The bookish Andy Warhol

Groundbreaking artist wrote, illustrated, designed and contributed to more than 80 books before his death

Mike Selby

“Is Andy Warhol the Hemingway of our generation?”

‘The Village Voice’ posed this question to their readers in their December 21st, 1967 edition. At first glance this query appears to be in jest. Warhol certainly didn’t come close to resembling the Pulitzer & Nobel Prize-winning war hero who, when he wasn’t boxing or bullfighting, was killing as many African lions and deep sea marlins as he could. Warhol was lithe, effeminate, and had cultivated his mannerisms after Shirley Temple.

Despite this, the ‘Voice’ was serious. Between the two World Wars, Hemingway had changed the form of the novel by replacing flowery and exorbitant language with his plain style. Was Warhol doing the same for the ’60s generation, by stripping away the commonly held notions of what constituted art, and replacing it with everyday objects such as a Campbell’s soup can?

Their seriousness ends there, as the ‘Voice’ spends the rest of the article openly mocking Warhol, unfortunately confusing him for the hype which surrounded him. Warhol had just published ‘Index’ — one of the most creative and seminal books of the twentieth century. A combination of everything Warhol loved about books themselves, ‘Index’ included photographs, pop-up pages of art, a disappearing signature, and a recording of a German interview (because, Warhol indicates, Gutenberg was German.)

Random House launched the book like they did every other bestseller — with a party/book signing. Yet the ‘Voice’ felt it was fake — all “make believe” — an excuse for publishers to mingle with superstars. Warhol the artist had no place in the publishing world: how much longer can “he chew more than he bites off?”

A little research would have revealed that the ‘Voice’ couldn’t have been more wrong. Warhol wrote, illustrated, designed and contributed to more than 80 books before his death. He also left behind dozens of unfinished and unpublished works. More than any other medium, books meant everything to Warhol.

His love for them may have began in 1936, when the eight-year old Warhol caught Sydenham’s chorea — the involuntary jerking of the muscles caused by scarlet fever. Bedridden, books provided him comfort, distraction, and the building blocks for his future creativity.

Children’s books appear to have been his first love, and he wrote his first one while at college. Untitled and unpublished, it was the humorous story of a Mexican jumping bean. His next book was the first in a series he called the “Books of Friendship” — privately printed volumes he distributed to friends and relatives as gifts. The first one was titled ’25 Cats Named Sam,’ a children’s book about 16 cats named Sam (not 25), with the lettering done by his mother. Similar books soon followed, including ‘A is an Alphabet’ and ‘Love is a Pink Cake.’

‘Bottom of My Garden’ is also of this series, another brightly illustrated book about fairies dancing away in a magical garden. Some saw sexual overtones in the drawings, making the book suitable only for adults.  The illustrated cookbook ‘Wild Raspberries’ also came out during this time.

As the ’50s turned into the ’60s, Warhol was hired by Doubleday Books to illustrate their popular anthology series — the ‘Best in Children’s Books.’ These drawings are Warhol at his imaginative best: each one is full of joy, happiness, and creativity. That they are so unlike his famous artwork is another tribute to his artistic genius. (While a Warhol painting will cost you 100 million dollars, a first edition of this book can be bought for less than 10 dollars.)

From here Warhol designed dust-jackets for numerous adult novels at Doubleday, including ‘Pistols for Two’ by Aaron Marc Stein, ‘The Desire and the Pursuit of the Whole’ by Baron Corvo, and ‘Love is a Pie’ by Maude Hutchins. He would also produce dust jackets for Simon & Schuster and the Noonday Press.

But then came the soup cans, Marilyn, the Factory, and his “15 minutes of fame” quote. Although mostly known for his bizarre films, pop art, and his massive entourage, he continued to write and design books up until his death in 1987. ‘The Philosophy of Andy Warhol’ ‘Andy Warhol’s Exposures’ and ‘America’ were some of last published books in his lifetime, the last one contrasting those suffering grinding poverty with Madonna and Truman Capote.

His last book published was ‘Andy Warhol’s Children’s Book,’ a fitting return to his origins and first love: his books.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library