In which I mount a defense
*CW: eating disorders, assault, drug abuse*
Several months back, I read Karen Karbo’s In Praise of Difficult Women, a collection of profiles of women who transformed industries, championed causes, or lived some type of way. Among the profiled is Edie Sedgwick, who clearly belonged to the last of these categories. A socialite and Warhol acolyte, Edie attained ‘it girl’ status in the mid-‘60s by sheer force of the charisma (and cash and credit) she possessed. I’d hitherto come across her only in the context of the famous male company she kept 🙄 and my interest was piqued.
Certain people—I won’t put them on blast, they know who they are—ridiculed the notion that she was influential enough to merit a spot in this collection alongside the likes of Carrie Fisher, Helen Gurley Brown, and Real MVP Angela Merkel. Of course she had none of those women’s credentials or accomplishments to her name, but hearing her dismissed so categorically made me feel tenderly toward her. Protective, you might even say. By this point I knew she’d escaped the fast-forming 27 Club by a mere year; it wasn’t as though she’d had time to accrue said credentials or accomplishments. Surely she didn’t deserve such disdain.
I proceeded to read Edie: American Girl, Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s oral history of her life as told by her relatives and many, many acquaintances. And not only have I grown more protective of her, I am heckin’ delighted by her. What a presence. Who could do what she did?
Well, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Delighted, yes. Also terrified. She grew up in a world of limits, so rigid and yet so erratic that there was almost no choice but to be completely unlimited when she finally got out on her own. The sheer physical stresses she subjected herself to…I just couldn’t imagine leading that kind of day-to-day. That was precisely the reason she became so popular in certain crowds: the amazing tolerance she built up, the ability to endure, to live by no rule, to try all the newest things and take all the biggest risks. She was too fast for anyone, too far ahead of them. The way some people speak of her in the book is as if they’re speaking about a nonhuman, superhuman creature.
She came from an old-money family. Very old (Mayflower old), very money (bought up acres of ranch land in and around Santa Barbara). I doubt she would have been able to go on as she did without that cushion of tremendous privilege: a carefree life is an expensive one. But early on she was too busy searching for one person in her enormous family who could understand her. Usually it was her younger sister Suky—they were the two youngest of eight children—and then whomever she befriended at the boarding schools she attended. The patriarch, who went by ‘Fuzzy’ to his family (rich people names amirite), was deeply unstable and insecure, constantly trying to reinvent himself and constantly taking it out on his wife Alice and children. Edie later implied on more than one occasion that he assaulted her.
By her late teens she had developed an eating disorder and was sent to a private psychiatric facility in Connecticut called Silver Hill, where she did not recover properly but was discharged nonetheless. The book alternatively serves as a history of American medical institutions failing their patients, a history not so much disappointing as alarming. It becomes obvious that the Sedgwicks dealt with any sort of psychological deviance by packing the sufferer off to an institution: two of Edie’s older brothers were casualties of this method. Minty (‘Minturn’ was an old family name), to whom she was especially close, was institutionalized in early 1964 when he came out to his father and ended up hanging himself in his room. Years later, Bobby had been in and out of hospitals by the time he had a fatal car accident. The number of facilities Edie entered and left, the amounts of time she spent under supervision and care, in proportion to the amount of concern her mother showed when people called to tell her where her daughter was, truly boggled my mind.
Anyway, as long as she was back east she decided simply not to go home and instead settled in Cambridge, studying sculpture wih her cousin at Radcliffe and befriending the young gay men of Harvard. It was here that she began to make a name for herself with her lavish spending and pull-all-the-stops-out partying. After turning twenty-one and coming into a trust fund, she chose to relocate again to New York, where her grandparents owned some prime real estate, and pursue a modeling career. Within a year she had met Andy Warhol at a party and inserted herself into his Factory group, well on the way to becoming his latest ‘superstar.’
What I knew of the Factory and accessories (the Velvet Underground, etc.) didn’t amount to much prior to this book, and I am now coming to the somewhat distressing conclusion that I would not have fit into any ‘60s subculture. I’d long suspected that, however much I adored the Laurel Canyon musical scene, I was not West Coast enough (laid-back, drives cars) to be quite at home. I can’t say for certain, but I don’t think I would have made a very good hippie. In reading about the New York art scene with which I might presumably vibe more as an East Coaster with ties to the city, I realize an aluminum-foil-covered loft where people get beat up during shooting for films with no discernible plot while everyone else plays twisted mind games and/or has sex on every available surface is perhaps not my ideal stomping ground either.
The unifying factor could well be drugs. You’re not likely to feel at one with the kids on acid and coke when the strongest you go for is cannabis. (Evidently I would have wanted most to be Barbra Streisand: go direct to Broadway and skip the rest.)
Edie, on the other hand, was well-adjusted or perhaps maladjusted enough to fit in—and not only fit in but become the talk of the town. With the assurance that she was in with people like her Cambridge friend Chuck Wein, who was indispensable to Warhol, she ruled the scene at Max’s Kansas City. She was at once loved and loathed by every limousine company in town: she tipped generously but her schedule and behavior were, to put it charitably, inconsistent. She made several films with Warhol from mid-’65 to mid-’66, including Beauty No. 2 and Poor Little Rich Girl. (Have I seen any of these films? No. Do I want to? TBD.) Despite the fact that nothing about this whole venture was mainstream, she was picked up by the mainstream media for her appearances about town and was suddenly modeling for Vogue.
Her personal style was impossibly chic. I want to wear black tights all the time because of her, and from the looks of it everybody in 1966 did too. And how many people do you know who can pull off an arabesque atop a four-wheeled rhino? Then drive that rhino down the streets of Midtown and get a fake ticket for trying to park? Ugh, she was so cool.
But bear in mind she was also a twenty-two-to-three-year-old girl and highly impressionable. If you, for example, were going to lure her away from Warhol’s hipster gang into your hipster gang, and convince her to sign with your manager, and hint that you two were going to star in a major motion picture together, and not tell her you had secretly got married in November of ’65 while observing her rather obvious crush on you, well, does that really sound like something she’s just gonna bounce back from? Isn’t that sort of taking advantage of her goodwill and friendship and vulnerability? Maybe she wouldn’t care that you’ve written a song or several about her if you LIE to her FACE, now, would she?
Speaking generally and hypothetically, of course.
I don’t mean to be flip about the drugs, either. Everyone in this environment was heavily dependent on substances, sometimes multiple at once, to the point that they began to lose touch with any semblance of reality. The substances defined people’s relationships, or, if it got really bad, their whole personalities. Poor Edie didn’t think she could survive without amphetamines, then soon enough without heroin. She was pretty high-functioning, but not everyone was, and some of her acquaintances didn’t make it. Many of the figures in the inner and outer circles of that crowd were outcasts from more mainstream echelons of society seeking community; but the desire to connect came with lethal complications. In a matter of a few years Edie herself was alienated from everyone she had once associated with, her addictions shutting her away in hospital stays. She met her future husband, Michael Post, at one of those hospitals, and even he was never able to get her to fully stop using. In November 1971, after four months of marriage, they came home from a party where she had been drinking. She took a few pills, went to sleep, and didn’t wake up.
I wish Edie didn’t have to be so tragic to be so remarkable, though what made her the latter also made her the former. It really doesn’t help that nobody talked about her like she was a real person who needed to be taken care of, or, more accurately, needed to be helped to learn how to take care of herself—as opposed to some idol to be worshiped and then left to her own devices. I ultimately have to stand by this wild girl who used the resources at her disposal to live without inhibitions and become known for being herself. She embodied the adage that we’re here for a good time, not a long time. She was like the first true manic pixie dream girl, except beholden to no brooding sensitive male protagonist. She was the protagonist.
You can quibble with her morally if you like, you can question whether the fame was worth the strings attached, but you can’t deny that she didn’t care. Her allegiance was to her own wants and needs. That just hasn’t been achieved by all that many women, and those who have achieved it have rarely been celebrated for it. For better or worse, no one who knew Edie could stop talking about her. Now neither can I.
Image: 1966, after a fire at her apartment in the Chelsea Hotel, her hand gauzed and bandaged from the burns she sustained