Photo by George Rose/Getty Images
Sylvia Miles, the actress and Warhol superstar, died on Wednesday, in Manhattan. She was 94. Miles was a legend, a party fixture, and a two-time Oscar nominee, for her scene-stealing parts in Midnight Cowboy and the Raymond Chandler adaptation Farewell, My Lovely. She was also one of the best Sex and the City guest stars of all time—perhaps second only to Kristen Johnston, whose character fell out of a high-rise window, shouting, “I’m so bored I could die.” But Miles never seemed bored.
The actress appeared in the season-five premiere, “Anchors Away,” otherwise known as the Fleet Week episode. Carrie runs from a rainstorm, dashing into an old-fashioned luncheonette. The host yells at her and squeezes her into a counter seat, where she’s forced next to Miles’s character. “That manager’s a prick,” the latter says. Carrie looks down to see that Miles is crushing pills with a spoon. “Lithium,” she explains. “I like to sprinkle it on my ice cream!”
On the show, Miles’s brief appearance is meant to signify the worst possible future for a single Carrie, the sort of dreary New York existence that makes you itch when you think about it on the subway. But Miles’s real life was anything but. The daughter of a furniture maker who owned a factory on Prince Street, Miles was a lifelong New Yorker who grew up in Greenwich Village and studied at the Pratt Institute and the Actors Studio. She was a glamorous figure who was constantly out with Andy Warhol; nearly every obituary published this week credits either the comedian Wayland Flowers (according to The New York Times) or the columnist Earl Wilson (according to Page Six) with saying that “Sylvia Miles and Andy Warhol would attend the opening of an envelope,” coining a now ubiquitous phrase.
She partied a lot. “I’m always thought of as controversial or avant-garde or erotic or salacious,” she told People in 1976 (the article’s headline: “What Would a Manhattan Party Be Without the Ubiquitous Sylvia Miles?”). “But there isn’t anybody I know who wouldn’t live my life if they could.”
“I’m not one of those people that hire a press agent to get invited places,” she continued. “I get invited because I’m fun. I have a good sense of humor. I look good. I’m not bad to have at a party.”
The People writer Judy Kessler described Miles as “photographed more often than Jackie O, usually with spectacular cleavage in view. She enjoys the drinks (usually wine), blithely wolfs the canapés and has a wonderful time living up to her reputation as the most ubiquitous presence on the Manhattan party circuit.”
At the New York Film Festival in 1973, Miles famously dumped a plate of food—according to the Hollywood Reporter, it consisted of quiche lorraine, steak tartare, brie cheese, and potato salad—over the head of the theater critic John Simon, who had reviewed her performance in an Off Broadway play for New York magazine. Miles didn’t take issue with what he said about her performance, but she was furious that he called her “one of New York’s leading party girls and gate-crashers.” She never needed to crash a party.
“That’s my life—going out, working, getting laid,” she told People. “And, you know, going to a party with me is a lot of fun ‘cause I move fast.”
Miles may have gone out a lot (fabulously), but her acting was always extremely well-regarded. She tended to get typecast as a sex worker or other “hardened women.” Her role as an older hustler on the Upper East Side in Midnight Cowboy was quick but impactful; she garnered the Oscar nomination for Farewell for a part that only lasted five minutes.
“Sylvia Miles is something special, a persona,” Vincent Canby wrote in a review of the Andy Warhol–produced Sunset Boulevard parody, Heat, directed by Paul Morrissey. “She looks great even when she looks beat, and because she’s a good actress she automatically works 10 times as hard as everyone else to enliven the movie.”
Miles was thrice-divorced, and her death was reported by a good friend, the publicist Mauricio Padilha. She had recently left a retirement home because she “didn’t want to die there.”
“People disappoint you,” Miles told People in 1988. “Lovers disappoint you. But theatrical memorabilia stays with you, as long as you keep it under clear plastic.”