Brigid Berlin, Socialite Who Joined Warhol’s World, Dies at 80
Brigid Berlin, Socialite Who Joined Warhol’s World, Dies at 80
Here is one way to make a first impression.
“A car pulled up outside my apartment and out came Brigid, topless, wearing a red sarong around her waist and a toy stethoscope around her neck, and carrying a fake alligator doctor’s bag filled with amphetamines and a giant syringe. She came up and chased me around the room trying to poke me with the needle.
“We became everyday friends.”
That was how Danny Fields, a member of Andy Warhol’s inner circle, remembered meeting Brigid Berlin, a former socialite who became one of Warhol’s closest friends and a figure in the New York art world of the 1960s and ’70s.
She acted in Warhol films. She recorded the Velvet Underground. She befriended Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, John Chamberlain and Larry Rivers, who all embraced her as a fellow artist, even as she rejected the label for herself.
“As near as you can get to the genesis of the art of the ’60s,” Mr. Fields said in an interview, “she was there.”
Ms. Berlin died on Friday at a hospital in Manhattan, after several years of health problems that largely confined her to her bed. She was 80.
The cause was cardiac arrest brought on by a pulmonary embolism, said Rob Vaczy, a close friend and neighbor.
In a New York scene filled with large, self-invented characters, Ms. Berlin — also known as Brigid Polk, because she liked to administer amphetamine injections, or pokes, to herself and others — was a runaway freight train, oversize both physically (she once weighed close to 300 pounds) and in her personality, which alternately terrorized and delighted people.
“I was scared of her,” the filmmaker John Waters wrote about meeting her, “in the best way.”
The daughter of Richard E. Berlin, who ran the Hearst publishing empire for more than 30 years, and Muriel Berlin, an uptown socialite known as Honey, Ms. Berlin flamboyantly celebrated everything her parents opposed, making art out of her naked body and selling family artifacts to buy drugs.
She took mountains of speed and made thousands of recordings and Polaroid photographs of New York’s bohemian demimonde, when such a thing existed. She made prints of her breasts and of well-known artists’ penises. She once rejected a Christmas gift of a Warhol painting, saying she would rather have a washer-dryer.
Perhaps her most radical act, late in life, was to become a near replica of her mother, with a similar apartment, identical pug dogs and conservative political views.
“Brigid was a force and liked to fight,” her younger brother and only immediate survivor, Richard, said in an interview. “She was complicated, but she was a hell of a lot of fun.”
Brigid Emmett Berlin, the oldest of four children, was born in Manhattan on Sept. 6, 1939. She grew up on Fifth Avenue in a home frequented by political figures, including Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon and the F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover.
“Brigid remembered once sitting in the back of our Town Car between Roy Cohn and Joseph McCarthy, with my dad in the jump seat,” Richard Berlin said. “I thought everyone had houseguests like that.”
Her mother was severely critical of Brigid’s weight and sent her to Dr. Max Jacobson, a Kennedy family physician known as Dr. Feelgood because of his liberal administration of amphetamines. Thus began Ms. Berlin’s twinned obsession — with speed and with her body — which she channeled into her recreational life and her art, appearing nude in photographs and making prints of her breasts by rolling paint on them and pressing them onto paper.
She was kicked out of several Roman Catholic high schools and numerous colleges. Between Brigid and her sister Richie, who also joined the Warhol set, “they went to 17 different colleges,” her brother said. “Once my parents sent Brigid to a convent in Spain, thinking, ‘These Spanish nuns will knock her into shape.’ But they were no match for Brigid.”
At 19, she married John Parker, a window dresser who was gay, in large part to shock her parents. According to Warhol, her mother gave her a wedding present of $100 and told her to buy some new underwear, adding, “Good luck with that fairy.” The two ran through much of her money and shortly divorced.
She found a better match in Warhol, with whom she shared a special bond, said Pat Hackett, who edited Warhol’s diaries and co-wrote some of his books.
“Andy enjoyed Brigid more than anyone else I can think of,” Ms. Hackett said. “He was fascinated by the Berlin family. He and Brigid loved each other. Andy used to say, ‘If you ever want to learn what’s wrong with you, don’t look in the mirror; give Brigid a glass of wine and she’ll tell you.’”
From her tiny room in the old George Washington Hotel near Gramercy Park, Ms. Berlin recorded telephone conversations with everyone, meticulously labeling and storing the thousands of cassettes in alphabetical and chronological order. Her Polaroid photographs of people on the scene, and of herself, were equally voluminous.
“Her mind-set was that she was collecting people,” said Gerard Malanga, a poet and Warhol collaborator who sometimes helped Ms. Berlin get artists to pose for her. “If you said she was an artist, she’d say she wasn’t. It seemed she didn’t take herself seriously — but ironically she did take herself seriously, but didn’t go out and promote herself until the last few years.”
In the late 1960s, Ms. Berlin presented a running performance called “Brigid Polk Strikes! Her Satanic Majesty in Person,” in which she called people on the telephone and — unbeknown to them — amplified the conversation for the audience. At one performance, she told a friend she needed $100 for an abortion, then left the nightclub and returned with the money. At another, Mr. Fields recalled, she called her mother and got into an argument, then asked the audience, “You see, did I ever exaggerate what a monster my mother was?”
Warhol cast her in his movies “Bad” and “Chelsea Girls.” Her mother went to see “Chelsea Girls” incognito and was appalled to see her daughter shoot amphetamines into her backside during a monologue. As a prank, Ms. Berlin and Warhol once told a reporter that she actually created his paintings; their value instantly fell.
In a preface to her book “Brigid Berlin Polaroids,” Mr. Waters, who cast her in several of his movies after Warhol’s death, called her “old money combined with danger” and “my favorite underground movie star; big, often naked and ornery as hell.”
Ms. Berlin befriended the mostly heterosexual, hard-drinking Abstract Expressionist painters who held court in the front room at Max’s Kansas City and the more druggy, gayer Warhol crowd in the back room. She recorded Lou Reed’s last performance with the Velvet Underground at the club, which was released as the album “Live at Max’s Kansas City.”
“She was wild,” Viva Hoffmann, another of Warhol’s actresses, said in an interview. “Brigid came to my family’s house in the Thousand Islands and water-skied naked in the middle channel of the St. Lawrence Waterway. People still talk about that.”
In later years, Ms. Berlin gave up amphetamines and mounted serious exhibitions of her photographs, which now had an added veneer of art history. She also made elaborate needlepoint pillows replicating tabloid front pages and exhibited them in galleries. Three of her books of penis art — sometimes artists’ drawings of their own anatomy that she solicited, sometimes ink prints — sold to the painter Richard Prince for $175,000.
She moved from the hotel room to a proper apartment in 1986 and gradually began dressing like her socialite mother. She cleaned obsessively, then cleaned some more. The conceptual artist Richard Dupont, a Warhol associate who lived with her in the mid-2000s, remembered her rarely leaving the apartment except to buy yarn.
“She said, ‘I only go out on the phone,’” Mr. Dupont said.
Mr. Vaczy, her closest companion, said she would perform ad hoc monologues in restaurants or bars when the musicians were on a break, talking about her childhood, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, politics, whatever was on her mind. She watched Fox News a lot, friends said, and was heartened by the election of Donald J. Trump.
“She was underappreciated as an artist,” said Vincent Fremont, a longtime friend and Warhol associate who made a documentary about her, “Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story,” in 2000.
“She could’ve been anything she wanted to be. She was an incredibly good conceptual thinker, and that’s why Andy appreciated her. She was obsessive, but had an incredible imagination. She could really take you down with her mouth.”
He added, “She didn’t do anything halfway.”