Valerie Solanas (1936-1988) is remembered by most people only as a name—the name of the woman who shot Andy Warhol. On the day of the shooting, June 3, 1968, Warhol was at the pinnacle of his fame, first as a pop artist, and then, as the 1960s progressed, a cinematic auteur. Warhol’s innumerable home-movie-style films, hastily and sloppily put together at his Manhattan studio, the Factory, and starring the beautiful and minimally talented hangers-on of both sexes, acquired a cult following among trendsters of the time.
Solanas, who had had a bit part as a butch lesbian (more or less herself) in one of those films, I, a Man (1968), was in a running dispute with Warhol, who she claimed had either stolen or lost a play she had written called Up Your Ass, the sole manuscript of which she had turned over to him in the hope that he would produce it. At the time, her main claim to fame—if it could be called such—was SCUM Manifesto, a violently antimale tract that she had worked on for several years and finally self-published via mimeograph in 1967. “SCUM” was said to be an acronym for Society for Cutting Up Men—although Solanas repeatedly denied it. Maurice Girodias, whose Olympia Press had published such succès de scandale as Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and the American edition of The Story of O, published a commercial edition of SCUM Manifesto in early 1968 that Solanas complained made substantial changes to the text that she had never authorized.
She invaded the Factory in the late afternoon of June 3 armed with a .32 Beretta automatic, plus a .22 Colt revolver as backup. (She had earlier shown up at Girodias’s office with the guns, but he was not around.) She fired three shots at Andy Warhol. The first two were misses, but the third bullet passed through his abdomen, severely damaging most of his internal organs and nearly killing him. She aimed two more shots at Mario Amaya, an art magazine editor who was meeting with Warhol: The first shot missed him, and the second, entering just above his hip, did only minor damage. Solanas fled the building but turned herself in to the police a few hours later. Within hours, a grand jury convened to indict her on two counts of attempted murder, plus some related charges, including illegal possession of a firearm.
Her photograph was plastered onto the front page of nearly every newspaper in New York and elsewhere, and it probably would have stayed there for weeks were it not for Robert Kennedy’s assassination three days later. Most people promptly forgot all about Valerie Solanas. In any event, a judge deemed her too unstable to stand trial, and she disappeared for more than a year into a series of jail wards and public (mental) hospitals. Paranoid schizophrenia seemed to be the diagnosis.
Finally, the following June, a lawyer negotiated a three-year prison sentence for Solanas, with credit for time served, on a single charge of assault with intent to harm. “You get more for stealing a car!” musician Lou Reed, a friend of Warhol, shouted when the judge read out the sentence. (Warhol himself had declined to testify.) By this time, Solanas’s 15 minutes of fame—the phrase, of course, is of Warhol’s coinage—had long expired, and the New York Times relegated the news of her sentencing to its back pages. Those were the early days of “women’s liberation,” as it was called at the time, but even the feminists who had made her a heroine in their war against patriarchy ultimately rejected her, largely because she had managed to alienate most of them with her abrasive and out-of-control personality.
This is the first full-length biography of the enigmatic, deeply troubled, and mostly ignored 1960s figure. Author Breanne Fahs is the director of the Feminist Research on Gender and Sexuality Group at Arizona State University—a title that made me groan, although not so much as at the titles of her previous volumes, Performing Sex (2011) and The Moral Panics of Sexuality (2013). And I wish I didn’t know that Fahs is the professor at Arizona State who recently gained notoriety by offering extra credit to her male students for shaving off their body hair and to her female students for growing theirs.