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.