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"It's not that I'm rebelling. It's that I'm just trying to find another way."
on 23 December 2007
The 2006 Factory Girl biopic starring Sienna Miller, the re-issue of Jean Stein's Edie: An American Biography and the 2002 release of her last film Ciao! Manhattan have all led to a revival of interest in the Factory Superstar, Edie Sedgwick (1943-1971). Fan websites have surfaced as well as a message board for self-proclaimed 'Edie-maniacs'; YouTube features a mini-music video collage of pictures of her, and even internet clothes stores have started selling T-shirts with Sedgwick's image emblazoned on the front. This book, with its POPish title, Edie: Girl on Fire, is another one which reinforces, rather than questions, the cult-like mythologisation of Sedgwick, and has been collated by director David Weisman and New York filmmaker, Melissa Painter.
It is an undeniably beautiful book with hundreds of colour and black-and-white photographs (many of which have not been seen before), a CD of interviews with her from the Ciao! Manhattan period, and quotations from others, largely culled from Jean Stein's book, two Andy Warhol publications (actually edited and largely written by Warhol side-hand Pat Hackett), a previously published Dylan interview, Patti Smith's book (Smith knew Sedgwick briefly) and Katie Mohr's 1999 interview with Michael Post. The only fresh information seems to come from new interviews with Ultra Violet, Danny Fields and Jane Holzer. The narrative that emerges is a tragic one: traumatised by a very difficult childhood with an oppressive and mentally unstable father, Sedgwick went on to be hyped and lionised by the Warhol Factory scene, taken up and then apparently abandoned by the Bob Dylan crowd; she sank into drug abuse, eating disorders, attention-seeking fires, painful shock treatments and a last-ditch attempt at a new life with house & husband in California. What arises most forcefully out of it all is her existential need to please, her desperation to be loved repeatedly and wholly: "She would go to any length to please," says photographer Fred Eberstadt in this book. "She needed to be accepted really on a visceral level, not the way most of us needed to be accepted." According to him, she fatally confused attention with love and love with attention; in this way, she followed her idol and another tragic heroine, Marilyn Monroe, into self-destructive habits and, it might be argued, an early grave. The pivotal point in her life, when the high life she lived in New York buckled and started to collapse for her, came during the Christmas of 1966, when her father, Fuzzy Sedgwick, had her incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital, because he "could not control her". Returning to New York in 1967 (after Bob Neuwirth facilitated her hospital exit), her drug-taking deepens and she looks terribly pale, anorexically thin and utterly washed-out. Sedgwick's husband for the last four months of her life, Michael Post, recalls feeling that she wanted him to compensate for the absence of an authentic parental love, a role he could not fulfil.
The photographs show very clearly a strange transition in her appearance upon which none of the supplementary interviews comment. During her 1960s heyday as a superstar in Warhol's Factory scene, Edie is a unisex beauty - a boyishly thin blonde in black tights and brilliantly colourful 1960s prints. During her descent into serious drug abuse and flight from psychiatric clinic to clinic, she takes on a much more conservative look, letting her natural brown hair grow out to shoulder-length and is pictured wearing prim, paisley clothes. It is, I think, one problem of the book that there is little dialogue between the pictures and the text. The pictures are not captioned and the quotes from Edie herself are not dated, which give the impression (intentionally, it might be presumed) of Edie as a night-flying angel, unfettered by time and social context. This, of course, leads - as all mythologisation does ultimately - to a glossy distortion, or adaptation, of a lived life.
Posthumously she has found the fame for which she craved so desperately during her life, but the price paid for it was, by anyone's standards, exorbitantly high. "She stayed on the high plane," friend Donald Lyons says towards the end of this book, "the rest of us ascended there. Life on the high plane left her finally abandoned".