Woronov and Warhol

Morphine’s Sister

Staying afloat in Andy Warhol’s world

Swimming Underground
by Mary Woronov
Boston: Journey Editions. 1995,
230 pp.; $19.95

Reviewed by Gretchen Giles

In the late 1960s, actress Mary Woronov was hanging out with Andy Warhol’s crowd at the Factory in New York. With its walls decorated entirely in silver paper torn from the inside of cigarette wrappers, the Factory–Warhol’s grimy party studio–was the in place to be. Rocker Lou Reed and the derelict poets from his Velvet Underground hung out there; Warhol was busy making such films as his Screen Test, which involved an unmoving camera staring directly into an unmoving face for upwards of 15 minutes; everyone was stoned.

In Swimming Underground, Woronov’s autobiographical account of that time, we learn just exactly how stoned everyone was.

An on-the-fringe B-actress, Woronov has most famously starred in the Warhol underground film Chelsea Girls and in Paul Bartel’s acclaimed sexual cannibalism frolic Eating Raoul. Her other credits include such non-events as Mortuary Academy and Silent Night, Bloody Night.

She’s lucky that she can write.

And write she can. In a breathless, claustrophobic, and gripping narrative voice, Woronov exactly renders the junkie’s inertia and fear. Woronov details her life over an inexact period of time–refusing to remember summers or springs or numerical years. But it couldn’t have been more than three years from her first visit to the Warhol Factory as a sculpting student on a field trip with her class from Cornell to her final fall into a drug-induced abyss.

A speed freak from a wealthy, hateful family familiar to anyone who’s read Anne Sexton, Woronov fell into a deep, platonic mind-meld with Gerard Malanga, a filmmaker and sometime poet who introduced Woronov to Warhol, and into The Life.

Together, the two became the onstage dancers for the Velvet Underground, undulating next to the band with bull whips and syringes, acting out savage sadomasochistic war dances while Reed droned the words to “Heroin.”

Woronov was possibly only 20. She was with Warhol making Art. Paranoid and violent (there is one terrifying passage in which she describes her unsuccessful attempt to murder a Factory groupie who idolized her), she could zing along on methamphetamine for days at a time, swoop home to her parent’s house to sleep it off, and emerge fresh, ready to start again. And then it all started to go terribly wrong.

The end started fairly quickly for Woronov, when Warhol took his entourage and the Velvet Underground to L.A. to storm the West Coast. They barely raised a breeze. “Without the protective shell of New York, we seemed to have lost our magic,” she writes. “Our pale skin and black clothes were no longer threatening under the relentlessly happy California sun. We were reduced to wallflowers; even Andy had nowhere to go.” While Reed played to an empty club, Frank Zappa packed a crowd in two blocks away and jeered at them from the stage. Warhol tried to declare the end of art by mounting a show consisting of nothing but silver helium balloons floating forlornly six inches off the floor of an bright, empty gallery.

Without ever actually putting him down, Woronov lets her disdain for Warhol matter-of-factly seep onto the pages. She spills secrets: at most gatherings, one of Warhol’s entourage would be the designated “babysitter” and would remain with Warhol to help combat the artist’s morbid fear of people. One of Warhol’s favorite games was to pretend that he and a companion were 11-year-old girls at a slumber party. With his ghastly pale skin and wig set askew, Warhol and a comrade would swing their legs excitedly back and forth over the bench in a nightclub, whisper, trade notes, and giggle.

Returning to New York, Woronov sunk below the glitz of Andy’s premier strata, finding herself horribly attracted to a group of hangers-on that called itself the Mole People. Sleeping all day, high all night, these junkie-artists were starved and pale and mean. Woronov fell in love with Ondine, their brilliant and cruel homosexual leader. Always just out of Woronov’s reach, Ondine would swoop down on her when she least expected it, taking her for dazed cab rides in search of dope, having her steady him in a grimy bathroom while he shot up through his eyeball.

Woronov’s story has a happy ending, of sorts. She survived. Briefly detailing her life after the fall, it’s clear that Woronov has pulled herself together. But there is an aching sense of loss in Swimming Underground, and it’s not only the loss of youth and innocence. The darkest loss was Woronov’s chance to shape herself as an artist. With these first laps, she’s warming up.

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