Dorothy Podber: 'Witch' who shot Warhol's Marilyns

On an autumn day in 1964, Dorothy Podber did the thing for which she will largely be remembered. Dressed in black leather, white gloves and accompanied by a Great Dane called Carmen Miranda (or, perhaps, Yvonne de Carlo – as with much of Podber's life, the story varies), she walked into Andy Warhol's Factory on East 47th Street in New York and asked to shoot some paintings.

Assuming she meant with a camera, Warhol agreed to her request, and the self-styled feminist and "witch" peeled off her gloves, drew a small German pistol from her handbag and put a bullet through a stack of silk-screens of Marilyn Monroe. According to one Factory hanger-on, Billy Name, "she got Marilyn right between the eyes". The scarred works were henceforth known as "The Shot Marilyns", and Podber was barred from the Factory for life.

This was not Warhol's only brush with gun-toting feminists – four years later, the leader and sole member of the Society for Cutting Up Men (aka SCUM) shot him three times in the chest – but it was, perhaps, the most modern. Niki de Saint Phalle might have started shooting her own paintings three years earlier, but Podber's gunplay brought together a number of strands of what would later be known as postmodernism.

While her attack counted as a "happening" – Allan Kaprow had staged the first of these in 1959 – it also called into question the same issues of originality and authorship as did the Marilyn paintings. In that sense at least, Podber out-Warholed Warhol. Like it or not (and Warhol didn't), the Shot Marilyns would remain their joint works, Podber's contribution to each signalled by a small rough patch where the damaged canvas had been repaired.

It might even be argued that her play on the meaning of "shoot" had its roots in the puns of Dada, although it seems likely that Podber was driven by a sense of mischief rather than of art history. A friend of several Black Mountain College graduates – some variants of her story have Podber at the school herself, although this cannot be verified – she turned pranks into an art form.

Together with the mail artist Ray Johnson, she would show dumbstruck clients around a supposedly rentable flat in the Lower East Side, then leap out of cupboards laughing at them eerily. She and Johnson stood on street corners and played records of people stuttering. During the pair's "dead animal" phase, they took to giving friends clocks out of which rats would fall. Subsidised by a rich boyfriend on the floor of whose bank vault she insisted on having sex, Podber spent hours trying on hats which, having paid for them with wads of hundred-dollar notes, she would promptly dump in the rubbish.

While it is unwise to attempt to explain an artist's work by way of their childhood, Podber's does seem to provide a watertight case for later criminality. Her father, Joseph, a one-time hoodlum and speakeasy owner, was reduced to running a news-stand after going blind. His despairing wife, pregnant with their only child, threw herself down the stairs of a subway station in an attempt to abort her.

By the age of 16, Dorothy was organising mass walk-outs at her high school in the Bronx; in the school yearbook photo, she scowls at the camera and gives her intended profession as "psychiatrist". On graduating, she instead got a job at the Nonagon Gallery in the East Village. This hotbed of the avant-garde was famous for inviting Charlie Mingus to play and record, and for being the first gallery in New York to show the work of a Japanese artist called Yoko Ono.

Regular hours didn't really suit Podber, however: as she later said, "I never worked much." Instead, she turned her undoubted skills to crime. This included running an on-demand abortion agency from her flat, a project that saw her sent to the Women's House of Detention on Sixth Avenue. When the sentencing judge remarked that Podber should "try to behave more like a lady", she took to wearing picture hats and long gloves. In this guise, she took a job with the Jewish welfare agency B'nai Brith, and stayed long enough to pick the lock of its safe and use the contents for her own cheque-counterfeiting machine.

Podber's more usual occupation, though, was as a mistress. Set up in a flat by her local congressman, she annoyed him by sleeping with his chauffeur. Earlier, she had married a hapless academic called Edelstein who took her back to his university in rural Illinois. The marriage did not thrive, and neither did her second, to a Mexican immigrant called Garcia who wanted a green card; in exchange, she received $1,000 and an ocelot.

Finally, in the mid-1960s, Podber met and married a bisexual stevedore called Lester Schwartz. Asked if theirs was a conventional marriage, Podber replied, "Well, we both liked men and women." After Schwartz's death in 1986, her life went into a 20-year decline, and she survived on a diet of Hennessy brandy and amphetamines which she kept in a large bowl on her coffee table. According to one friend, the curator William Wilson, "She was a marvellous, evil woman. You didn't accept candy from Dorothy."

Warhol, though, had posthumous cause to be grateful to her. In 1989, with a repaired bullet hole over the left eyebrow, Shot Red Marilyn went for $4m, the highest price ever paid for one of his pictures at the time.

Charles Darwent

Dorothy Podber, performance artist: born New York 1932; three times married; died New York 9 February 2008.

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