Swimming Underground by Mary Woronov

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol Factory

Author: Mary Woronov

Type of Book:
Non-fiction, memoir

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: There is nothing particularly odd about Andy Warhol, but the majority of the people who made up the Factory are very interesting and quite strange. Add to this that Woronov’s prose is unusual (in a glorious way), and this book just had to be discussed here.

Availability: My copy was published by Journey Editions in 1995. Other editions are available, and you can get a copy here:

Comments: I read Ultra Violet’s Famous For 15 Minutes just after finishing Woronov’s book, and I think the comparison between the two made me understand that Woronov’s book was odd. Ultra Violet was a conventional woman drawn to unusual people, and her memoir, while interesting, makes it clear that her scene was far more interesting than she was. Though if I think about it, I should not be too hard on her – better than anyone else I have read, she seems to understand why Valerie Solanas just needed to shoot Warhol.

Woronov, however, outshines those around her in the Factory. She writes with an icy fire, a remarkable combination that seems to encapsulate who she was at the time (and may well still be – aside from knowing her work as the principal in Rock N’ Roll High School and the female lead in Eating Raoul, I know little about her beyond this book). Her tale is not just a perfect capture of a moment in history, but it is the odd tale of an odd woman with an odd mind. Oh, I have such a girl crush on Woronov now and intend to read everything she has written and see every movie she has been in.

Before I begin, I have to admit that I’m not a Warhol fan. I don’t condemn those who love him, but I find him tiresome. He was an amazing parasite who convinced his hosts that it was beneficial to them that he consume them and give little back. When they finally objected to him leeching them dry, he finished his hosts off and yet people find it easy to remember him fondly. Clearly he must have been very good at it because he attracted such a collection of genuinely talented people while making mass market prints of soup cans. Not to say the man was not a marketing genius but he was no artistic genius, though these days one is hard pressed to tell the difference between the two. In that regard he definitely was a visionary. But let it not go without saying that I am not a fan. I find the people he surrounded himself with infinitely more interesting than the man himself.

Woronov’s tale of her time in the Factory is a sharp slice of a tin-foil covered history. An intense woman, she seemed naively charmless, and that, of course, was her charm. She “whip danced” with Gerard Malanga, performing with the Velvet Underground in the early Warhol presentation called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Also, she was in the only movie Warhol made that does not make me fall into a boredom-rage-sleep, Chelsea Girls (though I have to admit I saw it so long ago that I don’t remember much except reacting in surprise that no one stabbed Brigid “Polk” Berlin). She paints a picture of herself as a cold, imperious young woman, sexually aloof even while engaging in provocative dancing with whips, under pulsing lights. But even as beautiful, aloof and talented as she was, she was not immune from the mercurial, nasty nature of Warhol.  In many ways, her story was probably the same story of many of the women involved in the Factory.

The book begins with a young Mary being saved from drowning. During a day at the beach, Mary and her mother swam out too far and hit a riptide. Mary was sure she was going to drown but her mother somehow saved the day. Back on the beach, drained from the experience, Mary has a surprising revelation:

I started shaking. I just couldn’t stop no matter how many blankets they gave me, but Mom, she was happy again, her body glistening white against the fallen night. It was like old times – people fussing over her, me feeling pathetic, worried over nothing. I hated it. Every time she looked back at me huddled in my blankets, that strange smile would curve her lips, her eyes would glitter again, and my gratitude at being alive shriveled. She knew what she was doing all along. She had done it before, swimming out too far, scaring people so they paid attention to her, and now letting me swim into a riptide so she could save me. I hated her.

This isn’t just angst. It’s foreshadowing. I seems a perfect encapsulation of the Warhol experience for many people.

Woronov’s brain is a crispy, knife-edged place and this is a very bestial, feral book.

There is Violet, my dog – my violent temper – the kind of thing you get a reputation for, and I must also confess to being the abused owner of a rage rat. This rodent is a voice in my head that never shuts up. I don’t know how I acquired it. I suppose it was given to me at an early age by some malicious adult, or perhaps every head comes equipped with one – you know, the “rodent included” plan. I’ve already packed these two in their traveling boxes; others are too prehistoric to catch, nobody would want to go into the black waters where they live. And there are also animals I don’t want to catch; rather I’m afraid of them catching me, like coyotes that carry insanity like a plague. I’m afraid they will find out where I’m going and follow me. Every time I find a new animal, like my party squirrel or my comedy crow, I give it a cage and a feeding schedule. And of course there are the rabbits – little habits that I’ve stuffed into every possible space in my suitcase – habits of speed, junk, pills, and any other poison I can get my hands on.

Either this passage grabbed you with both fists and shook you a bit and you need no explanation as to why I found this so amazing, or it meant nothing and any explanations would be meaningless.

But it fits in well with Mary’s opinion of herself:

“I wasn’t born with a father, I’m not really connected with men. I was a box baby, a preemie. I was born so early I had long prenatal hair everywhere and a spinal tumor that looked like a tail. Yeah, it was gruesome. I looked like a monkey. Every time the nurses rolled me in, my grandmother screamed at them to roll me back out, you know, like I was some kind of mistake. I think it kind of set the tone for the rest of my life.”

Uneasy around men, Mary found a strange comfort around “drag queens,” as they calmed the anger in her:

There was only one way to shut my rat up, and that was to be around something even more enraged. At first I thought this was impossible, but then I met my first drag queen. Rat relief at last. Finally someone angrier than I was, with a sense of humor about the whole thing. I felt calm, tranquil, as if I had found religion, and as long as I was around the queens even my rat assumed table manners, cracked jokes, let other people talk. Pretty soon I was a drag queen junkie.

Mary met her favorite drag queen, Celinas, at the Factory, when Celinas showed up with Brandy Alexander, and this tale, referencing beasts yet again, shows clearly the nastiness of the Factory if one was not careful (and actually, even if one were careful, one could end up savaged, but more on that later…):

…Brandy was her opposite, the obvious, overdone showgirl-type queen… Desperate was too exotic a description for her; let’s just say she was bugging everybody that day, waving her airbrushed 8x10s dangerously close to Warhol’s nose. The polite light went out, and Brandy became free bait; the tinfoil walls of the Factory flickered like silver water; the smaller surface fish – visitors and squares, scattered and knotted in excitement; and from out of the aluminum depths glided the larger fish – predators, attracted by the commotion. Billy Name, one the Great Whites, appeared and disappeared. Often his presence signaled the difference between light play and heavy, hardcore shit.

Generally the use of semicolons annoys the hell out of me, but perhaps I dislike the use of semicolons that announce themselves too loudly and destroy the flow of the sentence. I did not notice these semicolons until I typed it out, which means they did not interrupt my reading the first time around. That seldom happens.

The scene continues, with Gerard Malanga taunting Brandy with some transphobic shit and everyone was hoping he’d get the crap punched out of him, but Mary was focusing on Celinas, who stood stark still, likely terrified.

I didn’t know what she wanted, or why she had come with Brandy, but I did know the last thing she ever expected to get was me. I slid in close to her, mesmerized by the panicked rabbit jumping up and down in her jugular. Maybe you should sit down, here on this silver couch that, by the way, is just as dirty as the gutter. When she sat, she crossed her hands and ankles perfectly. Yes, yes, everything was in the classroom. We chatted, bonded, as Brandy flopped around on the silver concrete floor with the silver hook still in her bloody mouth. Both of us were excited. Celinas tried to climb into her purse, which was filled with dirty broken makeup, the true sign of a queen. I was thrilled she had let me look, even slip my hand into it for a moment.

There was no way for me to look at this passage as anything but Mary saving Celinas from a terrible trial by fire. But the scene continues:

I let her huddle near me, but when she tried to clutch my hand I had to recoil. I hated being touched by anything in the human-skin package.

Like I said, this is a bestial book, and is it surprising that human skin repelled Mary? I wonder how much of that remains with her.  Still, Mary, for all the animals in her and around her, has a very icy, distant persona. She reveals a teenage rejection that makes her believe that when she feels attraction, it is never reciprocated. Which is odd because she was a tall, gorgeous young woman, but when you have a rat in your head, I guess it isn’t that unusual.

Mary felt deep feelings for a Factory member called Ondine, but the feelings centered more around enthrallment than love. Here’s a scene where Mary and Celinas joined a dinner with Ondine and Andy Warhol:

So far I had only watched him from afar because, like everyone else, I found him intimidating, but now as his eyes looked at me I did not squirm as I had imagined, instead I felt released. I could detect no revulsion or hate as his eyes opened my darkest corners in a matter of seconds.

As I read on, it was probably a good thing that Mary kept herself so remote, at least initially. Ondine read like the sort of man who would wear a person out.

Then his attention returned to the crowd around him. While he spoke he changed their gaze into utter discomfort by putting a dinner napkin over his head like a kerchief. It made him look foolish and matronly. But no matter how humiliating he looked, it was his audience that felt embarrassed, and he seemed to enjoy this. I started to laugh, and he laughed too. Celinas and the others shifted in their seats, but his voice prevented anyone from leaving; it was like a tempest coming at you from all sides.

And it was vaguely disappointing learning what this voice that prevented people from leaving actually said.

“Those dogs out there – sniffing each other’s assholes. Oh please, the idea is even boring, darling, sniffing assholes is boring, and if you don’t know that I can’t help you. Then by all means tell them to come in here, hah, they wouldn’t dare. Celinas, dear, how are you? Ah, you’re mute, what an attribute. You’ll have to forgive me, I’m being mummified. Yes, mummified, but this – all this, and her. She makes me sick. No, I don’t mean you, you poor warped boil. Who could ever forget you – oh, if only I was humiliated, if only you could humiliate me, what a divine experience, but not by you, you’re boring, boring, my dear – yes, you heard me – I want an ambush, to be ambushed, but they don’t understand.”

I wonder if Ondine ever got humiliated before he died. I don’t think he really wanted such an experience – that shoot down wherein he declares his audience too boring to do it gives a little clue, I think.

Oh Mary, beautiful Mary. Her descent into drugs, into becoming one of the Mole People – this is when things begin to get out of hand for her, and she recreates this time, how quickly she sank, with startling clarity.

…there was only one way to go to Brooklyn; take the black subway under the river of forgetfulness. However, this time it did not work; I forgot nothing, and when I was home, I didn’t belong. I had changed. There were no outward signs, but I knew it. It was no longer them, it was us. Their rules were mine, their insanity my reality, and as for the rest of the world, it just didn’t matter. I was a Mole.

Mary discusses how her upper class family did not notice her drug addiction, though it seems like they may have known and just preferred not to speak of it. Her mother would find her on her knees before the open refrigerator, binge eating after the effects of days of speed revelry wore off, cramming whatever she could into her mouth. Noticing a cake in a box on the kitchen counter, Mary dug her hands into the chocolate icing as her mother blithely insists she stop, please stop, the cake is for dinner. During dinner, Mary can barely keep it together:

I held my head in my hands so it wouldn’t roll off into someone else’s plate as Mom and Dad joked about how they had to hide dessert from me because I once ate a whole cake and got sick. It never happened. I could easily eat two and a half cakes, that was what was really scaring them.

Mary would go home to recover, only to leave in a panic because she was terrified she would not be able to find the Moles again. And when she found them, it was a mind-bending recitation of listening to the Duchess (Bridget “Polk” Berlin) babbling about nothing, going to dinners where no one ate “unless someone else was buying” and endless unsettling behavior.

“Champagne! It’s show time!” Rene started screaming. For some reason my legs weren’t working, so holding onto the table, I prepared to do the Warhol watch as Andrea Whips climbed onto her table and the show began. Singing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” Andrea partially stripped and partially jerked off. It was okay, we’d seen it before.

Andrea began to masturbate with the champagne bottle, and her behavior drove away a Hollywood director and his actress friend, who exited Max’s Kansas City post haste.

Everyone cheered. I cheered. It was sort of fun except that Andrea was crazy, well, only slightly crazy; she was at the point where she could only talk to people’s reflections in the little hand mirror she carried around. What we didn’t know was that she would soon throw herself out of a window, leaving behind only a love note to Andy. She was the second in our group to defenestrate themselves. Freddie was the first, a frustrated ballerina; he had been high for so long he asked death to dance out a twelfth-story window. Andrea landed on her feet but that didn’t help; from the waist down she was hamburger meat, while the rest of her was strangely unmarked.

Clearly I am less arty than bookish, but is there any art movement with a larger body count than Warhol’s Factory? It would be interesting to do a study. I don’t recall where I read this, possibly in Ultra Violet’s book, but I know that shortly before she disappeared, Ingrid Superstar called Andy collect and he refused to take the call. His explanation was that if after all that time the best she could do was a collect call… Ingrid was brought into the Factory to torment Edie Sedgwick, to show her she could be replaced. Of course, Edie was driven off and years later died, and her replacement left to get cigarettes in the late 80s and never returned. But her value to Warhol was clearly explained – anyone who placed a collect call was not worth his time.

Mary’s caustic but probably very accurate recollections of her fellow denizens of the Factory made this book quite entertaining. Here’s a snippet from a scene where Warhol is badgering Mary to model like Nico and Ivy:

…all I ever saw Ivy do was take a dump behind the silver couch. This crazy woman wanted to marry Andy Warhol, which meant getting as close to him as she could or leaving a piece of herself with him. She definitely did not have all her oars in the water; if you asked me, she didn’t even know what an oar was. Sometimes Gerard would have to fend her off, or Billy would be called to throw her out of the Factory. Later, the elevator would return empty except for a single, lonely turd, and someone would snicker, “Andy, Ivy’s back.”

Mary’s wry and black humor shines through so well in this scene, where she and Ondine have just taken an epic amount of speed.

Ondine smiled as if he had just baked a cake. “Young love, my dear, isn’t it fabulous?”

I thought of the girl I had just seen, her head wedged between the toilet and the floor staring at the crucifix swaying above her like Poe’s pendulum, and I regretted we hadn’t taken the time to carpet the bathroom. “Ondine, can we get even higher?”

“Yes, I could get you higher. Have you ever heard Marie Callas sing Tosca? So high your blood would explode and splatter your brains all over your cranium – excruciating, you’d love it. But Wonton doesn’t have a record player, instead he has the fabulous Miss Marbles, the siren of despair.”

“Ondine, I have an apartment on St. Mark’s. I have a record player.”

Ondine pulled three worn albums to his chest and in a voice that was deathly serious, said, “If you do this for me you will be saving my life.”

Perhaps lives were saved but the scene ends thusly:

By the third day we were so exhausted that Ondine ended up in the bathtub trying to suck his own dick and I lay on my back with my neck on the bathroom threshold using the door frame as my imaginary guillotine (there comes a time when everyone needs their own guillotine). When I asked Ondine why he didn’t just get someone else to blow him, he practically had a fit. “You think this is about getting off? Getting off what? The planet? It’s impossible, I’ve tried! I am the last Oboroborus left in captivity. Perhaps I should introduce myself, the snake that swallows its own tail. This, my dear, is about resurrection, not sex. And if this were about sex, I don’t think I would be asking you. Everyone has forgotten the origin of the bathtub – baptism. I’m being born, you fool, now close the door.”

“He’s pregnant,” Jane whispered, “Ondine, can I get you some pickles and ice cream?”

“At last, someone who understands. Thank you Jane, that would be wonderful. Now, close the door, darling, I want to see Mary’s head roll.”

Actually, the scene really doesn’t end because scenes with speed freaks never really end. Jane, Mary’s roommate, thinks she catches pregnancy from Ondine and it goes on from there. Jane eventually cracks, as you do when you have a speeded up Mary for a roommate and her favorite person spends hours in your tub trying to blow himself. Mary vows to make sure her life does not harm Jane much in the future.

Mary’s sense of not being good enough plagues her often in this book, yet she has such an ability to see people so clearly (or maybe I think she sees people clearly because her opinions mesh with mine):

That night Andy was drawing noses, before and after nose jobs. When he asked me if I liked it, I didn’t answer. Why bother? I knew that stupid drawing would appear in its silkscreen mode later, worth a fortune. My nose would get out of joint when I thought of my own black and white drawings. Why were they so unloved? Because Mom left me alone in Macy’s department store? It was only for thirty minutes. Who knows, maybe it wasn’t long enough, maybe it should have been three hours in order to form the correct aberrant psyche for a really famous artist. Maybe Macy’s was really this big oven and she took me out too soon, and that was why I was only a half-baked artist. When I started thinking like this, I knew I was getting really high and I shouldn’t be alone, which is why I was standing in this bathroom watching Ondine shoot up in his eye.

That dark humor, that capacity for juxtaposing her relatively sane inner thoughts with her lunatic outer world is a gift, I think.

But even as Mary shows incredible black humor, her life had an huge capacity for what, in retrospect, has to seem like utter horror.  Here’s her take on Rotten Rita, the creator of one of the most horrific scenes:

Most people used only one word to describe Rita, and that word was evil. He was the dealer, and a lousy dealer at that. Trying to cop from Rita was a nightmare. His apartment was a bare room with several glaring sunlamps and one black chair that he would sit in, telling you to make yourself comfortable. In the dead of winter people would be sitting in there. If you didn’t have sunglasses it was hard to stay, but he would start insisting that before you scored you might like to watch his lover, Birdie, sit on a Coke bottle.

Rita maliciously shot up a woman called Ann, who overdosed. Rita suggested that she be shot up with milk to save her. Mary tries to get Ondine to understand that injecting milk into Ann’s veins will solve nothing but he is too far gone to listen to her. And Ann, of course, died. They laid her on a coffee table, as you do, declared that they had trapped death, then shot up to celebrate. Later they dumped Ann in the hallway in a scene that would have been funny in a Coen Brothers sort of way, but mostly horrible given that it really happened.

After a while, Mary’s addictions began to take their toll:

Do not imagine that I scampered around those velvet sewers completely unscathed. You cannot play with shit all night and come out looking like a boarding school virgin. No, no, no, you have some shit in your hair, and a little on your shoe, and soon you’re talking shit. Every time you open your mouth it just falls out. If you dug with the Mole People, somewhere, somehow, either their drugs, one of their thoughts, or just one of their little hairs got into your skin and burrowed deeper and deeper, quietly driving you insane. It was the law, nobody escaped, not even Andy.

It was during this time that Mary began to be stalked by Vera Cruz.

She was a fan. I can never tell you how much I loathed, despised, and prayed to God for this thing’s death. Looking back, I realize that it was my extraordinary hatred that brought her to the attention and later enjoyment of my perverse friends, but try as I might, I could not stop hating her. It was like trying to ignore a one-hundred-and-thirty-five pound tumor, and that was how close she wanted to be to me – me, who groaned at the thought of the hug and even considered the handshake a mild form of social torture. She wanted to be inside my very skull, a voracious boll weevil in my precious cotton brain. Nothing was close enough. If I put my hand out, she wanted to lick it. If I talked to her, she wanted to fuck me.

Vera Cruz was famous for having been born without a vagina, a problem she later had corrected with surgery in Arizona, and because she stalked Mary Woronov. Mary, according to this biography, actually tried to kill her by pushing her down onto the train tracks in the subway but she failed. Vera intruded into Mary’s life in many ways, up to and including collecting Mary’s urine from toilets. When the Warhol-es saw that Vera Cruz was a stick with which to beat Mary, they lunged for her like petty little lapdogs of war.

Andy couldn’t contain himself. “Oh Mary, Vera’s been telling us that this is your piss. You’ve been letting her collect it for some time now. Why didn’t you tell us? Gerard, why didn’t she tell us?

Gerard: “That’s disgusting, Andy. I don’t know.”

Paul: “Vera’s going to be in our next movie. We’re going to have her collecting everyone’s piss. That should be entertaining.”

Andy: “Yes, maybe you should do a sex scene with her, Mary.”

Vera: “A love scene.”

Paul: “No, no, Vera, that’s too ugly. Nobody wants to see that.”

Andy: “No, we can do that. Oh, Mary, where are you going? Don’t you want to do that? Where is she going, Gerard?”

Mary ceded the field to Vera, knowing too well that her friends wanted her to grovel, to fight. Eventually they missed her and Ondine came to reestablish friendship. When Mary hit bottom, Brigid Berlin took her to a country house and fed her omelets until she regained strength. However, when Mary failed to show the Duchess adequate pity when Rotten Rita screwed her in a drug deal, the Duchess got even by going to Mary’s apartment with a man called The Crocodile and giving Mary’s roommate Jane a ridiculous dose of drugs.

Mary could not survive in New York without splitting costs with Jane but she immediately got her on an airplane home and left the apartment. The essential triviality and relentless cruelty of the Factory denizens finally drove Mary away, but not in anger so much as clutching the idea that she simply could not compete with such nastiness.

Mary Woronov was one of the few members of the Factory who went on to have a career that did not center around Andy Warhol. Lou Reed and the members of the Velvet Underground come to mind as well. That thing that attracted Andy to Mary when she was still a Cornell co-ed was a spark that existed without him. And that spark fuels this biography, because even as Mary shows us how interesting it was to have been a part of that scene, she also shows us how very interesting she is. In this book, she is vastly more interesting than the people around her. And despite how much I have quoted from this book, there is still much more to be read. I highly recommend this book and intend to read everything else Mary Woronov has written. Fascinating book, fascinating time, fascinating woman.

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