Tuesday night’s new episode of American Horror Story: Cult (read our recap here), featured Valerie Solanas, the would-be assassin of legendary pop artist Andy Warhol, as wonderfully portrayed by Girls actress and creator Lena Dunham. Of course, while Solanas did not have anything to do with the Zodiac murders that anyone is aware of, and no such lover named Bebe Babbitt existed to help her carry out these alleged murders, she was indeed a real person — and a tragic, tortured one, at that.
As a teenager in the early 1950s, Solanas was kicked out of her New Jersey home due to a volatile relationship with her mother and stepfather (she also claimed to have been sexually abused by her birth father, as was insinuated in the episode) and was sent to live with her grandparents, where her grandfather physically abused her. Solanas did bear one child in 1953, but not to her father or stepfather, but to a married sailor she had an affair with. (The child was taken from her and she never saw him again.) Sometime in the 1950s, Solanas did come out as a lesbian, which was highly risque for the times.
After running away and a brief stint of homelessness, Solanas ended up attending and graduating from the University of Maryland with a degree in psychology. From there she relocated to Berkeley, California where she began working on the SCUM Manifesto, which was basically an instruction manual on how to “overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.”
What the episode did get correct was the assassination attempt itself. It’s true that Solanas met Warhol while working as a writer after having moved back to New York City in the 1960s, where she did support herself in part through prostitution and begging, as depicted in uncomfortable detail in the episode. It’s also true that motivation for the murder was Warhol refusing to return her play, Up Your Ass, which she had given to him to read in hopes he would produce. Warhol supposedly later said that the play — about a woman who was a man-hating hustler and panhandler, who ends up killing a man — was so pornographic he thought it was part of a police sting. At the time, Warhol’s films were regularly shut down by police for obscenity.
Warhol tried to make things right to Solanas by offering her $25 for an acting gig in one of his productions, in addition to insulting her by offering to hire her as a typist. There are conflicting accounts on the series of events that transpired leading up to the murder itself — however according to witnesses Solanas did indeed show up at the Factory that day looking for Warhol to give her money, and remained riding the elevator up and down until the artist finally made an appearance and boarded it. An account of what happened next is pretty much exactly what was depicted in the episode:
She entered The Factory with Warhol, who complimented her on her appearance as she was uncharacteristically wearing makeup. Morrissey told her to leave, threatening to “beat the hell” out of her and throw her out otherwise. The phone rang and Warhol answered while Morrissey went to the bathroom. While Warhol was on the phone, Solanas fired at him three times. Her first two shots missed, but the third went through both lungs, his spleen, stomach, liver, and esophagus.
Looking back at video that was taken during Solanas’ arrest, after she eventually turned herself in and confessed to the crime, it’s clear that Ryan Murphy spared no attention to detail in getting Dunham’s look just right:
Solanas served just three years at a psychiatric hospital for the attempted murder and was released in 1971. She continued to stalk Warhol over the years however, and he apparently lived in constant terror of her. She was arrested once again in November of 1971, before bouncing around in out of institutions for most of her adult life. Eventually she died of pneumonia in San Francisco in 1988, where she had continued to work on her manifesto. Tragically, she died just a year after Warhol passed from a gallbladder infection (thought to have been from where she shot him 20 years prior) so for the remainder of his life he was never free from her.