Brigid Berlin: Andy’s BFF
If you asked Andy Warhol with whom he was closest—the person he rang up every morning to chat and entrusted to answer lazy questions from the press—he would probably give you the name of his staunch, lolling best friend Brigid Berlin. The heiress and daughter of Richard Berlin, chairman of the Hearst media empire for 32 years, Brigid would pick up the phone, without fail, every day for nearly two decades to hear Andy’s faint, “Gee, Brig, what’s happening?” Glued to the receiver, the pair would prattle on about sweet nothings—what Warhol was watching on TV, what time the mail would arrive at Interview‘s HQ—but mostly about Berlin’s yo-yo dieting. She was his closest confidante, his regular health check, and bosom friend. Together they called themselves Mr. and Mrs. Pork.
Ashamed of her wealth, Berlin pinballed from Park Avenue to the Chelsea Hotel, eventually meeting Warhol. She became his resident background fatty, scoring screen time in his films like The Chelsea Girls (1960), The Loves of Ondine (1967), and Andy Warhol’s Bad (1976). Berlin introduced Warhol to the Polaroid camera and the tape recorder, two tools with which he would become synonymous. Still, she was an artist herself, famed for getting her tits out. Her eureka moment came, she says, when she started to do “tit paintings.”
“I was never nude, just topless,” she continues. “I didn’t walk around like that. I’d been painting with them. They always sell.”
Later this month, Berlin will release another compendium of her Polaroids via Reel Art Press. Titled Brigid Berlin Polaroids, the volume is a roll call of famous faces from Patti Smith and Lou Reed to Roy Lichtenstein and Dennis Hopper. She’d trigger her flash at whoever would stroll through the Factory’s silver doors, never asking permission. Now 76, Berlin is larger than life in more than two ways, and her slow New Yawk drawl verges on the vocal equivalent of someone rolling their eyes. She still has plenty of opinions, and will talk about the good ol’ days down the line for as long as there’s whiskey in your glass.
TREY TAYLOR: I heard that you invented the selfie.
BRIGID BERLIN: Well, I didn’t invent the word “selfie,” but I took tons of Polaroids of myself.
TAYLOR: When did you first start doing that?
BERLIN: In the ’60s. Right after I got my first Polaroid camera.
TAYLOR: When did you first hear about the word “selfie”?
BERLIN: Not until a couple of years ago. But a selfie is taking pictures of yourself, right? I did that and they didn’t call them selfies years ago.
TAYLOR: Do you wish you’d come up with that name?
TAYLOR: Why not?
BERLIN: I don’t really care about it. But it wasn’t something that was new. I have never taken a selfie per se with a phone. You can take them with a phone, right? I’ve never done that. I can’t stand cell phones and I don’t know one single thing about the computer. I have a friend come that lives in my building to check if I have emails. I don’t even know what to google.
TAYLOR: You can start by looking up your own name.
BERLIN: I just can’t deal with it.
TAYLOR: What do you think when you see kids on the street with their cell phones out taking pictures and sucking their cheeks in?
BERLIN: It drives me crazy. To walk down the street now, all people do is have these phones in front of them in the palms of their hands. You go to a restaurant with a friend for lunch and the next table, two people are sitting opposite each other. They don’t talk! All they do is look at the screens of their cell phones and show it to the person that they’re with. And when people do that to me, they want me to look at pictures on their cell phone? I can’t even look at little things like that. I think it is all crazy.
TAYLOR: Have you seen that Kim Kardashian did a book called Selfish of all her selfies?
BERLIN: Of course I haven’t seen it! I wouldn’t look at anything of Kim Kardashian’s. I have never seen that show. I just think the Kardashians are just so cheap! [laughs] No class.
TAYLOR: Everyone seems to be paying attention to them.
BERLIN: Well… I’m not!
TAYLOR: What do you think Andy would make of the Kardashians?
BERLIN: Andy just liked the kids—the kids that were all around us. Andy would get excited if we had a guest for lunch that would arrive at the Factory. Say it was Liberace, andy would get all excited about that and say, ‘God, Brig, Liberace is coming for lunch. And so is Joan Collins.’ I don’t believe that Andy would use a computer today. He’d get somebody else to do it for him.
TAYLOR: I know you guys would go around with copies of Interview and kids would go asking for Andy’s autograph.
BERLIN: They’d come up to us and we were each carrying a stack of Interviews, walking down Union Square. These kids would stop us for an Interview and if they were cute, Andy would say, “Well, gee, we have a Factory up there. Why don’t you come up for lunch?” Every night at Studio 54 I would be telling everybody that they were going to be the cover of Interview. Then I would be hungover at the Factory and they’d arrive for lunch at 12:30, quarter-to-one and I wouldn’t even remember them!
TAYLOR: That must have been embarrassing.
BERLIN: It was just so much fun. Those were the good days. We didn’t have to wear a chain around our neck with a tag. I’d invite all these people from Studio 54. I promised people covers at discotheques at night. I took on the role of promising to be on the cover of Interview.
TAYLOR: Did anyone ever show up that did end up on the cover?
BERLIN: No! [laughs]
TAYLOR: In the book your describe Andy’s “toe problem,” and I was wondering what that was?
BERLIN: He had an ingrown toenail or something and he put a pink sock on it and had a sandal. So that was when I decided to do a book of feet and faces.
TAYLOR: Can you tell me about the time you met Gerard Malanga’s mom?
BERLIN: Gerard and I were in town, and we decided to go to the Bronx to see his mom. I had that whole episode on tape. I actually gave that tape as a present to John Waters. But we arrived at Gerard’s mother’s apartment in the Bronx and we told her that we’d gotten there by plane. And we’d landed the plane on the roof of her building [laughs]. In a helicopter.
TAYLOR: What did she say?
BERLIN: I remember she had a pink telephone by her bed. She made us spaghetti for lunch. Let me tell you what Gerard’s mother said when we walked in to her apartment. She looked at me and she said, “You need to lose weight.”
TAYLOR: Really? Not even hello?
BERLIN: [laughs] You know, this was in the ’70s. We’re really going back a long time. My friend was down here who digitized all of my tapes. He remembers digitizing and that’s what she said. Oh God, how can I even talk about that now—it’s 50 years ago.
TAYLOR: Were you a big liar?
BERLIN: No! Who said that?
TAYLOR: You didn’t fly a helicopter…
BERLIN: We just did that for fun. We were kidding.
TAYLOR: Did any journalists get mad at you for answering questions on behalf of Andy?
BERLIN: No. Mm-mm. Time magazine printed years ago that Andy said I did his work. It was all in Time magazine and the trouble that that caused! Having Leo Castelli and all the dealers call Andy and say I’m doing the silk-screening? Puh-lease!
TAYLOR: He kept pretty quiet during interviews. Did it take a lot to get Andy to talk?
BERLIN: No! He never shut up. Never. Andy talked more than anybody I know. I spent a life of marathon conversations with him on the phone. He’d be in bed and I’d call him up and we’d chat on the phone and he’d say, “Well, Brig, gee, I’m watching the best TV.” I’d say, “What are you watching?” “Oh, I Dream of Jeannie. I just love I Dream of Jeannie. It’s the best TV.”
And he’d say, “Well, Brigid are you drinking?” “No, Andy.” “Well, I am.” “Andy, what are you drinking?” “I’m drinking Grand Mary.” He’d pronounce words differently. So he wouldn’t say Grand Marnier, he’d say Grand Mary. So he’d be in bed drinking Grand Mary and watching I Dream of Jeannie.
TAYLOR: You hated that show, didn’t you?
BERLIN: I hated it! I only liked the news. I watch news from the minute I wake up till 11. Then I switch to Charlie Rose. Fox News all the way.
TAYLOR: And do you still?
BERLIN: Yes! I am right now. I turned the sound down. I stayed up all night watching the debates last night. I’m a real conservative. When I was with Andy in the ’70s, I was voting for Nixon. I never became a hippie, or a groupie. I never wore flowers in my hair.
TAYLOR: What do you think of Donald Trump?
BERLIN: It’s good entertainment. That’s about it. Last night he just looked ridiculous sucking in his cheeks. You know what he looked like? When Andy wanted to be a model and he got so thin. That’s all Andy used to talk about was his modeling career. Oh my God, and his cheeks sunken in. Well Donald Trump was so sucked in last night. Did you see it?
TAYLOR: I didn’t see it.
BERLIN: I don’t know how you could miss it; they’re really fun. So what else have you got for me?
TAYLOR: I was reading Andy Warhol’s Diaries and it’s all about your dieting and your weight loss. Was that a big part of your life?
BERLIN: Huge. It never ends. I lost 160 lbs in 1974 and ’75. I’ve gotten as low as 114 lbs. I’ve been in bed almost for a year because of back problems and low blood pressure. I’ve been eating like a pig, and my weight’s gone up again. I’ll also start fasting. That’s the only way I can diet. It’s easier to eat nothing than to eat something.
TAYLOR: With all this pressure now to stay thin because of social media, what would your message be to people who are so obsessed with their bodies?
BERLIN: Oh, god. The only way I could do it—and I did it this way—was to cut myself off from the world. I didn’t trust myself. I’ve lived in this building since 1986. I’ve never had food in my fridge. All I have in my fridge is one shelf of Canada Dry ginger ale, Diet Cokes on the next shelf, and ZeroWater on the next shelf. That is it. And one bottle of Peter Luger’s steak sauce. [laughs] That’s it! I order everything in. I won’t save anything until later. I won’t have anything to eat today that I might eat tomorrow because I don’t trust myself with it at night. I’d be sleepwalking. I could never leave a pint of Haagen Dazs ice cream in the fridge.
TAYLOR: What kind of stuff do you order?
BERLIN: Ice cream. Cookies. Cakes. Pies. You might know something about my key lime pie addiction. Did you see Pie in the Sky? You have to see it.
TAYLOR: In Andy’s Diaries a lot of what he said about you seemed brutally mean. He’d call you fat every second page.
BERLIN: That never bothered me. We were so close.
TAYLOR: Why did he always talk about your weight?
BERLIN: Because that’s all I ever talked about!
TAYLOR: Do you regret dieting so often?
BERLIN: I don’t regret anything. I mean, what’s the point of it?
BRIGID BERLIN POLAROIDS IS OUT MONDAY, NOVEMBER 23 VIA REEL ART PRESS.