Remembering Edie Sedgwick
In 1982, 11 years after her death by booze, barbiturates and boredom at the age of 28, Edie Sedgwick finally got the sympathy she needed and the biography she deserved. It was the big, glam and smartly lurid biography we deserved, too?a titanic tale of a troubled, beautiful heiress on a whirlwind tour of closeted Harvard boys and their vicious groupies, the California desert, psychiatric wards both swish and vile, and the New York art land, post-Eisenhower, pre-Velvets, pre-Rubell. These were both the uncharted frontiers and the loci for elitists with all kinds of IQs and tax brackets in the early 60s, and all of these scenes (especially the last) were moments from being chewed up and cordoned off completely. Edie, with her picture hats, naivete, mental illness and charisma, was the undisputed playground queen and the rich girl with a heart of gold until the drugs and the blue-collar heroes like Dylan and Warhol chewed her up too. Why? Well, to paraphrase "Just Like a Woman," "they were hungry and it was her world."
Edie was the last heroine in kid gloves who stayed too long at the artist's dirty studio and was repaid with a young death and posthumous cult fame. She is also the first modern slash-actress. Oh yes, Edie: An American Biography, edited by Jean Stein with George Plimpton and originally published by Knopf in 1982, is high tragedy, Grand Guignol, the refined blame game, all this and more, sans the schmaltz.
Edie's prime as Warholian icon lasted for barely 15 minutes and her crash was slow and cruel, but when I read Edie for the first time in the summer of '82, I became certain of two contradictory facts. One, Edie's world, where Garland could do the twist with Nureyev at a Factory party while everyone coolly ignored them and artist bums were treated like VIPs at places like Max's Kansas City?this scene no longer existed. Two, ignoring the fact that Edie might be a cautionary tale, I knew I was going to move to the city nonetheless, lose weight and have short, bleached hair like hers. I was going to be singularly fabulous and accepted. What I didn't know at the time was that every other teen changeling who wanted out of the suburbs was studying Edie and dreaming the same dream: the birth of Edie Nation.
The multiple-narrator method of storytelling has been used (and abused) to chorus the lives and times of tabloid-friendly enfants terribles such as Axl Rose (in a smirky, excellent Spin feature) and Truman Capote (an un-smirky, weepy and kind of desperate bio, also by Plimpton), but Edie: An American Biography, now 20 years old, was the inspiration and the best of them all. The rich, the famous, the insane, the has-been, the homeless, the high-born, the talented, the wasted, the beautiful and (of course) the damned all stepped up to the plate and me, me, me, I, I, I'd their stories about Edie to great effect. It's a group grope of epic proportions?our heroine didn't live very long, but she lorded over so many separate, compartmentalized scenes that her story couldn't be anything but a looking glass, elaborately glued back together.
"She'd be off to a jet-set party here and an underground party there, and also rapping to the guy from the deli," said Chuck Wein, one of her gurus from the Warhol era. "And everybody on each level believed that her life on that level was her real trip." How many Social Register/psych patient/sculptor/cult film star/fashion model/biker bitch wannabe speedfreak junkie housewives do you know? Okay, there are several of them living in your building, but the lineage starts with Edie.
The photo collection in the book is also unforgettable, and Edie Nation has burned many of the images into its collective brain: a John Singer Sargent painting of Edie's great-aunt and namesake Edith Minturn, a shot of a very young and uncomfortable Bob Dylan, Edie in her trustfund crib on the Upper East Side, arabesquing for Vogue, Edie elegantly going down the tubes, zonked out on a couch after she set fire to her room at the Chelsea. She even made bandages look glamorous.
Edie also includes a Sedgwick family tree and a poem by Patti Smith, written shortly after she learned Edie had died. My treasured first edition is autographed by Crispin Glover (he played Andy in the Doors movie, remember?), Viva, Taylor Mead and curiously enough, Keanu Reeves, who knew of the book and thought it was "pretty cool."
There's another photo in here of a soiled man standing on the sidewalk with a scruffy beard and hollow cheeks. A beggar, but he doesn't have his hand out. The caption reads "Billy Name leaving the Factory." Billy was the self-described "Factory Fotographer," as well as its foreman, manager, electrician and designer. It was Billy who covered the entire space in silver paint and foil. He was also responsible for Edie's choppy platinum hair. Billy converted one of the Factory toilets into a darkroom and lived in there for about five years.
"In that picture of you on the sidewalk you look completely burnt out," I told Billy when we spoke on the phone recently. Billy now lives in Poughkeepsie, his hometown.
"Like I came out of the trunk of a tree or something," he giggles. "I didn't eat. Before I got on the methamphetamine I was macrobiotic. I hardly ate anything except rice crackers and miso soup."
"But why did you live in the toilet? In Edie you're described as being covered with sores like a leper because you never got any sun."
"I was a hermit. I'm still like that." Running water tinkles in the background. "I live alone, and I order everything I need over the Internet. The grocer delivers, the pharmacy delivers."
"Are you peeing?"
Billy laughs delightedly. "Yeah!" And he lights up another Lucky straight. "I was just looking through my original copy of Edie this morning," he says. "I never really read the whole thing. I don't know what kind of impact the book had when it came out, but now whenever I give lectures at colleges, the first question is always about Edie. College-aged women, young women in the arts...they're enthralled by her."
It's obvious why a coed with clean hair, clean urine and a major in art would live vicariously through Edie, and the way Billy describes her?as a poised, sympathetic, intelligent creation ("She was potent. It was beyond beautiful girl. It was beyond hip girl.") who, unlike many of the others in the Factory crowd, knew how to listen and could converse cleverly on any number of esoteric topics. "Maybe it was her good breeding, that's probably a part of it," says Billy. "But when we were together, we'd sit down and start talking about things. She was just this sincere, angelically divine person you could have a conversation with. I was very shy. Edie knew all about cosmological theory. I mean, Nico...she would practically speak to no one. With Viva, you couldn't get a word in edgewise."
In Edie's collection of voices, Warhol often comes through as a shy, sadistic Svengali, licking his chops as the hangers-on begged for his favors; a consummate artist who treated Edie and others, literally, like disposable objects. According to Billy, Andy was incensed by Jean Stein, who compiled the interviews that make up the Edie narrative. "I mean he really hated [her]," he says. "After the book came out, Andy felt that [Stein] was using Edie's story to make him out to be this evil person." In reality, according to Billy, Edie was the director, and she couldn't be bossed around. "She called her own shots."
In truth, it is the negative, beautiful loser Edie who compels us?the Edie who, by 1966, had bitterly ditched the Factory with the nebulous hope of a mainstream film career or at least a full-time gig as Dylan's muse and Albert Grossman's client, and who was mortally burned as a result of these hopes. The Edie of the absurd boob job and long, dark hair who went into a fast, final tailspin of more psych wards, pennilessness and now unglamorous drug abuse, only to die asleep in her modest bed next to her modest husband, a man she met in a Santa Barbara nuthouse (he was a virgin until La Sedgwick nailed him)?this is the Edie who seems to clutch us most fiercely, and the version, unfortunately, that seems to be deified by Edie Nation.
Do the college girls, with their dog-eared copies of Edie: American Girl (Edie's most recent editions were given this new, dumbed-down title, presumably to attract some more impressionable American girls to Edie Nation), know what they're getting into? Billy and the rest of the Factory had the best of her, but a little more than halfway into Edie, her fame is gone, along with her amphetamines and pearls, and she's passed out on a stranger's bed as "Just Like a Woman" plays on the radio.
After Edie left the Factory, she cut off contact with everyone in the New York scene and moved back to Southern California, where she was raised. Even the local biker crowd she was stumbling around with had to let her go; she was too much of a helpless burden. "She'd ball half the dudes in town for a snort of junk," remembers one of her biker friends. Ouch! "But she was always very ladylike about the whole thing."
Billy didn't learn of her death until 1977, when he phoned Andy after returning to Poughkeepsie from California. "Andy was constantly saying, 'What did I do? I gave her the opportunity to be a film star.'" Billy pauses, and then relents. "All right, they were just art movies, but she could have gotten a good manager and gone on to a greater film career. But Edie's fate was to be fucked up. The whole amphetamine thing will just throw your timing totally off and you can't correspond to a civilized schedule."
"Billy Name!" George Plimpton exclaims. "How did you find him? Now that's a person I haven't thought of in a while."
Plimpton seems surprised that Edie has turned 20 years old, and pleased that it is attracting a new generation of fans. He recalls that the response to Edie in 1982 was sensational. He was promoting the book on The Tonight Show, and Carson's other guest (Plimpton can't remember who it was) did all the gushing for him.
"Well, it was a wonderful portrait of a curious time," he says. "I knew [Edie and her family] quite well, and I couldn't quite understand what happened to her." He likens Edie to a detective story, or a puzzle. "It was a glamorous business she was in, but if you read it carefully, you'll see it was about a girl who killed herself at age 28. Astonishing girl."
Where is she now?" I ask Billy Name. "Oh, up in the silver clouds," he sighs. "She's just an angel."
"Is she bored?"
"Nah, she had a life within her."
"How do you remember her?"
"I picture her sitting on the sofa with her legs crossed, being delightful and chatting about pretty things."
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