September 6, 1939– Brigid Berlin:
“My mother wanted me to be a slim respectable socialite… Instead I became an overweight troublemaker.”
Her friend John Waters said of Brigid Berlin:
“She is a lady who really lunched but also loved being nude. She was also a hostile debutante…”
Her father was Richard E. Berlin, chairman of the Hearst Media empire for 52 years, and her mother was socialite “Honey” Berlin, whose real name was Muriel. Richard was 22-years older than Honey who was 21 when they married.
Her sister Richie Berlin, named after her father, sometimes hung out with her in New York and also appeared briefly in Ciao Manhattan (1972), the avant-garde film starring Edie Sedgwick.
Her other sister, Christina Berlin, arranged the defection of the Russian ballet dancer, Mikhail Baryshnikov. When Richard Berlin found out about his daughter’s involvement with Baryshnikov, he wasn’t pleased. Brigid Berlin recalled:
“I remember Daddy went nuts – ‘If she marries that commie bastard…!'”
As a kid, Berlin mixed with celebrities and the rich and powerful. Berlin:
“I would pick up the phone and it would be Richard Nixon. My parents entertained Lyndon Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover, and there were lots of Hollywood people because of San Simeon: Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Dorothy Kilgallen… I have a box of letters, written to my parents in the late 1940s and 1950s from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.”
Berlin’s mother frequently worried about her daughter’s weight and gave her cash for every pound she lost. When she was 11-years-old, the family doctor prescribed her amphetamines and Dexedrine. Berlin:
“My mother wanted me to be a slim, respectable socialite. Instead, I became an overweight troublemaker.”
After finishing school, Berlin had her coming-out party:
“I was a debutante, so I needed two escorts. My mother went crazy when I invited the electrician who was working on our television wires at our house in Westchester.”
She went to a doctor often referred to as “Dr. Feelgood”, for special injections. Berlin later described what would then happen:
“He took my Hermes scarf off and blindfolded himself and said, ‘I’m going to make you feel better than any man has made you feel.’ His shots were amphetamine, diuretic and B12. By then I was 19 and very high, and my sister and I would go straight to Bloomie’s and start charging.”
In 1960, Berlin married John Parker, a window dresser. They divorced within a year. Andy Warhol writes in his book Popism (1980):
“When Brigid brought her window dresser fiancé home to meet the family, her mother told the doorman to tell him to wait on a bench across the street in Central Park. Then she handed Brigid her wedding present, a 100 dollar bill, and told her to go to Bergdorf’s and buy herself some new underwear with it. Then she added: ‘Good luck with that fairy’.”
After the break up, Berlin’s father’s friend, Lyndon Johnson, got her into a rehab facility in Mexico to lose weight, letting her mother take care of her dog, a pug, a gift from actor Sylvia Sidney. The hospital was the first that was experimenting with fasting. Although she had to take a daily urine test to make sure she wasn’t eating, Berlin cheated by putting nail polish in her urine, thinking that one of the drugs in the nail polish was the same one produced by the body to indicate fasting. While in the hospital she had sex with one of the psychologists and two of the doctors.
“I ended back in New York with the plan of getting another job, but not knowing how to type and basically not having any interest in anything except shopping and staying out all night.”
Berlin met Warhol in 1964 and quickly became a central member The Factory. She lived at the Chelsea Hotel, where she had the nickname Brigid Polk because she gave ‘pokes’, injections of Vitamin B and amphetamines, to the other residents. These injections were perfectly legal at the time.
Berlin appeared in a dozen Warhol’s films, including Chelsea Girls (1966), in which she has a scene where she injects herself while performing a monologue.
Warhol and Berlin were close. She was the main “B” in Warhol’s 1975 book, Andy Warhol’s Philosophy (From A to B and Back Again). She would go shopping with him or watch movies together.
“I didn’t like the kind of TV that Andy liked. His favorite show was I Dream Of Jeannie.”
Berlin obsessively tape recorded everything from 1967 – 1974, taking pride in the quality of her recordings (“I always had the best microphones, you know”). A tape she made of the Velvet Underground performing at Max’s Kansas City was so good that Atlantic Records made it into an album.
The conversations that Berlin taped between herself and her mother were the basis for Andy Warhol’s only play Pork (1971). She sold the tapes to Warhol for $25.00 apiece.
In 1968 she performed a “mixed media” event – at the Bowery Lane Theatre called Bridget Polk Strikes! Her Satanic Majesty In Person, where she made telephone calls from the stage and broadcasted the live conversations to the audience, without telling the person she was talking to over the phone, which included her friends, her parents and their friends.
Berlin was in on one of Warhol’s most infamous pranks. In 1969, he announced to the press that all his paintings were actually the work of Berlin. She enthusiastically went along with the ruse, giving interviews to magazines. The prank led to a drop in the value of Warhol’s work before Berlin and Warhol came clean. But, the question of authenticity looms large in valuing Warhol’s work to this day.
In 1975, Berlin went to work for Warhol’s Interview magazine, a position she held for years, even after Warhol’s death. Berlin would transcribe interviews, but she would mostly knit and needlepoint under her desk. Famous heiress and felon Patricia Hearst, who also work at Interview, wrote:
“On my first day at work, I noticed two small pugs who seemed to have the run of the castle. They belonged to a woman who sat behind the front desk every day from 9:00 to 5:00, but who never seemed to answer the phone. Instead, she compulsively did needlepoint, ate bags of candy and tended lovingly to the dogs.”
She obsessively taped and photographed her life. She made scrapbooks that she referred to as “trip books.” Volumes of these scrapbooks were pictures of male genitalia. She called them “The Cock Books” and included the junk of famous guys, including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Warhol. In 2010, three volumes of Cock Books sold for $175,000 at auction.
Some of her most famous work includes “Tit Paintings”, pieces she created by dipping her nipples in paint and then onto some paper.
Berlin and Warhol used Polaroid photography, and they were very competitive about Polaroid, vying for the best cameras, equipment and film. Berlin’s double-exposed Polaroids are very different than the static “icon” Polaroids by Warhol. Berlin’s Polaroids are mostly self-portraits, and shots of Warhol Superstars, artists and celebrities. She has had major gallery shows of her work. Brigid Berlin Poloroids was published in 2015 with a foreword by John Waters.
She has roles in my two favorite Waters’ films, Serial Mom (1994) and Pecker (1998). Pie In The Sky (2000) is a documentary in which she tells her life story in intimate detail while eating several key lime pies.
Berlin is still with us, living in the same apartment near Gramercy Park for the past 35 years.
“No picture ever mattered. There was never any subject that I was after. It was clicking it and pulling it out that I loved.”