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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
tv
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Extras
indybest
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
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

Primary teaching roles in Ipswich

£21552 - £31588 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education re...

Science teachers needed in Norwich

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Science teachers requ...

Semi Senior Accountant - Music

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful, Central London bas...

English teachers required in Lowestoft

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified English tea...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits