She called it ‘performance art’ when, in 1964, she casually strolled into Andy Warhol’s Factory, pulled out a handgun and shot a bullet through four paintings of Marilyn Monroe, then strolled back outside. This wasn’t Dorothy Podber’s only claim to infamy—a ‘shooting’ that would be relegated to back burner after Warhol was shot for real in 1968. Burt Kearns chronicles Podber’s strange story.
I shot Andy Warhol. Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol. Dorothy Podber is the only one who shot Andy Warhols, leading to very unintended consequences after she pulled the trigger.
I shot Andy Warhol in the mid-1980s. I was living in a building in the West Village in which Christopher Makos, the acclaimed photographer and Andy Warhol collaborator, had an apartment on the first floor. One afternoon, I walked into the building and literally bumped into Andy Warhol in the hallway. After exchanging greetings with him and Chris, I bolted up to my place on the fourth floor, grabbed a camera, pushed open the bedroom window over Waverly Place and snapped photos of Andy as he got into a car. What a shot! Andy Warhol, seen clearly through the fire escape slats as he slides into the passenger seat. Well, at least you can make out the silver wig on the top of his head. If I point it out.
Valerie Solanas used a gun. A paranoid schizophrenic feminist man-hater and Warhol obsessive, she walked into Andy’s office on Union Square on June 4, 1968 and shot him twice with a .32 Beretta. Warhol was declared dead at one point, but survived another nineteen years before complications killed him. Solanas served three years in prison.
Dorothy Podber shot first. She was a different story altogether, a “performance artist” whose life and love of drugs, booze and crime has been told in broad, legendary strokes. She was the baby who managed to be born in the Bronx in 1932, despite her mother’s attempts to abort, which included throwing herself down a subway stairs; the girl with a father who ran a speakeasy for Jewish mobster Dutch Schultz until he went blind and opened a newsstand; the woman who dedicated her life to crime for the hell of it. She went to jail for running an illegal abortion referral service out of her apartment (she pleaded guilty with the disclaimer that she was a Buddhist), was an expert check counterfeiter, and ran a doctors’ office cleaning service as a means of obtaining keys to the drug cabinets.
All the while, she was deep into New York City’s late 1950s druggie beatnik avant-garde art scene, moving in a circle that included the likes of Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, Jasper Johns, and Billy Name, the artist who designed Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory workspace and became his collaborator.
Her place in the crowd was solidified in 1957, when she and Eunice “Skid” Shality opened the Nonagan Gallery at Second Avenue and Sixth Street. The long, narrow room on the second floor showcased the work of artists like Yoko Ono and hosted concerts by the likes of Charles Mingus. Podber was also a member of a clan known as the “amphetamine rapture group,” and was said to keep a bowl of methamphetamines, like M&M’s, on her coffee table.
“She was a friend of mine,” Billy Name told Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain when they were researching their book Please Kill Me. “But she was the dangerous type of witch who would never stop pressing you beyond – beyond aesthetic, beyond intuition, beyond anything you could ever think of. She could always take you to the next step beyond.”
“I’ve been bad all my life,” Podber confirmed to a journalist. “Playing dirty tricks on people is my specialty.”
Her biggest trick, the one that included a gun and Andy Warhols, the one that elevated her to an esteemed place in art history, almost never happened, because of a crime that made headlines a year before the gun went off. The incident made headlines and caused great scandal but has been lost to history and never included in any of Dorothy Podber’s biographies.
Yet, it’s crucial to postmodern art because, if not for the integrity of a scumbag junkie ex-con thief, Dorothy Podber would have been stewing in a prison cell 250 miles away from the Factory on East 47th Street, and might never have shot Andy Warhols.
Doc Dale’s Missing Medical Bag
It was the second week of October 1963 and Dorothy Podber was traveling beyond the East Village toward the mountains of Vermont. She and two friends were heading to a small town north of Montpelier, Vermont, supposedly to meet a guru. The Indian spiritual master Sant Kirpal Singh was on his second world tour, and after stops in Washington D.C. and Chicago, was speaking at the local Goddard College on Saturday, October 12, and attending a party at a house.
Dorothy and her pals were staying with a woman named Barbara Stevenson in Calais, a small rural town about ten miles north of Montpelier. Calais had fewer than 700 residents and probably as many cows and sheep. It once contained a village called Sodom (because it held no churches) until 1905, when residents petitioned to change the name to Adamant. Dorothy and her pals would help bring a little bit of Sodom back to town.
Barbara Stevenson was thirty years old, but still a poor little rich girl, living in a house owned by her father. Daddy was a big attorney in California who owned more in land in Vermont than just about anyone else. That would come in handy in the days to come.
Dorothy Podber pulled in with her usual dark arts aura and traveling companions who were even darker. Ken Knollenberg, 37, was a photographer. Frederico Cartinali, 29, was a printer. Both haunted the fringes of the avant-garde arts scene. Both were dopers, hopheads, addicts.
The two overgrown bad girls and their dangerous man friends had themselves a good time all the way out in the middle of nowhere in the house owned by Barbara’s daddy. But on Thursday, October 10, two days before the guru was set to pull into town, there was an emergency. Whether he was jonesing or going along with another of Dorothy’s dirty tricks, Ken Knollenberg was said to have some kind of medical problem. Everyone piled into the car to take him to Heaton Hospital in Montpelier. Doctor Porter H. Dale was called upon to treat him. The women entered the hospital with Knollenberg. Cartinali waited outside in the car.
After everyone had gone and Doc Dale was done, he returned to his car and realized something was missing: his medical bag. The leather case contained more than a tongue depressor and stethoscope. Inside were many vials and bottles of drugs, from pep pills to painkillers, including heavy narcotics like morphine. It was a dope fiend’s delight. It wasn’t hard for the doctor to come up with possible suspects.
Vermont state troopers Clement Potvin and Billy Chilton were assigned the case that night. They worked into the next day to track down the missing bag. It turned up, empty, in the village of Worcester. It didn’t take the cops long to get a warrant to raid Barbara Stevenson’s pad not four miles away. Montpelier Police Chief George J. Connor and Sheriff Harry Potter came along for the raid on Saturday night — the night guru Sant Kirpal Singh was speaking. They busted in and encountered Cartinali, whom they later described as being in a “high” state, and along with the other three hipsters, empty vials of morphine and other narcotics, all over the house, all lifted from Doc Dale’s medical bag.
The four of them were hauled down to the Montpelier police lockup.
Can’t Make Bail
On Monday, they appeared before Judge John P. Connarn in Montpelier Municipal Court. Knollenberg was charged with “attempting to procure the administration of a narcotic drug by fraud, deceit, misrepresentation or subterfuge” and with stealing the medical bag from Doc Dale’s car. Federico Cartinali faced the same charges, as well as possession of a switchblade knife. Barbara Stevenson and Dorothy Podber were charged with grand larceny for stealing the medical bag. All four pleaded not guilty. Bail was set at $7,500 for Knollenberg, $10,000 for Cartinali, $1,000 each for the women. Barbara Stevenson’s daddy posted her bail immediately and she walked. The other three were sent to the Washington County Jail.
It turned out that the two men were not mere dope addicts. Both were ex-cons. Knollenberg had once been sentenced in California to a term of ten years to life for robbing a narcotics firm. Cartinali’s record dated back to 1945, and he’d served time in in New York’s Sing Sing prison.
While the group was in and out of court over the next two weeks, the story made big news in and out of Montpelier. None of the New Yorkers was able to post bond, and Cartinali’s $10,000 bail was believed to be the highest ever set in Montpelier Municipal Court.
On Friday, October 25, the affair reached a dramatic conclusion in Judge Connarn’s courtroom. All four were facing serious time in prison. Then, suddenly, the junkie Federico Cartinali stepped up and pleaded guilty to all charges.
He told the court that this was his first trip to Vermont.
“Why did you come here?’ the judge asked.
“I came to a friend’s house to stop using drugs, to kick the habit,” he said. Cartinali said he’d last been treated for his habit in at a hospital in Lexington, Kentucky back in 1953. “I stood off drugs for about fifteen months after that,” he said.
Most significantly, he shouldered all the blame, absolving the others. State’s attorney John E. Bernasconi confirmed he was satisfied that druggie Cartinali had acted alone. If Judge Connarn was impressed with Cartinali’s honesty, it wasn’t reflected in what happened next.
The judge sentenced Cartinali to five years in prison for narcotics possession, another two to five years for stealing the medical bag, and ninety days for carrying the switchblade.
At least the sentences would be served concurrently.
Cartinali was hustled out of the courtroom, straight to the Vermont state prison in Windsor and cold turkey in a cell. The other three, Knollenberg and the two women, were free to go.
Judge Connarn dropped all charges against them, but not before adding some judgely advice. “I would, in your position, feel rather grateful. If you are going to consort with people of this kind,” he said, “you are heading for trouble.”
People of this kind. Dorothy Podber probably got a big laugh out of that one. She returned to the New York City underground meth and art scene with new dark stories to tell. She’d made big news in the capital of Vermont, but what was that worth? It was all performance art.
“She had this power of this thrilling challenge and daringness — in her presence, people would just crumble into the rubble,” Billy Name told Legs and Gillian with an amused laugh. “But I could handle it. Andy didn’t want to, because he knew that if he let people like Dorothy, and other people of that genre, into the Factory scene, that most of the people who were buying his work wouldn’t come around anymore. They would be absolutely destroyed.”
In the fall of 1964, a year after Vermont, Dorothy Podber showed up at the Factory with a few friends and her dog, Ivan De Carlo. Andy Warhol and Billy Name were there.
“She just walked in with her Great Dane, Ivan. She had these black gloves on and a black bag,” Billy recalled. “And she said, ‘Hi, Billy.’ And she took her bag and – she actually, I think, took her gloves off, and opened the bag and took the gun out of the bag.” He laughed at that part, too.
Stacked against a panel were four 40-inch square portraits of Marilyn Monroe that Andy Warhol had painted recently. The pictures, based on a still photo from the movie Niagara, were identical but with different colored backgrounds: red, orange, light blue, and sage blue. A turquoise version was somewhere else.
“And she just took out the gun and shot Marilyn right through the forehead,” Billy said. “And it went through all of them. And then she put the gun away in her bag and put her gloves on. ‘Bye, Billy!’ she said. And she just went. It was like a performance piece, you see? Intentionally.”
Maybe to Billy Name it was a laugh. Andy Warhol was terrified. Before shooting the stack of paintings, Dorothy had pointed the gun in his direction. Can you imagine? Someone walking into Andy Warhol’s workspace and shooting him? Unthinkable.
“Well, they were his paintings, and Dorothy didn’t ask him if she could do it. Andy, of course, was a great control person. Anything in the Factory he wanted to be the producer of. And this was something that had happened out of the world he knew. And it happened to his paintings, and he hadn’t authorized it. So he was a little pissed about it. So Andy asked me, ‘Please. Tell her not to come over anymore.’”
Dorothy Podber was banned from the Factory for life, but her “performance piece” was well-received in the avant-garde arts scene. In 1973, ten years after the incident in Vermont, her work was featured in a Women’s Art Exhibition in Saratoga Springs, alongside acclaimed artists Dotty Attie, Margo Hoff, and Carol Abraham.
Over the years, Dorothy Podber was married three times and had many casual sexual encounters. According to the London Telegraph, “one boyfriend was a banker with whom she would have sexual intercourse only on the banknote-strewn floor of his firm’s vault.”
Her third husband, Lester Schwartz, was a bisexual stevedore and the shared lover of Living Theatre founders Judith Malina and Julian Beck. Lester died in 1986. Dorothy Podber died in her East Village apartment in 2008, at age 75.
And what of Andy Warhol’s shot Marilyn paintings? In the postmodern art world, Dorothy Podber’s bullet did not wind up destroying the hard work that went into them. In fact, the gunshot added a new dimension — and value — to Warhol’s works. The four paintings were patched up and became known as the “Shot Marilyns.”
On May 3, 1989, a little more than two years after Andy Warhol’s death, ”Shot Red Marilyn”‘ was auctioned at Christie’s. It went for double the price expected, $4.07 million. It was the highest price ever paid at auction for a Warhol painting. On May 14, 1998, the record was broken when Shot Orange Marilyn went for $17.3 million.