Pittsburgh Days 1928-1940
I never wanted to be a painter. I wanted to be a
tap dancer. --Andy Warhol
He loved her. Entranced, he sat in the darkened movie theater while child star Shirley Temple tap-danced her way into his heart. In Poor Little Rich Girl, the silver-screen charmer with the adorable dimples and fifty-six golden curls triumphed over adversity with a smile. In Andy's world, work was grueling, but Shirley made it look like fun. He stored away impressions of his idol to imitate later on. For now, Andy worshipped Shirley from afar, even sending off a dime to join her fan club. The photograph that came in the mail was signed "To Andrew Warhola, from Shirley Temple." Carefully placed in a scrapbook, it would remain one of Andy's treasured possessions. This marked the beginning of his lasting passion for celebrities, collecting their autographs and photos, creating a fantasy life that would determine his future.
Both were eight years old, born in 1928, but how different Shirley's life was from Andy's. He could dream about being a Hollywood star; life in Pittsburgh offered a grimmer picture. "Being born," Andy later said, "is like being kidnapped. And then sold into slavery."
Andy came into the world in the back bedroom of his family's tiny apartment at 73 Orr Street in Pittsburgh's grimy immigrant ghetto. Shortly after his birth, his father, Andrej Warhola, lost his construction job, and the family moved to an even more cramped two-room apartment. Andy shared a bed with his older brothers, Paul and John. The bathtub sat in the middle of the kitchen--convenient because with the apartment's primitive plumbing, anyone wanting hot water had to heat it on the stove. In the alley behind the building was a communal privy.
The precocious Andy walked and talked early, and it was clear to everyone that he was bright, if a bit of a handful. His blond, cherubic looks were a contrast to those of his more robust brothers, and his mother, Julia, deciding her youngest child's health was delicate, coddled him. Although they didn't own a radio (and commercial television didn't exist), they found ways to entertain themselves. When the boys' games grew too rambunctious for the family's close quarters, Julia brought them into the kitchen, gave them paper and crayons, and announced a contest for the best drawing. Julia was artistic, and all three Warhola boys inherited some of her gift, but Andy easily outstripped his brothers. He might have been the youngest, but he always won the giant Hershey bar Julia offered as a prize.
From the beginning, making art was what Andy liked to do best. His brother John remembered a neighborhood baseball game where Andy reluctantly took a position in the outfield. "Someone hit a baseball where Andy was supposed to be, and Andy wasn't there. I later found him sitting in front of the house drawing flowers. Andy never argued, he never swore, he didn't go in for rough stuff. I always thought he was going to be a priest."
Andy isn't known to have considered that possibility, but he dutifully attended church with Julia during the week as well as on Sunday. The Byzantine Catholic Church loomed large in the devout Warhola family. From their apartment they walked three miles down a winding road and across the railroad tracks to St. John Chrysostom. "Rain or shine, there were no excuses," John recalled. The priest sat all the boys--including Andy--in the first row, where they at least had to pretend to pay attention during the long service. At the altar stood a golden screen, closely hung with square upon square, row upon row of icons--sacred paintings of saints. These repetitive images would have a profound effect on Andy's art.
Their father insisted that Sunday be strictly observed, but John remembered it as a joyous time, mainly because of Julia's influence. "My mother . . . liked going to church better than material things. She never believed in being wealthy--she believed just being a real good person made you happy. We were taught never to hurt anybody, to believe you're just here for a short time and you're going to leave the material things behind."
There weren't many material things to leave. Andy's family originated in Carpatho-Ruthenia, a poor farming area of the Carpathian Mountains that was passed back and forth in the constant wars and border disputes among Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, and Hungary. Andrej and Julia Warhola--along with many members of both of their families--came to America seeking work and a better life.
The Pittsburgh where the Warholas settled was a far different town in the 1920s and 1930s than it is today. Located at the point where three rivers meet, it was the bustling steelmaking capital of America. Iron ore arrived from vast strip mines in northern Minnesota, coal from Pennsylvania. Even when unemployment was high during the Great Depression of the thirties, and labor protesters and private policemen fought in the streets of the city, the steel mills roared twenty-four hours a day, filling the daytime sky with so much smoke that drivers had to keep their headlights on. The word smog was invented to describe the sooty air that hung over Pittsburgh. At night the Bessemer converters in the steel mills lit up the sky like fireworks, and small trains left the mills and dumped the hot, glowing slag on the hillsides, where it cascaded down in burning rivulets.
Many other groups of Middle Europeans populated the neighborhood called Soho, where the Warhola family lived. They all had been lured there by the promise of America, the land of golden opportunity; instead they found backbreaking, often dangerous jobs that paid meager wages. The cheaply built housing that was all they could afford sometimes lacked even the basics of heat, hot water, and safe sanitation. Disease was a constant threat. Nobody seemed to care. The immigrants were treated as interlopers in their adopted country, despised for their imperfect English, their strange customs, and most of all for their poverty.