ARTICLE

Almost Famous

The Tumultuous Life of Santa Barbara Heiress and ’60s It Girl Edie Sedgwick, whose Glamorous 15 Minutes Ended in Tragedy

by Katherine Stewart, Santa Barbara, Oct./Nov. 2006

As Edie Sedgwick lolls about in a tent at the bottom of an empty swimming pool in Los Angeles, a movie camera closes in on her face, dewy and beguiling. False lashes as thick as a pair of caterpillars fringe her eyes. The far-away expression is not a pose of youthful alienation; it’s just weirdly empty. Sedgwick—the famous It Girl, fashion icon, Andy Warhol celebutante and child of Santa Barbara ranching royalty—sprawls across a waterbed, and the camera pans to her bloodied foot. “Meth burns your brain cells out unless accompanied by massive injections of B12,” she says with traces of the Hepburn-esque accent of late-’50s American aristocracy. Her pellucid voice seems to belong to another body. The unforgiving camera picks up the bruises and scars on her legs and hips, the injection sores on her hands, and the brand-new silicone implants jutting through the flesh of her bony chest.

The scene is from the 1972 film Ciao! Manhattan, ostensibly a fictional tale about an innocent young drifter who becomes entangled with lead character Susan Superstar, played by Sedgwick. In fact, Edie’s soliloquies sound more like on-the-spot autobiography. “When I was a child, I was very hyper,” she continues vacantly. “We lived on an enormous ranch. I used to ride from dusk until dawn. I remember mummy gave me Nembutal [a barbiturate] whenever I got out of her [sic] schedule. I got hooked on speed at the Factory, and then I had my little interlude with heroin for eight months to get off speed.”

By the time Ciao! Manhattan was released, Edie had already made her name seven years earlier as a film protégé of Warhol, a favored ingénue in the avant-garde artist’s revolving cast of ready-made “superstars.” Others may have remembered her as the 1965’s “Girl of the Year”—as she was dubbed by the press—or from her brief appearance as a model for Life and Vogue, which dubbed her a “Youthquaker.” She associated with artists, socialites and rock stars. She was the personification of 1960s cool: rail thin with a cropped mop and black tights; a pop-culture icon who represented youthful high jinks and the glamorous yet edgy underworld of downtown New York nightlife.

A decade later came Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s 1982 bestselling oral history, Edie: American Girl, a devastating biography told through personal remembrances of Edie’s family and friends. The book, which established Edie as an American icon, albeit a tragic one, captured her story in a collage of perspectives. It mixed histories of the local Sedgwick and de Forest families, debauched scenes from Andy Warhol’s Factory, tales of Edie’s girlhood in the Santa Ynez Valley, and snippets of her last, desperate years in Santa Barbara. The final period of Edie’s life was the most sordid, involving drifters and grifters and punctuated with hospitalizations and a course of electroshock treatments. (She was institutionalized at least nine times for psychiatric disturbances or drug problems during her lifetime.) The attempts to control her drug use were in vain. She died in Santa Barbara in 1971, at age 28, of a barbiturate overdose.

Today—despite her destructive addictions and paper-thin career—America is primed for an Edie revival. In December, Miramax releases Factory Girl, a film directed by George Hickenlooper (The Man from Elysian Fields), with the screenplay by Captain Mauzner (Wonderland). Sienna Miller is in the title role, with Guy Pearce as Warhol and Hayden Christensen as a Bob Dylan-type character in supporting roles.

Other outbreaks of Edie nostalgia include Edie: Factory Girl, a book of photography that VH1 Press is releasing in November. And fashion world notables have recently cited Edie as inspiration. Edie was John Galliano’s muse for his Christian Dior 2005 collection, and shoe designer Taryn Rose is debuting a line of Edie-inspired footwear in the spring.

Edie’s image was undeniably iconic. She was vanishingly thin yet unexpectedly brazen, even louche. With her black tights, minidresses and long earrings, she had a style at once gritty and extravagant. With secondary sexual characteristics so subtle as to be practically nonexistent, she represented a new feminine ideal, one divorced of the suggestion of childbearing and along with it any intimations of past or future. Her look helped pave the way for the waifish heroin chic personified by Kate Moss in the 1990s. Even today, Edie’s arresting image in photographs and film clips satisfies that strange and not always admirable craving to gawp at that razor’s edge that separates beauty from freakishness.

But for those who knew her best, the resurrection of Edie Sedgwick as a cultural icon is troublesome at the least. “I’ve read a lot of Edie scripts over the years,” says Hollywood filmmaker Joel Schumacher, a part-time resident of Carpinteria who befriended Edie in New York in the early ’60s. “And what none of them seem to capture is how incredibly fragile she was. Edie was really, really sweet. But she was so little, so thin. So screwed up. She was so…lost.”

The Sedgwick Family

Edie’s parents, Francis Minturn Sedgwick and Alice Delano De Forest Sedgwick, were New Englanders by birth, descendants of various captains of industry and important political and literary figures, including Ellery Sedgwick, who edited the Atlantic Monthly in the early 20th century, and Judge Theodore Sedgwick, a political contemporary of George Washington who became Speaker of the House of Representatives. In the Sedgwick universe, the boys were sent to Groton and Harvard University, before assuming positions of prominence in politics, law or on Wall Street. Edie’s given name was Edith, after her great aunt, Edith Minturn Stokes, a society beauty painted by John Singer Sargent.

The Sedgwicks first came to Santa Barbara in the early 1900s making extended visits for the sake of their childrens’ health; young Francis, Edie’s father, was frail as a child, as was an older brother of his who was prone to pneumonia. Francis’s mother died when he was a teenager, and he suffered his first nervous breakdown. Francis—or “Duke” as he was generally known—was sent to Santa Barbara’s elite Cate School (an all-boys prep academy at the time), where outdoor activities such as horseback riding were an important part of the curriculum. Duke’s physical condition improved markedly as he got older. He was admitted to Harvard University, where he concentrated in fine arts and finance. But a mental fragility persisted.

In his early 20s, after a three-month stint at Austen Riggs Hospital in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, for what was then diagnosed as “manic-depressive psychosis,” Duke met Alice. The couple married in 1929 at New York’s Grace Church. Given Duke’s mental history, his doctor advised the newlyweds against having children.

But Alice and Duke were soon pregnant with the first of their eight kids, and several years later they moved to Santa Barbara. Their move West was eased somewhat by Alice’s family connections. Her cousin was the late Lockwood de Forest, the celebrated Santa Barbara landscape architect. His father, Lockwood de Forest Sr., had been a well-known landscape painter and the partner of Louis Comfort Tiffany. He had moved from the East Coast to Santa Barbara, “because he liked the light,” according to his grandson, Kellam de Forest.

Alice’s family money helped as well. Thanks to her inheritance, the Sedgwicks were able to purchase Corral de Quati, a working cattle ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley about 50 miles inland. Santa Barbarans remember Alice as a lovely and gracious lady, although “She was shy at times,” according to Kellam De Forest, “because of a palsy, which affected her face. That kind of thing is hard to deal with. But Duke was very outgoing.”

At the start of their relationship, Alice and Duke had much in common. They were both enamored of the outdoors and enjoyed swimming, horseback riding, tennis and dogs. Alice’s pregnancies were increasingly difficult, and she nearly died delivering Edie, her seventh child, at Cottage Hospital in 1943. But still she carried yet another child to term—Duke loved to brag about the size of his brood.

Meanwhile, Duke pursued his artistic interests, most notably sculpting. Examples of his work include the St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata in the cloistered patio of Santa Barbara’s Old Mission, the prominent equestrian statue at the Earl Warren Showgrounds, and the figure of Saint Barbara in the Santa Barbara Historical Society Museum. Duke also set about raising cattle for the war effort. Life at Corral de Quati was rugged yet sociable, and visitors were often given a horse and set of chaps and pressed into active duty rounding up cattle or feeding the livestock.

In the 1950s, oil was discovered on the ranch, and cattle pastures gave way to wells. In 1952, Duke and Alice bought Rancho la Laguna de San Francisco, a 6,000-acre property covered with big lofty pines and oaks about six miles away from Corral de Quati and 30 miles north of the city of Santa Barbara. The varied landscape of pastures, grasslands, creeks, hillsides and mountains gave the topography a distinctive grandeur. It was also an isolated setting. The eight Sedgwick children (in order)—Alice (“Saucie”), Bobby, Pamela, Minturn (“Minty”), Jonathan, Kate, Edie, Suky—were educated by private tutors in their own little schoolhouse.

“There were some beautiful ranches back then. But the Sedgwick ranch was magnificent,” says Virginia Castagnola Hunter, whose father-in-law at the time, J.J. Hollister, Jr. had attended Harvard with Duke. “I found it to be an idyllic, F. Scott Fitzgerald setting. Everything was bright and beautiful, clean and pure.” (In 1967, Duke and Alice jointly gifted a majority of Rancho la Laguna to UCSB, which reconstituted it as the Sedgwick Reserve, a nature oasis in the valley as well as a site for botanical research. For more, see sidebar, page tk.)

Back in the early 1940s, Duke, although entering middle age, maintained his youthful good looks and muscular build through a daily exercise regimen, and he was notoriously charismatic—qualities he was not afraid to try to exploit. “The first time I went to the Sedgwick ranch,” recalls Beverly Jackson, a writer and historian who formerly wrote the people column for the Santa Barbara News-Press, “a friend of mine said to me, ‘You will be sent by the staff down to the pool. And as you approach the pool, Duke will appear with his perfect physique. He’ll dive in the water and swim the length of the pool, then lift himself up, wet and glistening, in front of you.’ And,” she laughs, “that’s exactly what happened!”

“Duke was an incredibly cultured man,” says Hunter. “He was enormously eclectic. He recommended books for me to read, and was constantly exposing me to the arts…I was enchanted with this man, who was always helping others. You see, I had a father like that.”
To outsiders, it might have seemed that the Sedgwick children led an idyllic existence. They rode horses all day and enjoyed make-believe games in the tall grasses. Instead of hanging up stockings by the fireplace on Christmas Eve, they put out their cowboy boots. But it was clear that there were skeletons lurking in the ranch’s spacious armoires. As Duke turned his womanizing into a public spectacle, Alice retreated into depression. Edie told of having walked in on her father having sex with another woman. Duke allegedly responded by slapping his daughter and giving her tranquilizers.

“Creativity and passion, but also addiction and compulsion. These traits are not uncommon to the Sedgwicks,” says Francesca Hunter, Edie’s half-sister, the product of an affair between her mother, Virginia, and Duke, in the last years of his life. Francesca, who was named after her father, currently lives in Montecito with her 9-year-old daughter. “I’m much more like my siblings on the Sedgwick side than my siblings on the Hollister side. I think artistic talent runs in the family. But I think manic depressiveness does as well. Why did three of Duke’s children die before their time? They may have been genetically predisposed to addiction and instability. At least, that’s what I’ve always believed.” Edie, it turned out, may have been most predisposed of all.

The New York Scene

By her teens, there were signs that Edie was troubled. She was sent to several different boarding schools on both the East and West coasts, but was always pulled out. When her parents discovered that she suffered from bulimia, an eating disorder which did not have a name in those days, they sent her to be treated at Silver Hill, a mental institution in Connecticut, where her older brother Minty had already been a patient. But her weight kept dropping, and she was transferred to Bloomingdale, a division of New York Hospital.

After nearly a year of hospitalization, Edie moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to study art with her cousin, the sculptor Lily Saarinen. But she soon abandoned her studies, and at age 20 she headed to New York City. She quickly fell in with an intriguing cast of characters—writers, directors, scenesters of every stripe—and was eventually introduced to the convention-busting painter Andy Warhol.

In 1965, when Edie met Andy, everything changed. For a time, they were inseparable. They often wore identical outfits, and she dyed her cropped hair silver, matching his. They were frequently photographed together, and she sometimes referred to herself (platonically) as “Mrs. Warhol.” She starred in about a dozen of his quirky, underground movies along with Factory habitués Brigid and Ritchie Berlin, Gerard Malanga, Viva, Paul America, Ondine, Cherry Vanilla, Rene Ricard, Paul Morrissey, and Billy Name. She rubbed shoulders with John Cage, Roy Lichtenstein, Lou Reed and Mick Jagger. Life was a kaleidoscopic montage of party going, moviemaking, nightclubbing, posing for photo shoots, talking on the telephone, dancing with the band Velvet Underground and taking drugs. Especially taking drugs.

“She was a speed freak,” says Richard Dupont, an old friend and associate of Andy Warhol and a coproducer (FC) of Factory Girl. “Of course, she had this great side, too. I first met Edie on a Factory film set. We were all playing these gay cowboys, and there was a horse that was going crazy. Edie got it to calm down right away, because she was so good with animals. By the end, though, she was too into her disease and could barely carry on a conversation with anyone.” Doing drugs was the one thing that Edie did better, or at least more of, than anyone else.

But for a while, at least, Edie was more than just an incidental act in the Warhol show. She became central to the image of the Factory. Warhol was enchanted with her gamine beauty as well as her provenance. Perhaps he saw in her the missing piece of the Factory puzzle. His work—and the era itself—was so much about breaking down barriers—barriers of gender and sexuality, social class, and above all, the definition of “art.” Edie became an important part of that equation. A blueblood heiress offered the perfect foil to Warhol’s existing stable of drag queens, strippers, and freaks.

Edie had a strong screen presence, largely due to her striking looks. (She is not the only Sedgwick with film credits to her name; actress Kyra Sedgwick is a cousin.) But while her actual talent for acting was debatable, she did seem to provoke talent in others. She was said to have inspired the songs “Femme Fatale” by the Velvet Underground and “Just Like a Woman” and “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat” by Bob Dylan. She had many lovers, including Warhol superstar Paul America. There is some speculation that she was briefly linked to Bob Dylan. But her extended romance with his sidekick, Bob Neuwirth, was certainly longer and more significant.

Edie also showed promise as a mannequin. She was fashion designer Betsey Johnson’s first fitting model, and she charmed the staff at Vogue, appearing in a fashion shoot in the March 1966 issue. But her modeling career never took off, perhaps because fashion editors were leery of her association with the drug scene.

By late 1965, Edie’s relationship with Andy was starting to sour. She objected to a role that had been written for her in one of his films, Shower, describing the writer’s work as perverse. She complained when another writer excluded her from a script—even though the film had a gay male theme. She felt threatened when Warhol added another ingénue, Ingrid Superstar, to his ever-changing cast of characters. Other members of the Factory started to view her as uncooperative.

In early 1966, Edie broke away from Andy Warhol and signed a contract with Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, who also managed the careers of such rock legends as Janis Joplin, The Band, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Edie had vague plans to expand her film career. Should she make a movie with Dylan? Should she move to Hollywood and audition for mainstream roles? None of the big projects she hoped for materialized. Instead, she set fire to her apartment then moved to a room at the Chelsea Hotel. Soon, she set fire to that, too, falling asleep with a lit cigarette. In the end, the only thing Edie was indisputably good at was self-destruction. She made it into an art, and perhaps, in her vanishing, twig-like body, she captured something of the romantic nihilism of her times.

Return to Santa Barbara

She returned to Rancho la Laguna for Christmas in 1966, and her parents committed her to the psychiatric ward at Santa Barbara County Hospital. But she was soon on an airplane back to New York—back to the parties, the inchoate career plans and the drugs.

In the fall of 1968, after a stint at Manhattan State Hospital, Edie moved back to Santa Barbara for good. By that time, two of her three brothers had died—Minty a suicide at 25, and Robert (who had previously suffered a nervous breakdown) in a motorcycle accident at 31. Edie’s family was desperate to save her from a similar fate.

Duke had also died the previous year, while Edie was undergoing one of her hospitalizations in New York, so she joined her mother at Rancho la Laguna. Years of drug abuse had damaged her neurological functioning and motor skills, so she was often incapable of carrying on a conversation. She had frequent bouts of paranoia, and although she liked to recount stories about her time in New York, it was often unclear whether she was mixing fiction with fact.

When her condition seemed to have improved a bit, she moved to Isla Vista. She hung out with the street people near UCSB and gravitated toward apartments and house parties where drugs flowed freely. She fell in for a time with a local biker gang called the Vikings.

Gary Richmond, now a landscape architect in the Bay Area, recalls a prophetic encounter with Edie late one afternoon on a beach in Isla Vista. At the time, he was a 23-year-old Fine Art student at UCSB. “I saw this woman wearing jeans and a very lightweight, long, gauzy shirt dancing at the water’s edge,” he recalls. “As I got closer, I realized it was Edie. I had met her briefly at a party so I knew who she was. She was dancing by herself on the hard, wet sand, making these sweeping, twirling gestures like she was dancing with the ocean. I could tell she was off her head on something. Soon she started wading into the water with her clothes on. She had a couple friends back on the beach, but they were paying no attention. At first she was laughing, but then she started going deeper, not cognizant of the danger. She was so high. By the time I got to her, she had been knocked over by the waves and gone under a few times.” Richmond and Edie’s friends half walked, half carried the water-logged Edie from the beach to an apartment in Isla Vista. “I really wanted to call a doctor or something,” he remembers. “But she was absolutely adamant that I not get anybody else involved. She kept promising to me that she was okay. I think she had sobered up a little by then.”

It wasn’t long before Edie was busted for drugs. While walking down the street in Isla Vista, she dropped her purse and out fell an assortment of pills. She was spotted by a passing police car, then arrested, charged and sent to Cottage Hospital—where, as fate would have it, she had also been born.

Edie was not a model patient. She stole items from the hospital gift shop and frequently invited men into her room. It was at Cottage that she met Michael Post, a fellow drug patient and the son of a psychologist for the Santa Barbara city school system. She tried to persuade him to sleep with her, but he resisted for a time. At 18 years old, he was still sexually inexperienced. Perhaps to Edie, he represented a second chance at innocence. They became friends and eventually lovers.

After yet another hospitalization at Cottage and a round of electric shock treatments, Edie and Michael married on July 24, 1971. Their wedding at Rancho la Laguna was a formal affair, with men in morning coats and bridesmaids in yellow picture hats. After the ceremony, the guests went skinny-dipping in the swimming pool.

That summer, things looked hopeful. Edie and Michael tried—unsuccessfully—to get pregnant. They spent their days on a nude beach in Summerland, and went out dancing at night. “When we’d go out to the ranch, we’d spend all day riding,” says Post. “We’d see the trees and water and rocks and flowers, all of creation. Edie was so happy at those times, such a pleasure to be with. So funny and cute and lovely.”

But when Michael resumed his studies at City College in the fall, Edie turned again to drugs. “Of course,” he adds ruefully, “sometimes when we got back from a ride, she’d raid her mother’s stash of sleeping pills. Her mother kept these huge containers of them. Edie would take 10 pills from this one, 10 pills from that one. I was very young and naïve, and I was always trying to keep her away from drugs. And I was never successful.” (Post has been an employee of the Santa Barbara Post Office for the past 24 years and teaches at a local Sunday school; he contributed to the research for the film Factory Girl and shot a scene for it in which he plays a cabdriver who gives Sienna Miller a ride.) “There were times when she used me as a doormat, too,” continues Post. “I wouldn’t hear from her for weeks. Then she’d call me and say, in that voice of hers, ‘Michael, I’m stuck in Isla Vista, they’ve taken all my money, you have to come get me.’ And,” he shrugs, “I’d go get her.”

On November 14, 1971, Edie attended a fashion show at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art for designer Michael Novarese. After the fashion show, Edie went to a party, where she was joined by Post. They returned home to their apartment, at the corners of De la Vina and Quinto streets, around 1 am. At about 7:30 the next morning, Post woke up and found Edie lying dead on the bed next to him. It was November 15, 1971. The coroner’s report registered her death as an “accident/suicide.” The cause: “acute barbiturate intoxication.”

Edie’s legacy is no less complex than her life. She is buried with a simple gravestone—a red granite marker with the inscription of her name, that of her husband, and the dates of her birth and death—at Oak Hill Cemetery in the tiny Santa Ynez Valley town of Ballard. Visitors to the site—Sienna Miller went there to pay homage last spring while filming scenes for Factory Girl—might remember that she was not just a Warhol associate, a 1960s It girl or a fashion icon. She was a child of Santa Barbara, an emblem of its beauty and its contradictions. She was a beloved daughter and sister, an expert horsewoman, and for a few months at least, an adored, somewhat idealized wife.

She was also a casualty of the collective naïveté about drugs that pervaded youth culture before high-profile casualties such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison prompted a sharp reevaluation. Edie came to embody that All-American fascination with those who live hard and die young. Sad to say, death proved to have been a good career move. It preserved her youth in amber. In the same way that there is no James Dean without a fatal car crash, Edie became what she was thanks in part to having gone out in flames.

The Book
The Good News Club, by Katherine Stewart

The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children

About the Author
author Katherine Stewart Katherine Stewart has written for The New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Guardian. She lives in New York City. Contact her. More →

 


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