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Ryan hill discusses the enigmatic warhol superstar – his uncle interview by james nixon


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Paul America 1965 - Andy Warhol’s My Hustler

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Every family has a few sheep that are a little blacker than the others. The relations whose names are studiously avoided at holiday get-togethers. The ones who when mentioned cause faces to tighten and mouths to pinch. Ryan Hill’s family was no exception and it was clear that it wasn’t best to bring up the subject of his uncle. He however couldn’t stop himself. When your uncle’s name is Paul America who could blame him? It’s been 50 years or so since Andy Warhol, losing interest in painting momentarily, turned cameras on the random assortment of characters hanging around his studio – the Factory as it was called – and started referring to them as Superstars. In the haze of time since, it might be unclear just how far out and forefront all this was. One might not understand the level of wit, danger, drugs, talent, genius, madness and decadence these youngsters dealt with and doled out in their day-to-day nor how influential they ended up to Warhol and his art – and therefore us. However even if you don’t get it, the gloriously bestowed monikers of the silver sixties Factory – kids with names like Ondine, Ultra Violet and Billy Name – still resonate with downtown glam that’s both astute and acute. In that spiky, glittering and grubby world, society-girl-gone-bad Edie Sedgwick reigned as ultimate It Girl. Her consort was Paul Johnson – better known as Paul America. In the early 60s Paul Johnson had ­headed to New York City, having dropped out of ­college, to “go see the world and see what it was all about,” and was soon a Factory regular. ­Johnson’s upbringing in New Jersey was seemingly pleasant and middle class – prep school educated; a handsome high school football star with a scholarship to Rutgers. Warhol, on meeting him, inspired by his boynext-door looks, rechristened him Paul America. That All-America appeal later would provide impetus to a predatory group of Fire Island house guests in Warhol’s 1965 My Hustler, a film that would be a turning point in underground cinema and later prove influential in mainstream

film. Warhol’s raw filmmaking style and unapologetic voyeuristic approach set, literally, the stage for his Superstars to ramble, raconteur and occasionally run amok in ways that ­ alternated toward dull or dangerous, hilarious and/or discomforting. All of these are apparent in My Hustler’s premise which showcase Paul America as the focus of a series of agonizing attempts by the guests to cajole the host’s Dial-A-Hustler into action. Experimental cinema of the era was little seen beyond members of the avant-garde film world. My Hustler along with the later Chelsea Girls brought about, through Warhol’s earlier success as Pop painter, a wider audience and


eventually led to his larger Hollywood-style productions of the 1970s directed by Paul ­Morrissey. By then the earlier films had been pulled from circulation. Johnson followed up My Hustler with a role as love interest in what would become the semi-biographical Edie S­ edgwick film Ciao! Manhattan. He did, in fact, have a relationship with Sedgwick at the time but abandoned New York, and the troubled film production midway through. At that point, the boy who had been described in a piece in The New York Times arts section as skyrocketing “to fame, if not fortune” and “looking the way every red-blooded American boy-next-door should look” ­began to fade from the scene. Soon – to any public that might have been interested – he was relegated to footnote status in film texts; now just a compelling face in a still from an unseen counterculture movie. Whatever happened to Paul America? By 1982, Johnson, like many of the Factory talents who burned too bright too last long, was dead. As a child Ryan Hill was curious as to why his family seldom spoke of his late uncle. It wasn’t until his teen years that he learned of Paul Johnson’s connection to artist Warhol. After a chance viewing of one of his uncle’s performances he was intrigued. Since then he has spent years gathering information in an attempt to piece together the life of a man he barely knew. His interest has, at times, seemed inscrutable to family members who found the story of the wayward Johnson too painful to discuss but he has determinedly pressed on documenting his uncle’s life, schooling himself in a counter-culture milieu that was gone before he was born, discovered a long lost relation and perhaps, along the way, found a part of himself.

Paul Johnson at one month with parents


FANTASTICS – There really isn’t much information available on your uncle other than references to his film roles. Who was Paul Johnson? RYAN HILL – Paul grew up mainly in central New ­Jersey in the late 1940s to the early 1960s. He was the second oldest of 4 siblings. According to my grandfather he was a “normal kid”. Had friends, played sports, went to summer camp. I would describe the family as middlemiddle class and working towards upper-middle. His parents would have been aware of the avant-garde, but not very interested in being part of it. I think my grandma had more Norman ­Rockwell ­visions for the family. However my mom describes their home life, growing up, as a war zone. Paul’s dad was a civil engineer and worked all over the world. He would sometimes take jobs and just leave for several months without telling the family simply because he couldn’t deal with life at home. Paul’s mom was a teacher and ran a nursery school in the basement of the house. Her ­pupils included the children of the “Johnson & Johnson” Johnsons – the bank once got my grandpa’s checking account mixed up with theirs. She went on to

become one of the first teaching instructors for the national Head Start program. She was also a raging ­alcoholic, and for at least a few years made use of “mother’s little helpers” so she would have major up and down swings. In his junior year of high school, Paul was sent to a prep school in ­Connecticut. Football coaches at ­Rutgers University suggested it as a way for him to improve his skills ­ ­before ­college. Paul’s time at prep school was very much a c ­ atalyst for him. It introduced him to a more upper class lifestyle and may have helped him become more comfortable dealing with the elite than he would have been otherwise. It was during his time there that Paul made some connections that would Johnson the toddler lead to his meeting Warhol several years later. It was there that Paul was introduced to “black beauties.” Being away from home for school also made it easier for Paul to begin taking his trips into New York. What is your first memory of your uncle? Hearing that he had died. When my mom told my sister and I about it the next morning, I had to ask “Who’s uncle Paul?”

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Johnson Family, 1951

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Johnson family portrait mid-fifties

He may have been brought up and expected to be a “normal” citizen, but that’s not how he was made.


It was clear to me early on that he was not an easy subject for them to talk about, so I didn’t ask many questions. Johnson and high school date


So you didn’t know him well? I met him just a couple of times when I was very young. When he died, I was only 8 and really knew nothing about him until years later. My parents once said they thought he was too “weird and freaky” to be around. It was clear to me early on that he was not an easy subject for them to talk about, so I didn’t ask many questions. I guess the fact that he really didn’t stand out to me, but was just another grown up around at the time shows he didn’t freak me out or anything.

towards him? Was the discomfort coming from you or was something being projected by others that made you feel you should keep your interest in him quiet? Because of the way my mom reacted to my sister wanting to read Edie and then hiding the book, I knew it was a very uncomfortable subject for her. I

When did you become aware of him having a background that was out of the ordinary? The “weird and freaky” was all I had to go on for a while, but it certainly left me curious for more information. When my sister was in high school – I was about 12 – she needed to do a book report on a biography. She pulled the book Edie that I had really never noticed until then from my parents’ bookshelf and asked my mom if she could use that. Mom said she should find something else and removed the book. While visiting my oldest uncle, Ted, late in my high school years was when I got a glimpse of Paul’s life in New York. Ted had found a copy of Ciao! Manhattan for rent and we watched it together. Wow! I had really gotten into film and video ­ over the couple of years prior, and had exposed myself to a lot of ­crazy stuff. But seeing someone I’m so closely related to in something as bizarrely disturbing and incredibly cool as Ciao! really blew me away. After that I searched the house until I found that book. Why were you uncomfortable with your curiosity

Hill’s parents (left), Johnson (far right) and friend

thought that because both of my parents thought he was too weird to be around, they would think my curiosity about him meant I was weird. When I did get weird and into counterculture myself in college, I figured expressing my interest in Paul’s story would be a little self-incriminating. I think there has always

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been a fear for both of my parents that I would possibly turn out just like him. How did Paul end up in New York City? He started going to New York in high school. He would go into the city on weekends to drink once he turned 18. After a couple of years of college in Michigan – Rutgers didn’t work out – Paul dropped out. A family friend helped him get a job with a company on Wall Street but he hated it and soon quit. According to Steve Watson’s book Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties, “Lester Persky (famous ad man and later producer of such films as Taxi Driver) had discovered the strapping young man hitchhiking to New York from Fisher’s Island, and Persky was so taken by him that he suggested they continue on to the discotheque, Ondine. Persky brought Paul Johnson over to the table where Andy was sitting with Chuck (Wein) and Edie (Sedgwick)...” Another quote has Paul saying, “I met Edie Sedgwick at a discotheque called Ondine. It was my first night in New York, actually. A friend of mine had told me to meet him there. I only had two dollars, and the drinks cost two something. So I was waiting at the bar for my friend, realizing my time was short. He turned up and asked me to sit with everybody in the back – Chuck Wein and Andy and Edie; they were having a dinner party because Edie had been on the Johnny Carson show that night. When they went back to the Factory, I went with them, and I stayed for three years. Most people didn’t know I lived there, because I was taking speed – I figured if I took speed, I wouldn’t be paranoid – and I only slept about twice or three times a year...” Paul and Lester Persky met while Paul was still in prep school. Lester told Paul at the time that he thought Paul could be a star. When Paul was back in New York in ’65, Persky introduced him to Andy and the gang at Ondine. At the time Andy was working on a commercial ­involving a motorcycle and the motorcycle had come in parts. Andy asked Paul if he could put the motorcycle together and Paul said yes, so that was his first job at the Factory And Paul Johnson became Paul America. The story everyone seems to have is that Warhol started calling him Paul America because he looked like a comic book drawing of Mr. America, and he was living at the Hotel A ­ merica when they met. It was easy for the name to stick Did you know much about Andy Warhol? Only vaguely before seeing Ciao! All I remember knowing before then was that Warhol was a famous artist. I knew some of his paintings. When he was a guest on The Love Boat, my mom made it clear she didn’t like him very much. It took a few years for me realize why. How did you first learn of the film My Hustler? After watching Ciao!, my uncle Ted told me a little about it. Most of what I knew came from books on Warhol’s films. I didn’t finally see it until about 4 years ago. After waiting so long and reading so much about it, I was almost surprised that it wasn’t more shocking. Especially having seen Ciao! Manhattan first. I think it’s an interesting point in Warhol’s film progression


The Factory scene was a way to escape the boring and predictable life he was expected to live.

Postcard, Hotel America, New York City

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and the influence others were having on it. I think Paul’s performance was pretty real. He said in a piece of writing that he once walked out of a screening because the version of himself he saw on the screen was one he wanted to put behind him. It’s clear in the film that he was at a point of questioning a lot of life choices and what direction to take next. It’s Intriguing. Involving and off-putting at the same time. Yes, I found much of the first half off-putting. The main characters are dreadful and poor Paul is ­obviously being attacked by some kind of bugs on the beach. There’s a true tension in the scene with Joe ­Campbell. Paul portrays a quiet aggression and never lets Joe’s character take control. Paul is real. Paul is playing himself. Part of the tension in the bathroom scene comes from Joe Campbell wanting Paul to “act” more. There is a quote somewhere where he says he wished Paul had given him more to work with. Warhol was notoriously frugal in regard to ­paying talent. Yet Paul managed to get paid for his performance – considered a first. He couldn’t ­ have been easily intimidated. Underneath the sweet, vapid, pretty-boy ­ hustler persona, Paul knew he was strong, smart and ­ ­potentially dangerous. He was able to be the Paul most people remember fondly most of the time but I don’t think being intimidated was something he would have dealt with well. Paul could be very aggressive. Frighteningly so. Most of the time he was a very gentle, loveable guy, but he would snap and become violent. He t­hreatened Genevieve Charbon with a monkey wrench d ­ uring one incident. A police officer ­ reportedly said something to Edie Sedgwick after her Chelsea ­ ­Hotel apartment fire like “That Paul America is your ­boyfriend? He’d stab you for a dollar.”

My parents almost didn’t get married after an incident where Paul pulled a knife and cut my ­ ­paternal grandpa’s hand because he wanted to borrow a car. How much do you know about his relationship with Edie Sedgwick? Edie was one of the first people Paul met when he was introduced to the Warhol Factory crowd in ’65. Paul lived with Chuck Wein around then and got to know Edie more through Chuck over the next ­couple of years. Chuck was Edie’s p ­ romoter/mentor. Paul and Edie ended up living together for a time at the Chelsea Hotel. Apparently Paul helped Edie kick heroin for a while. They were both very into each other for at least several months. It was Chuck Wein who cast him in My Hustler. In Factory Made Henry Geldzahler – famed curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is quoted saying that there was “a big competition between Edie and Chuck for Paul. Chuck loves that situation.” In the New York Times piece about Paul he and Chuck are described as roommates. What do you know about Wein? Not nearly as much as I’d like. I know Chuck and Paul were close. They did a lot of acid together (Paul’s first), but I really don’t know what else. It is ­possible their relationship was more intimate, but I don’t have any evidence of that. My understanding of the living situation is that ­Warhol introduced Paul to Henry Geldzahler when he heard Paul needed a place to stay. It was some time after that when Paul moved in with Chuck, got cast in My Hustler and took on the America name. Warhol, Geldzahler, and Persky were high profile scenemakers. Paul was moving in social circles of heady company. Do you think he was ambitious? Paul was very ambitious and strived to be one of what he saw as the “glittering people”. He also loved intense situations and feelings. Paul and Uncle Ted would actually shoot guns at each other from

Paul America sits for a Factory Screentest, 1965


“When they went back to the Factory, I went with them, And I stayed for three years...” Paul America: Warhol screentest at the factory 1965

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Warhol started calling him Paul America because he looked like a comic book drawing of Mr. America Fantastics


Paul America in Andy Warhol’s My Hustler, 1965


America and Joe Campbell talk shop in My Hustler

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Paul is real.

America and Genevieve Charbon in My Hustler

Part of the tension in the bathroom scene comes from Joe Campbell wanting Paul to “act� more.


Heoncewalkedoutofascreenin hesawonthescreenwasoneh


ngbecausetheversionofhimself hewantedtoputbehindhim. Fantastics


across the field for fun and thrills. No doubt that’s part of the reason he was so taken with speed and the intense social scene at the Factory.

available male lead type amongst the group of friends involved and had chemistry with Edie, so he fell into the role.

How did a ‘normal’ prep-school educated f­ ootball player find himself in that scene?

I was able to speak with Genevieve once. She said she would rather not talk or think about the past.

Paul wanted to experience everything life had to show him. He may have been brought up and expected to be a “normal” citizen, but that’s not

It was to be a project that would allow them to move away from the restrictions of what was being produced at the Factory. Edie Sedgwick America in Ciao! Manhattan, 1967

how he was made. An unsettled home life, prep school and the introduction to drugs at a relatively young age all contributed to his leaning towards a more edgy lifestyle. The Factory scene was a way to escape the boring and predictable life he was expected to live. Besides he was pretty much up for anything that felt good, or helped him get what he needed at the time. Beyond My Hustler he’s probably best known for performing in Ciao! Manhattan. It was ­originally conceived by a group of Factory regulars ­including Genevieve Charbon and Chuck Wein as a sort of inside peek at the lives of underground personalities. In the spring of ’67, a group of Factory regulars who had gotten fed up with Andy decided to make a “real” movie without him. Paul was the most ­readily

eventually became the focus of the film after it’s troubled production stalled then restarted. ­Ultimately they wrap her character’s motivations around Paul. Ciao! is intense and wacky, yet hyper cool; ­dramatic. And the color stuff with Edie from the 70s is just b ­ rutally real and tragic. This is another very real performance by Paul. He worked with what script there was, but the part he played was not incredibly far from real life. It’s said during filming Paul was driving a car ­during a scene, got tired of doing more takes, threw the script out the car window and just kept going. He sure did do that. I think it ended up being pretty much the end of filming on Ciao! in New York. The


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car Paul drove in Ciao! was his. Ciao! had been filming for a couple of months and was falling apart. Edie had disappeared – she had been in the ­hospital or something – so the guys running the show were scrambling trying to figure out how to salvage the production somehow. They were doing major rewrites on the script and trying to continue filming at the same time with no money. Basically no one knew how they were going to save it with no

I’m not sure exactly how direct the trip was, but he wound up going to visit Ted, who had a farm in Southwestern Michigan at the time. Which leads to your next question… Yes, how during filming he was arrested. I­ncredibly the producers managed to get permission to continue on the film, performing while incarcerated. While Paul was staying at Ted’s place after leaving The script goes flying during Ciao! Manhattan filming

Edie, but they kept trying. They were attempting to film a scene of Paul p ­ icking up Jane Holzer from an office building in New York. Since they had no money, they had no t­ raffic control or anything like that for the scene. It was a ­ pparently not quite clear to anyone how the scene was going to fit into the film with all of the changes that were being made. Paul had to keep circling the building over and over while they waited for the right gaps in traffic to try and film each take, but they were not getting what they wanted. After being at it a while, Paul finally got so fed up with the whole thing, he drove past the camera, threw his copy of the script towards it from the moving car, and just drove away from the chaos.

New York and the filming, a couple of ­pharmacies in the area were broken into. The local authorities suspected Paul might have been involved and came to the farm to check him out. When they got there, they found that one of the farms main crops was marijuana. Both Paul and Ted were jailed. Paul was held for a few weeks or something, but never charged with anything. The guys making Ciao! found out and thought that if they could write a couple of scenes with Paul in jail and shoot them, they might be able to finish their movie. So, they came to Michigan, got permission, and shot. The guards would bring him from the new jail, across the street to the old jail they had gotten permission to film in for the day. Then back to his real cell across the street for the night.

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Seeing someone I’m so closely related to in something as bizarrely disturbing and incredibly cool as Ciao! really blew me away.

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His loss becomes the focus of the film for Edie’s character in the 2nd – saddest – part of the film. According to Jean Stein’s Edie, Sedgwick said about him, “Paul is such a strange, z­ombie like guru. I hate him, but I have this strange ­fascination, this kind of love and sexual addiction for him. I remember on the way to the ­Cloisters... poking up speed in the car. I saw him like some vision of a Martian... somebody from outer space. Maybe it was because he took so much acid that he had this strange alienation from the human race. I’m not sure what attracted me to him u ­ nless it was a kind of admiration brought about by the drugs which I was so heavily inundated by. But that morning at the Cloisters was truly beautiful. It was great.”

paranoid. So I laid back. I said, ‘Go on, you fool,’ and I would just sit and watch when I could have helped him a good deal.” Certainly the piece the New York Times ran on him in 1967 showed him as articulate and thoughtful. Paul grew very frustrated with just being seen as a beautiful object. He was smart and he knew it. But, he also knew he hadn’t finished college and would never be seen as an intellectual equal by people like Henry and Andy, so with them he tried to just go with what was working for him. When one considers that My Hustler was a ­precursor to big mainstream hits of a few years later like Midnight Cowboy – W ­ arhol felt it was ­ directly inspired by it – and the mainstream media was profiling Paul, was ­ ­legitimate stardom a potential for him?

I feel like those were probably Edie’s true feelings at the time. They never really did “break up”. I think if Paul had She was put been able to stay America with Edie Sedgwick, 1967 in a hospital. out of legal trouHe took off ble, had some real and got arrested. And they never saw each other career management around the time My Hustler again. There’s a line where she says, “he could be came out and it didn’t take as long as it did for in the woods now watching”, or something like that. Ciao! Manhattan to get finished and released, yes Who knows? Maybe he was. he could have been a real star. Unfortunately, he In descriptions of him there are many r­eferences to surface. Paul without a brain. Beautiful but vapid. Yet in Edie Paul is quoted as saying, ­ ­“Sometimes I would go up to him (Warhol) and suggest something that we could do, and he would listen very nicely and ask Gerard to give me his reply. It was pretty strange. He wouldn’t talk with me directly. He looked down on me, I guess. Took me for a fool, which I guess is what a lot of people do. Andy didn’t dig me at the time. Like, every time I opened my mouth he made me feel

got more self-destructive. While Paul was in New York was the rest of his ­family aware of his life there? Ted visited Paul in New York and Paul would visit Ted in the Midwest. He saw the most of him during the Paul America years. Paul was loved by all of his siblings, but was closest with Ted, the oldest. He had bought Paul the convertible car seen in Ciao! Manhattan and also made trips into New York City to “pull Paul out of the gutter” on one or two occasions.


Fantastics They were aware, but it was not for them. They didn’t understand why he chose to live the way he did. His parents were appalled by his lifestyle. “Sick, sick, sick!” was how my grandpa described it. “Nothing but drugs, orgies and everybody having sex with everybody else.” They would help him when needed, but otherwise stayed out of it. Paul contracted hepatitis and became very ill at one point. He called his dad to come and pick him up. My grandfather told me how ­upset he was to find Paul in what was basically a “shooting ­ gallery”. An abandoned business that had been ­converted into a space for ­addicts to live and shoot up. ­After recovering from that incident, Paul was sent to live with his grandmother, until she could no longer handle him.

Yes, despite the fact that Paul’s drug use began in prep school. Most of the family seemed to blame Warhol for everything that happened to Paul after they met. Did he explore drug use in a way that may have seemed reasonable to someone of his era? Or was he a drug addict? I would have to say he probably did cross the line into addiction at least a couple of times during his life. But, that doesn’t mean that what he was doing didn’t seem reasonable to him at the time. At

the

­ Factory

drug use ­ certainly seemed accepted.

Some of the drugs Often the family had he was doing no idea where he was at any particular time. were still legal at America in custody - and on set There are some big the time like LSD, or gaps in the timeline I being ­dispensed have tried to fill in. We by medical professionals like Dr. Roberts. I also think discovered Paul had a daughter in the 60s with much of Paul’s drug experimentation was an atanother Factory regular, Debbie Caen, a couple tempt to self-medicate. of years ago when someone saw one of my posts online. She was adopted at birth and didn’t know My grandparents did try to get some medical who her biological parents were until a year or two ­attention and help for his drug addictions when they before that. first became aware of those issues. But, they pretty Did the family have negative feelings regarding Warhol.

much were told by a couple of doctors at the time that there was nothing anyone could do.


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From top left: America is profiled in a New York Times arts section piece. Poster for My Hustler’s run at Film-Makers’ Cinematheque. America(right) plays chess with his younger brother,1970s. America in Las Vegas, 1970s. America through the 70s and 80s.


Often the family had no idea where he was at any particular time. There are some big gaps in the timeline.


It wasn’t until later in Paul’s life when medicine kind of caught up and was starting to be able to treat some of his underlying issues.

before he was killed in ’82, he was working in Florida picking oranges.

What issues were those?

It’s been said, “America eventually became a violent sociopath.” Is that your impression?

Potentially adolescent onset schizophrenia. Would he have been diagnosed with that if not for the drug use? Was the severity of his drug use impacted by perhaps having a disease? Good questions.

At times, yes, he could be described that way based on certain incidents. But, I more often hear from those that knew him that he was gentle and kind.

When filming of Ciao! collapsed Paul went off the radar.

What was his relationship with his family like in the post-Superstar years?

After that, Paul was on the move a lot. Making stops all over the US between ’68 and ‘82.

My grandparents always did whatever they could for Paul until the end. Despite periods of not knowing where he was, Paul remained close with his ­brothers and would live with Ted now and then. Both Ted and younger brother Ron also lived pretty intensely. Though she still loved him, my mom had pretty much written him off as a lost cause by the late 70s and had minimal contact with him. She was always on the straight and narrow and wanted little to do with her crazy brothers’ lifestyles.

He joined the m ­ ilitary for a brief time, but was discharged after a few months. He made it to Woodstock in ’69 and somehow lost what I’ve been told was a really sweet chrome ­motorcycle while he was there. He spent time on a commune in Indiana for a while. When the commune started to break up, he started on a trip with a bunch of the people from there who were moving to re-settle in Costa Rica. When they got halfway through Mexico, Paul and several other members of the group turned back for the US after some encounters with police. When they got back, Paul stayed in Las Vegas to work for one of the former commune leaders and financial backers, Larry Canada. He basically rode a horse around the perimeter of Larry’s ­ property (where Larry planned to build a casino) with a ­shotgun and worked as Larry’s personal security. This relationship led to another time Paul would serve some time in jail. At one point Paul had written a couple of songs he hoped to have The Rolling Stones record. So, he started a record company in Nashville and cut a demo with a guy using the name Johnny Cashbox. They’re kind of interesting, but really not so great. Paul’s record label kind of ended there. He went to the West coast and rode trains for a while. There are several years no one seems to know where he was or what he was doing. In the months

According to The Andy Warhol Diaries Paul attempted to contact Warhol in 1982, “Paul ­ America called – I don’t know from where – but the office has a list of ‘Do Not Take Calls From’ people so they didn’t put the call through. And they said he was saying that he was one of the Superstars, but he was never even in one of my movies. Oh wait! My Hustler! I forgot (laughs) he was the star. He (laughs) was My Hustler.” That’s just Andy being Andy. He was a prick. I think most everyone that dealt with him at the time has said something to that effect. It does sadden me that Paul got that final sour taste of trying to deal with Warhol not too long before he died. Perhaps if Andy had taken the call Paul would have been heading North to New York instead of West to pick oranges on the night he was killed. What were the circumstances of his death? Paul was walking on the shoulder of a Florida road on his way to Ocala from Daytona Beach at night. He


liked picking oranges in Ocala to make a few ­extra dollars. He was hit and killed by a woman driving on her way from one bar to another. She was never given a sobriety test or had any charges pressed against her. My grandfather was called and had to go identify the body in the middle of the night. What’s been the experience of looking to your family for information on your uncle? Several have been very helpful and happy to share Paul stories. Unfortunately, many just don’t have much real information about some of the gaps in my timeline. Has he become a more comfortable topic of discussion over the years? Only slightly. Most family members are fine, but I’m still uncomfortable really talking about Paul with my own parents. Kind of lame, but true.

I think Paul had good times and bad. Just going by the last pictures I have of him, it kind of looks like he was getting ready to go out and take on the world again. He may not have still been the same Paul you see in My Hustler by the 80s, but I don’t believe he’d totally burned out either. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part. What did your grandfather think about your interest in Paul? He didn’t get it at all. “I don’t understand what you’re ­doing. Why do you want to hear all of this stuff?” Thankfully, he was willing to tell me all he could remember anyway. He was very clearly happy that we connected with Paul’s daughter, but I don’t think he really understood that it was as a result of my interest in Paul. Did it please him that you are helping to garner attention to his life and ­ work?

A quote by Danny Alias from his essay on meeting your uncle in 1981 To his life, maybe. To his reads, “I a ­ ssumed he was work, no. a model or an actor, but America with his mother As far as my grandpa was clearly he was not the concerned – and probably dumb blond type. He had a ­country boy style infused with a big city wit that my grandma, though I ­never got to ask her about it was ­disarming, yet totally charming. You’d swear – any project Paul was involved with in New York was he could melt the ice cubes in your glass with just porn, filth and complete trash no one should waste their time with. a long, thoughtful stare.” This sounds nothing like the descriptions of him as a burned-out drug casualty that crop up in many former Factory regulars’ discussions of him. What, to your knowledge, was the reality?

What drives your curiosity in your uncle’s life? Our physical similarities really kicked it off when I was younger. Several years after he died, the family was looking at old slides at my grandparents’ house.

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Fantastics America in the early 80s

“I don’t understand what you’re doing. Why do you want to hear all of this stuff?”


One popped up that looked almost exactly like me at the time. I actually asked how I got into that set of slides, which was met with laughter and the explanation that it was Paul in the pic. Later, I began to identify with him about more and more things. I’ve always had a hard time falling in line with being “normal” and get urges to do things I really know I probably shouldn’t do. I felt like I ­really needed to understand exactly what he went through in order to make sense of my own life. What would you most like to ask him if you had the opportunity? What was your next move going to be? How do his experiences still impact the family? For his parents and my mother, I think Paul’s e ­ xperience served to ­reinforce their conservative views on experimentation with drugs, sex, art and life in general. To his brothers, I think Paul became a tragic hero that was lost too soon. Ron always looked up to him and tried to emulate him. Ted paints a very ­flattering picture of Paul, and is still working on becoming a rock star at 70+ himself. Paul’s daughter was adopted at birth and didn’t know anything about him until she was an adult. Now that she does know more about him, I don’t know what, if any the impact has been. I need to call her... In addition to some of what I’ve related about my curiosity in Paul, I usually have to shave and have a relatively conservative haircut when I see my m ­ other or she will freak out and think I’m headed into ­trouble of some kind. Then my dad get’s involved and I feel like I’m a teenager again. A further quote from the Danny Alias piece: “I remember once prompting him to write about those times, but he brushed off the thought. ‘They only want Warhol,’ he said. He was right about that.” But clearly he wasn’t as your interest in his life shows. And yours. And Danny Alias’. And everyone I’ve talked to that met him and also wants to know more about him and what really happened to him. If it weren’t for Warhol, it’s possible a lot fewer people would care or know about Paul. But, even if he had never been a Superstar, it seems to me he still would have lived a life that kept the people that did know him guessing and wondering how much more he could have achieved and what other adventures he might have had if his life had not ended when it did. n

Fantastics


Paul America test 2