribute. I had two fairly prominent blemishes, one on either cheek, which Andy determined were central to his caricature so he highlighted them with arrows pointing to my flawed complexion. There were other doodles and comments on that bedsheet as well, along with a famous half signature “Andy.” My focus was patently single-​minded. I wanted the sheet.

And then, like so many mysteries in life, an unpredictable event occurred making just that possible. Senator and Mrs. John Heinz were attending the party. As a first job, I had worked on Congressman Heinz’s senatorial campaign in 1976 and my first assignment was as driver for Mrs. Heinz. This was not an important role to be sure, but I did become very well acquainted with Mrs. Heinz and had earned her trust. In the closing moments of the benefit, she proposed an impromptu after-​party for Andy and James, also inviting a few of her friends to Rosemont Farm, their Fox Chapel residence. I knew the way and Mrs. Heinz asked me to bring them there. As the benefit was ending, this new cluster of special guests gathered around the Warhol table to prepare an exit for Rosemont Farm. Directed by Andy, I gathered up the bedsheet and we made our way out of the galleries whose picture frames would soon be filled by the generosity of the night’s revelers. Andy, James, Fred, my girlfriend and I headed for the garage and piled into my 1976 Honda Accord, a car not built for five, but the three gents in the back were well accustomed to propinquity. Although it was past midnight, the evening had scarcely begun.

I drove carefully. The boys were rowdy and there was much talk of Heinz pickles, condiments, the consequence of baked beans and such. My wife-​to-​be kept her eyes averted from any shenanigans in the back, and I concentrated on staying between the lines. At some point on Washington Boulevard, Andy produced a monumental black Magic Marker and drew, on the roof liner of my Honda, a substantial Heinz pickle replete with all its dimples. It didn’t seem an unreasonable act considering the circumstances. I wasn’t angry and my only request was direct and simple — please sign it. Andy did just that… seen from the southern hemisphere of the passenger compartment was a detailed two-​foot long Heinz pickle and its creator’s one-​foot autograph, “Andy Warhol.”

Rosemont Farm is beautiful, even after midnight in the pitch black. Along with a handful of Heinz friends in addition to our little caucus, we were entertained in a cozy roomful of overstuffed furniture. The conversation centered on Andy’s art and, given the audience, focused on his fascination for Heinz products with little mention of Campbell’s. Sadly, his own contributions were inconsequential and made only in response to direct questions. James Curley was the charming interlocutor. In truth, the evening was pretty solemn and particularly so given the car ride from Oakland to Fox Chapel. As it turned out, the gang in my car was anxious to get to the next stop of the evening. They had been invited to attend an even later after party at a well-​known, older gentleman’s historic home in Shadyside, celebrated for its bacchanalia. I got the high sign from James around 2 a.m. — it was time to go.

All five piled into the Honda and I drove to our next destination, the East End contemporary home that had been radically altered from its original stone edifice retaining only its historic two-​story library. I parked on the street and we moseyed up and tentatively rang the bell to the giant aluminum door, which, after some time, was opened by the gentleman himself, clad in an ankle-​length brocade dressing gown. Andy and he were clearly acquainted and big hugs were exchanged all around. In we went. The first sight was an indoor lap pool to the left of the foyer where a half dozen quite naked men were cheerfully splashing. It was soon apparent that my girlfriend was the only woman at this party, and she clung closely to me. It was now time for the two of us to go. I made sure that the Trio had a ride to wherever they were spending the night, bid them farewell, and we left in my forever-​changed Honda, along with the half-​autographed bedsheet.

Years passed. My girlfriend became my wife, and the late nights and intoxicating impressions of those earlier days gave way to a more measured time built around work, friends and life at home. It was time to swap the Honda for a family sedan. I went to the local Mazda dealer to buy a nice looking four-​door. Meantime, Andy had fallen considerably in reputation and the times that had created his currency just a few years before, now made him a pariah in many circles. AIDS was becoming epidemic and thousands were dying. Andy’s lifestyle, emblematic of the new sexual and identity freedom, was no longer acceptable. Few seemed to care, including me, about the Magic Marker drawing on the roof liner of my Honda.

The Mazda guy and I reached a deal for the trade and, somewhat predictably before we shook on it, the salesman said to me, “I’m gonna have to take $250 off the trade ‘cause the roof liner is messed up.” I took a deep breath and told this fellow the short version of my story. Unlike the usual car salesman, he was silent throughout and when I was done, he ran his hand through his hair and said, “Well, that’s the damnedest tale I’ve heard in 30 years of selling. I’ll tell you what, no deduction.”

That was the last I ever saw of my pickled and autographed Andy Warhol Honda.

Happily, I still have the bedsheet because Andy never asked for it. Maybe someday I’ll give it to the Museum. As for the Honda, be on the lookout.


Gordon Nelson

Gordon Nelson is a retired advertising executive living in Ligonier, Pa., in his words, “practicing to become a writer.”

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