Paulita Sedgwick: Rancher, actress and independent film-maker

But for some worn planking, Paulita Sedgwick's name as a film-maker might have been better known. In the early 1990s, Sedgwick sailed up the Rio Negro in Brazil to make a short epic called Avon Ladies of the Amazon. (She had earlier discovered that the intrepid cosmetics sellers include Amazonia on their beat. "People think Indians only want guns and knives," said Sedgwick, sagely. "Girl Indians want lipstick.") Having hired a boat and a camera crew, she had all but finished the movie when she suggested that the cameraman walk out on to a jetty to film the final scene. With a groan, the structure collapsed, plunging him and his camera into piranha-infested waters. The cameraman was pulled from these; the camera, its video cassette containing the entire movie, was not. "That," said Sedgwick, with clipped New England stoicism, "was a sad thing".

This story was variously typical of her. For all its amusement value, Avon Ladies of the Amazon was a study of the exploitation of a poor culture by a rich one. (Her last film, Las Vacaciones de Lalinde Schmidt, reset this story in post-recession Buenos Aires.) Sedgwick herself had every reason to sympathise with the rich, being one of them herself and coming from the bluest of American bloodlines. Her ancestor, Robert Sedgwick, was Major General of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (Asked whether he had sailed to America on the Mayflower, Sedgwick, shocked, said "Certainly not. The Mayflower was full of servants. We were on the Arabella.") Her grandfather, Ellery, proprietor of the Atlantic Monthly, was the first person to publish Hemingway; her father, Cabot, was a diplomat.

But Sedgwick herself had more in common with two other of her relations. Theodore Sedgwick – buried, like two centuries of the family, in the circular "Sedgwick Pie" cemetery in Stockbridge, Massachusetts – was an early justice of the Supreme Court and the first to plead for the freedom of an escaped woman slave, Mum Bett. (She, too, is buried in the Pie.) And Edie Sedgwick, a cousin and Warhol girl, also made a career in film, albeit more tragically.

Paulita Sedgwick was born during the Second World War in Washington DC, her upbringing in Haiti, Japan and, finally, in Spain, a mixture of corps diplomatique propriety and bohemian licence. This was reflected in her adult character. Her Spanish accent, like her American one, was that of a pre-war ruling class, although she got in trouble at the University of Madrid for associating with anti-Franco classmates. If Sedgwick's acquaintances tended to the raffish – close friends included transvestites, tattooists and a sprinkling of ex-rent boys – she was also a regular in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. Dressed otherwise unvaryingly in black Vivienne Westwood jeans and 18-hole Doc Martens, she had the courtliness of another time: a cup of tea at a friend's house would result, the next day, in a hand-written note remarking on its deliciousness.

After training at the Webber Douglas drama school in London in the early Sixties, Sedgwick pursued a decade-long career in off-off-off-Broadway plays. (It was during one of these that she met her cousin Edie's svengali, Andy Warhol. "In 20 minutes, I told him everything I knew," she recalled. "He said three words: 'uh-huh', 'uh-uh' and 'maybe'.") In 1971 she crashed a party in New York given by the film-makers Merchant/Ivory. Chatting to a young man hiding, like her, behind a pillar, she confided that she was only there because she wanted a part in the pair's second film, Savages. "My name is Ismail Merchant," he replied good-naturedly. "Which part would you like?" Sedgwick played Penelope, "a high-strung girl", and later Esther in the Merchant-Ivory film of Jean Rhys's Quartet.

After the birth of her son, Angel – the only name she could think of that was spelt the same way in Spanish and English – Sedgwick began to divide her time between America, Paris and London and to make films as well as act in them. Among these was Blackout (1994), a feature-length drama set in post-apocalypse Westminster and starring the ex-Warhol superstar and latter-day Mormon, Ultra Violet. Ultra Violet plays the part of Arlette, the inventor of a miracle blusher called Eternacream: as in the lost Avon Ladies of the Amazon, the film draws a clear (and unexpectedly puritanical) line between immorality and make-up. Apart from colouring her hair white and lips red, Sedgwick herself avoided cosmetics. With her perennially black outfit and ice-blue eyes, she was a striking enough figure without them.

Her style and good manners survived a long battle with cancer. Discovering a tumour in her breast in 1987, doctors gave Sedgwick two weeks to live. Characteristically refusing to succumb, she survived for 22 years, fighting off malignancies in her womb, kidneys and, latterly, lungs and brain. Through all of this, she remained good humoured and devoid of self-pity.

The advertising woman, Fay Jenkins (Independent obituaries, 5 February 2005), a fellow cancer patient, was visited by Sedgwick through a mutual friend in the clinic where both were being treated. Rocking with laughter, Jenkins recalled her visitor's advice: "She told me on no account to have chemotherapy," she said, "because it would change my silhouette and force me to buy a whole new wardrobe."

On her father's death in 2003, Sedgwick inherited the house on the family's Santa Fe ranch, now run as a charitable trust, near Nogales on the Arizonan border with Mexico. Quietly religious, she had an adobe chapel built to her parents' memory, and imported a buffalo to which, when it seemed depressed, she would play classical music. (It died.) "There is," she said, "always time for beauty," and she found it at last in the one place she had come to call home.

Charles Darwent

Paulita Sedgwick, independent film-maker and rancher: born Washington DC 7 December 1943; one son; died Arizona 18 December 2009.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links