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Friday, September 26, 2008

Edie at the Peak

As America stands on the brink of its inevitable devolution into a Third World country, those of us old enough to remember the peak of our culture-- when, to paraphrase Hunter, the tide rolled in, crested, and rolled back -- should periodically be excused for the nostalgia indulged to do so. And when we do, it's hard not to envision that one lonely waif of a girl who was the first of so many things, but who was truly unique, the victim of everyone who is in many ways the icon and the emblem of whatever it was we became in the 'sixties, Edie Sedgwick.

Edie died in 1971 at the age of 28, a year later and a year younger than Jim Morrison, and right on the heels of the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in 1970, whose deaths were themselves the sad cultural echoes of the shooting of Robert Kennedy two years earlier. Edie, like Jim, Jimi, and Janis, died of drugs, except in her case she did so as much at the hands of the society which simultaneously tried to save, enclose, enwrap and suffocate her. I first became aware of Edie in about 1979, through Edie: American Girl, an oral biography by Jean Stein. Although I lived through the sixties, I was a child and was in my early twenties still scrambling to retain my culture; I don't think I had any acquaintance with Andy Warhol's Factory before this other than the wisps of mention on the evening news and in the mainstream press. So I hadn't heard of Edie although I was 13 at the time of her death. But something about her powerful presence reached out to me through the words of the interviews in the book and the grainy photos.

I'd almost forgotten about Edie until Factory Girl, starring Sienna Miller as Edie, came out a couple of years ago. I recommend the movie for the myth, if not the truth, but in this case the former points to the latter. Sienna Miller is a beautiful woman, but she looks nothing like Edie Sedgwick, who was waif-like yet dancer-strong and powerful in a frail way that no one else has ever equalled, not for the lack of trying. Edie was the offspring of a wealthy and degenerate West Coast family; she was a multiple incest victim from within that nuclear family, her only anchor being her gay brother, who was shamed by the father into killing himself when Edie was a teen. The family's reaction to Edie's trauma was not to punish the offenders, but to put Edie into treatment; she was in the modern version of the asylum as recently as the year before she shot to stardom.

In 1965, Edie, recently arrived in New York City, became the first and really only Warhol girl to become a superstar; she was the It girl for two years, dominating the covers and contents of fashion magazines and society pages. In the Factory, or thereabouts, she met with the drugs that led to her destruction, if not the ones that killed her. If you think meth kills now, think what it did then to an innocent generation. The entire Factory was overrun and overpowered by the stuff; dispensed by the infamous Dr. Robert from the Beatles song in the form of powerful injections in combination with some vitamins, and then of course supplemented by the "patients" with their own syringes, Speed ran rampant through the above-ground underground of the Factory. With no cultural awareness of what the stuff really was or what it could do, brains were blasted and lives were lost, much as today, when the populace has less excuse. But in that era, meth started at the top of the cultural food chain.

Edie was indeed a shooting star. By the spring of 1967, her brain had begun to fry, her immaculate balance to fail. By Memorial Day she was toast. Warhol's people washed their hands of her, and the once-rich trust fund heiress struggled, borrowed and stole to get by in the Chelsea Hotel. At about the end of that year, she disappeared, to reappear later in the grasp of her family in California, where she underwent shock treatment and drug therapy which was itself abusive; she died of her tortures in 1971, in her bed one night.

But like Warhol's art, Edie's life became enwrapped in and indistinguishable from a film which began as just another Warhol pic and became her biography and her eulogy. To understand Edie, it is essential to watch Ciao! Manhattan. When you do, make sure you watch the interviews included on the DVD. Ciao! was originally written for another Warhol starlet, one of the many with whom he tried to fill Edie's shoes when she had become lost. The actress' name was Susan, but she became unavailable as the crew went to filming, and the filmmakers John Palmer went to the Chelsea scavenging, to bring in Edie.

The early part of the film, in black and white, made no sense at all; it was produced in an amphetamine haze that left it plotless and clueless. But it does feature invaluable and irreplacable footage of Edie at or near her peak. Such elegance in a human being has never been captured on film. The film was abandoned in the cans, but then Edie was rediscovered in California and was found to be charming and heroic even in the face of the abuses she was enduring in the name of treatment, and she was adamant that the film go on. And so it did, although almost all of its original cast was dead, missing, or in jail. It became a five-year project which in turn became Edie's life. Her life became the film, and her life ended a couple of weeks after the film wrapped. Warhol couldn't have hoped for a more perfect ending.

I saw Ciao! year ago and only saw it as the mess that the film, as a film, is. But I watched it again as the artifact of a culture which has disappeared. Today's illiterate, jaded and moronic audience will never be able to appreciate what happened in the 'sixties, when literacy met fantasy, destiny and death and entwined in the stranglehold embrace which has choked our culture to death. It is impossible for anyone who remembers, to see this movie without longing for the spirit and the spark which will never come again.

Edie, I never knew you, but I miss you. I miss all that you and we could and should have become. As we die up to our necks in Lindsay and Paris and the flotsam and jetsam of a directionless and mindless lack of culture, I will always know there was you, and that in some way, you make it all worthwhile.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I discovered Edie in the 80's through the book Ciao Manhattan and kind of became obsessed with the Factory, Andy Warhol, etc. I must have read that book four or more times. It was fascinating to live vicariously during what must have been a crazy, deranged but exciting time. I also saw the movie version. Ultimately a very sad demise for Edie, but what a ride.