In its December 1949 issue Harper’s published a short story by John Cheever—the story was called “Vega,” and it was illustrated by a young artist named Andy Warhol, who was all of 21 years old at the time.
The editor of Harper’s at the time was Russell Lynes, and at some point he wrote Warhol asking him for some biographical information. Warhol responded with an unmistakably Warholian document, featuring a cute drawing, an upbeat greeting, and a bare minimum of upper-case letters (there are five in all). Perhaps fittingly, Warhol plays the humble card, insisting that his “life couldn’t fill a penny post card” and that he has spent the previous few months “moving from one roach infested apartment to another.” (Warhol lived in at least two such apartments with his old school chum Philip Pearlstein.)
The short letter dates from an interesting time in Warhol’s life. He was fresh out of college, and the alacrity with which he secured some high-profile illustrating gigs may have been a sign of future successes to come. He illustrated two album covers, A Program of Mexican Music by Carlos Chávez and a recording of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky by the Philadelphia Orchestra. He worked as a commercial artist for Glamour, Vogue, and Seventeen and also, we get this tidbit from the Tate Modern in London: “Infatuated with the writer Truman Capote, Andy inundates him with fan letters and telephone calls until Capote’s mother asks him to stop.”
Here’s a transcript of Warhol’s letter:
Hello mr. lynes
thank you very much
my life couldn’t fill a penny post card i was born in pittsburgh in 1928 (like everybody else — in a steel mill)
i graduated from carnegie tech now i’m in NY city moving from one roach infested apartment to another.
The letter comes from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. It appears in the dazzling new book More Than Words by Liza Kirwin, published by Princeton Architectural Press (for more information about the archives, visit aaa.si.edu). It’s highly recommended, as it’s jammed with visual treasures just like this one.