When Brigid Berlin (a.k.a. Brigid Polk) died last Friday, we lost one of the last connections to New York City’s 1960s underground film and art scenes. A major star in the universe of Andy Warhol’s Factory, and friend and confidante of the artist, Brigid was a true original. She was also a friend of PKM’s Gillian McCain, who shares a conversation with the ‘superstar’.
by Gillian McCain
Brigid Berlin (a.k.a. Polk) was an amazing artist and a fantastic talker. Her death last Friday is yet another reason to curse this year of 2020. The oldest of three daughters of wealthy, powerful and socially-connected parents—her father, Richard E. Berlin, was the longtime chairman of Hearst media—Brigid Berlin was everything her family most feared. She was independent-minded, free-spirited, drawn to the bohemian fringe and usually in trouble.
Naturally—after failed attempts at becoming a debutante, then at marriage, then at getting her weight and drug use under control—Brigid gravitated to Andy Warhol’s Factory by 1964 and quickly became one of his “superstars.” She appeared in several of Warhol’s films, including Chelsea Girls and Ciao! Manhattan (with Edie Sedgwick).
Brigid Polk (Berlin) splits screen time with Nico in this excerpt from Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls:
She also taped and photographed all aspects of her everyday life, some of which formed the basis of the play Pork. Another batch of her tapes was used to create Live at Max’s Kansas City, the Velvet Underground’s first live album release.
She became a lifelong friend and confidante of Andy Warhol’s and worked for years at his Interview magazine offices. Brigid was also a friend of Gillian McCain, who recorded this phone interview with her in 2009. This conversation took place days after Gillian sent her a copy of Please Kill Me.
G: Hi, Brigid? Hey, it’s Gillian. How you doing?
B: Hi! Oh, Gillian, your book is too much.
G: What page are you on?
B: I’m up to a hundred and ninety-eight.
G: You’re having fun with it?
B: Oh my god, I can’t believe it.
G: What can’t you believe?
B: Well, it’s so funny that I just break out into hysterics. I mean, I was there… and I never saw any of this.
G: Come on! Really?
B: No, Gillian, I would tell you the truth. You know, I’d go to Danny’s [Fields] loft on west 20th Street and I’d lie on the bed with Iggy [Pop] and we’d watch television. That’s all. I never, never knew about any of this performing on broken glass. Listen, when I got up to those pages about Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn stealing the old lady dresses, I mean, I almost peed in my pants.
G: Ha ha ha.
B: You know, I didn’t really know… but then what sort of started happening was that I knew all of them! I’d go to the back room [of Max’s Kansas City] and that Andrea Feldman and all those nuts would stand on the table tops yelling, “It’s show time!” And I sort of couldn’t take that anymore.
G: Yeah, yeah.
B: I don’t think that I was ever really a part of it. And yet, I used to go to the St. Mark’s Poetry Project every-single solitary—what was it—Wednesday night?
G: Yes, Wednesday.
B: And Anne Waldman, who was a great friend of mine, and Bill Berkson, who is four days older than I am. I mean, he’s my best friend. We call ourselves birth-mates because his mother went into the hospital to have him with me.
G: Isn’t that wild?
B: And, you know, Ron Padgett—and I’m just thinking back—Jim Carroll was like my best friend. And all of those people, Larry Fagin…
G: Oh, I’m good friends with Larry.
B: I mean, you know, every-single one of them, and the only one who—he was a good friend of mine—I ever had sex with was Gerard [Malanga], but you know, I never knew anything about all this crazy stuff.
G: Uh huh.
B: I mean, I am flipping out hearing how many girls, how many nights, how many boys and girls looking for this, looking for that. You know, I’m like saying today, Is David Bowie straight? I mean, what does that have to do with the price of tea in China? I mean, it was so absurd and you know he really got famous, right, because of Pork.
G: Did you write Pork or did you direct it?
B: No. It was tapes of me. And of course I never saw it because it was in London. And who did it, Tony Ingrazzia?
G: Yes, I think that’s who it was.
B: I think, but I’m not absolutely sure. You see, Mickey Ruskin [owner of Max’s Kansas City] was like my closest friend and I used to go up to Mickey’s house in Great Barrington every other weekend. And you know, the John Chamberlain couches were in the living room… you see by then I had gotten tired of the back room [of Max’s]. Maybe there’s this intellectual side of me, but I didn’t want to be with those clowns anymore.
B: So when I was back there it was with Jane Fonda and Dennis Hopper and Michael Pollack… wasn’t it Michael Pollack?
B: Yeah. But you know, it really wasn’t the nuts. But I’d also sit around with Jackie and Holly all night but I never knew… and you know, when I was at the Chelsea… I mean, I remember so well the loft that Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe had. It had a sheet over the window and I went up there as soon as they moved in and I never knew for a minute—I mean, I always thought Robert was gay and then with—I’m not putting gays down, but what Robert got into later and those photographs and you know, of course his long relationship with Sam Wagstaff…
I’d go to Danny’s [Fields] loft on west 20th Street and I’d lie on the bed with Iggy [Pop] and we’d watch television. That’s all. I never, never knew about any of this performing on broken glass.
G: Did you know him?
B: Of course I did. I just didn’t like his photographs. All that leather and all of that… It was… I didn’t… I still don’t know anything about S&M.
G: Uh huh, and don’t want to.
B: I mean… talking about… I was never involved in the gay guys and all the tricks, even knowing Danny… I mean, I didn’t know anything.
G: Uh huh.
B: And you know, Danny certainly never flaunted the thing in my face. I was at Danny’s when Edie [Sedgwick] was there. In the beginning, I used to leave Max’s and go to Danny’s every night. I would walk over to 7 West 20th Street. And then when I stopped going so much to the back room, I still didn’t stop going to Danny’s— it’s just that I started to go to all these artists’ lofts, too. And I got interested—to think that I didn’t understand Robert Smithson, but I would sit up there and tape Robert Smithson and try to understand what Earth Art was about, and sit with the Heavies, we would call them the Heavies…
G: I love that.
B: The Jack Daniels-drinking-artist.
G: So who were they? Rauschenberg?
B: Bob Rauschenberg was one of my closest friends. My tapes of him are unbelievable.
G: Are they great?
B: They’re fabulous. Not interviews. You see, I knew Brice [Marden], even before he was an artist. Brice was dating Helen, who was a waitress at Max’s. And they married and Brice got a loft on… I think it was Lafayette Street and I was with Brice when he did his very first painting.
B: Yes, and you see Brice had been a good friend of Bob Rauschenberg’s. And at four in the morning—Mickey would keep Max’s open for us, the people who hung out up in the front—because Mickey loved the artists. And you know, Robert Morris, Donald Judd, and then I even have tapes of me with Yoko and John Lennon.
G: You do? Are you going to get those transcribed?
B: Well, that’s the next process—I’ve got about 2,000 of them.
G: Oh my god.
B: I taped the entire era. From the late ‘60s through the ‘70s. This is hard to explain, but when I first started to tape, I did it in a totally different way than Andy [Warhol] did it. Henry Geldzahler introduced me to Andy in 1963 and the reason I knew Henry Geldzahler was because Billy Name—who was then called Billy Linich—who did all the photos of the Factory, right?
G: Uh huh.
B: Billy Name had been Henry Geldzahler’s maid.
G: I love it!
B: On 80-something street on the West Side. So the speed people that I knew were: Rotten Rita, and… this is like before I met Andy. Because I had been married.
G: I’m sorry, you had been what?
B: Married. I was married when Kennedy was shot. I know exactly where I was; I was in John Rochelle’s antique shop on Second Avenue and 66th Street. And I lived on 65th between Second and Third. I knew a lot of fags then, but they were all older and I inherited this money from a man that my father had bought newsprint from for the Hearst News Papers in Canada. We had a house also in Canada.
G: In Quebec, right?
B: Ninety miles north of Quebec in Murray Bay, and then we had a fishing camp thirty miles away from our house. It was the hugest house you ever saw. I mean, Clark Gable would come there as a houseguest. We flew the flags of all my father’s friends if they were from another country, along with the American flag and the Canadian one. It was right on the St. Lawrence River. It was magnificent. But anyway, the gay people that I met then—this is what was so interesting—they all, later, became famous artists. Now, Bob Rauschenberg did windows.
G: Wow, what, for department stores?
B: He was a window trimmer. Gene Moore did Tiffany’s, and my husband, John Parker, did the deepest windows in New York, for a store called The Tailored Woman. It was on the north side of Bergdorf’s, on 57th Street. Jerry Morgan did Dolman’s at Bergdorf’s and Joel Schumacher—who is now a film director—was a window trimmer. I knew everyone on Fifth Avenue.
G: Uh huh.
B: Thursday nights was window trimming night. So I could walk down Fifth Avenue and chat through the windows with all of my friends and there was this guy at I. Miller on 55th Street on the west corner of Fifth Avenue, and he would be on a ladder and he had white hair and it was Andy [Warhol], but I never knew him. You didn’t even kind of want to know him. Andy was already in illustration but he wasn’t well known as a window trimmer. So the reason Henry took me to meet Andy was that Billy Name—when Henry Geldzahler would be away—would let me stay at Henry’s house. And I thought Henry’s apartment was fascinating. Because it was the first apartment that I had ever seen with a loft bed, where you had to climb the little steps to sleep in it. And so I just thought that this was the bee’s knees, sleeping in the center of a room that took little steps to get up there. And all the paintings on the wall: Al Hansen, and all this stuff. And Henry then was the curator of modern painting at the Met and he later, as you know, became the New York City Cultural Commissioner.
B: So, one day Henry took me to 47th Street to the Factory and I guess I had already been divorced; I had been having an affair… I mean, when I first took speed—you see it happened—because when I was 12 they didn’t even know that speed was dangerous. And my mother took me to my pediatrician and I got this medicine that was supposed to take away my appetite and I went back to boarding school with a little bottle of pills, which I never abused, I didn’t know anything, I was a kid.
G: But didn’t you feel the effects?
B: Well, I felt like I wanted to study.
B: And Gillian, when the nun would ring the bell that lights had to be out at 8:30, I would go to bed with a flashlight and I would memorize my fucking history book under the covers. And if I didn’t know the answers—we didn’t have things like “check off this box”—everything were essays—and if they asked us, “Describe the War of the Roses,” I didn’t know the causes or the results and all that stuff, so I would just write pages that I made up about shining armor. I mean, I’d make it all up. That’s when I started to get into speed, in my room—a private room I had at boarding school—I was organizing my top drawers and putting everything in little compartments.
B: Yeah. But I didn’t really lose weight; I think I gained weight from it.
G: So it didn’t affect your appetite at all?
My mother took me to my pediatrician and I got this medicine that was supposed to take away my appetite and I went back to boarding school with a little bottle of pills
B: Well, it did, but I was born addicted to sugar. And in Pie in the Sky—if you remember that early footage of me that was 1942—that my father took with 16 mm film—you see me with ice cream, shoving cake down my face, being fat. I used to come home from school and hide all this candy. I used to poke a hole in the pockets of my coat, because I had to hide it from my mother and the maids and my nanny so all of my candy would be floating in the lining of the bottom of my coat. And I used to sneak down to the kitchen, in the middle of the night, because if my mother had had a dinner party, those ladies only ate like a slice of dessert…
G: You did?
B: I had to go in my mother’s room before I went to school and she would weigh me on a doctor’s scale—so at night, when the upstairs chamber maid was polishing door knobs, and my parents were out a dinner party—I would go into that bathroom and stuff socks under the scale. Anything I could do to balance that scale on zero so it would look like I’d lost weight.
G: Did it work?
B: And then I figured out a way… my mother would come in and weigh me; she’d take the lever on the big doctor’s scale and she’d move it—I couldn’t touch it—but there was this mirrored cabinet right next to the scale, and I figured out that if while she was weighing me I leaned with my right arm heavy on this mirrored cabinet that the numbers would go down. And she never figured it out. I mean, I’d be standing there and she’d be pushing the weight thing and I’d be nudging with my elbow and trying to lean on my right side because that’s where the cabinet was. Then I would walk out and my father always kept his money on this brown table with a beautiful satin cloth and my mother’s porcelain all over it, totally loose, and I thought nothing of—if I was going that way—nipping a hundred dollar bill. You see, I was supposed to get a dollar if I’d lost a pound.
B: He never missed it. And I started to tell my parents that I was going to school early because I was going to study hall but I’d really be in line at twenty of eight in the morning at the Wayland Drugstore on the corner of Madison and 65th Street and I would have chocolate malt, three jelly donuts, and toasted buttered pound cake.
B: Then I would walk up Madison Avenue and I would hit Schrafft’s—my school was on 91St and Fifth—and I would have a butterscotch sundae with almonds and whipped cream, then I would go to the candy department and I would get a half of pound of fudge chocolate with nuts and I would bring it to school and hide it in a Saks Fifth Avenue shoe box under my desk. This is all really true. I couldn’t lie about this if I tried. They didn’t find out about the money because Daddy had a big wad. But I kept gaining weight. At night I’d go down and get a can of tuna fish, a jar of mayonnaise, slice some onions, bring up a loaf of bread and I’d make tuna fish sandwiches in my room and I would shove all the dirty bowls under my bed. Why is Brigid not losing weight? Then I was sent to another goddamn diet farm… but when I came out instead of losing fifty pounds, I’d gained fifty pounds.
G: When you went to the camp or when you came back?
B: No, when I was there. Then they sent me to Mexico where they were experimenting with the first fasts and Lyndon Johnson got me into this hospital in Mexico City—they got me a private nurse, Maria—who taught me how to speak Spanish—and I couldn’t get out of there so I really lost a lot of weight. … but I would cheat—I started to bribe Maria to bring me these hoagies from downtown— and they tested your urine everyday, okay, and I found out that the thing they were looking for was acetone—so if you didn’t have acetone in your urine then you hadn’t cheated, right?
G: Uh huh.
B: So I put nail polish remover in my urine.
G: How did you figure that out?
B: I don’t know, I just did. And Maria would take me out shopping… then midway into it I was finally let out of the place because I was having three affairs with three different doctors.
Then they sent me to Mexico where they were experimenting with the first fasts and Lyndon Johnson got me into this hospital in Mexico City
G: Great! How old were you?
B: Um, I’d just turned 22, because I had already been married. I had just inherited $150 000 from my father’s friend.
B: That was a lot of money back then, Gillian.
G: That must have been like a million then.
B: My father said, “Let me put some away for you.” Oh no, not me. I deposited the whole thing in a checking account at the Manufacturer’s Hanover Trust.
G: And it stayed in the checking account?
B: Yes, I just spent it. I had seaplanes and a house in Cherry Grove [on Fire Island]. I would be so outrageous that I’d go to Cartier to buy sapphire cufflinks for the husband and drop them out of the seaplane into the swimming pool. I was mad. I would give luncheons on engraved Cartier stationary and I had the fucking nerve to put at the bottom, “Please no bathing suits.” I ordered a hundred cold lobsters from Seville… I also ordered like a hundred boxes of poppers.
G: Oh my god.
B: They were all gay; all my gay friends were out there. Jimmy Mitchell, who’s still in PR. I knew everybody there. And Joel Schumacher would dress me up at Jerry Morgan’s house— and all of the sudden Joel would make declarations like, “This will be the year that pink and orange go together” and then next year it would be blue and green. So my apartment was absolutely fabulous because my husband really knew how to paint. He did the whole dining room like a Napoleonic campaign tent. He painted the walls yellow and white stripes and every single door to every closet was decoupaged trompe l’oeil with shelves of books on them.
G: Did he do that himself?
B: Yes, he was really, really talented but then I found out he was cheating on me. I mean, I slept with him and everything, but he was having an affair with Bill Blass.
G: Oh, man.
I’m like saying today, Is David Bowie straight? I mean, what does that have to do with the price of tea in China? I mean, it was so absurd and you know he really got famous, right, because of Pork.
B: See I have a story way beyond all that Max’s stuff, but you see, I don’t remember so much from that time. Danny reminded me yesterday… I said, I don’t remember Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe sitting outside Max’s because they couldn’t get in, because there was no doorman at Max’s there was only the cashier and the cashier was Pauline Trigere’s son, Jean Pierre, you know the designer?
B: And there was only Mickey standing by the jukebox always in his red sweater. And Mickey was fine in all of those years until Mickey, unbeknownst to me, started taking heroin. I never had heroin. I never had coke and I’ve only had in my total life maybe three puffs of pot. I hated it. So the only thing I ever did was I poke amphetamines into my fanny. But before that I went to three doctors. Max Jacobson—who JFK went to—Robert Friman and Dr. Bishop. Robert Friman was so attractive. He was on 83rd and Fifth. His waiting room was like the El Morocco at 11 in the morning. The nurse was there and the fridge was filled with champagne and fresh strawberries. This was before the Max’s scene, a whole different social set. So, I went to Friman and I went into his office and saw the most beautifully dressed man I had ever seen in my life, and his desk was all brown leather with gold tooling around it and he had a big tool-like box filled with these lavender pills. And I was scared to death to have the injection because I have terrible veins. Sometimes when they take my blood at my physical…it’s really hard for my doctor to find a vein even on the back of my hand. They pop up and then they go away.
G: Oh wow.
B: So, I have never shot up anything in my life—in a vein. So Dr. Friman finally took me into the treatment room and I was wearing a pink Chanel suit with a Chanel scarf around my neck. I was all done up because I was having an affair with a man who was much older than me called Count Motetica Gordina Moraldi and he was Ahmet Ertegun’s best friend.
G: Uh huh.
B: So Dr. Friman took me into the treatment room, and this is really true, Gillian, he took the scarf from around my neck—not pulling it off like this was a drug addict he’s seeing—and he put it around his eyes with the V down over his nose, like ah… what do you call it…
G: A bandit?
B: Yeah, and he shot me in a vein in my arm and what he said to me while he was doing this was, I’m going to make you feel better than any man has ever made you feel. Quote unquote. In that injection was amphetamine, B-12, Lasix—to make you pee—and as it went in, I’m telling you, my head was already in Bloomingdale’s.
I would be so outrageous that I’d go to Cartier to buy sapphire cufflinks for the husband and drop them out of the seaplane into the swimming pool.
G: In what?
B: In Bloomingdale’s. And I would walk out of there so fucking fast and once I got there I would just leave the skirt that I was wearing in the dressing room and buy something else. We were nuts; all it was about was dressing. I was living at a very chic townhouse called the John J. Watts Residence for Girls on 70th right on Madison and I had an ironing board in my room and that’s all I cared about was what it was going to wear that night. Anita Moraldi’s Count was married but he had an apartment on 73rd street and that’s where, I guess, he took his woman. Well, if I was 22, he had to be 46. And you see, I always liked older men when I was that age.
G: Yeah? Me, too.
B: So, in my whole life I was never into those little punk rock boys. I was not like those girls who had all those little boyfriends and those rock stars.
B: I mean, I could never have thought of that, going to bed with what they looked like. I mean, glitter was not… and that way I didn’t get into the group, because I can honestly say I never bought a rock and roll record.
G: Yes, but you recorded a masterpiece.
B: Yes, but that has nothing to do with it.
B: I’m just getting into the music now. Can you believe it? Rock and roll. I want to hear… what’s that one… the danger one, of…
G: That danger one? Is that the name of the band or the song?
B: No, no, not the band, it’s the song. I wrote it down right here. Oh, “Search and Destroy.”
G: Oh, a masterpiece.
B: See, I never heard that I don’t think. Yesterday I was asking Rob [Vaczy], he knows them all; he’s read your book already twice.
B: He thanks you so much. I said, “Well, listen, I know all those people but I sort… I mean, Gillian’s not like that, she just wrote the book. She’s not one of those girls like [unintelligible] or… I mean, these girls, I couldn’t believe them.
G: Ha ha ha.
His waiting room was like the El Morocco at 11 in the morning. The nurse was there and the fridge was filled with champagne and fresh strawberries.
B: And then when I read… oh my god, Gillian, when I read about this shit and stuff like this…
G: The Lou Reed thing?
B: The shit.
G: Yeah, yeah.
B: I mean, I didn’t know about such things. And he’s married to Laurie Anderson. Now, okay, is he straight now or are they all bi, do they still fool… is she straight?
G: I guess so, I don’t know. I don’t want to know.
B: I mean, when you were doing the book, did a lot of it shock you?
G: That story shocked me, definitely.
B: I mean, Iggy with all the blood and cutting thumbs and you know, being a girlfriend of one of them. Then they’d do it ten minutes later with another one. Did any of that… were you a part of that?
G: No, because I was born in ’66 so…
B: So, you’re 42?
G: 43, yeah. So I was in my Star Wars pajamas when that was happening, but I had older brothers and sisters and they brought home the records so I’d be listening to it on headphones. So that’s how I go into it, but no, I wasn’t involved, I didn’t see any of those bands till later. So, I was kind of like a voyeur; I just loved hearing those stories.
B: Did you go to CBGBs?
G: Well, I didn’t move to New York until ’87.
B: See, the Mudd Club and all those places, I didn’t like them.
G: That was before my time.
B: Now I take all the CDs and I lie on my bed and listen to all of them and if I like a song I check it off and then I have them put on my iPod. I’m just going bananas.
G: This is funny because I called you to interview for Please Kill Me.
B: You did?
G: Yes, but you said you were sick of talking about Warhol, which I could understand.
B: Well, that was probably true, but I don’t remember. You know who I hate in the book?
B: And I like him, but I can’t listen to him [unintelligible]…
B: He was just out of his mind.
B: And Paul [Morrissey] takes the credit for everything. He thinks of liberals—and I’m not a liberal, but I’m not like Paul—he calls all liberals baby killers.
G: Oh my god.
B: And that is his expression. You know, Paul Morrissey, he claims credit for everything. Because Andy was not just this person that sat there like a bump on a log saying nothing and being involved in nothing. He was involved with everything and I know because I talked to him everyday for 25 years. And he was always right. He always gave me the best advice and I’m grateful for that. I would never put him down in print for a million dollars.
G: Yeah, I understand. Listen, can we continue this another time?
B: Oh sure.
G: Okay, I’ll call you soon.
B: Okay. This is my new life.
G: Okay, good.
B: I love you, I’m so grateful that you signed these books. Wait till you see the condition of mine all ready, you’re certainly going to know I’ve read it.
B: Well, call me when you get back, we’ll have to have a lunch or do something.
G: I would love to. Okay, sweetie. bye.