Magazine article The Spectator

The Woman Who Invented Selfies

Magazine article The Spectator

The Woman Who Invented Selfies

Article excerpt

It took a while for Brigid and I to get to know each other, not to mention like each other. But then it was total lifelong devotion. At first, when I started out at Interview , in 1970, Brigid would give me The Glare, which was the negative equivalent of Nancy Reagan's The Gaze. One or two seconds of that killing look were enough to put across Brigid's message: stay away. But a few years later, she gave up speed, moved to a proper apartment on East 22nd Street, and took a steady job as receptionist and transcriber of Andy Warhol's tapes at the new Factory at 860 Broadway. That was when we bonded.

Our newfound friendship was partly based on our shared Republican roots --her Dad was a close friend of Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller; my Mom had been a Republican party precinct captain in Plainview, Long Island. We also shared the highly developed appreciation of absurdity that you needed to survive at Andy Warhol Enterprises, to get what was going on and go along with it. Not that Brigid worshipped Andy or his art -- quite the contrary. I think she felt because she had given him two of his best ideas -- Polaroids and tape-recording -- she had the right to call him ridiculous and his art a big nothing. She certainly was the only Factory worker to spurn a Christmas gift of one of his paintings, saying she'd rather have a washer-dryer. By then, she had given up taking Polaroids, and was stitching needlepoint slippers, at $1,200 a pair, for Andy's dealers and clients. She'd also lost a lot of weight, and once a week had her hair teased and sprayed into a grand bouffant, just like her mother.

Brigid's mother, Muriel 'Honey' Berlin, was a popular New York society hostess. Her father, Richard E. Berlin, was the president of the Hearst Corporation from 1943 to 1973. Hearst owned a dozen or so magazines, including Harper's Bazaar , Town & Country and Cosmopolitan , several radio and TV stations, and a chain of right-wing newspapers. Before Brigid became her mother's mirror image, however, she was her mother's worst nightmare. Brigid was Generation Gap. Whatever her mother did, Brigid did the opposite. Honey was thin. Brigid was fat. Honey had tea with the Duchess of Windsor and Diana Vreeland. Brigid had sex with John Chamberlain and Larry Rivers -- and got them to draw their penises in her infamous Cock Books. Honey adored Bill Blass. Brigid told her he was gay.

Of course, millions of children of the rich and upper middle class were rebelling against their boring, bourgeois parents in the 1960s. But Brigid took her rebellion to extremes: blowing her trust fund on a quickie marriage to a 'staple gun queen' (i.e., window dresser); lolling about naked in underground movies; tweezing the gemstones out of a silver box the Shah of Iran had given her parents so she could score more speed. And she was surely the only alumna of the Convent of the Sacred Heart to record her fights on the phone with her mother and turn over the tapes to Andy Warhol to turn into an off-Broadway play.

The key word is record. Brigid's need to rebel has always been matched by her need to document her rebelliousness, and the overlapping of these two compulsions is what gives her work meaning beyond its curiosity value. In recording life, she captured our times. By myopically depicting her own transgressions and self-indulgences, she has prophetically reflected the narcissism and exhibitionism, the craving for fame and confusing of fame and infamy that have become the staples of American popular culture. …

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