You are the fruit of her loins, and yet your relationship with this woman is degenerating into a rage-filled psychodrama. Mother’s Day is looming, and all you can think about is what kind of sentence you’d be handed down if you strangled that hypercritical bitch during your mother-and-daughter day of beauty at Janet Sartin. You are in real danger of using the C-word on Sunday the 13th when you take her to the $72 prix fixe brunch at Union Pacific. De-escalate the psychodrama now, before something really nasty happens.
Start by remembering that it takes two to tango, and that you are doubtless playing Veda to your mom’s Mildred (see: Mildred Pierce , the 1945 noir epic starring Joan Crawford). Don’t bother dragging her to your therapist–you need quick results. I’m talking radical cathartic therapy, e.g. a mother-and-daughter trip to Pie in the Sky , the brilliant documentary about former Warhol muse Brigid Berlin, directed by Vincent and Shelly Dunn Freemont. I guarantee that, no matter how painfully baroque the psychodynamic between you and Mom, you will come away from this hilariously poignant shock-doc feeling relatively normal. And loving Brigid.
Ms. Berlin is fondly remembered by many as the plump, Fifth Avenue-bred Warhol acolyte who lolled around shooting whipped cream into her mouth and amphetamines into her ass (through her jeans in the 1967 movie, Chelsea Girls ). In the 1960′s Warhol milieu, she found an adaptive stage for her grandiose exhibitionism and monumentally obsessive-compulsive personality. Within the confines of the Factory, she was a fully functional creative freak who actually made a significant contribution to 20th-century art. Brigid’s mania for recording conversations, Polaroiding and, most importantly, monologuing informed and shaped large chunks of the Warhol canon. She inspired Andy Warhol, and he in turn encouraged her entertainingly degenerate antics, which was all fine and dandy–until word got back to Honey Berlin, her Fifth Avenue mom. Pie in the Sky gives a fabulous window into what happened when Honey’s anal expectations got derailed by the freight train of Brigid’s oral impulses–over and over and over again.
I phoned the still wildly ebullient Brigid and asked her to free-associate about what made Honey Berlin tick. She obliged, and then obliged some more. “Mother was a New York society girl–22 years younger than my father. She smoked. She didn’t read books–only W and Town & Country , Harper’s Bazaar , blah, blah. ‘The last book I read was Raggedy Anne ,’ she used to say, proudly. She went to every fashion show because Daddy ran the show at Hearst,” said Ms. Berlin, referring to Richard Berlin’s 52-year stewardship of the media giant. “He got the company out of debt; he sold off newspapers to buy television stations. When Patty Hearst was kidnapped, he held the purse strings, and he was reluctant to give up the ransom money to get her back.”
At 61, Brigid the brilliant raconteuse (see The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again ) has lost none of her ranting piquancy–especially when her late mother is the topic. “At our apartment, at 834 Fifth Avenue, my mother had needle-point thrones, not toilets–very French. My mother slept with her makeup on. When I was 10 years old I found her Tampax, and she told me they were for removing makeup. So every night I cleansed my face with cold cream and Tampax. She had plastic vibrators, and she told us they were for her neck. I cannot picture her having sex. She wore heels at home–in the house, for Christ’s sake!” I heard Brigid light a ciggie and inhale Tallulah-ishly. “My mother didn’t work,” she continued. “She got her hair done every day, over at the House of Charm on Mad and 61st Street. When I was 11, she gave me a permanent.”
Brigid’s mamma monologue pingponged back and forth, managing to cover every seminal event and place in 20th-century history. “I would pick up the phone and it would be Richard Nixon. My parents entertained Lyndon Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover, and there were lots of Hollywood people because of San Simeon–Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Dorothy Kilgallen.”
European royalty also dined chez Berlin. “I have a box full of letters, written to my parents in the late 1940′s and 1950′s from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.” Ms Berlin proceeded to read me a few of these fascinatingly doltish missives: The main topics are Communism (“the war of nerves being conducted by the Kremlin”) and upcoming golf games.
In the 1950′s, Ms. Berlin made a life-altering discovery about her parents and their glitterati friends. “My mother would go to Papillon and the Colony and have three asparagus spears. She was a one-spoonful gal. Not me! She used to take us to Paris, but she spent her whole time in couture fittings, so my sister and I ran around Paris eating …. They all ate like birds, so I started to sneak the uneaten food in the middle of the night.”
As a result, Brigid did the unforgivable, at least in Honey’s eyes: Brigid got chubby. “I was sent to the family doctor to get amphetamines. I was 11. Dexedrine, too–little orange hearts. Mother would take Preludin. Then diuretics became popular–my sister wouldn’t drink water. Everyone was doing it. Jack and Jackie Kennedy went to Max Jacobson’s.” Despite the modish doses of speed, the weight piled on. “When I was 16, my mother sent me to school in Switzerland, St.-Blaise, to lose 50 pounds–and I would pilfer the other girls’ money and go on pastry binges.”
In Switzerland, Teen Brigid launched into an addiction-fueled rebellion, and the results were so much more impressive than anything Robert Downey Jr. has come up with. “My roommate and I decided to get drunk. I got so fucking wasted I was doing Indian dances. I woke up the next day, and there was shit on the floor next to my bed. One of the mademoiselles entered the room and demanded, ‘ Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça ?’ I said, ‘ C’est le chien ,’” blaming it on the dog. “She said ‘ C’est trop grand !’ Then they wrote home to my parents and told them I was using my bedroom as a toilet.”
During her school holidays, Brigid’s parents sent her to work at Harper’s Bazaar . “All the women wore hats–so I wore one, too. My job was to detach the dollar bills from the letters people sent in requesting the Harper’s Bazaar Beauty Box. The editor then, Carmel Snow, took me out to lunch. ‘Get that thing off your head,’ she said. How was I to know that only editors wore hats? Daddy was Carmel’s boss, so I just thought I was an editor. Vreeland was on the second floor wearing a snood.”
Brigid paused to admonish one of her pugs and fast-forwarded her rollicking epic. At 18, she finished her schooling at the Convent of the Sacred Heart Eden Hall in Pennsylvania and returned to New York just in time for her coming-out party–and a fresh assault on her mother’s nerve endings. “I was a debutante, so I needed two escorts. My mother went crazy when I invited the electrician who was working on our TV wires at our house in Westchester …. I can’t remember the other one.” La Berlin lit another Marlboro. Eschewing college, Brigid hung around the city with Wendy Vanderbilt and George Hamilton. “I think I spent the night with him–I’m not sure. Anyway, we used to go to Michael the II’s on 70th, Malachy McCourt’s–Frank’s brother’s–bar on Third Avenue and Clavin’s, opposite the first Serendipity.”
These skip-along years were enhanced by an escalating speed intake. “Dr. Freiman–we called him Dr. Feelgood–gave me my first injection in my arm. He took my Hermès scarf off and blindfolded himself and said, ‘I’m going to make you feel better than any man has made you feel.’ His shots were amphetamine, diuretic and B12. By then I was 19 and very high, and my sister and I would go straight to Bloomie’s and start charging.”
Honey Berlin was not, according to Brigid, unduly fazed by Brigid’s escalating amphetamine use. “It was legal. Her issues with me were weight and lifestyle.” However, when Brigid started hanging out with poofters, she really touched a nelly nerve. “Mother called them ‘pansies.’ She was on the phone to Bill Blass every day, but for some reason that was different–my friends were mere pansies! When I was 21, I married a window trimmer, John Parker. He worked at a store on 57th and Fifth called the Tailored Woman. He had the deepest windows in town. I knew all the window-dressers up and down the avenue–Joel Schumacher, Gene Moore. [John and I] stole Daddy’s Cadillac and ran off. I rented a house in Cherry Grove [on Fire Island]. We renamed it Brigadoon. I used to come into the city on the seaplane just to get checks. I hung out with all these piss-elegant queens … Jimmy Donohue–have you heard of him? I was insane, but also very grand. I went through $100,000, and my mother went berserk.” Had she known what was about to happen, Honey Berlin might have saved her energy.
Brigid can’t quite remember how she met Andy Warhol. “I think it was 1964. Henry Geldzahler took me to the old Factory, but I already knew about Andy through all the staple-gun queens.” To say they hit it off is an understatement. The Berlin-Warhol symbiosis produced an avalanche of filthy and fabulous creative collaboration and movie appearances– Chelsea Girls , Bike Boy , Imitation of Christ and more. Brigid, who now went by the name Brigid Polk–”because I poked myself in the heinie with speed”–even recorded her mother’s telephonic reproaches and turned them into an off-Broadway stage play.
The years flew by in a blur of drugs, booze, food and general grooviness, with the occasional random attempt to modify her behavior. “In the early 70′s, I went to Woolworth’s and bought a jigger so I could have just one getting-dressed drink. By the time I left the house, I’d had 20. One time, I was in a hairdresser under the dryer getting bored. I went to the bar across the street in my rollers and had a glass of white wine. Then another glass of wine and another. I can’t remember anything else until I woke up in a Howard Johnson near LaGuardia Airport. And there were pancakes and maple syrup. There was a cute boy in the room watching Kids Are People, Too . I think I thought that Andy would put him on the cover of Interview . He didn’t.”
Eventually, much to Honey’s relief, Brigid got sick of what she calls “waking up in the plants.” She doesn’t regret those years of driving her mother bonkers. “I enjoyed it, but I didn’t do it on purpose. Growing up, I was really scared of my parents; they were strict. I just rebelled.” Now she rarely goes out, and her oral compulsions are confined to bingeing on Key Lime pies–hence the title of the new documentary.
I attempt, reluctantly, to conclude our phone interview with a word-association and acrostics game: M-O-T-H-E-R.
M: “Maids! My mother had tons of them–always women. No butlers, because they drank. She didn’t like couples, because they conspired. Irish maids. One was called Minnie Curtain.”
O: “Obsessional. In 1986, she was lying in her bed, dying of cancer, and she was still calling the saleswomen to get new Adolfo’s at the Saks in White Plains. She had them hung on her door so she could look at them. She died four months after Andy.”
T: “Tweezers! Her French tweezers! I have to have a tweezer in my night table to pull out stray hairs, and the highest-magnifying mirror–an X5. They sell them in Bergdorf Goodman. She was hooked on them.”
H: “Hair. And so much Spray Net. And H is for Honey–I named a pug after her. I’ve turned into her. It’s scary. She was right to be disgusted by so many things I did. I’m a mother now, to my pugs–India and Africa. I don’t like it when they call them ‘dogs’–they are my children. I have to have a car and a driver; I want them with me. Every day we stop at Grace’s Market and get chicken breasts.”
E: “Esther, another maid. She was obsessional and she drank, with a thousand hairpins. On her day off, she would stay home and polish our door knobs; that was her idea of fun.”
R: “Rigaud. The original green ones. The Cypress–she bought them in Paris before you could get them here.”
In summation–again–I asked Brigid if she recalled ever buying her mother a gift on Mother’s Day. “Daddy would always give us a couple of $100 bills,” she replied, and then was off on another free-association bender. “Daddy’s Alzheimer’s was really fun. He denied everything–’You’re not my children!’–and gave my gay sister’s girlfriend a cigar when she came over. I would buy my mother a boring porcelain box from some store on Madison Avenue. There are four of us; I was first. Then Richie–she was named after my father. Then my brother Richard and my sister Christina, who arranged the defection of Baryshnikov. I remember Daddy went nuts–’If she marries that commie bastard … !’ He sent us to Catholic schools. He’d say, ‘At least you’re not going to get communism from the nuns!’
“When Mommie Dearest came out, I told my mother it was the best movie I’d ever seen. She was a friend of Joan’s. She said, ‘How could Christina do that to her mother?’ I told her Joan was just like her. She was–she used to go through our closets and throw it all on the floor, looking for wire hangers pointing the wrong way. ‘These beautiful clothes I buy you–you can’t fit into them because you’re getting fat.’ The clothes itched. I used to cut the insides of the sleeves.”
Pie in the Sky is playing at Two Boots Pioneer Theater, 155 East Third Street, from May 18 to May 25.
Mollifying Gifts for Mom
1. For modernist mom: Mat, by Masaki Matsushima. With its top notes of mango pulp and bamboo, this hiply packaged fragrance is perfect for the sophisticated, Helmut Lang-wearin’ mother. She’ll love the bottle, even if she hates the smell ($60 for 1.35 ounces at Jeffrey New York).
2. For Denise Rich-ish mom: a diamond-and-platinum Art Deco pendant with a whopping Siberian amethyst designed by Fouquet ($60,000 from A La Vieille Russie, André Leon Tally’s fave jewelry shop, at 781 Fifth Avenue).
3. For New Age, anti-face-lift mom: Sundari’s Neem eye cream ($55 for 0.5 ounces from Barneys or Bergdorf Goodman). Sundari partner Christy Turlington wore it up Kilimanjaro last year.
4. For snotty Anglophile-elitist mom: Miller Harris, three fragrances created by English perfumer Lyn Harris ($80 for one ounce, exclusively at Barneys).
5. For QVC-lovin’ mom: Joan Rivers’ Now & Forever. Like Brigid and Honey, Joan and Melissa are no strangers to a bit of mother-and-daughter friction, but that hasn’t stopped Joan from coming up with the best fragrance of the season. I blindfolded a group of friends, and they all picked Now & Forever over the more trendy fragrances listed above. It’s the tuberose ($45 for 1.7 ounces on QVC.com). Highly recommended.
6. For a mom called Pat or Meg: M. and J. Savitt name bracelets from Jeffrey. You need a chain ($440) and diamond-encrusted letters ($460 each). Caution: If her name is Wilhelmina, the bracelet will cost you $5,040.
7. For label-lovin’ mom: Remember the ugly scene last year when you got busted for giving Canal Street fakes? Don’t be a tightwad, buy her the real thing: Loehmann’s on Seventh Avenue and 16th Street has Ivana-ish lilac nylon Prada totes ($299.99) and black monogrammed Gucci wallets ($199). Incinerate all shopping bags and receipts bearing the Loehmann’s logo.
8. So-out-of-it-she’s-groovy-again mom: Chanel and Gucci have both put those rhinestone initials (theirs) in the corner of their frameless tinted eyewear ($270 and $250, respectively) from the eponymous boutiques. Mom’s still wearing these naff, 1970′s-inspired shades from the first time around, so you know she’ll dig them.
9. Your daddy’s rich and your momma wants a purse smothered in Swarovski crystals? Do what Brigid Berlin always did when it was time to buy Honey a gift–hit daddy up for the money. The Judith Leiber watermelon ($2,375) is the best bag (at Judith Leiber, 987 Madison Avenue).
10. For the South Fork-lovin’ mom: Georgica lip gloss ($18) and East Hampton silky blush ($20) from Sue Devitt Studio at Barneys.