No Direction Home - the Life and Death of Edie Sedgwick Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

No Direction Home - the Life and Death of Edie Sedgwick

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Sometime in the early hours of 16 November, 1971, what was left of Edie Sedgwick breathed its last. The Santa Barbara coroner concluded that the final insult was a cocktail of barbiturates and alcohol, and registered an open verdict. So it was that Edie's life ended as it had proceeded, in the shadowlands between accident and suicide. They buried her in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Ballard, a way over the San Marcos Pass. As her eldest sister Saucie, remarked: 'It's in the Valley, but it's nothing. No one would ever go there except to see the veterinarian'.

Edie's pathetic life and death epitomise the dark side of the Sixties. She remains a potent symbol of the fickleness of celebrity. Her mind was wasted before her body followed through a lethal combination of drug abuse and contemporary psychiatric medicine. The horror of her decline is preserved on celluloid, and elusively in the lyrics of an iconic song.

Dressed so Fine

She came into the world on 20 April, 1943, in the Cottage Hospital of Santa Barbara, the seventh of eight children. Her mother's family, the de Forests, were pillars of New England society. Edie's great-great-great grandfather had been Speaker of the House of Representatives in the time of Hamilton, and his descendants cultivated close associations with Harvard. The paternal side was less auspicious, though wealthy enough as Californian ranchers. Soon after Edie's birth, Francis and Alice Sedgwick left Massachussets and brought their family to the Santa Ynez Valley, the move being funded by the de Forest inheritance. Within a few years, oil was discovered on the fruit ranch, and it seemed that Edie Sedgwick would never want for anything again.

The one dark cloud in those early days was Francis Sedgwick's mental health. Later to be diagnosed as a manic depressive, he had suffered three breakdowns before he met Alice. The de Forest family physician reputedly advised against the marriage, anticipating damaged offspring. Such sentiments are frowned upon today, but hindsight is rarely politically correct. The eventual tally would stand at three out of eight children committed to psychiatric institutions and destined to die as young adults. One brother hanged himself and another slammed his Harley into a bus. Edie's fate would be the most harrowing of all.

Perhaps it's a universal characteristic of the rich and flaky, or perhaps it's a Californian trait, but the Sedgwicks opted for a secluded lifestyle that quite probably exacerbated the family's manias. The children didn't go to school, for example. Instead, teachers were hired and brought in to a purpose-built classroom on the ranch. Edie's only regular excursion in her childhood years was by chauffeur to a surgery in the Valley, where she received daily vitamin B shots along with her sister Suky.

She made it to her nineteenth year before they actually locked her up, however. It was the fall of 1962 when Edie's anorexic tendencies precipitated her admission to the Silver Hill mental hospital, the same place her family sent her soon-to-be-swinging brother. The kindly folk at Silver Hill didn't fix the problem. Edie was always something of a stick insect, but her weight had dwindled to ninety pounds by the time that she was transferred to Bloomingdale, the Westchester Division of New York Hospital. The regime now became strict, and she would later claim to have been subjected to force-feeding. Soon after being discharged, and still under the mistaken belief that she'd stopped ovulating, Edie got herself pregnant, and another of her parents' extensive network of medical acquaintances saw to the abortion.

Beware, Doll

There was nothing all that special about Edie Sedgwick, even in the days when her brain was more or less intact. She was strikingly beautiful in a gaunt, androgynous sort of a way, and she could carry herself with the assurance of the privileged. She wasn't particularly clever, though. Nor was she good at organising her affairs: in fact she never understood the necessity to learn self-help skills, probably because she couldn't foresee a day when no one else would help. Her conversation was effervescent but shallow, and her ideas were vague. She was qualified to be an ornament, and that was really about it.

An important consequence of the hospital incarceration was a re-introduction to New England. Edie was unwelcome and unhappy at the ranch in her twentieth year, and by the end of it she took herself off to Cambridge. She had no particular affiliation with Harvard, except a gravitational one. She consorted with a variety of shrinks and aesthetes, and at the end of 1963 she met Chuck Wein, an alumnus who had aimlessly drifted back. She was soon prospering socially. The lifestyle was superficial, but nonetheless alluring enough to draw her to New York as her circle moved on, and another coffin-nail was thereby driven into place.

By the middle of 1964, Edie was established in a Manhattan apartment and had become a fixture in the poppy nightlife of the city. Chuck Wein was by now promoting her aggressively, charting out who she should meet and generally running her life for her. Several of Edie's friends had an uneasy feeling about this, not least because of Wein’s drug habit, but they didn't stop it. They probably reasoned that, even if Wein’s manipulation was parasitic, then so was everything else about that crowd, place and time. And they all knew that Edie, in spite of her looks, wouldn't carry it off herself. She needed an impresario if she was going to get anywhere.

Edie wasn't much impressed by earthquakes. Polite society around the San Andreas Fault doesn't acknowledge them, beyond picking up the cocktail glass before it walks off the table. Be that as it may, there was fifty years of pent-up repression breaking out all over the Western world, and the figurative earthquake that was the 1960s created a whole new cultural landscape. Not one, but two of its loftiest peaks now sprang up in Edie's direct vicinity. In December 1964, Edie met an up-and-coming young folk singer called Bob Dylan in the bar at the Kettle of Fish in MacDougal Street. In January 1965, she met a rising artist and avant-garde film-maker named Andy Warhol at a dinner party. She made a strong impression on both men.

Chrome Horse Diplomat

Warhol's Factory on 47 St E in midtown Manhattan was already notorious by this time, and Edie's first visits, accompanied by Chuck Wein, began around March 1965. She appeared in several of Warhol's films of the period, starting almost immediately with a bit-part in Horse and a last-minute appearance, albeit in a more substantial role, in Vinyl. Later that spring, Warhol exhibited in Paris and Edie was part of his entourage.

For a time after that, Andy Warhol was smitten by her, telling his principal collaborators that he wanted her to be the 'Queen of the Factory'. Several films were scripted for her, including Kitchen, Poor Little Rich Girl and most famously Beauty No2. The second of these was co-produced by Wein, though Warhol didn't entirely welcome the would-be Svengali's attempts to insinuate himself. Chuck Wein was tolerated more for his ability to manipulate Edie, and possibly for the allure of his own blond hair and blue eyes, than for any innate ability.

Beauty No2 also contains the first clear signs of Edie's instability that are recorded on film. At one point, she hurls a glass ashtray at Wein. A film of early 1966 suggests an alarming pace of decline, however. In a 33-minute-long monologue called Outer and Inner Space, Edie seems to be confused and distressed. She was certainly highly reliant on amphetamines by this time, and known to be using both hallucinogenic and opiate drugs too.

The best-known Warhol film of all is probably Chelsea Girls, also made in 1966, but Edie does not appear. The film is composed of separate scenes using different actors, and it's certain that segments featuring Edie were shot. Their non-inclusion in the final film has been variously attributed to Warhol's feelings of betrayal and to Edie's own insistence. Either way, Edie cut all ties with Warhol and the Factory at about this time and the main reason seems to have been her infatuation with Bob Dylan.

The Vacuum of his Eyes

Dylan certainly enjoyed Edie's company and frequently accompanied her at New York's nightspots, but his own love-life was intensely complicated in 1965. His relationship with Joan Baez (dating from the spring of 1963 when they both appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival) had somehow escaped his current partner, Sara Lownds. Dylan and Lownds were living together in the Chelsea Hotel along with Lownds' 3-year-old child by her estranged husband. Although Edie surely believed otherwise, her pursuit of Dylan was always hopeless since he was already torn between these two women.

Dylan and Warhol were in some ways alike in those formative times. Their personalities had similar contradictions, a shy and even reclusive nature on the one hand and a thirst for fame and its rewards on the other. They knew each other too and socialised, if only for mutual promotion. Dylan visited the Factory several times, and Warhol toyed with a film about his life-story to date. Warhol also gave Dylan one of his Elvis triple-portrait prints, though the musician would later use it as a dartboard while on tour. The two men would soon blame each other for Edie's demise, and the acrimony was unabated right up until Warhol's death in 1987.

Bob Dylan evidently didn't think enough of Edie Sedgwick to tell her when he secretly married Sara Lownds in November 1965. In spite of Edie's advances, therefore, the relationship yielded nothing more tangible than a host of song-references, including Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat, Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again and of course Like a Rolling Stone. This last song, widely acknowledged to be among Dylan's finest, provides a revealing insight into Dylan's thoughts on Edie's fall from fame (though it predates the most harrowing period of her decline). Her photograph appears on the (original) inner sleeve of the album Blonde on Blonde. Some commentators suggest that Just Like a Woman is also about Edie, though the song's subject is more widely considered to be Joan Baez.

As the star proved elusive, Edie transferred her attentions to his manager, Bob Neuwirth. Their relationship was not as parasitic as the one with Chuck Wein had been, and it lasted for rather more than a year, but Neuwirth would ultimately be counted as another contributor to her destruction. In the early part of 1966, he fed her hedonism when a truer lover might have tried to hold her back. Her descriptions of their lovemaking (revealed, like much else that might better have stayed out of the public record, in the Ciao! Manhattan tapes) are alarming and suggestive of obsession. Edie had an addictive personality, and at one time or another almost every conceivable excess seems to have been caught up in it.

Edie never understood the implications of being in two cliques at once. These were circumstances in which the celebrities were more rivals than friends, and Warhol turned the knife during an evening at the Gingerman Restaurant in February 1966. Tired of her perpetual talk about Dylan, he told her about the marriage to Lownds. A frantic phone call proved it was true, and Edie left in tears, never to return to the Factory. Her few subsequent meetings with Warhol's crowd were formal and conducted strictly to settle her affairs. She put the management of her career into the hands of Neuwirth's associates, a disastrous act as it turned out, since these hurried deals would later frustrate her attempts to earn income from independent film.

The Jugglers and the Clowns

Edie's next move, encouraged by Neuwirth, was to try and establish a modelling career. She had a track record, having appeared in Vogue in the summer of 1965 in a feature about America's 'youthquakers', and subsequently in the fashion pages of Life magazine.

The trouble now, though, was narcotics. An association with the drug scene was the last thing a successful mainstream publication wanted. The independents who might have been prepared to take the risk had little money, and Edie was too vain to contemplate taking the step down.

On an entirely different tack, she auditioned for the stage, but once again her aspirations were ridiculously high. She harangued Norman Mailer for a part in his new play The Deer Park. The intensity of her protests turned the playwright off completely, revealing a temperament that would leave her 'immolated after three performances'.

The rest of 1966 was spent living at the Chelsea Hotel, spending money she didn't have and clinging desperately to Bob Neuwirth. When he wasn't there to reassure her, she would pop pills. The lover began to realise that he had an intractable problem of responsibility for a sick person. A Christmas in California did no good, and culminated in her parents confining her in a psychiatric ward at the County Hospital. Shortly after her return to New York, Neuwirth dumped her, and the downward spiral accelerated after that.

Princess on the Steeple

In 2006, the film Factory Girl, directed by George Hickenlooper, brought Edie Sedgwick's story back to the attention of the public. The film was neither a critical nor a commercial success, though its re-enactments of the original Warhol sets using modern actors certainly constitute a painstaking homage. One of the original filmakers, David Weisman, responded with Girl on Fire, this time with real period footage. Weisman, however, was covering old ground. Anyone who really wants to see what became of Edie (provided only that they are emotionally robust enough to deal with troubling thoughts for days afterwards) should watch the 1972 film that Weisman himself co-directed with John Palmer. Unintentionally or not, Ciao! Manhattan stands as one of the most shocking films ever made.

Chuck Wein was once again the principal instigator, persuading the producer Robert Margouleff to use Edie in what was originally intended to be a porn film. Filming started in April 1967, but soon got out of hand. Almost everyone involved in the production had a dependency on drugs. Shooting went on for five years, and the film was really only finished when Edie's death both imposed and suggested an ending.

The plot, in so much as there is one, is bizarre and incoherent. The true content is Edie's decline, contrasting real black and white footage from the Warhol period with colour material from two separate periods in 1968 and 1970, the latter after Edie had undergone repeated electroconvulsive therapy. The story drifts from an imagined one in which Edie plays a fictional character called Susan (who is nonetheless very like herself) into a near-documentary format, culminating in the real Edie's newspaper obituaries.

At all times painfully slow, the progress of the film-makers ceased entirely on several occasions, usually because Edie was receiving hospital treatment. During the first such episode, in October 1967, Edie's father died. Later, committals to the Bellevue Hospital and then the Manhattan State Hospital followed. Tests at the latter revealed that Edie had incurred significant brain damage. After being discharged, she left New York and returned to California, living in an apartment in Isla Vista near Santa Barbara. In the summer of 1969, she was arrested for possession, leading to a further spell in a psychiatric ward. Here she met Michael Post, another drug-dependent patient, who would soon become her companion for what remained of her life.

Napoleon in Rags

One of the most poignant accounts of Edie Sedgwick's last years was given by the leader of a band of bikers that she associated with in late 1969. She acquired the nickname of 'Princess', because she appeared to think she was one. She maintained upper-class airs and graces, but she would debase herself shamelessly for anyone who could supply her with drugs.

In late 1970, after another spell in hospital, she was allowed to resume filming for what turned out to be the final time on the Ciao! Manhattan set, under the supervision of two nurses. By this time, the film script was being amended to reflect the latest lows of Edie's condition. Electroconvulsive therapy scenes were simulated, and Edie knew exactly how to apply the gag and breathing tubes. Within a few weeks, Edie was admitted to the very clinic where the mock treatment had been filmed. In a confinement that lasted from January to mid-June 1971, shocks were administered on some twenty separate occasions.

Michael Post and Edie Sedgwick were married on 24 July 1971. Edie consumed no drugs or alcohol until October, but she was by now a shadow of her former self, subdued and cowed. She ate little and soon fell ill. The doctor prescribed barbiturates.

For a final month of life, drugs brought Edie Sedgwick to her senses again. Her behaviour at the last was nonetheless self-destructive. She repeatedly tried to obtain more pills than had been prescribed, pretending to have lost the ones she had already. Worse still, the heavy drinking resumed.

In the evening of 15 November, she attended a fashion show at the museum in Santa Barbara, and eerily made her very last filmed appearance in a short interview by a local television station. At the subsequent party, Edie was pilloried by some guests who called her a junkie, and she phoned Michael in a state of distress. Her husband collected her, checked her medication and helped her to bed. When he awoke the following morning, he found his wife dead beside him.

Edie Sedgwick was 28 years old.

No Secrets to Conceal

Warhol, Dylan, Wein, Neuwirth (plus several doctors): all have been blamed for what happened to Edie. Whether they mistreated her, or even just led her astray, is debatable. None of them refused her what she demanded. Perhaps that was their greatest unkindness.

The lifestyle of the 60s took its toll on many stars and no small number of their acolytes. Edie Sedgwick's fate was by no means unique. Her course to the grave, moreover, was largely of her own choosing. She lived well while her celebrity lasted, and her injuries were self-inflicted.

Maybe her life was a waste, or perhaps Edie achieved all that she ever could. The legend and the luxury might have compensated for the misery of her decline, and then again they might only have been a torment.

It could even be argued that if Edie's existence had a purpose, it was to epitomise the shallowness of the times in which she lived. One thing is sure however: Edie Sedgwick was a creature of those times.

She left her mark in the consciousness and on the conscience of a generation.

She had her fifteen minutes of fame.

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