Fred Herko: the life and dramatic death of an avant-garde hero
October 23, 2014
Even today, noone is sure if Fred Herko intended to kill himself when he jumped out of the window of his friend Johnny Dodd’s Greenwich Village apartment in 1964. The 28-year-old dancer and performer – one of the central figures of New York’s 60s avant-garde and a star of Andy Warhol’s first movies – was high on speed, and possibly LSD.
He was a founder member of the experimental Judson Dance Theater and co-founder of the New York Poets Theater, both famed for their unconventional work, “happenings” and productions, and the manner of Herko’s strange death – leaping naked from a fifth floor window, Mozart on full blast – merely added to his mythology, which will be explored in a series of commemorative events in New York to mark the 50th anniversary of his death, curated by his biographer Gerard Forde.
In the coming days there will be a memorial tribute at Judson Memorial Church, featuring contemporaries like the poet John Giorno, and the dancer Gus Solomons Jr who will perform a dance poem in Herko’s memory. A separate symposium will correct, says Forde, “the mythology and misreadings” around the dark-haired, handsome Herko. There will be an exhibition of pictures of Herko performing, and three of Warhol’s films that starred Herko will also be shown.
Herko was born and raised in a blue-collar home. His first two years were spent on the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, before the family settled in Ossining, north of New York, the location of the notorious Sing Sing maximum security prison. His father ran a diner. His mother was a housewife. Herko showed early proficiency in piano and was also a great flautist. He was groomed to be a concert pianist, and attended Juilliard, the prestigious performing arts conservatory.
At 20, Herko announced to his family he wanted to be a ballet dancer: he had seen a performance of Giselle in 1954 and was particularly taken by the Russian-born soloist, Igor Youskevitch, says Forde. Herko was awarded a four-year scholarship to attend American Ballet Theater School. “His macho, working-class father reacted violently against that,” says Forde. “When Freddie announced it, he beat him.”
Forde is amassing material for his biography through those who knew him and memoirs of figures like the poet Diane di Prima, Herko’s great friend; Herko himself left no diaries or letters.
Within a year of starting ballet training, Herko performed with established choreographers like his mentor, the dancer, artist and designer James Waring. In 1962, with figures like David Gordon, Lucinda Childs, and Yvonne Rainer, Herko co-founded Judson Dance Theater, which defined what became known as modern dance – elliptical, pared-back sound and movement with a deliberate lack of linear narrative.
“Just as pop artists were proposing that cartoons and trucks could be art,” says Forde, “at Judson they showed dance could be combing your hair, rubbing your thighs together, running on the spot, or barking like a dog. It completely rejected Martha Graham’s narrative dance, and Merce Cunningham’s pure dance.” Herko performed in 16 performances between 1962 and 1964, and six original pieces of his own choreography. He also appeared on Ed Sullivan’s TV show, supporting stars like Rosemary Clooney and Pearl Bailey as a backing dancer.
Away from the stage, Herko was having lots of sex. One of Di Prima’s poems was called, For Freddie, Fucking Again, a diatribe which followed him being late for a restaurant date with her. “He liked hanging out at sleazy bars,” says Forde. “He was extremely aware of his sexual power.”
In 1963-4, Herko hung out with the Warhold Factory posse, “an extremely flamboyant crowd who were unashamed of their sexuality”, says Forde. He had relationships with the son of a wealthy Hollywood family, and was rumored to have been kept by a wealthy member of the De Rothschild family in an Upper West Side apartment. He had a relationship with the poet Alan Marlowe, who was then married to and had children with Di Prima.
Herko was very close to Warhol, and performed in some of the artist’s earliest cinematic experiments. One 40-minute film, Roller Skate, is entirely devoted to Herko, dancing all over New York on one rollerskate. The films features him bleeding and hobbling, but smiling and wearing a YMCA Good Guys sweatshirt.
In his memoir Popism, Warhol said Herko had been taking more and more amphetamines. “He destroyed himself: speed, LSD and marijuana,” says Forde. “Everyone was taking speed at that time. Doctors were prescribing it for slimming pills, kids were using it to cram for exams. People snorted it, mainlined it. Drugs became a problem with Freddie at the end of 1962. He was injecting it.”
The drugs made Herko psychotic and delusional, and they were also “eating away at Freddie’s body – the calcium in his ankles, his teeth were falling out”, says Forde. “He had been a great beauty, but suddenly he looked hard and haggard.”
Herko was reaching a point where he couldn’t perform. “He was choreographing and teaching, but he realised he had fucked his career up,” says Forde. “Doors were closing for him: he was unreliable, strung out, unpredictable; a once sweet boy had become aggressive and had started disappointing people. He’d also become homeless.”
Warhol said that Herko had let himself into Dodd’s home on 27 October 1964. A former lover of Herko’s, Dodd also did the Judson Memorial Church lighting for performances.
However, Forde says Dodd found Herko dancing on the counter of a diner, out of control. “Freddy was covered with filth, and he was dancing on the counter,” Dodd recalled to Warhol biographer David Bourdon. “He said he hadn’t had any drugs for three days, but he was wacked out and his body was quivering.”
Dodd took Herko to his fifth-floor Cornelia Street apartment. Forde says Herko had a shower, and put on the Coronation Mass by Mozart. Warhol told Bourdon that Herko said he had a new ballet to do “and he needed to be alone. He herded the people there out of the room.”
“He danced naked around the living room. The window was open and at the moment of the Sanctus,” says Forde, “Herko leapt out of the window to his death.”
In Bourdon’s version: “Freddy poured a bottle of Dodd’s perfume into a tub of steaming hot water and took a long bubble bath” – Forde says the tub was too squat for this. “He seemed to cheer up as Dodd, who knew that ‘Freddy was a Mozart freak,’ put a recording of the composer’s Coronation Mass on the phonograph. Herko dried himself, then started dancing naked around the living room, whirling round and round, periodically making a long run toward the front windows. Dodd couldn’t help but wonder whether this was going to be the ‘suicide performance’ that Freddy had been promising his friends for so many weeks. ‘It was obvious that Freddy had to do it now: the time and the place were right, the decor was right, the music was right.’
“Herko made another long run and, like Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose, leaped out an open window, his momentum carrying him almost to the opposite side of the street. He was 29 years old. Several of Andy’s friends heard him lament on various occasions that he had not been there to film it.”
However, Forde doesn’t believe Herko’s was a performed death. As part of a piece he was preparing, he would routinely go up to the gallery of Judson Memorial Church (which has helped organize the 50th anniversary events) and leap off a 20-foot ledge, landing perfectly. “Every ballet dancer has the sense they can fly, and for seconds suspended in mid-air, they do.”
At the time of his death, Herko was working on a dance piece, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and rehearsing a play, Wallace Stevens’ Carlos Among the Candles, which ended with Herko’s character jumping from a window. “He was psychotic because of speed and possibly took LSD that day,” says Forde. “He had also just performed a piece on a roof on the Lower East Side noone had come to. The idea of flight was in his head. I don’t think he intended to die, I think he intended to fly.”
Had he lived, Forde thinks Herko may have formed his own company, a forerunner of the kind of dance Michael Clark became famous for 20 years later. “There wasn’t any figure taking Freddy’s direction in the 60s and 70s. But people said he didn’t have much discipline. One report from Juilliard said he had problems making up his mind. He was making costumes, collage and painting; he was interested in too many things. In combination with the drugs, it led to his downfall.”
Warhol later said, “For the 26 nights following Freddy’s death, the group at Diane di Prima’s apartment met formally to read the Tibetan Book of the Dead … There was a memorial service for him at Judson Church, but so many people showed up that there was another one for him, at the Factory. We showed the three films.”
Now, 50 years later, for Herko’s surviving loved ones, friends and downtown obsessives, the celebratory events in his name aim to accord him his rightful place in the avant-garde pantheon, in what was a too short – but dramatic – life.