Taylor Mead (December 31, 1924 – May 8, 2013) worked creatively as a performer and writer from the mid-1950s until his death. Credited with being the first star of underground cinema for his role in Ron Rice’s film The Flower Thief (1960), he also starred in many of Andy Warhol’s films including Tarzan and Jane Regained … Sort Of (1963), and Lonesome Cowboys (1967).
Mead was born in Michigan to a well-to-do family in Grosse Pointe, where his father was chairman of the state’s Democratic Party and his mother was a beautiful socialite. His parents divorced when Taylor was very young and he was sent to live with grandparents in Ohio. To escape, he stowed-away on a bus and rode for miles before being discovered and returned to his family. He loved Hollywood films and movie stars, especially Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, and Irene Dunne, whom he thought resembled his mother.
After attending the Loomis School in Connecticut for a short time, he joined the Pasadena Playhouse in California, where he studied the work of George Bernard Shaw, then left to volunteer for World War 2. He said that he was declared unfit for the military because of his drooping eye, which would later become a hallmark of his numerous performances on the stage and screen.
In New York he briefly studied acting with Herbert Berghof, one of the co-founders of the Actor’s Studio.
Returning to Detroit, he tried Wayne State University for a short time and art school for “a day.” He worked for several months as a stockbroker-in-training, a job his father had secured for him, and was off again. In the unacknowledged mode of the beatnik, he hitchhiked around the country for more than a decade. Inspired by his experiences as a young gay man on the road, he began jotting short poems and one-liners. In the course of his travels, he was arrested about 12 times, “just on general principles.” His ensuing jail time “contributed to [his] feeling of being an outsider.”
In San Francisco in the late-1950s, he discovered the coffeehouse scene of the Beat poets, and began to publicly read his work at the Co-Existence Bagel Shop. Filmmaker Ron Rice met Taylor at one of his readings and, inspired by Robert Frank’s and Alfred Leslie’s recent film Pull My Daisy (1959)starring Allen Ginsberg and narrated by Jack Kerouac, made The Flower Thief. The film was enthusiastically received by audiences and the press. Mead, whose performance as the childlike picaresque hero wandering around North Beach with his teddy bear earned him almost mainstream recognition, became the first underground movie star.
Soon after, he played a multitude of characters in films by Vernon Zimmerman: Lemon Hearts (1960)and To L.A…with Lust (1961). In 1962 Zimmerman received the Rosenthal Award for young directors for Lemon Hearts.
Later in 1961, Mead worked on two films with Bob Chatterton in Los Angeles, before moving to New York City, where he was re-united with Rice to star with Jack Smith in The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man (1963). The first volume of his one-liners and poems written during his cross-country travels, The Anonymous Diary of A New York Youth, was published in 1961.
In New York, he found more audiences for his confrontational poetry readings at cafés such as the Gaslight, the Fat Black Pussy Cat, and the Epitome.“We would read our wildest stuff and try to drive out the customers,” said Mead. Henry Geldzahler, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum, was familiar with Taylor’s work and offered to introduce him to his friend Warhol.
In the fall of 1963, Taylor Mead drove from New York to California with Warhol, Gerard Malanga, and Wynn Chamberlain to attend the opening of Warhol’s second Pop exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, a show of his Elvis and Liz paintings. While there, he played the title character in Andy Warhol’s unusual early send-up of Hollywood films, Tarzan and Jane Regained …Sort Of, cavorting around Southern California with Naomi Levine (as Jane) and Dennis Hopper (as Mead’s stunt double). Mead also edited the footage and the soundtrack.
Another reason for the four to drive to California was the occasion of the opening of the Marcel Duchamp retrospective exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum, which opened right after Warhol’s show.
I talked a lot to Duchamp and his wife, Teeny, who were great, and Taylor danced all night with Patty Oldenburg… They served pink champagne at the party, which tasted so good that I made the mistake of drinking a lot of it, and on the way home we had to pull over to the side of the road so I could throw up on the flora and fauna.
– Andy Warhol in POPism: The Warhol ‘60s
… And we went to an opening at the Pasadena Art Museum, Marcel Duchamp was there, and a cameraman from Time tried to push me away to take a picture of Marcel, and I said, I’m Taylor Mead, who the hell do you think you are? Who the hell is Marcel Duchamp? … I couldn’t get in, I was wearing a sweater. And everyone else was in tuxedos, and Marcel Duchamp came out to speak to the people at the door, and took me to his table, and I sat on his right, and danced up a storm…
– Taylor Mead
In the summer of 1964, at the height of the underground film movement in New York, a conventional filmmaker wrote a letter of complaint to the Village Voice about its championing of “films shot without cameras, films shot without lenses, films shot without film, films shot out of focus, films focusing on Taylor Mead’s ass for two hours.” Mead replied, “Andy Warhol and I have searched the archives of the Warhol colossus and find no ‘two hour film of Taylor Mead’s ass.’” He also stated that they would “rectify” the situation immediately, and the film was shot in Warhol’s Factory that very month (although its length is actually 90 minutes).
A double bill of plays by Frank O’Hara and LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) starring Taylor Mead ran briefly in March 1964 at the Writers’ Stage in the Lower East Side. In Leroi Jones’s play, The Baptism, Mead played a gay character who denounces the hypocrisy of the church. The performances were a huge success, but Jones declined to transfer his work to a more-established venue. O’Hara’s The General Returns from One Place to Another featured Mead as a campy General Douglas MacArthur, arriving in Manila and ordering every inch of the palace marble to be “shining like snow in the Arctic.” Despite the short run (only four performances), Mead won an Obie award for his work in The General Returns.
After the sudden death of Ron Rice in December 1964 and the disappointment of The Baptism, Mead decided to try his luck in Europe. He stayed for three years, moving between Rome, Paris, Greece, Istanbul, Stockholm, and Amsterdam. He traveled light: a knapsack, air mattress, and a movie camera. A lack of funds forced him to shoot his European travel film, called Home Movies, one frame at a time.
While in Europe, he made several films with Jean-Jacques Lebel. Before these could be shown at his Third Festival of Free Expression in Paris in May 1966, at the Theatre de la Chimere, they were censored and destroyed by the film lab because they contained nudity. The following year, Mead attended a screening of Warhol’s newest film, the double-screen epic Chelsea Girls. Mead’s reaction to the film was “I’ve been in La Dolce Vita land too long. Chelsea Girls is the real thing. I’m coming home.”
Upon his return to America, Warhol cast Mead in four films in fairly quick succession: Imitation of Christ (1967), Nude Restaurant (1967), Lonesome Cowboys (1967), and San Diego Surf (1968). Another volume of Mead’s poetry was published at this time, On Amphetamine and In Europe (1968).
In the middle of all of this activity, one terrifying day Mead saved Warhol’s life. An unknown man entered the Factory with a gun and demanded $500 which he claimed was owed to him, and then played a nervous Russian roulette with Paul Morrissey, Patrick Tilden-Close, Billy Name, and about five other Factory superstars. He actually fired one shot, but it was aimed at the ceiling. As the intruder began to focus his attention on Warhol, Mead jumped on his back, and then ran to the window and screamed for help. The now off-balance gunman immediately left the building, and drove off in a waiting car. The police refused to believe the incident wasn’t a publicity stunt.
Also at that time, Mead appeared in the play Conquest of the Universe, directed by John Vaccaro at the Playhouse of the Ridiculous. Surrounded by other stars of the underground including Mary Woronov and Beverly Grant, he was described by Stephen Brecht as “magnificent, the best thing in the show, as good a technician now, or almost, as [Zero] Mostel or [Bert] Lahr.”
Mead estimated that he appeared in 130 films in all, including Robert Downey Sr.’s Babo 73, Adolphas Mekas’s Hallelujah the Hills, John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, Brand X by Wynn Chamberlain, One Plus One by Jean-Luc Godard, Cleopatra by Michel Auder, and Buster’s Bedroom by Rebecca Horn, and Coffee and Cigarettes by Jim Jarmusch. He was featured in the role of a priest in Penny Arcade’s live performance Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!. He also appeared on television programs such as The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Saturday Night Live, and exhibited his paintings in New York.
In 1986, Hanuman Books’ series of miniatures published “Son of Andy Warhol,” a volume of Mead’s writing.
In the late-1990s, he hosted a weekly live program on the Internet, The Convertible Taylor Mead, and completed the huge manuscript for his autobiography, also titled Son of Andy Warhol, which remains unpublished. Another book, A Simple Country Girl, was published in 2005.
The Warhol Museum feted Mead with a festival of ten of his films throughout November and December 1999, including a screening of Taylor Mead’s Ass, which had recently been restored; Taylor introduced the film and answered audience questions afterwards.
Taylor Mead steadily continued to give poetry readings, primarily at the Bowery Poetry Club. His last public appearance with a Warhol film was his introduction for the New York premiere screening of San Diego Surf, which features one of his most brilliant performances, in October 2012. In a brief interview published in advance of the screening, he reminisced about the filming with a statement that describes his life and creativity, “I could improvise forever.”
The Museum thanks Steven Watson and Penny Arcade for their generosity in assisting with this text, which is adapted from that which accompanied a small exhibition at the Andy Warhol Museum in 1999, curated by Matt Wrbican.