I was born in Berlin, but my family moved to China when I was about eight or nine months old. My first 10 years were spent in Shanghai where my father had a quite successful retail business. Looking back, the experience of growing up in such an exotic location was amazing. The culture was just incredible. In the evenings my father sketched a little bit…and I sketched alongside him. My mother bought me some crayons. I remember that one of the walls in our home was a beautiful light each color and I was eager to put my mark on it. At first my mother told me not to draw on the wall until my father said it was okay. When, to my great surprise, he okayed it, my mother smiled and said, ‘it’s okay, sweetie, go ahead”. So, from the beginning they were both very encouraging of my freedom of expression.
While living in Shanghai we took a vacation to Tibet for the summer. We stayed at a beautiful British hotel that my parents had heard about and were eager to visit. Very near the hotel was a Buddhist monastery and every time I passed by they were sitting quietly in meditation. I had no idea what meditation was and one day I asked my mother just why the monks were sitting so still. She did her best to explain it to me and finally the light went on and I understood.
I was out of art school a short time when a friend of mine introduced me to someone from the Van Heusen Company. The guy asked if he could take some of my designs and put them on shirts. I couldn’t conceive of that because I’m a painter who works on canvas and the idea of putting my art on a piece of clothing was foreign to me. But, I agreed and we did it, and before long a licensing agent came to see me. Within a year I had the 72 licensing deals. And they made $2.6 billion dollars! As for me, I made about $200 million from the retail sales.
Many years later in Paris, I met an Indian yogi named Swami Satchidananda, and I brought him to America. I was blown away by his wisdom and his charm and how well he articulated inner peace. I had never heard those words before—inner peace—and the experience of quiet and meditation just felt nice to me. In time I opened 52 yoga centers in his name all around the country. I was maybe 20 years old at the time and I invited friends up and friends brought friends, people like The Rascals and Carole King…a whole bunch of people came. I had a gigantic living room and I set up a chair for the swami and about 60 folding chairs for the guests. He gave many, many lectures and the room always filled up. I eventually rented a place for him to live on West End Avenue. It also had a very big living room. He gave classes and I hired someone to watch the doors and check people in and within three or four weeks it was standing room only, so we found a bigger place on 78th Street.
I bought that for him, because I was making a lot of money with the licensing deals I had at the time. After that I bought an even bigger building on 13th Street. The swami lived there and gave classes. Over the years I opened a total of 52 centers for the swami. For me, this was my greatest accomplishment; more so than my art career and my success as an artist with works in museums around the world. It brought spirituality to me and it was unbelievable. To know that inner peace…how to tune out all the craziness. Sadly, he died a few years ago. He was 91 years old. Yoga became as big a career as my art. And that was the biggest thing in my life: To bring yoga into America and bring America into yoga. A few years later I got a call from George Harrison, who was an acquaintance of mine at the time and he told me that they (the Beatles) had also met a swami and his name was Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
I knew the Beach Boys and the Beatles very well. John Lennon and I were best friends. We used to hang out a lot. I knew Yoko as well. But I knew them separately at first. I knew Yoko before John knew her. Later, I would visit them every second or third day at the Dakota and many times the three of us would go across the street to Central Park and we would walk and talk together.
I hung with Jimmy Hendrix for two years before he got well known. I met him in a café that Albert Grossman owned north of Woodstock. Grossman was a business guy who became Bob Dylan’s and Carole King’s manager. He offered music in his café. One day, I’m sitting in the café drawing and a guy sitting next to me leans over and says ‘Hey man, this is really cool, are you an artist?” We start talking and I ask him what he does. He says, ‘I sing and play guitar’. I got to know him pretty well. He was the first black kid I had ever met…tall…and we walked around and he took me to his place, which was in Woodstock. He picked up his guitar and started to play and I was blown away. Jimmy Hendrix, can you imagine? Jimmy Hendrix. And he sang for me. Two years before he put out his first album. I met Carole King in the same way—and the Rolling Stones.