The platinum wig is perched like a Pekingese above his own black hair. His dry lips float in a face the color of chapped hands. It's Andy Warhol, King of the Club Crawlers, Lazarus of Underground gone Uptown, and for the next week, prisoner of his own book tour.
"My editor is making me do this," he says cheerlessly, "so I am."
Somewhere deep inside his huge black leather jacket ("It's Calvin Klein, but I only wear Stephen Sprouse"), his shoulders sag. His book editor, who looks a bit like Tab Hunter, hovers nearby. Lunch has arrived in a brown paper bag, but the herbal tea he ordered is not to be found. Warhol licks his lips, his dark eyes glitter behind the neon-pink glasses. He squirms, shuffles his dingy white Reeboks. It is a painful sight: portrait of the artist waiting to have his teeth drilled.
The new book is called "America," a collection of photographs of the fey and famous, and pense'es like this (flanked by a picture of Howdy Doody):
"What I don't understand is why every time an underdeveloped country starts to get developed, the first thing they do is manufacture knickknacks and send them over here. I mean stuff like musical toilet paper dispensers and calculator pens. Who gets them started making these things? Why don't they show them how to be self-sufficient foodwise? . . . It ends up that we're sending guns and food to the world, and the world is sending us doodads."
He promised everyone 15 minutes in the spotlight, but he's been cruising the fame lane for more than two decades, the Prince of Pop Art, the Campbell's Soup Can Man. He is signing copies and doing interviews in Washington, then on to Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles. It's going to be rough sledding because he can't think of much to say about the book. Answers to questions trail off into desperate silences. He looks at his hands, smiles politely, cocks his head. "There are people who really love to talk, and they should. I never think I have that much to say."
There is a long silence. A siren wails outside. Somewhere people are having fun. "Well," he begins again, lifting a hand toward the window, "it's so beautiful down here."
Outside the Govinda Gallery in Georgetown, the young and the restless have begun to line up for the book signing. Most of them well under 25. Georgetown University students, some in their best East Village black, line up beside prepsters in polo shirts and penny loafers. There's a woman dressed like Boy George. A Madonna clone, some clerks from the Peoples Drug store down on Wisconsin Avenue. Curious, reverent, excited, waiting patiently for the Bruce Lee of Bland, shrewd as the neighborhood loan shark, a pale, weak-eyed water bug quivering his way across the fluid surface of American life.
"It's neat," says a pilgrim. "It's not like the Picasso stuff where you can look at it for hours and not be able to figure it out."
The Govinda Gallery has the Warhol franchise in Washington. Huge silk-screens line the walls: endangered animals, the Cologne cathedral, Ronald Reagan's Van Heusen shirt ads, Judy Garland preening in Blackglama. Take one home for $2,000 and change. "In the '60s," says one browser, "you could have gotten them for a song."
Copies of the book are piled on tables, awaiting his fat, black signature. "It is a work of blinding insight, a book of strange beauty," the jacket note swoons. "Andy at his funniest and most touching . . . A love letter, a remembrance, an astonishing portrait of modern life."
Warhol licks his lips again and looks embarrassed. "It's a diary. Since I have no memory, I take pictures. I don't know why I don't have one. I wish I did. I don't know, I'm just missing a brain chemical that does that to me."
He was maestro of the Warhol Factory and film school, Svengali for art tarts with names like Viva, Pope Ondine and Billy Name. And Edie Sedgwick, the incandescent Yankee debutante, Warhol high priestess, whose druggy decline and fall was chronicled in a 1982 biography that detailed the squalor of their world.
After the book appeared, reviewers dubbed Warhol the Prince of Ether, the ultimate instigator. "Oh, well, um, that book," he says. "Well I just read a little bit of it, well the book was about Edie and I thought there was a lot of stuff about me that wasn't -- I had nothing to do with Edie, I didn't really know her that long but Jean Stein kind of stuck me in as somebody really important and I wasn't."
Truman Capote once wrote of Warhol: "I think Edie was something Andy would have liked to have been; he was transposing himself onto her a la Pygmalion. Have you ever noticed a certain type of man who always wants to go along with his wife to pick out her clothes? I've always thought that's because he wants to wear them himself. Andy Warhol would like to have been Edie Sedgwick. He would like to have been a charming, well-born debutante from Boston. He would like to have been anybody except Andy Warhol."
He seized the surface and made it his with his vibrant, iconographic silk-screens of Marilyn Monroe and others. He created Interview magazine, the ad-heavy tabloid. Now he's doing MTV and modeling for Ford ("live shows, that's what I really wanted to do, trying to get less scared and shy and stuff like that") and signing books, signing posters, silk-screens, post cards, snapping pictures, parties, parties, parties.
The book is bursting with pictures of celebrities: the McGuire sisters, Melvin Laird boogying, Capote in profile with black stitches from a recent face lift showing. Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O'Neal. "He and Farrah must be the most beautiful, most American couple," the text croons. Phyllis George, "Aspen's John Denver," Nancy Reagan, Ronald Reagan, Ron Reagan Jr., Doria Reagan, lots of Reagans. Nancy Reagan calling Warhol by his first name. A shy guy, Mr. Mainstream, Andy Workaholic.
"Everything that seems wild becomes mainstream today," explains book editor Craig Nelson. "Nowadays every issue of People magazine covers at least one eccentric person and David Letterman has a whole show -- somebody's on every night. There's always a thing about downtown moving uptown."
Why does such a shy guy go out so much? Before Warhol can answer Christopher Makos, photographer and Warhol prote'ge', self-conscious imp, whirls from his perch at the other end of the room and answers: "To make money."
Warhol: "Well, going to parties you don't make money."
Makos: "Well, you find the clients to make the money."
Warhol: "No, I've never gotten a job at a party."
Makos (disbelieving): "Never?"
Warhol (almost inaudibly): "No."
Makos (insistent): "Well, dinner parties then."
Warhol: "No, it never happens, no."
Art critic Calvin Tompkins once described Warhol, who grew up, by the way, in McKeesport, Pa., the child of Czech immigrants, as having pursued fame with the "singlemindedness of a spawning salmon." Warhol dismisses that, saying that he just likes meeting new people. "I try with the magazine to meet new people and faces and fashions. Uh, it's like every day's a new day."
He brightens visibly for the first time in an hour when told that Interview is one of the magazines to be included on the royal night table during the Prince and Princess of Wales' three-day visit next week. "Oh, really? God!" he says.
More from the book:
*"I'm the type who'd be happy not going anywhere as long as I was sure I knew exactly what was happening at the places I wasn't going to. I'm the type who'd like to sit home and watch every party that I'm invited to on a monitor in my bedroom."
*"It used to be that when you were famous, you were famous for one thing. John F. Kennedy was President. Elvis was the King of Rock and Roll, Elizabeth Taylor was the world's greatest movie star. But now it seems like you have to do a lot of things really well and you don't get to stay famous for long unless you're always switching."
*"We all came here from somewhere else and everybody who wants to live in America and obey the law should be able to come too, and there's no such thing as being more or less American, just American."
*"When reporters asked the Pope what he liked best about New York, he replied, 'Tutti buoni' -- everything is good. That's my philosophy exactly."
He thinks the '60s are coming back. "Yeah, I think so, the atmosphere is coming back. I think it will get more political, more violent, stuff like that."
He'd have preferred to spend the night in New York, listening to the Hot Chili Peppers at the Ritz.
Are children wearing Warhol wigs and toting goody bags this Halloween?
"No," he whispers. "But I am."
Trick or treat.