Fun-loving veteran fashion show and events producer Benjamin Liu came to New York City in 1979 at the invitation of Victor Hugo, a Venezuelan artist with a larger-than-life personality well known throughout the ’70s and ’80s in gay, arts and fashion circles as fashion designer Halston’s lover, muse and window display designer. Hugo was Liu’s tour guide on a rollercoaster ride through the heart of New York City’s most legendary creative period. The trip changed the course of Liu’s life and eventually led to him working for artist Andy Warhol from 1983 to 1986. Warhol passed away a year later and Hugo died in 1993, but Liu still remembers his mentors fondly and remains eternally grateful for the experiences that have shaped him. I met up with him to reminisce about his formative years.
Michael: How did you come to New York?
Benjamin: I came to New York through one friend, Victor Hugo, and I always continually thank him. He signified a whole era. He was a Venezuelan hustler and makeup artist who became a muse to Halston, Andy Warhol and Elsa Peretti. He was Halston’s lover–boyfriend and also a great display person, an artist in his own right and a coke addict. He was famously photographed at Studio 54 in a jock strap, in a celluloid stripped top carrying a women’s purse. At the same time, so manly. He was really like a porn star.
He was sexy to you?
He was sexy to everyone. This was a person who lived at St. Mark’s Baths.
Did you meet him there?
No, I was in San Francisco in those days. I had a very rich Greek-American boyfriend, Constantine.
What did Constantine do?
I was never sure, I think he just drove around all day in his silver Porsche and hung out with me. One day, he told me he wanted to buy some art and he was interested in either Picasso or Matisse. I said, “Constantine, that’s boring. Spend your money on a new artist.” So he asked me who. I just happened to read L’Uomo Vogue and I just read about Victor Hugo. At that time amongst the fashion set, he was considered a hot artist. He made a major piece called “The Spoon and the Heel”, a very cheap stainless steel spoon you found at Woolworth’s perched on a Chanel heel from some famous women displayed in a Plexiglas box. People like Diane Vreeland and Halston bought them. I always loved surrealism so I thought, “Here is someone inspired by ’20s and ’30s surrealism bringing it to early ’80s Manhattan, in a fashion context.”
You convinced Constantine to buy one?
Constantine told me to get ahold of him. The article said he was very “close friends” with Halston so I looked up the Halston store in Manhattan and left a message. Within the day Victor called me without knowing who I was. He was so flattered that some one from the West Coast knew who he was and wanted to buy something. He had never been to San Francisco so he said he would come and visit me and bring the piece in three months.
Were you surprised?
Totally. When he did arrive, I was intimidated. I had never met anyone who did coke every hour. I never spoke to anyone with a thick South American accent. I never met anybody who arrived with a full set of Vuitton luggage, wearing mirrored sunglasses, looking ultra chic. I invited him to stay with me and have the real experience of San Francisco. We just really got along, I don’t know how. We were like day and night. He said, “Come to New York. I will put you up for the week.”
So he was showing in galleries?
No. At that time he was doing all of Halston’s windows, which made him really famous as a display person. But he was crazy, really creative. At the same time, he was inspiring Andy Warhol so when I came to New York that week, he had already told Andy about me and took me to the Factory.
Were you excited?
Of course. It was even more exciting because at that time Victor was helping Andy to do this series about big dicks and asses. So Victor did the casting ’cause he knew all the porn stars and the first day I went there, they were all hanging around the studio. That was Andy’s most fun period.
You must be sick of people asking you about Andy Warhol?
What was nightlife like with Victor?
Well, that trip happened to be the opening of Studio 54. I had no idea what that was. Victor knew that the only way to get in to the opening night was through the back door. It was crazy, every famous person was there trying to get in. When I got back to San Francisco, of course, I wanted to move to New York and made a pact to move there in six months. I told Victor and he said, “Great. Works for me.”
Did he have a big career? Historically he’s not remembered that way.
He didn’t sustain himself. Part of the problem is he was such a big coke addict and so temperamental. But I remember going to all these gay clubs and literally the red sea parted. I mean, he was THE QUEEN. People knew that he was Halston’s lover, best friends with Liza, Bianca Jagger and Andy.
How long did you work for Victor?
Did you have sex with him?
We tried once. One day he said, “Benjamin, I fucked everybody but you. Let’s give it a shot. So I figured, “Why not?” and we got naked and we started making out but we both started laughing and couldn’t go through with it. We were too close friends.
How did you switch to working for Warhol?
In those days, Halston spent all his summers in Montauk on the tip of Long Island next door to Richard Avedon and Peter Beard. We would invite Andy and his boyfriend to come out on major holidays, Fourth of July, Labor Day, you know. My bedroom was between Victor’s and Halston’s rooms.
They had separate bedrooms?
Well, Halston would go to bed more regularly and Victor stayed up all night. Well, me and him, or we would sneak out and go the gay disco in East Hampton. We would call a cab. We didn’t drive so it cost $50 bucks there and $50 bucks back. In 1981, that was a lot of money just to go dance and look at fags for a couple of hours. Anyway, one long weekend, it was Halston, Victor, Steve Rubell, Ian Schrager, Bianca Jagger, Andy and me.
You were the only assistant invited?
You mean MAID.
A “very special” maid.
“Very special.” Anyway, Andy and I would take long walks together. You know, he was a very pale person. He didn’t take sun easily, so I would hold the sun umbrella as he walked around and took pictures, and on one of these walks he asked me to work for him.
Well, looking back, the reason he asked was he saw the synergy between me, Victor and Halston. We always had what I called “creative fun” and he liked that.
He wanted in on that?
He did, but I turned him down.
Because I was stupid. I thought the world of fashion was glamorous and it was, in comparison to Andy’s world. In a physical sense, Halston’s office was in the Olympic Tower, everything was glass. Who went there? Mrs. Doris Duke, Mrs. Jackie Onassis, the most glamorous wealthy women in the world. I saw these people every time I went there. Halston only traveled by limousines or private jets. That’s how we got to Montauk. Halston’s world came out of intense training and observation of Paris and knowing all these wealthy ladies. It was the ultimate in chic, for lack of a better word. Then look at Andy—even though I love his artwork. I was naïve. A couple months later, Andy came back to Montauk and asked me again. So for advice I ask Steve Rubell of all people. I wanted an outside opinion or maybe a more Quaalude opinion. [laughs] He said to me, “Benjamin. Halston’s world is this big [spreading his hands], Andy’s world is this big [spreading his hands wider].” That was my answer.
What was your ambition at the time?
I didn’t have one, I still don’t have one. You know that. [laughs]
Was Victor mad about you leaving him?
I think Victor was happy for me because it meant his protégée was being appreciated by somebody fabulous. It reflected on him.
So what happened next?
So after Labor Day I showed up at his house, at 10:30. The job was undetermined. At this point, the silk screening was being done outside the office. So I did the painting, curated the photographs, sat in on the interviews for Interview. I worked on the TV show for MTV. The good thing about Andy’s was there were so many categories you could work on, but that could also be a bad thing. My duty was picking him up everyday and then doing all the personal stuff, which could be anything from going to Duane Reade, visiting Raquel Welch or going with him to a doctor. I wore two hats, personal assistant and studio assistant. I was also the social secretary. After work, there was a whole round of night time parties. Then I’d send him home because I loved to stay at the clubs. Andy knew I stayed on. I still had to have my own nightlife.
Was it suffocating to spend so much time with him?
No. How could I say that? Not at all because the precious moments are really precious. Our time alone together away from people actually was quite simple. There were so many times we would just get sandwiches and eat on the step of somebody’s townhouse. We were just being friends. I knew him like that before I started working for him. But at the same time, I knew that when it becomes work, it is work. You have to be respectful of that or you don’t last long. To take advantage of your friendship would be the ultimate mistake.
Was the early ’80s a fun time at the Factory?
I loved it. A great time for me because school never ended, that was a school. It’s like I would say, “Oh, Andy I can do that” and he would say, “Ooh! Do you want to try?” And I’m getting paid. I’m with the master and I have a great company of people. I can’t argue with that.
Was it a lot of pressure constantly dealing with super rich, super famous people?
It could have been if I hadn’t had diplomacy in my background. My dad was a diplomat to Taiwan. He wrote two books on diplomacy in English and Chinese. That rubbed off on me. I wouldn’t have confronted it as well without that.
You left Andy a year before he died, right?
Brigid Berlin looked at me the first day I showed up and she said, “Benjamin, you’re a lifer” and that was scary. I didn’t see myself like that. Three years is a good time to work for somebody. You don’t look like a flake. So I made a pact with myself. It’s just that simple. I remember the date: Valentine’s Day, 1986. I marked that day in my calendar as the day I should leave and I told Andy a month before and he didn’t believe me. People didn’t quit. It was a fantastic position.
An envied position.
Of course, but it is never a power structure for me. That to me is such negative energy. I can’t focus on that shit. It stifles everything. If you are operating out of who you know, it shouldn’t work that way. We are only interested in knowing people if their dicks are big. [laughs] Jean-Michel Basquiat had a big dick.
You saw it?
Well, all the girls that screwed him always said so.