The Andy Warhol Diaries
A tragic and fascinating odyssey through the full, complex, and wild life of a culture-defining icon.
As someone who completely nerds out about New York history, particularly the disco days of the 60’s through the eclectic art scene of the 80s, I immediately shrieked with joy when I saw a new non-fiction piece about the man at the center of these times, Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol was obviously an art icon, but he was also the man of the Manhattan social scene. His name is practically synonymous with the days of Studio 54 and 60s-80s New York; he wasn’t just the scene, he created it. The Andy Warhol Diaries is based on the novel of the same name, full of the daily diary excerpts of the legendary artist and New York Icon. Andy’s life diaries are a colorful and captivating journey through the heyday of New York’s counterculture and its tragic demise.
The basis of this docuseries, and what makes it so compelling, are the words of Andy himself. The series is narrated by an AI recreation of Andy’s voice, and this tech can’t yet truly mimic the tone and modulation changes that would happen in an authentic human voice, resulting in robotic and monotone readings with no vocal modulations. You might think this sounds terrible, but it strangely works, producing something haunting, somber, and eerie, a constant reminder that while this is what Andy sounds like, he is no longer alive to actually narrate his own words. It produces the sense that it’s being narrated by his ghost, enhancing the melancholy that already exists in his diary entries.
One of the many tragic aspects of Andy’s life is that he never seemed truly happy. As a gay man raised Catholic in a homophobic society, there is much he is grappling with. He craves acceptance and admiration from the art world that he never truly receives until after his death. The series also delves into this sense of internalized homophobia he had, never fully able to accept himself as a gay man in the way many of his gay peers part of 70s counterculture had. Towards the end of the series, we reach the start of the AIDS epidemic. Andy’s diary entries reveal an intense fear of getting sick from AIDS (he asked his housekeeper to wash his dishes and clothes separately from his partner who he rightly suspected had AIDS, Jon Gould.) Jon ultimately died a brutal death from it, never admitting what it was. While some of his fellow gay artists like Keith Herring became vocal activists in the fight against AIDS, Andy remained bound by fear, never assuming the role in the movement many felt he should have taken.
The documentary does not ignore Andy’s faults, but they only delve into them just enough to ensure we do not lose our empathy for him. The series often turns to the perspective of the lead curator at the Andy Warhol Museum, a woman who turns to his defense and sees the best in him, clearly ignoring his darker elements. The docuseries does still include perspectives of those who challenged and acknowledged his faults, specifically in letting Black artists weigh in on his controversial relationship with Basquait. I appreciated that they did not completely ignore the questionable power imbalances in Andy’s life and his tendency to surround himself with young boys, but if you’re looking for a more in depth piece on this, I recommend this article: Factory Boys, a firsthand account by the DuPont twins, teenagers in Andy’s inner circle. Some might argue that the plain truth is that Andy liked to surround himself with youth, supply them drugs, and watch them die. One of the many revelations in this series that supports this claim is in the case of Andy’s close friend Basquait’s drug addiction. Basquait’s girlfriend and Andy’s colleague Paige Powell asked Andy for help getting Basquait clean, and Andy responds to just let him be. This is heartbreaking and infuriating, especially as the docuseries dedicates plentiful time for getting to know Basquait, both in his relationship with Andy and who he was outside of it, an icon of the art world.
What really struck me about this docuseries was the attention it gives to the people in Andy’s orbit; his great loves, his colleagues, his best friends, and muses - the people that influence and define an artist's legacy. An entire hour-plus long episode is dedicated to each of his 3 great loves: his first love, Jed Johnson, his second love, Jon Gould, and his third love, which is the most complex and not explicitly romantic, his relationship with art legend Basquiat. The people around Andy are just as much compelling and fascinating characters as Andy himself, and the creators of the series know this, dedicating time to explore their lives as well.
Andy’s three loves become main characters in the docuseries, and we begin to know them intimately from the recounts of those still alive who knew and loved them. It makes it all the more devastating when we find that all 3 of these men faced tragic, preemptive deaths. The last couple episodes of this docuseries are truly heart-wrenching, as so many of the people we’ve grown to love die. It was clear that Andy was both fascinated and terrified by death and obsessed with youth. But youth cannot last, and as we leave the disco days and head into the 80s, tragedy permeates Andy’s life. Jon Gould dies from AIDS, Jed Johnson dies in a plane crash, and Basquait dies of a heroin overdose in the apartment he rented from Andy, soon after Andy’s own death due to internal drowning after gallbladder surgery. At one point, one of Andy’s longtime friends remarks that the good souls leave us first, when speaking about Jed’s death. You can feel the pain in his words; it’s powerful and devastating.
Andy’s diary entries range from the juiciest and most salacious gossip to fascinating glimpses into his love life, and it’s truly a gift for anyone who loves high society gossip or New York culture that the man at the center of it all recorded his daily happenings. For someone who loves both, this was a treat, riveting from start to finish. Andy lived for drama, the parties, the gossip, and the fame. There is something inevitably tragic about this, and it’s reflected in the tone of the series. There is a melancholy that permeates through The Andy Warhol Diaries, and slowly mounts throughout as Andy gets older and the Studio 54 heyday comes to a tragic end with the AIDS epidemic. The disco days couldn’t last forever, and there is a stark sadness to this. It’s felt in Andy’s words, and in the words of those still alive interviewed throughout the series who lost so many of their friends.