Remembering Taylor Mead: Queer, Beat Poet, and Warhol Superstar
Author: Victoria Brownworth
May 10, 2013
Taylor Mead, actor, Beat poet, performance artist, queer, died in Colorado on May 9th. Maybe in Denver, maybe not. Probably of a massive stroke. He had planned to return to New York where he had spent a flaming, fabulous youth. He was 88.
That’s the kind short, clipped, slightly oblique language and imagery that Mead liked. But it comes nowhere near describing the complex, intriguing, artistic, underground life Mead led as the first indie film superstar, leading actor in Andy Warhol’s Factory troupe and cross-dressing artiste.
Mead was born on New Year’s Eve 1924 in Grosse Point, Michigan. The dramatic entry seems fitting, given the direction he would take. By junior high he had already acquired the nickname of “Star” and before he was 30 he had given up any ideas of being a stock analyst at Merrill Lynch where he worked briefly and began studying acting with the Herbert Berghof Studio and worked at the famed Pasadena Playhouse in California.
It was in San Francisco that Mead began his rise to underground fame and where he starred in his first film. As part of the Beat poetry scene there, one night he had jumped onto a bar, yelling out poetry over the crowd. Director Ron Rice began filming him with his WWII camera and black-and-white surplus Army film stock.
This led to the collaboration between the two in 1960 for The Flower Thief, a film often attributed to Warhol, but which Rice directed. In 2005 when the film was restored, the Village Voice’s critic Ed Halter described Mead.
Warhol superstar-in-training Taylor Mead traipses with elfin glee through a lost San Francisco of smoke-stuffed North Beach cafés, oceanside fairgrounds and collapsed post-industrial ruins. Boinging along an improvised picaresque up and down the city’s hills, Mead teases playground schoolkids, sniffs wildflowers, gets abducted by cowboys in the park and has a tea party on a pile of rubble with a potbellied bathing beauty.
Halter notes at the end of his review, “Today, Mead’s Flower Thief uniform–tight hoodie, button-down shirt, three-stripe tennis shoes and beat-up jeans–can be seen on many an L-train habitué. En route to neo-Bowery facsimiles of post-war cafés, and so the parody has been reversed: such are our own meticulous restorations of the fantasies of other people’s youth.”
The Flower Thief was called “the purest expression of the Beat sensibility in cinema” by noted film historian P. Adams Sitney.
Mead preserved his youth on film. He had a long face and over-large head and a thin, catwalk-model slouch. He was given to wearing long-haired wigs and sleek ladies’ dresses and suits in the 1960s in a series of films and plays. He had a gamine quality, with big, bold eyes and a slightly sad, slightly bemused affect. He looked amazing in a strapless black gown with feather boa, long blonde wig and heavily made-up eyes. The still shot could have been taken yesterday, rather than 50 years ago. (Google images has a plethora of extraordinary shots of Mead over the years.)
Mead won an Obie Award in Frank O’Hara’s play The General Returns from One Place to Another and starred in several of Warhol’s films, including Tarzan and Jane Regained…Sort Of (1963), Taylor Mead’s Ass (1964), Couch (1964) Imitation of Christ (1967) and Lonesome Cowboys (1967). He also starred in Robert Downey, Sr.’s Babo 73.
Of Queen of Sheba and the Atom Man, which Rice directed and which starred Mead, famed Italian neo-realist Alberto Moravia said, “The film describes, poetically, a way of living. The film is a protest which is violent, childish and sincere–a protest against an industrial world based on the cycle of production and consumption.”
Mead said he had been involved in making more than 160 films, many of them impromptu over the years. He had initially done both photography and editing for Warhol, as well as acting, and made films himself. Famed Village Voice film critic J.Hoberman called Mead “the first underground movie star.”
But Mead was a poet first and foremost and published numerous small collections over the years, some of which are still available through the Poetry Foundation. He explained that he’d been disinherited from his family for being queer and had come to New York City to “be anonymous and have a private life.” Before he settled in lower Manhattan, however, he “hitchhiked across America” and became entrenched for a time in San Francisco’s poetry scene.
Mead recounted what happened when he moved from San Francisco to New York in an interview on “Factory People” on his 80th birthday. “I got into the poetry scene in the 50s. We were all protesting, it was a revolutionary time…many people from the Midwest, disinherited like me, came to New York, to the coffeehouses, and with Bob Dylan and Woody Allen and Gregory Corso we were outré, avante garde. And we read our stuff.” Mead added, “With me and Allen (Ginsberg), we were trying to drive the tourists out of the coffeehouses. But the owners of the coffee houses had to make some money, so they brought in Woody Allen and Bill Cosby. The were trying to please the audiences. They knew where they were going. We didn’t know where we were going.” (The entire interview, which is predominately about Mead and his relationship with Warhol and other Factory troupe members like drag queens Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, is available here.
A denizen of New York’s Bowery, Mead lived on Ludlow Street until a month before his death when he was evicted after a years-long battle due to a real estate turnover and a conflict with the building’s owners. For decades he was known in the neighborhood for reading his poetry in bars throughout the area and for feeding stray cats in the cemetery, which he did nightly.
Over the years Mead would collect his poems and journal entries and distribute them, typed and mimeographed or Xeroxed. One brief fragment featured on the New York Times blog reads:
gimme a charge
sitting on green pine
I have to (have) shoes
While many of Mead’s contemporaries from the Warhol days either died young or moved on to different things, Mead continued to live his eccentric and artistic life in lower Manhattan, painting, writing poetry, feeding cats. In 2005 filmmaker Willam Kirkley made a documentary about him, Excavating Taylor Mead, narrated by actor Steve Buscemi and starring Mead and other Factory notables Paul Morrisey and Penny Arcade.
One of Mead’s last film roles was in Jim Jarmusch’s marvelous 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes. Mead and legendary indie actor, Bill Rice, appear in the final segment of the film, which is comprised of 11 vignettes. Their segment is titled “Champagne” and works as a coda on Mead’s life. The scene is six minutes long, shot in black-and-white. The two elderly actors sit across a small table from each other in a room that looks like a warehouse and are dressed in the casual clothes of factory workers. They are drinking coffee from paper cups and Rice is also smoking a cigarette.
Rice asks Mead, “How are you, Taylor?” and Mead responds, that he feels distant, removed. “I’ve lost touch with the world. Do you know that song, ‘I’ve lost track of the world’ by Mahler? It’s one of the most beautiful, saddest songs in the world. I can almost hear it now.”
The Mahler lied plays faintly, briefly, from a distance, achingly mournful. Mead cups his ear and looks wistful, yearning. You can see how even at nearly 80, his ability to emote and his nuanced expressiveness is not diminished from his early acting days.
“It’s gone now,” he sighs. Then he asks Rice, “Where are we?” “In the armory, Taylor.” “It sounds so heavy and ponderous,” Mead says. Then Rice says, “Nicola Tesla was a conductor of acoustical resins.”
It’s kind of a wonderful moment as Rice says this so matter-of-factly. I remember bursting out laughing when he said it when I first saw the film. It was such a perfect absurdist moment of the sort Jarmusch is known for. And it ricochets off the tear-jerking scene of Mead and the Mahler, a perfect ironic counterpoint.
Then Mead looks like he has no idea what Rice is talking about and says, “Let’s pretend this coffee’s champagne. To celebrate life, like the rich people do.”
Rice grumbles that it’s just coffee and terrible coffee at that, to which Mead replies,”Your problem is you’ve no joie de vivre. I propose a toast. Paris in the 1920s, to Josephine Baker, to…”
Mead is rhapsodic while Rice breaks in gruffly, “And also New York in the late 70s.”
Mead then says he’s so tired, “I have to have a nap” and closes his eyes. His head falls to his chest and Rice says, “Taylor? Taylor?” But Mead is gone and the film closes, fade to black.
Mead died suddenly, out of his element, much like Tesla did. But by all accounts Mead never, even in his hoarder-ish apartment or reading his poetry or feeding his cats, lost that joie de vivre. Yet it is that Mahler lied from Coffee and Cigarettes which provides Mead’s epitaph “I am lost to the world with which I used to waste so much time. It has heard nothing from me for so long that it may very well believe that I am dead!”
RIP Taylor Mead, who was beautiful and fabulous in his day and left a quixotic legacy on film, in poetry and in the streets and bars of the Bowery.
He left no survivors.