Overlooked no more: Valerie Solanas, radical feminist who shot Andy Warhol

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Overlooked no more: Valerie Solanas, radical feminist who shot Andy Warhol
Copies of “SCUM Manifesto,” by Valerie Solanas, Feb. 21, 2012. Solanas, who was a radical feminist and pioneering queer theorist, attempted to murder Andy Warhol in 1968. Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times.

by Bonnie Wertheim

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- On June 3, 1968, Valerie Solanas walked into Andy Warhol’s studio, the Factory, with a gun and a plan to enact vengeance. What happened next came to define her life and legacy: She fired at Warhol, nearly killing him. But the violent incident, which reduced her to a tabloid headline, was hardly her most meaningful contribution to history.

Solanas was a radical feminist (although 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, although Solanas defended it as serious. Its opening line is at once absurd and a call to arms for the coalition she was forming, the Society for Cutting Up Men:

Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.

On the subject of reproduction, she wrote: “We should produce only whole, complete beings, not physical defects of deficiencies, including emotional deficiencies, such as maleness.”

She sold copies in leftist bookstores and on the streets of Greenwich Village for $1 ($2 if the buyer was a man).

The text distilled the anger and yearning Solanas exhibited throughout her life. In college, as a recently-out lesbian, she rallied against the idea that educated women should be reduced to wives and mothers, even as she acknowledged that, in a society ruled by men, such fates were likely inevitable. Her ideas about gender and power calcified in the early 1960s when she hitchhiked across the country and back again. She arrived in New York City in 1962 with the start of a play and several versions of “SCUM Manifesto.”

Then, as now, Warhol was one of the most famous artists in America, and Solanas found her way onto the fringes of his social circle. She shared with him a copy of her play, “Up Your Ass” (1965), with the hope that he would produce it. Its central character is Bongi Perez, a bantering, panhandling prostitute who is frequently homeless — much like Solanas was herself. Auditions and rehearsals took place in the basement of the Chelsea Hotel, the bohemian enclave from which Solanas was evicted on several occasions. Warhol found the manuscript objectionable and eventually misplaced it, but he did cast her in his erotic film “I, a Man” (1967). (“Up Your Ass” wouldn’t be staged until long after her death, in 2000 in San Francisco.)

Solanas then met with Maurice Girodias, the iconoclastic French publisher of Olympia Press who printed the first editions of “Naked Lunch” (1959), “The Story of O” (1954) and “Lolita” (1955), about a deal for a new book.

Over time, Solanas became convinced that Warhol and Girodias were conspiring to suppress, censor or steal her voice.

On that day in June, when she walked into Warhol’s studio, newly located at 33 Union Square West, the artist wasn’t there. Solanas left and returned several times, until she spotted him on the sidewalk. Together they rode the building’s elevator up to the sixth floor.

Soon, there were gunshots. Warhol was rushed to Columbus Hospital. Solanas’ bullets had punctured his stomach, liver, spleen, esophagus and lungs. At one point, the doctors pronounced him dead. (He would live for 19 more years, wearing a surgical corset to support his abdomen.)

That evening, Solanas turned herself in to an officer in Times Square. “He had too much control over my life,” she told the officer, referring to Warhol.

Valerie Jean Solanas was born on April 9, 1936, in Ventnor City, New Jersey, just off the Atlantic City boardwalk, one of two girls to Louis Solanas, a bartender, and Dorothy Biondo, a dental assistant. Her parents separated when Valerie was 4 and divorced in 1947; both remarried. Her father, she would later say, had sexually abused her from a young age. Still, she retained a correspondence with him for most of her life.

Valerie was, by some accounts, a precocious child, but in middle school, she began to show signs of disobedience, skipping class and even assaulting a teacher. By 15, she had given birth to two children: Linda, who was raised as her sister, and David, whom she placed for adoption. At the time, it was not unusual for pregnancies to be concealed by such means.

In 1954, she enrolled at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she studied psychology. She then pursued a master’s degree in psychology at the University of Minnesota but dropped out after two semesters because she felt that her ideas and research were not likely to be funded as well as men’s.

She spent the next decade putting her ideas to paper. She moved frequently as a result of eviction, always with her typewriter in tow.

In 1966, her short story “A Young Girl’s Primer” appeared in Cavalier, a Playboy-style magazine that also published Ray Bradbury, Thomas Pynchon and Stephen King. The tale centers on a woman who sells sex and conversation for the freedom to be creative. The next year, she began selling mimeographed copies of “SCUM” around the city and seeking a producer for her play.

The shooting, in June of 1968, brought national attention to her name and work. The story of the incident was splashed across the front pages of papers like the New York Daily News and The New York Times, which misspelled her name as Solanis. Copies of “SCUM” quickly sold out.

Her attack on Warhol fractured mainstream feminist groups, including the National Organization for Women, whose members were split on whether to defend or condemn her. Those who defended her, including writer Ti-Grace Atkinson and lawyer Flo Kennedy, formed the bedrock of radical feminism and presented Solanas as a symbol of female rage. The shooting became wrapped up in a larger narrative on gun violence when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was shot the next day.

Girodias published an edition of “SCUM Manifesto” after the shooting; Solanas had unwittingly sold him the rights for $500 the previous year. Later editions were printed by AK Press and Verso. Today, the text is read in some women’s and gender studies courses.

During her arraignment, Solanas was charged with attempted murder, assault and possession of a dangerous weapon.

She was deemed unable to stand trial and was sent for a psychiatric evaluation at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, where she received a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. The evaluators also noted her intelligence test scores, which placed her in the 98th percentile.

On June 13, she was ruled insane by the Supreme Court of New York and spent months in psychiatric hospitals. When she was released in December, she began calling Warhol, Girodias and others in a group she called “the mob” with threatening messages that led to her arrest in January 1969.

She was held at the Women’s House of Detention in Manhattan, then at Bellevue Hospital, before being sentenced to three years in prison in June.

After her release, she worked for a year and a half as an editor for Majority Report: The Women’s Liberation Newsletter, a biweekly feminist publication, and began writing an eponymous book. She spent her final years dumpster diving in Phoenix and living in welfare hotels in San Francisco.

Toward the end of 1987, Isabelle Collin Dufresne, the Factory “superstar” better known as Ultra Violet, called Solanas to talk about Warhol, who had died that February.

“I keep thinking what a shame it is that she’s mad, utterly mad,” Ultra Violet wrote in her 1988 memoir, “Famous for 15 Minutes: My Years With Andy Warhol.” “For in the beginning, beyond her overheated rhetoric, she had a truly revolutionary vision of a better world run by and for the benefit of women.”

On April 25, 1988, Solanas was found dead in her room at the Bristol Hotel, in the gritty Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. She was 52. The police report, which also misspelled her name, described the room as clean, with papers neatly stacked on the desk. Solanas was kneeling next to the bed, covered in maggots, and had likely been dead for five days. The cited cause was pneumonia.

In 1996, her story was theatrically depicted in Mary Harron’s film “I Shot Andy Warhol.” Lili Taylor was widely praised for her leading role.

Solanas inspired fictional works, including an episode of “American Horror Story: Cult,” where she is played by Lena Dunham, and a 2019 novel by Swedish author Sara Stridsberg, “Valerie,” which won the Nordic Council Literature Prize and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. By Stridsberg’s account, Solanas was not erratic but measured, not murderous but tender, not insane but idealistic, even admirably so.

But it was with the 2014 biography “Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol)” that a fuller picture of her life came to light.

In it, the author, Breanne Fahs, writes about an exchange between Solanas and her friend Jeremiah Newton. Newton asked Solanas if her manifesto was to be taken literally. “I don’t want to kill all men,” she replied. But, using an expletive, she added: “I think males should be neutered or castrated so they can’t mess up any more women’s lives.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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