Notes on Paul America
"Paul America was another strange cup of tea. He was everybody's lover...he was marvelously satisfying to everyone... People would go to sleep in his arms... Richie Berlin, me, just everyone! He was the personification of total sexual satisfaction. Without a brain in his head. Just beautifully vapid. He was a wonderful creature. Anybody who wanted anything from Paul could get it. He was there to satisfy. And he did." (EDIE212)
Paul America (Paul Johnson) was a "six foot New Jersey youth" which the Warhol crowd had noticed at the New York discotheque Ondine (no relationship to the superstar Ondine). (DB211/POP124)
"Lester Persky had 'discovered' Paul at the discotheque Ondine and brought him around to the Factory. Paul was unbelievably good-looking - like a comic-strip drawing of Mr. America, clean-cut, handsome, very symmetrical (he seemed to be exactly six feet tall and weigh some nice round number). I don't remember how he got the name Paul America, unless it was because he was staying at the Hotel America on West 46th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, a super-funky midtown hotel that was the kind of place Lenny Bruce, say, stayed in." (POP124/5)
Henry Geldzahler in his apartment
on West 81st Street (1964)
(Photo: Mark Lancaster)
"Paul America lived with me for awhile. Lester Persky brought him to the Factory one night, and everyone went mad for Paul. Then later he sent me - he was in jail a couple of times - this stinking wooden cast, plaster cast for a broken leg. I mean, I used to get these from prison - these momentos, like a dog bringing a dead bird into your living room. I would get to open it and not know what to do with it. Open it in the basement. He also, with a friend, broke into my apartment, and stole an Oldenburg shirt and a landscape by Lichtenstein and threw them away the next night in a garbage can in Brooklyn and I was upset about that until I found out that the guy he'd done it with had died the same night, swinging - they were very high - swinging from the sixth floor of a tenement, trying to get into the apartment of somebody else to steal. I thought, art, theft, art, theft. I'm lucky. It was horrible." (VY163)
Henry Geldzahler had also told Billy Name that Paul America had stolen all the Warhol paintings that Andy had given to Billy. Name had left them with Geldzahler when he left the Factory in early 1970. Billy found out about the theft when he rang Henry in 1977 upon returning to his hometown of Poughkeepsie, New York. The stolen works of art included a Jackie tryptich and a flower painting. (B)
In an interview for Jean Stein's book on Edie Sedgwick, Paul America recalled the night he originally met the Warhol crowd:
"I only had two dollars, and the drinks cost two something. So I was waiting at the bar for my friend, realizing my time was short. He turned up and asked me to sit with everybody in the back - Chuck Wein and Andy and Edie; they were having a dinner party because Edie had been on the Johnny Carson show that night. When they went back to the Factory, I went with them, and I stayed for three years. Most people didn't know I lived there, because I was taking speed - I figured if I took speed, I wouldn't be paranoid - and I only slept about twice or three times a year. That was enough rest... It was restful to be in one position knowing I wouldn't have to move right away. I put together a motorcycle for Andy. He gave me that name, Paul America...I went through a period of paranoia about it. I mean everytime I saw that word [America] - and it's everywhere - I related it to myself. The country's problems were my problems... Andy was very secluded... Sometimes I would go up to him and suggest something that we could do, and he would listen very nicely and ask Gerard to give me his reply... He wouldn't talk with me directly. He looked down on me, I guess. Took me for a fool, which I guess is what a lot of people do." (EDIE213)
Paul ended up starring in only one full length Warhol film - My Hustler in 1965. He also appeared in the unreleased sequels to My Hustler - My Hustler: In Apartment and My Hustler: Ingrid. A four minute silent portrait film of Paul America made during the shooting of My Hustler was also included in a longer version of My Hustler when a film montage edited by Dan Williams was added to the movie in 1967. (AD26)
Paul America would later maintain that he was unaware of what My Hustler was about, saying that "I was on LSD the whole time, and I thought I was just going through some practice motions." He thought that they were supposed to return to the house on Fire Island where My Hustler was shot in order to finish the film, but that they were unable to return to the house because of the state they left it in.
"We used his house for the movie, and it was destroyed - the furniture all torn up and burned in the fireplace. We were like little children in a playpen, or in a sandpit." (DB213)
Paul would also later appear in the John Palmer/David Weisman film, Ciao Manhattan with Edie Sedgwick. In one scene in which he he was supposed to drop Jane Holzer at the helioport at the Pan Am building, Paul just kept on driving after he dropped her off. He was finally tracked down in a jail in Allegan, Michigan. The filmmakers had to get permission to film him in jail with the intention of integrating the shots into the footage. (According to Paul, he had driven to his brother's farm in Indiana.) (EDIE323)
Edie Sedgwick was fascinated by Paul America, who lived with her for a short period in the Chelsea Hotel.
"Paul is such a strange, zombielike guru. I hate him, but I have this strange fascination, this kind of love and sexual addiction for him. I remember on the way to the Cloisters... poking up speed in the car. I saw him like some vision of a Martian... somebody from outerspace. Maybe it was because he took so much acid that he had this strange alienation from the human race. I'm not sure what attracted me to him unless it was a kind of admiration brought about by the drugs which I was so heavily innundated by. But that morning at the Cloisters was truly beautiful. It was great. (EDIE323 - from tapes for the movie, 'Ciao Manhattan')
"Before he went to jail, it was Paul America who took a hand with Edie. Paul had been on heroin, but he had gotten off it, and, as it turned out, he took up residence with Edie in the Chelsea and he got her off it as well. He was very firm with her. He's a fascinating person. Quite a handful... you never knew if the next moment he wasn't going to leap on you and cut your throat. Once he arrived at my door and pulled out a giant plumber's wrench, a really big wrench, from under his raincoat. He held it up raised over my head. But that's as far as he went. He was looking for money. I let him ransack the drawers. He found some checks left over from an old account riffling through them. I said, 'What are you going to do with those? They're no good.' He said, 'Oh never mind.' He huffed out, taking a radio with him.He would have to leave town when he got violent and end up in some sort of commune. Then he would come back to New York high-spirited and with the strength of a god. Incredible. Then he'd give you more devastating looks than ever. Crazy again. The cycle kept repeating itself. Edie had her relationship with him when he'd just returned from the country: he was healthy, strong, and gentle. Lovely. He got her off heroin by keeping her busy. Their relationship was really nice for awhile. Then it got ticklish because after a month in the city Paul gets to be unbearable, paranoid, insane... and so finally split up. But while it was going, it was terrific. Edie was in seventh heaven with him." (EDIE325)
"Sometimes Edie and I had money for speed and sometimes we didn't, so sometimes we would buy it and sometimes we would just take it. Often we went to Brooklyn to pick up speed at this dude's home we called the Captain. He had a still set up in his apartment to make speed. The batches were different and some of it was probably dangerous to take. So he would have people try it... We tried most all of them... Most of the time people who haven't been doing a lot of it will be a little reluctant to take anything. But Edie was right there. She didn't care. We had some good times... I threw a lot of people out who were bothering her... who had come to rip her off. I threw them out as soon as they came in.She didn't dig that, because she dug the scene of a lot of people. She called the bellman and tried to have me thrown out. So I left and didn't comeback." (EDIE326)
According to Henry Geldzahler in the early eighties, Paul "was a wasted creature after they [Warhol's crowd] had finished with him. They finally washed their hands of him and let him float away. He's a poor burned-out thing living in a commune in Indiana and trying to pull himself together." (EDIE213)
Paul died after being hit by a car while working down the road on his way home from a dental appointment on October 19, 1982 in Ormond Beach, Florida. (RH1) Earlier that year he had tried unsuccessfully to reach Andy Warhol.
Andy Warhol (July 6, 1982):
"... Paul America called - I don't know from where - but the office has a list of "Do Not Take Calls From" people so they didn't put the call through. And they said he was saying that he was one of the superstars, but he was never even in one of my movies. Oh wait! My Hustler! I forgot (laughs) he was the star. He (laughs) was My Hustler." (AWD450)