Today marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Andy Warhol.
During his lifetime Andy was known for blurring the lines between fact and fiction. He often falsely reported his place of birth as Philadelphia or McKeesport, Pennsylvania, instead of his home city of Pittsburgh. He even went as far as having Alan Midgette, an actor in some Warhol films, impersonate him for a series of college lectures in 1967. Today, Warhol scholars face the same challenges as many genealogists of sorting through evidence to determine which purported facts are true and which ones are myths.
Lately, I have been researching what it takes to become a Board Certified Genealogist. One of the competencies you must demonstrate is the ability to determine in the face of conflicting evidence what is more likely to be true. Because of Warhol’s habit of bending the truth, I think about conflicting evidence a lot at my job at the archives of the Andy Warhol Museum. Recently, I came across more conflicting evidence in our collection from a less-likely source, Andy’s mother.
This all began when my co-workers and I realized it would be useful to have a list of the siblings of Andy’s mother, Julia Warhola, to help identify people in family letters and photos in the collection. Like my great-grandfather, Andy was the son of immigrants from Slovakia (specifically, they were of the Rusyn ethnic group primarily in the eastern region). As such, I knew that Slovakian Parish Registers were digitized and partially indexed on Family Search. I thought it would be relatively straightforward to type in Julia’s parents’ names and come up with a list of their children, instead, I found something more interesting. But before we get into that, here is a little background information on Andy’s ancestry.
Andy Warhol’s Mother
Andy Warhol was born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania on 6 August 1928. He was the son of András (Andrew) and Julia (Zavacky) Warhola.
Julia’s parents were András and Justina (Mročko) Zavacky, and she was born in the town of Miková in north-east Slovakia. The parish registers for Miková are digitized, partially indexed, and available for free via FamilySearch.
First, I searched the collection using her parent’s names (leaving off Justina’s last name because of spelling variations) and limiting the search to birth records in Mikova.
This returned several results, but some of the records were duplicates, so there were ten unique records of the children of András and Justina Zavacky (in most records the surname was spelled Zavaczki). Here is a summary of the records:
- János Zavaczky born 14 March 1883 (entry 7)
- András Zavaczki born 13 February 1887 (entry 5) (Andras’ birth was recorded twice in the church books of Mikova)
- Maria Zavaczki born 19 May 1889 (entry 34)
- Juliana Zavaczki born 20 November 1891 (entry 36) (Juliana’s birth and baptism were recorded twice in the church books of Mikova)
- Twins Péter and Vászoly Zavaczki born 5 March 1894 (entry 11 & 12)
- Zuszka Zavaczki born 27 February 1895 (entry 6)
- György Zavaczki born 24 April 1896 (entry 13)
- Anna Zavaczki born 6 September 1898 (entry 14)
- Zuszka Zavaczki born 18 January 1901 (entry 2)
After 1901, the church books are no longer indexed, but by browsing through the pages, I found two additional daughters of András and Justina:
In this initial search, there was one entry for a daughter named Juliana Zavaczki who was born on 20 November 1891 and baptized two days later on 22 November. This record didn’t match Andy’s mother’s presumed birthday of 17 November 1892, but the date and month aren’t too far off.
I am confident that this is the actual correct birth record for Julia Warhola and that she was born in 1891. This is because I am fortunate to work in the archives at the Andy Warhol Museum where I digitize many of the objects found in the museum’s collection. I remember a while ago I scanned copies of Julia’s birth and marriage records as a part of one of Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules. I looked up the images, and I found that the certified copy of Julia’s birth certificate that was sent to her in 1953 matched exactly what is in the parish registers.
By 1953, Julia had moved to New York City to live with her son as he started his career as an up and coming advertising illustrator and artist. She lived with Andy in New York for most of the remainder of her life, until she became ill and returned to Pittsburgh before her death in 1972. It would make sense that a certified copy of her birth record would be in Andy’s possession and eventually end up in one of his Time Capsules. In terms of genealogical evidence, this seems like solid proof that Julia was in fact born on 20 November 1891. But why do so many sources still have her birthdate wrong?
Possible Origins of the Wrong Birthdate
To pin down where the confusion regarding Julia’s birthdate stemmed from, I searched for other genealogy records to see if her age is consistent with her being born in November of 1891.
The next vital record after her birth is the marriage record for her and András, which is also contained in one of Andy’s Time Capsules.
From this record, we learn that she married András Varchola on 24 May 1909 in Miková at the age of 17. In doing the math, if she were born on 20 November 1891, she would have been 17 years six months four days old at the time of her marriage. Had she been born in 1892, the record would have stated she was 16 years old (I find this age calculator is helpful in verifying ages on a specific date).
As a side note, the original entry in the church registers can be viewed here (entry 3) with spelling variations in the given and surnames. The drastic differences in the names are likely a result of the Magyarization that occurred in the Austrian-Hungarian empire after laws to force assimilation into the Hungarian culture in 1907.
The next record I found that gives Julia’s age is the passenger list showing her arrival in America. She was the first entry on the page, and her first name was spelled “Ula,” a shortened version of”Ulya,” which was a common Slovak variation of the name Julia. She arrived aboard the S.S. Celtic on 11 June 1921. Her age was listed as 29 years old, and she was living with her brother “Nurks” Zavacky in Miková and was going to live with her husband, András Varhola at 2425 Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Once again, being 29 years old on 11 June 1921 is consistent with Julia being born in November of 1891.
Interestingly, it looks like she traveled with another woman from Mikova, Ilona Kalinak, and her son, Jan Kalinak. Ilona’s husband, Stefan, lived next to András Warhola at 2430 Forbes Ave.
The next record that lists her age is the 1930 Federal Census, which shows that in 1930 Julia and András (Andrew) were living at 55 Beelen Street in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Julia’s age was listed as 37 years old. Interestingly, the census was enumerated on 9 April 1930 and Julia was 38 years old on that date. Perhaps this is one of the records that lead people to believe she was born in 1892, but errors in ages, especially as small as one year, are common in Federal Census records. The accuracy of this data also depends on who was reporting the information to the census taker.
Ten years later, in the 1940 Federal Census, the Warhola family is listed at their home at 3252 Dawson Street in Pittsburgh. Julia’s age was listed as 48 years old, and since the census was enumerated on 12 April 1940, it is consistent with her being born in 1891. It is also important to note that the small “x” in a circle next to Julia’s name indicates that she was the one giving information to the census taker, this makes the information slightly more reliable than the 1930 record since we know it came from Julia herself.
Pennslyvania death records after 1963 are restricted to family and legal representatives of the deceased, so we can’t see what birth date is recorded on Julia’s death certificate. However, anyone who has done a lot of genealogy research knows that even birth dates listed on death certificates are limited by the knowledge of the informant and can be inaccurate due to lapses in memory. It’s possible that her birthdate for her headstone was taken from her death certificate and because headstones are genealogical records that are accessible to the public, they are often used as sources for death dates.
Clearing up More Warhola Family Myths
As I was researching Julia’s family, I found several other discrepancies between what was written about Andy’s family and what the genealogical record showed.
First, not only is Julia’s birthdate wrong on her headstone, but her husband’s birthdate is also incorrect. In searching the Miková parish registers, I found that András’s birthdate is actually on 7 December 1886, and not 28 November 1886 as listed on his death certificate and headstone.
Moreover, one Andy Warhol biographer writes of András and Julia’s first child, a daughter, named Justina who was born in 1913 and died at six weeks old. Their first child was a girl, but her name was Maria, and she was born on 2 October 1912, and she died two months later on 4 December 1912. Sadly, she was probably born before her father András left for Pittsburgh, but she died shortly after his arrival in 1912.
The Importance of Evaluating Sources
Many times genealogists (myself included) are thrilled to find a headstone with exact dates in working in places where vital records may be lacking. If that date is close enough to match other records, like Julia’s birthdate, we record the information and accept it unless additional contradictory evidence is found.
This research on Julia highlights two ways in which you can evaluate to a source to determine how accurate is can be.
First, think of the source in the context and time in which it was created. For example, Julia’s death certificate and headstone were made over 80 years after she was born and thousands of miles away. While birth dates derived from death records can be a good reference or starting off point, as we can see from this example, there can be flaws. Typically, the source closest to the event tend to be more accurate.
Second, consider who is giving the information to create the record. Obviously, Julia couldn’t give the information for her death certificate, but we do know that she gave information to the 1940 census enumerator, which put her birth in 1891 and not 1892.
Julia’s headstone and the numerous publications about Andy Warhol’s family with incorrect information are great examples of why it’s important to continually evaluate sources for their reliability and why it pays off to gather as much evidence as possible. It goes to show that a genealogist’s work is never done, even 30 years after his death, we are still untangling the mysteries of Andy Warhol.