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R.I.P.

Edie: An American Biography

by Jean Stein, edited with George Plimpton
Knopf, 455 pp., $16.95

For a brief spell in the mid-Sixties, Edie Sedgwick was the debutante princess of piss-elegance, an Andy Warhol “superstar” whose fashion trademark was a snowy white mink draped over a dimestore t-shirt. Edie was always abuzz with debbie enthusiasm—as Warhol himself put it, even when she was asleep, her hands were wide awake. But the all-American Edie was soon eclipsed on the Warhol scene by the icily cosmopolitan Nico, whose moody, ghostly voice adorned the music of the Velvet Under-ground Like Nico, Edie had a fondness for soothing candlelight, but where Nico could bathe by candlelight without setting off fire alarms Edie nearly torched herself twice—once in her East Side apartment, the next time in her room at the Chelsea Hotel. She also banged herself up once in a traffic accident, engaged in monkey-wild bouts of indiscriminate sex, and spent a number of stretches in the swankier and, later, rattier loony bins.

But it was drugs that finally cashiered Edie Sedgwick. After years of skinpopping acquaintance with amphetamine, after years of rooting through her pocketbook for loose pills, Edie expired in a barbituated daze in 1971 at the age of twenty-eight, perhaps the most notable name in that string of casualties from the Warhol camp which includes Candy Darling (cancer), Andrea Feldman (suicide), and Eric Emerson (rumored overdose).

In life, Edie Sedgwick may have been the crowning ornament of the Warhol entourage, but in death she’s being elevated into the company of Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, and Jimi Hendrix—that pop cavalcade of the beautiful slain. Not long ago, Rolling Stone ran a cover photograph of a pouty, surly Jim Morrison with the headline, “He’s hot, he’s sexy, and he’s dead.” Edie Sedgwick too is now a hot, sexy slice of necrophilia—an exploitable piece of nostalgia for those who miss the unruly, dissolute swagger of the Sixties. Edie, by Jean Stein and George Plimpton, is not only her catapult into the celestial big time but a small, brightly lit shrine. It may be pop journalism’s first compact, disposable death kit.

Excerpted in Rolling Stone, Edie is on one level another saga of golden lives gone astray, a countercultural Haywire. Even with all its golden-doomed allure, however, Edie Sedgwick’s life would at first glance seem a rather slender bough on which to hang a full-scale biography. With her stalky legs and silver hair and long, swinging earrings, Edie was perhaps the forerunner of new-wavish pop stars like Patti Smith (who’s interviewed in Edie) and Blondie’s Deborah Harry (who, not incidentally, used to waitress at Max’s Kansas City, chief hangout for the Warhol scenemakers). But that is at best a trickling influence, and it can hardly be argued that Edie actually did anything beyond dressing up and having a giggle; Diana Cooper she certainly wasn’t. Indeed, she emerges in Edie as little more than a likable, spoiled ditz who allowed herself to be ruled and then ruined by a barrage of bad chemicals. And despite Edie’s subtitle—“An American Biography”—there’s nothing peculiarly American about her demise: English debs, too, have been known to slump over at parties, their pretty little arms punctuated by needletracks.

But for all that, Edie is fascinating, if only because Jean Stein and George Plimpton have pulled off something provocative and novel in biography writing. Instead of sifting through details and probing into motives, Edie’s authors offer a smartly edited weave of recollections, with the testimonies of Edie’s friends and kin presented without comment in small quick doses, like clips in a documentary. The book is all chatter, the chapters are brief and snappy, the photographs plentiful. Other books have been programmed for those readers with short attention spans, but except for the best pages of Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, none had Edie’s ingenious intelligence and eye for the succinct, telling detail. It’s a technique best suited for a marginal figure of glamour like Edie—someone whose greatest deliberations were over which makeup to apply, which party to adorn. Were Edie a more driven, ambitious, and rounded-off heroine—an actress of rich accomplishment—the reader would expect to delve into the wellsprings of her calling. But Edie futilely splashed on the surface, and the disturbed surface is where Edie (thick on behavior, thin on psychology) stays. For better or ill, Edie is a spring forward in the televisionization of the prose narrative.

The book begins with a powerful, haunting image. “Have you ever seen the old graveyard up there in Stock-bridge?” asks John P. Marquand, Jr. Sedgwick Pie, he explains, is where the descendants of Judge Sedgwick are buried in concentric circles, with the Judge and his wife Pamela at the commanding center. “The descendants of Judge Sedgwick, from generation unto generation, are all buried with their heads facing out and their feet pointing in toward their ancestor. The legend is that on Judgment Day when they arise and face the Judge, they will have to see no one but Sedgwicks.” Edie then takes us on a tour through the layered crusts of that pie, from the illustrious members of the line (like Ellery Sedgwick, who served a formidable term as editor of the Atlantic Monthly) to the more eccentric (Charles Sedgwick, who used to wander about the farm lecturing to the livestock). As the tour progresses, you have a sense of will and energy being held in clenched fists, then squandered, then—by the time we get to Edie herself—flung away with reckless insolence.

Casting the longest and most damaging shadow by far in Edie is Edie’s father, Francis. Nicknamed “Fuzzy,” Francis was anything but an adorable huggy-bear. A novelist of modest distinction (The Rim), Fuzzy was a bullying hunk of beefcake who paraded about like a water-dwelling god, plucking the virtues of awed girls. Attending a wedding at the Sedgwick ranch in California in 1954, Susan Wilkins recalls, “It was a stud farm, that house, with this great stallion parading around in as little as he could. We were the mares. But it wasn’t sex. It was breeding…and there’s a difference, of course. The air was filled with an aura of procreation. Not carnal lust, but just breeding in the sense of not only recreating life but a certain kind of life, a certain elite, a superior race.” To those not fitted to sup with the gods, Fuzzy could be belittlingly cruel. Edie’s sister Saucie reports, “For me, life at Corral de Quati was one long degradation. In front of anyone—guests, cowboys—my father would say I was fat, or stupid, or a liar.”

So the Sedgwick line, once rich in culture, rectitude, and achievement, degenerated into a blight of small tormenting rancors and self-loathing mortifications. If Edie can be believed (she was given to lurid exaggeration), her father once tried to seduce her, and she in turn tried to lure her brother Jonathan into the sack years later. She was also an anorectic binger, bolting down food, then shooting off to the bathroom for a heave. Her brother Minty flipped out and eventually committed suicide, hanging himself with a necktie; another brother, Bobby, died when he cracked his motorcycle into the side of a bus, a daredevil stunt that might be labeled a near-suicide. (Characteristically, he wasn’t wearing a crash helmet.) Anorexia, incest, suicide, all of it played out in the grassy splendor of life among the well-bred—small wonder reviewers are going to see F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous green light blinking in the distance, summoning the Sedgwicks to excess and orgy. But it is in its absence of lyricism, its fidelity to unfinished, grinding fact, that Edie is most convincing. Were the book more artful and polished, it might have succumbed to swoons of lamentation. Like Warhol’s films, Edie is an emission of tarnished, silver-gray cool.

The book’s one interlude of carefree indulgence comes when Edie skips off to Cambridge and becomes the darling of Harvard’s homosexual dandies. “Edie loved the very nitroglycerine queens, the really smart ones who knew everything,” remembers René Richard. “She wanted high, very brilliant faggot friends who posed no threat to her body.” Perhaps the most plumishly brilliant was the infamous Cloke Dosset, a lecherous aesthete who draped his walls in satiny black and gave cocktail parties attended mostly by men who gave women the silent treatment. Says Patricia Sullivan, “Many of them had these wonderful names which Cloke would give them: Columbine Street-walker, Halloween Pederast, Gardenia Boredom, and Gloriana, which is the name of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and Appassionata von Climax. The girls did not get nicknames.”

Clearly Cloke Dosset’s brilliance consisted of prunings from Ronald Firbank, and clearly too these frolics served Edie as a run-through for the Warhol whirlwind, where the girls did get nicknames (Ingrid Superstar, International Velvet) and she would find herself cavorting through a shrill, fruity trashing of Catholicism which married Firbank to the fleshier side of gay stud-dom. Edie isn’t unaware of these connections. Another one of Edie’s friends at Cambridge recalls that the hallowed hangout for the nitroglycerine set was the Casablanca bar, located downstairs from the Brattle movie theater. “When one came through the plywood door, it was into her total world, and what heightened the experience, was that one often had come down from the Brattle—that factory of illusions.” So from there it was but a skipping-bounce to Andy Warhol’s factory of illusions.

For many readers, the account of Edie’s brief sputter of incandescence at the Factory will be the most absorbing section in the book, so spiked is it with gossip, drugginess, and bitching malice. Perhaps I’m turning a trifle jaded, but the anecdotes of amphetamine dementia in Edie struck me as tired and familiar—stories about “superstars” thwacking each other in the backsides with syringes and tossing screaming tantrums are now as stale as those fabled accounts of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway in the men’s room together, comparing thingies. Too familiar also are the darts aimed at Paul Morrissey for mousing his way into Warhol’s confidence and commercializing the Factory’s operations. What’s new are the details, which are far more blotched and gruesome than even the particulars of skin-puncturing abuse served up by Warhol and Pat Hackett in their sordidly entertaining memoir POPism (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980). Needle after needle is inserted into the asses of speedfreaks until their bottoms are eroded into crusty ridges.

Edie was no stranger to needles—as a child, she received Vitamin B shots in the behind like a sickly animal at the vet’s—and she too developed scar tissue. In an excerpt from the tapes for a pseudo-documentary film called Ciao! Manhattan, Edie does a riff about the perils of amphetamine.

You want to hear something I wrote about the horror of speed? Well, maybe you don’t, but the nearly incommunicable torments of speed, buzzerama, that acrylic high, horrorous, yodeling, repetitious echoes of an infinity so brutally harrowing that words cannot capture the devastation nor the tone of such a vicious nightmare.

But then Edie does a fast flipflop, testifying to the raptures of speed.

It’s hard to choose between the climactic ecstasies of speed and cocaine, They’re similar…. That fantabulous sexual exhilaration. Which is better, coke or speed? It’s hard to choose. The purest speed, the purest coke, and sex is a deadlock.

So surfing on the curve of one hopped-up high after another, Edie became a rattled, radiant wreck. Henry Geldzahler: “She was very nervous, very fragile, very thin, very hysterical. You could hear her screaming even when she wasn’t screaming—this sort of supersonic whistling.” And, in a puzzling comment, Diana Vreeland notes that when Edie modeled for Vogue, she had lovely skin-tone, “but then I’ve never seen anyone on drugs that didn’t have wonderful skin.” (God, I have.) Curiously, Edie skimps most on what matters most in sizing up Edie’s true measure of fame and attraction—her antics on film. The one keen paragraph on Edie’s film legacy comes from Norman Mailer. “One hundred years from now they will look at Kitchen and see that incredibly cramped little set, which was indeed a kitchen…. You can see nothing but the kitchen table, the refrigerator, the stove, and the actors. The refrigerator hummed and droned on the sound track. Edie had the sniffles. She had a dreadful cold. She had one of those colds you get spending the long winter in a cold-water flat. The dialogue was dull and bounced off the enamel and plastic surfaces. It was a horror to watch. It captured the essence of every boring, dead day one’s ever had in a city, a time when everything is imbued with the odor of damp washcloths and old drains.”

Mailer’s evocative comments aside, Edie shows a lazy hand in trying to nail down what was special about the Sedgwick mystique—what made her bob higher in the esteem of the hiply knowing than those in the Warhol stable who gave it a much heartier go. The best pin-down of Edie’s appeal I know of appears in Stephen Koch’s 1973 study of the splendors and miseries of Warholiana, Stargazer. How did Edie Sedgwick carve out a calm nook for herself in all that shriek and squalor?

…[Edie] was unique among the women superstars because she never played the female clown. All the others—Baby Jane Holzer in the grotesquerie of her voguishness; Ingrid Superstar, a perfectly conscious comedienne forever varying on the theme of the dumb blond; Tiger Morse (who appeared more often at Max’s Kansas City than in films), camping and squealing like a schoolgirl; Viva, with her interminable frizzy-haired account of schizophrenia, lascivious priests, and a badly damaged ego—all of them were in one way or another involved in a more or less comic display of their fears and weaknesses and overcompensations as women. But Sedgwick always kept her cool. When she spoke she made sense; her response to a contretemps on screen (and part of the technique was to create those contretemps) was never the customary hysteria but a visibly intelligent effort to cope….

Koch then swerves his attention to Warhol’s Beauty No. 2, in which Sedgwick perches on the edge of a bed, “ice cubes in her glass tinkling (one associates tinkling with her presence, of ice cubes, jewelry, and her voice and eyes)….”

Lithe and small-breasted, she’s wearing a pair of black bikini panties, her long legs alternately girlish and regal. Her movements are nothing but the merest business: sipping her drink, fiddling with her pack of cigarettes, patting the overly friendly dog, until such small stuff at last resolves itself into an attempt at love-making with the silent Gino Peschio (who, shortly after the opening of the first reel, strips to his underwear).

But throughout, there is a continuing and largely inaudible conversation with [Chuck] Wein and [Gerard] Malanga out of frame. The visual field is assailed by their disembodied voices provoking the astonishingly various and precise textures of Sedgwick’s responses, the nagging intrusions on her peace that proceed to make her portrait come alive. But those remarks being made at her are also ideal illustrations of a much favored directorial mode in the Factory at that time: Taunt and betrayal…. Under the influence of this technique, the conversation in Beauty No. 2 moves from trivia to desperation. There is even a terrible moment near the end in which Sedgwick…speaks more or less inaudibly, but from real fear, of her horror of death. In other places, certain things are said off camera (I have been unable to decipher them) that plainly hurt and offend her (some others provoke the small miracle of her laugh); later, as the lovemaking demanded by the scenario begins, a series of cutting, catty remarks from the kibbitzers at last make her abruptly pull herself up, fold her arms around her knees and stop in unflustered, but visible, fury.

Koch’s comments are worth quoting at such length not only because they frame Edie Sedgwick’s film manner in sharpfocus perspective but because such appreciations appear nowhere in Edie, which is rich in idle chat—wow, fabulous, fantastic—and slim on critical insight. Edie, taut as it is, is composed of rather stringy fibers.

Once Edie splits with the Warhol sect, her life becomes a tailspin of speed binges, casual ruttings with dopers and bikers, recuperations in the hospital, sweet enthusiasms, and futile hopes. She becomes a noisy blur in the book, a crackle of laughter and energy at the edge of the party. When Edie finally does die, in bed with her husband, her death stirs in the reader little more than a small, fond sadness—small, because Edie’s death seems so tediously inevitable. With bones and mannerisms as birdlike as hers, a ravenous appetite for drugs and kicks could only lead to a racking toll on her stamina, a fluttering collapse. She seems to have been fitted for a life both brief and flaring. Had she lived, she might—might—have become a housewifey recluse (like Patti Smith), but she also might have turned into a bloated caricature of herself, banging her head against the crib in one of John Waters’s suburban travesties, the “small miracle of her laugh” coarsened into a fag-hag cackle.

According to Edie, when Warhol heard of Edie’s death, he greeted the news with shrugging small talk. Death or recovery, it’s all the same to the Prince of Ether, he admits with rare candor in POPism. After Ondine kicks speed and becomes a calm, normal person, Warhol offers a sigh of regret. “Sure, it was good he was off drugs (I supposed), and I was glad for him (I supposed), but it was so boring: there was no getting around that. The brilliance was all gone.” To be wired-up is to be dramatic, and Warhol’s parenthetical asides indicate that he preferred having those around him laced up with drugs and like cockatoos to their loitering about in the quiet. Edie Sedgwick was wired-up before she met Warhol, and wired-up after she left him, but Warhol created a theater of heightened sensations in which her own brittleness could take on a self-consuming sparkle. Like Fuzzy, Cloke Dosset, and the acid doctors that followed, Warhol was a careless father-figure allowing his daughter to cast about with wolves. Andy Warhol didn’t destroy Edie Sedgwick, but he did make destruction seem like a glorious goof, an acrylic high—the ultimate buzzerama. And he left his camp-followers with nothing to cushion their falls.

Of course, Warhol himself is now a dazed whisper of death with a dubious thatch of ash-white hair—“the ghost of a genius,” as Taylor Mead describes him in Edie. So feyly out of it is Warhol that it’s pointless to expect him to express deep feelings of loss or regret over Edie’s death: he’s lived in the pop of flashbulbs for so long that his emotions are flaked and scattered, bleachedout. If anything, he might feel a sliver of perverse pride at having a book like Edie dish the dirt on the lurid doings at his dream-factory. Warhol was always star-struck, his moviemaking tricked-out Hollywood myths in topsy-turvy drag, and now, with Edie, he’s inspired a book which rakes through the muck and intrigue of his passive reign like a thinking man’s Hollywood Babylon, with Edie Sedgwick as the waif tossed upon the smoking slag-heap. Edie Sedgwick’s death received a curt paragraph in the postscript to POPism, and the value of Edie is that it cracks open that paragraph to capture the arc of a life in its dying fall. For all its babble and gossip, for all the time spent with its eye glued to the keyhole, Edie is a serious, painstaking enterprise.

And it has a disquieting symmetry. If the dead at Stockbridge were to rise from their graves, they would find themselves ringed about Judge Sedgwick, but, reading Edie, you feel that these dead—Candy Darling, Eric Emerson, Andrea Feldman, Edie Sedgwick—will find themselves staring at Andy Warhol. Poor wayward Edie, she deserved better fathers, a better fate.

Letters

Stargazer’ Available September 23, 1982

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