Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Benjamin Liu Files: Part I

Benjamin Liu and Victor Hugo, shot by Andy Warhol at the Montauk Estate in the Summer of 1982. Image courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Benjamin Liu's name has always been circulated in art and fashion circles as one of those much revered living legends, who was part of the epicenter of downtown New York in the 80's, and somehow managed to survive to tell about it. Since moving to the city from San Francisco almost over twenty-five years ago, he has spent summers living with Halston in Montauk, worked as an assistant to Andy Warhol, and currently runs a business as a special event and fashion show planner, with a client list that includes Thom Browne, Nom de Guerre, United Bamboo, and Doo.Ri.

To us though, Benny has always been a Fairy-Godfather of sorts (with Laura Wills of Screaming Mimi's being our Fairy-Godmother, naturally), hiring us to help on shows and presentations during fashion week, giving us emergency event-planning advice, and generally being the avuncular bon-vivant uncle we always wished we had. As serious a professional as Benjamin is, we can always rely on him to jokingly flirt with our husbands/boyfriends at dinner parties, fete us with industry gossip over drinks, and cheerlead our every endeavor, as puny as it might be.

Christina and I asked him to sit down with us for coffee, and tell us about his life in New York and his career in the fashion industry. We originally planned on only having one session, but after an hour and a half, we realized that we could probably talk to Benny about his incredible life for days on end. Here is part one, leading up to how he ended up working for Warhol, with more installments to come.

Moving to New York, Meeting Andy Warhol
It all started with a serendipitous phone call. Benny, who was living in San Francisco at the time, had read an article on the New York artist and window dresser, Victor Hugo, and decided to give him a call to inquire about his work. When Hugo returned Benny's phone call, they ended up having a long conversation, which ended with Hugo promising to visit Benny in San Francisco, and Benny saying, "Be my guest!"

What Benny didn't know at the time was that Hugo was Halston's boyfriend and live-in companion, and that six months later, true to his word, he would show up in San Francisco at Benny's door, arriving in a limo packed with a full set of Louis Vuitton luggage, and dressed in head-to-toe Halston. Naturally, the two "just clicked" and six months later, Benny returned the visit to Hugo in New York, staying with Hugo's assistant, Lorenzo Velasquez.

The trip was life changing. During the week long visit, Hugo took Benny all around the city, introducing him to his famous friends, including Liza Minnelli and Bianca Jagger. He took Benny to meet Andy Warhol at the Factory, where Hugo was helping Andy find subjects for his Torso Series. Warhol was looking for people with attractive bodies, and when Benny arrived, he found himself in a room full of porn stars, "famous porn stars, the ones who are on the video covers!" He was almost as in awe of meeting the porn stars as he was of Warhol. He spent his downtime with Hugo at Halston's house, where Hugo showed him Halston's garage full of abandoned treasures, including two of Bianca Jagger's discarded suitcases, which were both packed with Manolo heels. Benny describes the experience as "All luck, pure luck, it just kinda happened."

Within six months of his first visit, Benny moved permanently to New York, "without looking back or knowing what I was pursuing." By the time he moved, Hugo had broken up with Halston, moved to a loft on Fifth Avenue and 19th Street, and Benny became his house guest and took a job as his assistant. Halston and Hugo remained close, and while Benny spent those first two years in New York running around, the summers were spent at Halston's Montauk estate, which the designer would rent from Warhol. Benny and Hugo would pick up Halston at his studio at Olympic Tower, jump into a limo, go to the airport, and take Halston's private plane out to Montauk. Benny's room was sandwiched between Hugo's and Halstons, but Benny quips, "there was no sex going on between us!"

"Here's the photo by Victor Hugo in the Montauk estate main house kitchen, wearing a Halston silkscreened white dove / black turtleneck, that H gave me the night before."

On major holidays, Halston would invite their landlord, Warhol, up for the weekend, and during these visits, Benny got to know the artist on a more personal basis. Warhol was anemic to the sun, and often carried an umbrella outside, as well as a backpack full of cameras and film to shoot with. One day Benny offered to carry his umbrella for him while he took pictures, and eventually the two developed a friendship, and Warhol offered Benny a job as his assistant. Benny refused the initial offer, thinking that Warhol's world wasn't nearly as glamorous as Halston's. "I was so stupid!" Benny says of the moment, with a laugh. Eventually, Steve Rubell of Studio 54 convinced Benny of his mistake, saying "Halston's world is this big, while Warhol's world is this big," while making a grand gesture of his arms to suggest the enormity of Warhol's sphere of influence. Benny ended up taking the job with Warhol, but only after laying out his terms, and demanding a set salary.


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WendyB said...

Great interview -- but now I'm hung up on wanting that turtleneck!

Supei said...


May Kasahara said...

oh freaking AMAZING interview.
thanks so much for posting.