Edie Sedgwick: The life and death of the Sixties star
Rich, gorgeous and well-connected, Edie Sedgwick was the party girl who lit up Andy Warhol's golden circle. As her life story comes to the screen, Rhoda Koenig unravels a very Sixties tragedy
Tuesday 09 January 2007
"Her fog, her amphetamine, and her pearls..." With three nouns, in "Just Like a Woman" (said to have been inspired by her), Bob Dylan deftly summed up his friend Edie Sedgwick, the wayward princess of Andy Warhol's multimedia Factory.
More than 30 years after her short, tumultuous life ended, Edie is still causing ructions. Last month, Dylan threatened to sue the makers of Factory Girl, a movie starring Sienna Miller as Edie, claiming that he is defamed by Hayden Christensen's portrayal of a singer whose rejection drives her to suicide.
This week, Edie's brother claimed that despite Dylan's insistence that he and Edie never had a relationship, she became pregnant with his child and had an abortion. The producers describe the harmonica-playing character (named "Quinn" in the press notes, but never called by name in the movie and identified only as "musician" in the credits) as a composite - which Dylan's lawyer argues is no bar to defamation.
The movie, which was frantically re-cut prior to its Oscar-qualifying release at one theatre in Los Angeles (though the director George Hickenlooper says the changes had nothing to do with Dylan's objections) will be edited again before its wider US release later this month.
Early reviews have been mixed, with The Hollywood Reporter praising its "bright intensity" and saying that Miller "brings to life Sedgwick's legendary allure"; the Los Angeles Times calling it "simplistic" and "superficial"; and Variety finding the movie "tame" and Miller "whiny".
It's no surprise, though, that the film should provoke reactions as varied as Edie herself did. To parents terrified of the influence of sex and drugs, she was an abomination; to the would-be cool, she was an ideal; to painters as eminent as Robert Rauschenberg, she was a living work of art.
American aristocracy ruled that a lady's name should appear in the papers only three times: when she was born, when she married, and when she died. Edie Sedgwick changed that. As well as publicising her appearances in underground movies, her numerous committals for mental illness and drug addiction were widely reported. She met her future husband - a fellow patient - in the psychiatric wing of the hospital where she was born. On the last evening of her life, in 1971, she appeared on television, and then went home to die of an overdose of barbiturates. She was 28.
Edie's troubles began long before she was born. Her distinguished New England lineage (a Sedgwick was Speaker of the House of Representatives under George Washington, another edited the Atlantic Monthly for a generation) was also distinguished by hereditary madness, as far back as the Speaker's wife.
Edie's father (whose own father had moved his family to southern California) had two nervous breakdowns soon after leaving university, and his wife was told by her doctors that she must never have children. But the rich do not like being told what to do, and the Sedgwicks were rich-rich (not only had Edie's family inherited millions; oil was discovered on their property, enough to sink 17 wells).
Mrs Sedgwick defied doctors and fate and had eight children, two of whom died before Edie - one hanged himself, the other rode his motorcycle into a bus. As a father, Francis Minturn "Duke" Sedgwick was larger than life and much more terrible. A career as a monumental sculptor and owner of a ranch that was his own little dukedom (the children were tutored at home, and seldom left it) did not exhaust his energies. He seduced, or at least made advances to, his wife's friends, his children's friends and, Edie said, to her.
When Edie left California for Radcliffe, the women's college of Harvard (the Sedgwick alma mater), she had already spent time in mental hospitals, suffered from anorexia and had an abortion. What men saw, however, was a delicate beauty and an appealingly vulnerable quality. "Every boy at Harvard," said a former classmate, "was trying to save Edie from herself."
The less high-minded boys flocked to Edie for other reasons - even at wealthy Harvard, there were not too many students who drove their own Mercedes, or were so uninhibited. At one boy's Sunday family lunch, she left the table, walked out on to the lawn, stripped to her knickers and lay down to sunbathe.
Bored in Boston, Edie decided to swap the role of college girl for party girl and moved to New York, into the 14-room Park Avenue apartment of her obliging grandmother. At 21, she came into money of her own and got a flat - and clothes, clothes, clothes. Her stick figure, huge eyes and chopped-off hair suited the style of the early Sixties - Jean Seberg in the movies, Twiggy in the glossies- and Edie was, briefly, on the fashion pages.
Life magazine said she was "doing more for black tights than anybody since Hamlet". The Vogue empress Diana Vreeland praised her "anthracite-black eyes and legs to swoon over... She is shown here arabesquing on her leather rhino to a record of The Kinks." But, well before heroin chic, her drug-taking was becoming so notorious that editors stopped calling.
In 1965, Edie met an impresario who was more her style: Andy Warhol. Warhol and Edie were, horribly, made for each other. The Pittsburgh boy, son of Polish immigrants, wanted the Wasp heiress's company more fervently than any straight man wanted her body; the neglected daughter craved the obsessive attention of a famous man who demanded nothing from her in return. "If you had a father who read the paper at the dinner table," said Viva, another of Warhol's film-stars, "and you had to go up and turn his chin to even get him to look at you, then you had Andy, who would press the 'on' button of the Sony the minute you opened your mouth."
Edie introduced Warhol to her real father, but their one meeting was not a success. The artist thought Duke Sedgwick the most handsome older man he had ever seen, but the rancher said afterwards: "Why, the guy's a screaming fag!"
Warhol's clothes became smarter under Edie's influence, and she dyed her hair silver to match his. "I thought at first it was exploitative on Andy's part," says the photographer Fred Eberstadt. "Then I changed my mind and decided, if it was exploitative on any part, maybe it was Edie's."
"Edie and Andy," the non-couple, were the couple of the moment. She took him to parties where everyone else was listed in the Social Register; he stage-managed her appearances, pushing Edie to the cameras and the microphones, where she was white with fear but loved every minute.
Edie became an habitué of the Factory, Warhol's loft papered in aluminium foil, where the daytime was spent churning out silkscreen prints and the night on parties that mingled guests who contributed flash, trash and cash with a smorgasbord of illegal stimulants. (Some left the place in limousines, some in ambulances, a regular said.)
Flash-bulbs popped and crowds on the wrong side of the rope screamed when Edie turned up in leotards and her grandmother's leopard coat. The Velvet Underground, Warhol's rock band, wrote a song, "Femme Fatale", about her. Warhol put her in a movie called Horse, which, contrary to what one might have expected from the title, was actually about a horse. The actors, in cowboy gear, were brought together with the stallion and a placard was held up that read: "Approach the horse sexually, everybody." Edie was lucky for once - the indignant horse kicked someone else in the head.
Edie appeared in Beauty Part II, her nervous radiance apparent from the first. George Plimpton, a fellow aristocrat (who, with Jean Stein, later put together the oral biography Edie) remembered seeing the film, in which Edie, in bra and pants, lounged on a bed with a man pawing her, while an offstage voice gave her instructions. "Her head would come up, like an animal suddenly alert at the edge of a waterhole, and she'd stare across the bed at her inquisitor in the shadows... I couldn't get the film out of my mind."
Other films included Restaurant, Kitchen and the cruelly titled Poor Little Rich Girl, with Edie back in bed in her underwear, putting on make-up or answering offscreen questions in an offhand way. Her dreaminess, like her hysteria, was fuelled by cocaine, alcohol, uppers and downers, alone or combined.
Edie's favourite was a speedball - a shot of amphetamine in one arm, heroin in the other. Several times she fell asleep while smoking in bed; once she was badly burned as candles toppled while she slept. Even then, her imprimatur was one the fashion world was eager to claim. "When Edie set her apartment on fire," said Betsey Johnson, "she was in one of my dresses."
Edie moved to the Chelsea Hotel, famous for its artistic clientele, where she met Dylan - whose song "Leopardskin Pillbox Hat" she is supposed to have inspired as well - and his right-hand man, the record producer Bob Neuwirth, with whom she had an affair.
However, Jonathan Sedgwick, Edie's brother, says: "She called me up and said she'd met this folk singer in the Chelsea, and she thinks she's falling in love. I could tell the difference in her, just from her voice. She sounded so joyful instead of sad. It was later on she told me she'd fallen in love with Bob Dylan."
Some months later, he says, she told him she had been hospitalised for drug addiction and that when doctors discovered she was pregnant, they carried out an abortion, over her protests. "Her biggest joy was with Bob Dylan, and her saddest time was with Bob Dylan, losing the child. Edie was changed by that experience, very much so."
Dylan's lover of record at the time was Joan Baez. Soon after they broke up, he married Sara Lownds; Edie was said to have been devastated when she heard the news from someone else.
Even with her inheritance gone, and unable to count on money from home, Edie wouldn't economise. In all the time she lived in New York, she took the subway only once - to Coney Island, in a feathered evening gown over a bikini. The rest of the time it was limousines. She would never even settle for a taxi.
At the end of 1966, Edie went to California for Christmas. At the Chelsea, they were relieved to see her go - there would be terrible scenes in the lobby when she wasn't able to pay her bill, and she never could stop setting her room on fire.
As soon as she got home, her parents had her committed. And as soon as she could, she ran back to New York. But the spotlight never again turned her way. In 1967, her father died. A friend said: "Finally. Thank God. Now, maybe Edie can breathe."
But she became more depressed. Her money was gone, and she returned to her grandmother's apartment, to steal antiques which she sold for drug money. After eight months in increasingly grim and frightening mental hospitals, in the last of which she was made to scrub the lavatories, she returned, in 1968, to the ranch. But her drug habit had not ended, and she took up with a motorcycle gang, trading sex for heroin. "She'd ball half the dudes in town for a snort of junk," a friend said. "But she was always very ladylike about the whole thing."
In Edie's last film, Ciao! Manhattan, whose scenario was even more formless and bizarre than her own, she played a topless hitchhiker living in a tent in an empty swimming pool. There was a non-simulated orgy in a (full) swimming pool, fuelled by amphetamines and tequila. Not just Edie but the whole cast were on speed; the film-makers had to find a co-operative doctor and set up a charge account.
Edie showed off her new implants, but ascribed her larger breasts to diet and exercise. She pretended to undergo electroshock treatments - to which she was soon after subjected for real, in the hospital used for the filming. She also recreated being given a shot of amphetamine by one of the swinging doctors of the period, having to lie down because she was too thin to take it standing up.
Roger Vadim and Allen Ginsberg, the latter naked and chanting, turned up for some reason, and Isabel Jewell, the tough girl of such Thirties films as Times Square Lady and I've Been Around, played her mother. Edie would sometimes have convulsions from all the drugs she was taking. The director of the film ordered his assistant: "Tie her down if you have to."
In July 1971, in white lace, Edie married Michael Post, a student eight years younger, whom she had turned from his vow to remain a virgin until he was 21. Some guests threw confetti; one threw gravel. Edie could not live alone, she said, and would not live with a nurse. Post's job was to dole out her pills.
On 14 November, she went to a fashion show where she headed for the cameras like a woman dying of thirst to an oasis. A man she met that evening said she asked to come and see him the next day for a chat, but they would need to have sex first, otherwise she'd be too nervous to talk. The next morning, her husband woke to find her dead beside him. Whether her death was accident or suicide, the coroner was unable to determine. Post plays a bit part in the movie.
When Edie first crashed and burned, such stories of a misguided search for freedom and self-expression were rare. By the time she died, they were becoming common. Now, of course, there are too many to count. But the carefree innocence and optimism of the early Edie's photographs and films still resonate. "She was after life," said Diana Vreeland, "and sometimes life doesn't come fast enough."
Factory Girl is released in February
Inside the Factory: who else was who in Warholia
The main man: Andy Warhol
The artist, film-maker and experimentalist-in-chief at the Factory, Andy Warhol said everyone was going to be famous for 15 minutes. He was famous for considerably longer.
The 'fotographer': Billy Name
One day, late in 1963, Andy Warhol became bored with operating his complicated still camera, and handed the responsibility to one of his "Superstars" - and a fellow experimental artist - Billy Name, who would become the "Factory Fotographer".
The femme fatale: Nico
Nico (Christa Paffgen) - at various times the lover of John Cale, Jim Morrison, Lou Reed, Jackson Browne, Tim Buckley, Iggy Pop and Brian Jones - was an enigmatic German chanteuse who made an enormous artistic contribution to the Warhol scene. The Velvet Underground teamed up with her for their landmark tour Exploding Plastic Inevitable. She also sang on their debut album and starred in Warhol's Chelsea Girls. Died of a drugs overdose in 1989.
The writer: Truman Capote
Given that Capote's fame had been ensured by a 1948 dust-jacket picture of him reclining on a chaise longue, it's no surprise that the writer was at home in the Factory - where the Couch was a centrepiece for a variety of collaborations.
The Welshman: John Cale
The Velvet Under-ground's instrumental engine room, and one of the few artists to successfully bring rock viola to the masses, John Cale was a proud Welshman and a Warhol acolyte. His stay in the Velvets, though, was short-lived - he was only in the band for their first two albums.
The transformer: Lou Reed
Very few people bought the Velvet Underground's early records when they were first released. It didn't matter. Lou Reed and the gang's place at the heart of Sixties' counter- culture was ensured, when, in 1965, Andy Warhol became their manager. The singer later documented his time at the Factory in "Walk on the Wild Side".
The artist: Robert Rauschenberg
In 1964 Rauschenberg became the first American winner at the Venice Biennale. He was the artist Warhol most admired, and feted at the Factory. Warhol was surely listening when Rauschenberg remarked that "the artist's job is to be a witness to his time in history".
The voice of a generation: Bob Dylan
Al Kooper once remarked of Bob Dylan's seminal 1966 album, Blonde on Blonde, that it chronicled a "quintessential New York hipster." Dylan - a regular at the Factory - might have denied that description himself, but he certainly met a few at Warhol's salon.
The rock god: Mick Jagger
Just as Warhol designed the iconic cover for The Velvet Underground and Nico, the Velvets' 1967 debut, he also created the artwork on Sticky Fingers for his Factory friend, Mick Jagger. The crotch on the cover, though, does not belong to any members of the world's biggest rock band - it is thought to belong to Joe Dallesandro, a Factory regular.
The model: Anita Pallenberg
Anita Pallenberg was fluent in four languages and three Rolling Stones. And between growing up in Germany and settling in London this pan-European actress and model became a regular at the Factory.
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