THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

15 March 2019

25 Cats Named Sam

This weekend is the last opportunity to see the Library's free exhibition 'Cats on the Page', which celebrates our feline friends in literary and illustrated form.  It thus seemed appropriate to share two of our favourite cat-themed books with you.

One of his lesser known works, Andy Warhol's 25 Cats Named Sam and One Blue Pussy is a soul-warming depiction of the twenty-six cats that co-habited with Andy Warhol and his mother, Julia Warhola in their New York apartment.  Beautifully illustrated by Warhol, it is accompanied by his mother's distinctive script. 

Warhola Cats
Shelfmarks 1551/459 and 1551/460

Alongside this volume sits Holy Cats by Andy Warhol's Mother, which is illustrated in full by Julia.  Holy Cats opens with a dedication: "This little book is for my little Hester who left for pussy heaven".  The legend goes that the 25 Sams were acquired so that Hester wouldn't feel lonely.  Looking through the works, the influence of Julia's distinctive illustrations and creative imagination on her son is readily apparent.  Indeed, Warhol regularly worked with her throughout his illustrative and design career, both before and after his meteoric rise to fame in the art world.

Hester
little Hester who left for pussy heaven

Retellings of Andy Warhol's life are full of myth, and it is often difficult to decipher fact from fiction, and from deliberately self-perpetuated fantasy.  Perhaps one of the more widely favoured versions of Warhol is of the publicly celebrity-obsessed yet socially-awkward recluse.  More recently, Olivia Laing has written about Warhol within a lineage of artists who struggled with social acceptance and meaningful communication, whose works speak of and to the loneliness that accompanies this.  She describes Warhol thusly:

The loneliness of difference, the loneliness of undesirability, the loneliness of not being admitted into the magic circles of connection and acceptance – the social and professional groupings, the embracing arms.  Another thing: he lived with his mother.  In the summer of 1952 Julia had arrived in Manhattan… Andy had recently moved into his own apartment and she was anxious about his ability to care from himself.  The two of them shared a bedroom, as they had when he was a sick little boy, sleeping on twin mattresses on the floor and re-establishing the old production-line of collaboration.  Julia’s hand is everywhere in Warhol’s commercial work; in fact her beautifully erratic lettering won several awards.  Her housekeeping skills were less pronounced.  Both that apartment and the larger one that followed quickly degenerated into a state of squalor: a smelly labyrinth filled with wobbling towers of paper, in which as many as twenty Siamese cats made their homes, all but one of them named Sam.

It leaves a sad impression of one of the Twentieth-Centuries most recognisable artists, which is driven home by the vision of cat-filled squalor and over-protective mother.  Indeed, owning multiple cats is often seen as a sign of personal decadence.  And yet, when one reads 25 Cats Named Sam and Holy Cats, this is decidedly not the impression that one is left with.

Sam no 3
One of the Sams
Another Sam
Another Sam

The 25 Sams may share a name, but they each have distinctive portraits and in many ways it is perhaps Warhol's warmest work and is suggestive of companionship and familiarity rather than an existential loneliness.  These are also playful books, with a distinctly tongue-in-cheek self-awareness and a dry humour that is shared by mother and son.

Chapeau
Some cats go to heaven, some wear chapeaux
The Devil
and once in a while one of them goes to the devil

This is the memory that Warhol's nephew, James Warhola, an illustrator in his own right, has of his uncle and grandmother's living arrangements:

Andy was always portrayed as disconnected from his family, but this was definitely not the case. He was close to the family he had, his two brothers and their kids. Some biographers have' written that he kept his mother in a basement, like a dungeon, and I always found that odd. My grandmother lived in a beautiful apartment on the ground floor, and we hung out in her kitchen and living room.

Andy was playful, and he laughed a lot. He would always buy us gifts. There was a magic shop in Times Square, and he would get us cameras with birdies that popped out; he had an affectionate side. But it was important for him to keep up his persona, with the sunglasses and the silverish wig. He tried to stay in character.

These are the memories that he records in two children's books he has made about his uncle.  From the perspective of a child, they give a very different insight into Warhol's private life.

Uncle_andys
Uncle Andy's by James Warhola
Uncle_andys
Uncle Andy's Cats by James Warhola

Read alongside Warhol's and Julia Warhola's books, one here gets the sense that Warhol's private family life was rich, and that cats provided additional companionship for both mother and son, as well as playthings for young nephews.  While their living arrangements could be seen as alternative, by looking at these without preconceptions, we get a fuller picture of the lonely socially-awkward artist we might be looking to find.

 

In memory of Matthew Neill, former curator for Australasia and English Language Asia, and cat-lover.

References

25 Cats Named Sam and One Blue Pussy, shelfmark 1551/459

Holy Cats by Andy Warhol's Mother, shelfmark 1551/460

Olivia Laing, The Lonely City, shelfmark YKL.2018.a.4059 

Interview with James Warhola, Publishers Weekly, 1/27/2003, Vol. 250, Issue 4