Visits of the famous - and infamous

Published: Sunday, Aug. 23 1998 12:00 a.m. MDT

Will South has given up hoping the next phone call will be about his latest labor of love - an academic text on California art.

Instead, it'll probably be some trivia buff calling about another book, a more, let's say, frivolous work the art historian wrote on a dare.The book is "Andy Warhol Slept Here?," a collection of quirky stories about famous and infamous visitors to the Beehive State.

But why single out Utah?

"I don't think you could have written this book in California or New York because people would have looked at it and thought, `What's your rationale for doing this?' " South said.

"But here in Utah we know what the rationale is. It answers the question, `What on earth is Andy Warhol or Oscar Wilde or John F. Kennedy doing here? What possible reason could there be?' "

The 82-page paperback published by Signature Books should settle some barroom arguments over stories that through their telling and retelling have become the stuff of urban myth.

It was just such a story - and setting - that sparked the idea for the book four years ago. South overheard friends in a local watering hole debating whether the late eccentric rock musician Frank Zappa received a master's degree from Westminster College.

As the evening stretched on, so did the stories. One was that poet Dylan Thomas had gotten drunk in the same bar. Then someone came up with the idea of compiling all the stories into a book in time for the state's 1996 centennial.

South took up the challenge. "And the rejoinder, like a chorus, from the rest of the guys was, `Yeah right, and we'll fly to the moon,' " he recalls.

Regretting his barroom boast the next morning, South nevertheless went to work, finishing the initial draft in eight weekends.

South's research dashed some fables but documented other stories that had existed only by word-of-mouth.

Zappa's tie to Westminster? As it turned out, the father of two members of Zappa's band, The Mothers of Invention, was involved in the college's jazz music program and arranged a workshop at the school with Zappa.

In addition to jamming with students, he lectured the musicians on "the grim realities of the cut-throat music business."

Then South found another tidbit in a book about Zappa that would be of interest to local Mormons: While playing a gig early in his career at a Mormon church recreation hall in California, Zappa lit up a cigarette during a break.

"A bunch of guys who looked like they weren't quite ready to shave yet started flailing over to me and, in a brotherly sort of way, escorted my ass out the door," Zappa told the author.

As for Thomas, the Welsh poet did visit the University of Utah at the invitation of professor Brewster Ghiselin in 1952. He lectured, read his poetry and fielded questions from students in the campus Union building.

He may even have gotten drunk, South said, but not at the bar frequented by South and his friends.

Ghiselin also got Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov to visit the campus. South found that Nabokov, a noted lepidopterist, also spent the summer of 1943 catching butterflies near Alta.

South chronologically details the visits of 25 artists, actors, politicians and other notables who have passed through Utah since 1859, when popular newspaper editor Horace Greely paid a visit to Mormon leader Brigham Young.

Among the more widely known visits are those by writer Mark Twain, suffragette Susan B. Anthony, labor martyr Joe Hill (whose stay ended in his execution at the state prison), opera star Marian Anderson and President John F. Kennedy.

Some lesser known visits were by Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, who passed the time leap-frogging ash cans in the city's red light district after their vaudeville shows.

Actor and heart-throb Rudolph Valentino swam at a cordoned-off beach at the Great Salt Lake with his wife and Salt Lake native Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy, a.k.a. Natacha Rambova.

An exhibition of Vincent van Gogh originals was once displayed in the unguarded Art Barn at Reservoir Park by the Junior League. Orson Welles staged "Macbeth" at Kingsbury Hall in 1947, and chess great Bobby Fisher played 63 games simultaneously at an exhibition in Ogden in 1964.

South said the book's focus on artists, writers and actors gives it a certain cachet. He didn't include athletes or many musicians because they simply came to perform, leaving no other imprint.

One of the most intriguing celebrity visits inspired the book's title - pop artist Andy Warhol's deception of the University of Utah in 1967. Just as Warhol liked to duplicate images, he sent a look-alike to speak about his "Pop Art in Action."

The hoax was uncovered by the campus newspaper. University administrators never paid Warhol, but neither did the school refund admissions paid by some 1,100 who attended.

If there is a serious message lurking in his light-hearted history, South said, it is that it challenges the idea of Utah as a geographically and socially isolated backwater.

"It's challenged more all the time," he said. "I think it's just one of those cliches that's outlived its usefulness."

South, research curator for the Utah Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Utah, came to Utah from California in 1980 to paint, attracted by the state's "exotic" mix of Mormons, mountains, snow and desert.

He was surprised to find a rich, untapped resource of the West's art history that he has since studied, written about and exhibited.

And that is what South plans to keep doing, despite calls from trivia buffs pleading for a second volume on Utah's brushes with celebrity.

But South is adamant.

"It was a fun thing to do, and I enjoyed it. But it really isn't my cup of tea."

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