During the late 70s, artist Kitty Brophy struggled in a male-dominated art world while falling in love with one of the rising stars of the downtown scene
EDITORIAL NOTE: Lessons of New York is an oral narrative series told in parts and based primarily on interviews with artists who were involved in the Lower East Side scene during the 70s and 80s.
Recorded and edited by Rachel Cole Dalamangas
NEW YORK, 1978
KENNY SCHARF: My first girlfriend in New York was Kitty Brophy. She went to high school with Larry Ashton, my roommate in Santa Barbara at University of California. She had just moved to New York to go to school at Parsons. Larry came to visit, and this Arizona girl, I met her and she immediately moved in with me at my apartment on 55th Street. That night we met, we went to of all places—we were pretending we were sophisticated—to The Plaza for drinks. She grabbed me under the table and she was like a crazy, fun girl. She’s a great artist.
KITTY BROPHY: I had a lot of premonitions and psychic moments when I was young. I always knew I was going to live in New York City. I knew I was going to be an artist. I knew I was going to be a model. I just knew it would all happen.
After I was accepted to all these art schools, I narrowed the decision down between Parsons and RISD. I knew RISD would be a much better school, but I wanted that glamorous New York City life. In a way, I knew I was making the wrong decision about art school, but was making the right decision about where to live and I did have an amazing life in the city.
My mom put me on a plane in Phoenix, Arizona. I was 18 years old. My aunt Mickey lived in Princeton, and her husband was a famous writer, and they picked me up at the airport and took me to my dorm and dropped me off. Mickey was an actress and had lived in New York when she was young. She saw the adventure that I was about to have and was excited for me.
Kenny Scharf was the first person I met in New York. He was this darling California guy who looked like Shaun Cassidy. We met through Larry Ashton who was a really close friend of mine in Phoenix growing up. He’s a few years older than I am. He introduced me to Kenny and it was love at first sight for me. Kenny had a blond shag and he was tan and he was so cute and he had the greatest butt.
Basically, I was living with Kenny right away. I had been living in a dorm. Have you ever seen that movie Pitch Perfect? Remember when Anna Kendrick’s character walks into her room and the Korean girl is sitting there and won’t talk to her? That was my experience. I had a Korean roommate and a Greek roommate, and they wouldn’t acknowledge me or say hello. It was just like that. It was so funny because here we were living in New York, the greatest city in the world, and these girls would just go to school and then go back to the dorm. And I was the sort of person who wanted to learn everything, see everything, do everything.
So, I started crashing at Kenny’s apartment on 55th Street. It was bizarre . . . that part of the city had nothing to do with our life, which started to be more and more downtown. He had a job nearby at a salad bar. I can’t believe the amount of food we stole from that place . . . I was an accomplice. I would come in and sit down with this huge purse and we’d just fill it up. I also had bags and we’d fill them up with food, yogurt, cases of Perrier or whatever. Once, Kenny stole a plant.
One Sunday, I went to Penn Station to take the train to visit my grandfather on Long Island. He was in town from L.A. and staying at his sister’s house. I put on a corduroy skirt and a nice coat. I had been in a real serious depression. The night before I had stood on the edge of my 13 story dorm building and contemplated jumping off of it, but something just told me not to. I had a chemical imbalance that started when I was 14. It was a horrible way to live. I’d experience intense mania followed by serious suicidal depressions that would last for weeks, then maybe one week of normalcy before the cycle started over again. It was different back then because people didn’t really talk about these issues. It was very taboo still. Now, of course, it’s different. But, the next morning, I still had to get up and go meet my grandfather for lunch in Long Island and pretend like everything was normal because he was funding my schooling.
I was sitting in Penn Station waiting for my train and it was very crowded. This huge guy who was out of his mind, I think he was probably on heroin and PCP, he had on a big overcoat and he was just gross. He walked over to me and just started molesting me and I was floored and didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t even scream. I was thinking, “This guy is going to fucking kill me. He’s going to rape me and kill me in the middle of Penn Station.” And all these other people were just watching. Nobody did anything and I was gasping and couldn’t breathe. Finally, I turned to a young guy sitting next to me and said, “Can you get the police?” The young guy ran and came back with a police officer. But by then the guy who attacked me had moved on. What really got me was how when the police showed up, all these people rushed forward to tell the police their version of the story. I asked the young guy, “Why didn’t you help me?” And he was like, “Oh, I thought you knew that guy.” Like some huge, dirty, derelict guy in an overcoat is my friend? They did capture him and they told me he had been going around all morning doing that and pulling knives on people too. He even broke through the handcuffs when they arrested him. I missed my train and had to use a payphone to call my grandfather and make up a story about why I was late. I went home to Kenny’s on 55th Street that night and told him all this and he looked at me like, this is just too much.
The illustration program at Parsons just killed me creatively. The teachers basically just wanted us to do what they wanted us to do. And they wanted us to paint like them but not as good as them because they were afraid that we would get good and take their jobs someday. That was during the time of super-realism and photo-realism. My work is the exact opposite. The teachers were biased toward the male artists and there weren’t many girls in art school. Most of the girls who were there were in fashion or in graphic design.
I had been celebrated in the large public high school I went to in Arizona. I’d been in the gifted program where we got to do whatever we wanted. My high school teachers had been all like, “Your work is great, this is wonderful.” I just flourished. I was awarded artist of the year. I was already drawing S&M art in high school, drawings in which the women were empowered and the guys were tied up.
So I went from encouraged and creatively free-flowing to Parsons where everything I did, the teachers were like, “This is shit. You can’t do this.” There was one teacher at Parsons in particular who called my work “fake naïve,” and I was like, “What does that mean?” And he said, “Why don’t you study Grandma Moses and learn how to do real naïve?” He wasn’t referring to my pen and ink stuff, because my pen and ink stuff was my personal outlet. Those drawings were very indicative of my mental state during that time. I never showed them to anybody except a few other people.
It was so bizarre for me to go to New York City where it was so much about pushing the men and encouraging the guys and there was really no support for women. I mean think of how few women succeeded in the art world back then. You can count them. And here I was doing these delicate little ink drawings, things from my heart and my damaged brain, and no one knew what to do with them. Kenny liked them. Keith Haring liked them a lot and he was very encouraging. But art at that time was getting to be bigger bolder faster funner.
Not all women have that story. There are women who say, “Oh no, it was a great time to be a woman artist.”
I mean, Kenny had it tough too at art school. But he was strong enough. He had the confidence and the strength to deal with that criticism. One of his teachers was the wonderful illustrator, Sue Coe. He was also very smart because he learned technique. That was something I didn’t learn in part because the teachers I had didn’t teach that at Parsons—maybe I just took the wrong classes. Kenny learned as much as he could about how to paint. He was doing video and silk-screening and photorealism and oil in school.
Kenny was perfect for me, and we were eager to go out and experience everything. We’d go to Xenon and get all dressed up in spandex. This was back in the era of Rocky Horror Picture Show and David Bowie. People were flirting with gender identity. I never labeled myself as gay or straight or anything. I’d put makeup on Kenny and we’d put our spandex on and go out. We went to Studio 54, but it was so over our heads. Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, Halston, these people were there but they were older and much more sophisticated. I remember going there and feeling so young and so wowed. This was before our whole scene started downtown at the end of 1978. We loved disco, but as soon as clubs opened downtown, we never really cared that much about going uptown anymore. We were just new to New York and the nightlife was in transition.
I was one of the few non-punk or retro-dressed girls in the East Village scene. I had been a debutante in Phoenix. I was the girl who would wear the hot pants and mini-skirts and high heels and makeup. Like, I wouldn’t let anyone kiss me when I was out at night because I didn’t want my lipstick to get messed up. I never drank in public, mostly because I didn’t want to spend the money, and later I was put on Lithium for my manic depression so I couldn’t drink at all, and quaaludes were all over and cheap so that was pretty much my thing until I got into coke in the ’80s.
John Sex and Wendy Wild, and Kenny and me, we used to double date. It’s so funny to call it “double dating.” We didn’t “date” in our group, but we did hang out all the time. John wasn’t John “Sex” yet and Wendy wasn’t Wendy “Wild.” That was later. John was this guy from Long Island with blond hair. The nicest guy. He would wear like these little tiny cut-offs. He was so creative and made these amazing silk-screens. Wendy was just this girl from Long Island with long, dirty blond hair and she was cute and fun. Nobody in our group was stuck up. We were always doing something. Like, “Let’s party!” “Let’s make a video!” “Let’s put on a show!”
Then all of a sudden John and Kenny were fooling around, and Wendy and I were like, “What just happened here?” The story I heard later was that Kenny hooked up with John at GG Barnum’s, which was this amazing transsexual nightclub with trapezes. The drag queens were incredible. I loved them. We’d be in the ladies’ room and they’d be in there, and we’d be putting on our make-up together. I was in awe of them. They were like super women.
Back then nobody was monogamous. Kenny wasn’t. I hadn’t ever been either. I wasn’t the kind of girl in high school who had a steady boyfriend for years. That kind of thing to me was uninteresting. And at the time, Kenny was blossoming and I encouraged him. I was in love with him and he was in love with me, so I just said, “You need to be who you are.” Wendy was pretty open too. But we were also hurt. Kenny and John were these young guys and suddenly the whole world opened up to them. I didn’t expect monogamy with Kenny, but I did want to be the main girl. Kenny would tell me, “Kitty, I just want you to know I love you. I really, really love you.” And that was my tip off he was going to go get with someone else. It was very funny.
I had terrible social anxiety so it was very hard for me to ever get up on stage. I did Acts of Live Art and a few other things on stage. Kenny didn’t have that problem. He’s the biggest show-off and that was part of my attraction to him. He was the most engaging person. He would just walk up to anyone he thought was interesting and say, “Hi, who are you?” And that’s how we met Klaus Nomi. Klaus was a lovely, lovely person. He was actually a baker at the time. He was a bit older than us.
But then later it became an issue for me. It was very, very hard to live in Kenny’s shadow because I had been a promising artist in high school and then suddenly I was just Kenny’s girlfriend. Our relationship happened even before Kenny was famous. I mean, Kenny was famous before Kenny was famous. And I was like, “I’ve never just been somebody’s girlfriend.” You know? Even after we broke up later, for the longest time, people kept referring to me as “Kenny’s girlfriend.” On the one hand, I could stay in obscurity and do whatever I wanted artistically. I had incredible freedom. I was never stuck or pigeonholed or dictated to. On the other hand, no one knew anything about me or my art. People weren’t mean to me, but that was how it was especially when Kenny started making it.
I never felt bitter or angry about it. I just felt sad about it because that was the era of women’s lib. I grew up in the ’70s and I was that first generation where women could do everything, or at least we thought that way. In hindsight, the reality was very different.