PARIS — A “mammoth-verging-on-monstrous,” 15-foot-tall painting of Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong by Andy Warhol on display at the Art Institute of Chicago in the summer of 2014 triggered the idea for Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni’s latest book: “After Andy, Adventures in Warhol Land.”
In the superfun memoir, Fraser-Cavassoni leads the reader on her adventures as a blossoming London “It” girl, and her encounters with movers and shakers from the art, fashion and celebrity worlds orbiting Warhol, with the visionary Pop artist serving as the linking thread. (Sofia Coppola, Simon Doonan and Diane von Furstenberg provided thumbs-up reviews for the book’s yellow-and-pink jacket.)
“Andy is Cheshire catlike,” says the author in an interview in the run-up to her New York book launch at NeueHouse Madison Square today, where she will celebrate the release in conversation with fellow author and art historian William Middleton.
Fraser-Cavassoni in her early 20s was the last person hired to work at the Warhol studio, one of the “English Muffins” — the term coined for well-born British women recruited by the artist, who died unexpectedly four days after her start date.
In an interview with WWD at the Crillon hotel in Paris, she recalls her final encounter with Warhol two days before his passing. “He was very flushed and going through bags and seemed very upset. Fred [Hughes, Warhol’s business manager] suddenly got agitated, and I thought, ‘What’s going on?’ I had no idea he was about to check in as Bob Roberts,” she says, referring to the pseudonym Warhol used to check in to the hospital.
Fraser-Cavassoni was to stay on at the studio, gaining firsthand experience into the handling of the artist’s estate, the record-breaking auction of his belongings, and the publication of his diaries in 1989. During her time in New York, she also penned the Anglophile social column for Interview magazine, part of the Warhol estate.
The book opens with Warhol’s memorial service, held on April 1, 1987, which Fraser-Cavassoni, a witty and astute chronicler, describes as “my first New York society event.” (Think Yoko Ono wearing “large insectlike sunglasses”; an all-American looking Calvin Klein in a “loud pinstripe suit,” Grace Jones, Raquel Welch, Bianca Jagger, Roy Halston Frowick and Liza Minnelli.)
This tableau of influential rock stars, fashion icons, socialites, film stars and art world powerhouses, explains Fraser-Cavassoni, was a way of setting the scene, “like for a film,” introducing the reader to the colorful cast of characters orbiting Warhol.
Many of them resurface later in the book in a tale that moves from Seventies London, in the throes of the punk era, to Eighties New York, then Nineties Paris, where Fraser-Cavassoni, with a little help from Anna Wintour, landed a job as an assistant in the Chanel studio. (“Karl Lagerfeld likes to tease that I spent my life on the phone.”)
She was then hired by Patrick McCarthy, the former editorial director of WWD and W magazine parent Fairchild Publications — “a media boot camp” — in the Paris bureau to cover mainly the social beat and homes, before joining Harper’s Bazaar as European editor.
“The reason I went with ‘Adventures in Warhol Land’ [for the title] is he [created this world], and I’ve met most of the people in that world,” the author says. “I also wanted to capture a moment that is gone. Can you imagine Warhol now? He would arrive at an event with Fred, and now we’re in a moment of bodyguards and cordoned-off areas, that was totally not happening,” Fraser-Cavassoni says.
“Bret Easton Ellis — who loves the book — said, ‘It’s amazing, it’s as if we lived through the Jazz Age.’ And the Eighties, it was all about to change. It was all coming together, that celebrity thing,” she adds. “Being prophetlike — he said that phrase about how in the future, everybody will be famous for 15 minutes — it was all getting there.”
Her first meeting with Warhol was in London in 1980, as a 16-year-old schoolgirl. She’d just had her portrait shot for a feature in British Vogue titled “New Beauties for the Eighties,” with the subhead, “The world is their oyster.” Given her blossoming “It” girl status and pedigree, as daughter to Lady Antonia Fraser and Conservative MP Sir Hugh Fraser, she had been invited to a lunch hosted by Southern-born hostess Marguerite Littman in honor of Warhol.
“He was so girly, he was trying to set me up with this Armani model, and he made me roar with laughter.…I liked Andy immediately because I felt he was very accessible,” Fraser-Cavassoni says. At a party for Warhol held at Régine’s nightclub that night, hosted by interior designer Nicky Haslam, she found she didn’t want to leave his side. “Andy had an extraordinary magnetism. He was kind of an amoeba or Zelig-like. When people say he was negative, I totally disagree, it’s what you brought.”
The author chose a shot taken by Alan Davidson of them together at the event as the focal point of the book’s collage cover. “He’s asking me who designed my dress. It cost 20 pounds from a shop called Ginger in Rome, and he was amazed, but at the time, we never spent money on clothes. My mother wore Jean Muir, but it was older people who had their hair done, older people wore designer clothes. I remember very well, every Saturday we’d go to Portobello Road market, we were always looking for things in these sweaty cardboard boxes, and there was Ossie Clark — but I didn’t know it was him — with his little dog, and he would make faces, and I’d just think, ‘Oh god, whatever.’ I’ve always said that the best accessory in the world is youth.”
“Four years after meeting Warhol,” she writes in the book’s epilogue, “I wanted his world and out of England…I moved to Los Angeles and had dinner with him at Mr. Chow, after the Madonna-Sean Penn nuptials. It was a media event that shocked then low-key Hollywood but delighted Andy. He liked the paparazzi hanging out of the helicopters and the fact that they noticed his white wig. At our final meeting I had a handshake agreement for his ‘Fifteen Minutes’ program on MTV. Five days later, I was screening calls about his death.”
Many of the memoir’s anecdotes, from being hit on by Lucian Freud to dating Mick Jagger at age 17 — not forgetting a photograph of a young, irreverent Fraser-Cavassoni, dressed in a tight cotton sweater, sticking her fingers up to the paparazzi — are laugh-out-loud funny. But the aim, she stresses, was also to be informative.
Personalities from the art and fashion world interviewed for the book range from Larry Gagosian, Peter Brant and Bruno Bischofberger to von Furstenberg and Christian Louboutin, and it’s peppered with intimate observations, like Warhol’s “strange mating call to doll-like girlfriends that consisted of showing the scar where he’d been shot.”
“I wanted it to be a bit like Andy’s work; it’s as breezy or as layered as you want, and that really was a major goal. I wanted it to be an easy read because it’s really like two or three books in one,” the author says.
“I wanted to write about stuff that hadn’t been exposed, like his years in Europe and Paris, the English Muffins — an interesting element of the Factory who have never been interviewed before — the fact that he hid his own artwork in a closet, and what happened with his estate. There are cautionary tales there,” Fraser-Cavassoni adds. “And throughout, one of my favorite [Warhol] lines that I’ve never seen elsewhere: ‘I’ve got to keep the lights on.’”