You Shoot and Nearly Kill One World-Famous Pop Artist And They Never Let You Forget It

The New York Times rehabilitates Valerie Solanas.

On June 3, 1968, Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol, puncturing his esophagus, lungs, stomach, liver, and spleen, and left him to die. Warhol only barely survived, and he had to wear a surgical corset for the rest of his life. Solanas was diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic, spent six months in psychiatric detention, was released, then almost immediately was rearrested for threatening Warhol and others. She then served three years in prison.

Solanas died at 52, having spent her last years living in welfare hotels in San Francisco. This was in 1988, about a year after Warhol died while recovering from gallbladder surgery. Warhol’s surgery was unrelated to the shooting, but the shooting appears to have been a contributing factor to his untimely death at 58.

Solanas’s death went unrecorded in the New York Times, which does seem an oversight given Warhol’s eminence. Now she’s been resurrected for the Times “Overlooked” series commemorating “remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.” The paper explains that it’s running its better-late-than-never Solanas obit because it is “adding the stories of important L.G.B.T.Q. figures” during Gay Pride Month. It took me a moment to realize that the remarkable person being recognized in this instance wasn’t Andy Warhol, who was one of the most admired gay people of the 20th century (and received a lengthy obituary when he died in 1987), but rather his would-be assassin.

“The violent incident,” we are told by obituarist Bonnie Wertheim, “reduced [Solanas] to a tabloid headline,” but it

was hardly her most meaningful contribution to history. Solanas was a radical feminist (though she would say she loathed most feminists), a pioneering queer theorist and the author of “SCUM Manifesto,” in which she argues for the wholesale extermination of men. The manifesto, self-published in 1967, reads as satire, though Solanas defended it as serious.

Actually, given that the year after she wrote SCUM Manifesto Solanas emptied her gun into Andy Warhol, who was a man, the work reads less as satire than as a practical plan of action. To wit:

SCUM will kill all men who are not in the Men's Auxiliary of SCUM. Men in the Men's Auxiliary are those men who are working diligently to eliminate themselves…. A few examples of the men in the Men's Auxiliary are: men who kill men; … journalists, writers, editors, publishers and producers who disseminate and promote ideas that will lead to the achievement of SCUM's goals; faggots who, by their shimmering, flaming example, encourage other men to de-man themselves and thereby make themselves relatively inoffensive;

and so on. All men will be required to participate in “Turd Sessions,” in which every man is required to say, “I am a turd, a lowly abject turd” and then is compelled to “list all the ways in which he is.” If I’m reading Solanas right, men who do this will be permitted to live, after a fashion. “I don’t want to kill all men,” Solanas later clarified. “I think males should be neutered or castrated so they can’t mess up any more women’s lives.”

The SCUM Manifesto is, as you can see, a lively read, though I can’t grasp why a person who so freely referred to gay men as “faggots,” even way back in 1967, merits designation as an object of gay pride. That’s before we even get to her trying to kill—in apparent violation of the Manifesto’s fine printa gay man. (The catalyst appears to have been Warhol’s disliking her play, Up Your Ass, and misplacing his copy of her script.)

The shooting, the Times’s Wertheim writes, “brought national attention to her name and work,” and “fractured mainstream feminist groups, including the National Organization for Women, whose members were split on whether to defend or condemn her.” This last I found difficult to believe, and clicking through to the Times’s 1968 story (Marylin Bender, “Valeria Solanis [sic.] a Heroine To Feminists”) I found reason to doubt it.

Bender’s 1968 story, on inspection, furnishes slight evidence of any split within NOW over Warhol’s would-be assassin and plenty of evidence, starting with the headline, of a smirky distaste at the overwhelmingly male-dominated Times of 52 years ago for what was then derided by its eye-rolling detractors as “women’s lib.” The only feminists in Bender’s story who express any views at all about Solanas are Florence R. Kennedy and Ti-Grace Atkinson, both of NOW’s New York chapter. Atkinson was chapter president (apparently it was the country’s most radical), which perhaps lent her pro-Solanas opinion some weight. But Kennedy was Solanas’s lawyer, for crying out loud.

Wertheim mentions that Kennedy was a lawyer, but not that Kennedy was Solanas’s lawyer. The two women, she intones, “formed the bedrock of radical feminism and presented Solanas as a symbol of feminist rage.” But give me a break. The legacy of the unfortunate Valerie Solanas is not any contribution to feminism. It’s that she tried to kill Andy Warhol. To suggest otherwise does a disservice to feminism, to the LGBTQ cause, of which Warhol was himself a pioneer, and to the general idea that you shouldn’t take your anger out by shooting people.

Update, June 27: Backbencher gets results! This post went insanely viral (not sure how; it doesn’t appear to have been through Twitter or Facebook) and last night at 11:30 p.m. the Times altered the most idiotic sentence in the obit. Tyler Cowen had expressed alarm at the obit, too.

The changes (there may be more; the obit managed to elude the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine):

But the violent incident, which reduced [Solanas] to a tabloid headline, which reduced her to a tabloid headline, was hardly her most meaningful contribution to history

is now altered to

The incident reduced her to a tabloid headline, but also drew attention to her writing, which is still read in some women and gender studies courses today.

The characterization of Solanas as a “pioneering queer theorist” is now modified with “(at least according to some).”

Finally, the reverent subhead

She made daring arguments in ‘SCUM Manifesto,’ her case for a world without men. But her legacy as a writer and thinker was overshadowed by one violent act.

has been changed to

She made daring arguments in ‘SCUM Manifesto,’ her case for a world without men. But it was her attack on Warhol that came to define her life.

A reader for whom I have unusually high regard says that if I wish to exile attempted murderers from the cultural conversation I could start with Norman Mailer. The killers William S. Burroughs (whom I’ve never read) and Phil Spector (whose music I still listen to from time to time) pose similar dilemmas.

I would answer that SCUM Manifesto stacks up unfavorably against The Armies of the Night and “Da Doo Ron Ron” (though I’ll concede it’s better crafted, and certainly much funnier, than the Unabomber Manifesto). Perhaps Solanas’s legacy rests on Up Your Ass, which was recovered from a trunk belonging to Warhol and was performed in 2000 in San Franciso. I haven’t read it. But it’s SCUM Manifesto that is generally cited as Solanas’s chief work, to the extent that anything is.

After Solanas shot Warhol, I’ve since learned, she shot an art critic named Mario Amaya, who was with Warhol at the Factory. His wounds were superficial and he survived. Solanas then tried to shoot Warhol’s manager, Fred Hughes, in the head. She failed at that only because the gun jammed.

For another view of Solanas’s contribution, click here.