8 March 2016

From Warhol to Reagan: the journey of a twenty-something


Much of my life during the opulent years of the first Reagan administration were spent at the other end of the aesthetic spectrum – if there is such a thing – working for Andy Warhol at his infamous “Factory” in New York. Comprised of Warhol’s paint-splattered art studio and the offices of his magazine, Interview, the Andy Warhol Studio had moved to a very buttoned-up 860 Broadway, just across the street from the old Factory where underground playwright Valerie Solanas had taken a .22 caliber handgun out of a paper bag and shot the artist in 1968, leaving him – almost – to die.

I worked alongside Doria Reagan at Interview. Until she passed away last year, Doria was married to President Reagan’s son Ron, and worked in the offices of Interview as a contributing editor and secretary to editor Bob Colacello. As Andy and I became good friends, Doria and I struck up a friendship as well. A youngster alone in the “big city” Ron and Doria invited me for special meals like Thanksgiving Dinner at their little West Village apartment, a space with a kitchen so tiny, Doria joked she had to slice the turkey in half just to fit it into the oven. As I look back, the thread that connected Doria, Ron and myself together was our ability to laugh and shake our heads at some of the craziness portrayed by the big personalities and even bigger hair that surrounded us in 1980s Manhattan.

Nancy Reagan, an unstoppable force by late 1981, had just appeared on the cover of Interview when I arrived to work on Warhol’s magazine. Her appearance on the cover, a coup for the publication and newsstand sales, was completely out of character. Warhol’s magazine was usually splashed with portraits of singers like Debbie Harry or actresses like Patti Lupone. Putting an Adolfo-clad First Lady on the cover was quite a shift to the right…. Warhol, as always, was holding up a mirror to American popular culture, and in the early ‘80s the United States was indeed moving towards the right.

35 years later, it’s easy to forget what a grip the First Lady had on much of the nation at that time, nudging it on its path towards conservatism. A 180-degree shift from Roslyn and Jimmy Carter in almost every way, Mrs. Reagan’s emphasis on style and her extensive renovations of the private quarters of the White House had people talking – and fingers wagging – during Reagan’s first term.

When Reagan won reelection in 1984, Ron and Doria extended an invitation to me and a good friend to attend inaugural festivities in Washington D.C. Excited to accept, we thought this might mean getting a glimpse of the President and First Lady at one of the many inaugural balls at which the couple would make an appearance. Ron and Doria had other plans and made it clear in a phone call to our hotel room. “You don’t want to go to one of those old parties,” Doria said with just a hint of snark that was her trademark, making me snicker. “Come to the house instead.” Did she really mean the House with a capital ‘H’? Yes, I was assured, she did.

We gave her our Social Security numbers, presumably so we could be vetted by secret service, were told which gate to arrive at and to bring photo identification. This was not to be a huge party. It was just a family gathering in the Yellow Oval Room, right at the heart of the family’s private quarters… six or seven guests. After making an appearance at each of the inaugural balls, the President and First Lady would come and relax with us.

Most of this evening – even how we convinced a limo driver that indeed, we had been invited to the White House and could he please drive us there – is a haze at this point, but I do recall being impressed by the elegance of the Yellow Oval Room and its Louis XVI-style furnishings put together by Jacqueline Kennedy. We met the Reagan’s dog, Lucky while Ron Jr. gave a us a tour explaining in which particular rooms a young Amy Carter liked to roller skate.

The President and First Lady arrived as promised, Nancy glittering in a Galanos gown covered in Austrian glass beads, he in black tie. They spent time talking with us and sharing a round of nightcaps. I remember the First Lady really making a strong impression on me, but one for which I wasn’t prepared.

No matter what people might have thought of her, if you spent only an hour around her as we did, it was clear she was devoted to her husband and his pursuits. I remember thinking briefly about the assassination attempt on Reagan that had occurred a few years earlier and wondered if this devotion was also a sort of protection. And the President – well, you would have thought he was with his closest friends. He accompanied Nancy and four of us out on to the Truman balcony to watch inaugural fireworks explode in the distance by the Washington Monument. He seemed almost as mesmerized as we were. President Reagan started to tell us a story that began with his grandfather and, for the life of me, I cannot remember anything past his first sentence. In a haze, the colors splashing on the multi-paned windows behind us and dancing off Nancy’s gown, all I could think was “I’m on the Truman balcony… with the President of the United States… and First Lady. How the hell did I get here? Andy is going to be so jealous!”

After the glow of this presidency had faded, and many had come to realize that Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill” years in office left a legacy that was far from perfect, there was still no denying the love these two had for each other as human beings. During what she called the President’s “long goodbye” with Alzheimer’s, Nancy continued to be devoted to her true love, Ronnie. Then, as always, she was his protector.

John O’Connor began his career at the Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine in New York, eventually becoming the art director at the Harvard Business Review. O’Connor has been published by Rizzoli International, co-founded HOME Miami magazine in 2005, and is currently Editorial Director at Tropic magazine, which he founded in 2011.