Colette Shade
April 20, 2015 7:01 am

It’s Edie Sedgwick’s birthday today, which means I’m pulling out my first edition copy of Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s Edie: An American Biography for consultation. I first read the book when I was 17 and a senior in high school —  the same age as Edie when she was sent away to Silver Hill, a posh mental hospital in New Canaan, Connecticut.

As a teenager, I loved Edie because she was glamorous, pretty, and tragic. I saw similarities in our lives: We were both waifish girls from privileged, eccentric families who were no stranger to a psychiatrist’s couch. We even shared family ties to rural California. Edie’s family had Corral de Quati and Rancho la Laguna in Santa Barbara, while mine had an avocado farm on Shade Road in La Mesa. In college, an Edie Sedgwick poster hung in my bedroom, next to my mirror.

Edie isn’t exactly a role model. In fact, her legacy is an empty vessel — all silver hair and eyeliner and black tights and Germaine Monteil skin creams. Though often idolized in the same way as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, she wasn’t a successful or talented actress, and she did no humanitarian works. In fact, Edie never did much of anything, except serve as a muse to many. Even though she hung around with Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, she was perceived at the time as ornamental.

Yet she is beloved as a nonconformist, fashion-forward, artistic, tragic symbol of a time when art and pop converged. She still lights up photographs with her energetic, haunted elegance, providing excellent fodder for Tumblr fandom.

Edie was born Edith Minturn Sedgwick on April 20, 1943 on her family’s ranch in Santa Barbara, California. The seventh of eight children, she had an isolated childhood overshadowed by her father’s mental illness and extramarital dalliances. She sadly developed anorexia and bulimia, and at 17 was institutionalized first at Silver Hill, then the Westchester division of New York Presbyterian hospital.

She didn’t get out until she was twenty. She moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she ostensibly studied sculpture at Radcliffe. But she spent most of her time going to parties and bars with a group of eccentric friends on the periphery of the Harvard social scene.

In 1964, deciding that Cambridge was too small, she went off to New York with vague ambitions of a modeling career. There, she was introduced to Andy Warhol, whose art career was just beginning to take off, and who was beginning to cultivate a community around his Factory, the warehouse where he produced his art and held parties.

“Edie became the Factory’s superstar,” said the poet Rene Ricard. “Edie and Andy! You should have seen them. But you did see them! Both wearing the same sort of thing — boat-neck, striped T-shirts. Edie was pasted up to look just like him — but looking so good! Just the most devastating, ravishing beauty.”

Edie starred in Andy’s art films, including “Poor Little Rich Girl,” “Kitchen,” and “Beauty No. 2.” The two became inseparable, lighting up parties in the burgeoning New York underground scene. She even inspired the Bob Dylan song “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat.”

Edie was one of the first people who became famous just for being famous: You could say that she was the original Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian. People just wanted to be around her; they admired her every wardrobe choice and assessed every move.

“I think Edie was something Andy would like to have been; he was transposing himself into her à la Pigmalion,” said In Cold Blood author Truman Capote. “Andy Warhol would like to have been Edie Sedgwick. He would like to have been a charming, well-born debutante from Boston.”

But the Factory was a haven of decadence. Edie developed an expensive and debilitating speed habit, and relied on barbiturates to sleep. Social life at the Factory was cliquish and capricious, characterized by rivalries and unsettled by addictions.

By the late 60’s, Edie had fallen out of Andy Warhol’s social circle — nearly as quickly as she fell in. She was in and out of hospitals and rehab facilities. She returned to Santa Barbara, and briefly fell in with a motorcycle gang. Eventually she married Michael Post. They lived a modest, quiet life until her death from an accidental overdose. She was just 28.

The Stein-Plimpton biography remains the definitive text on Edie, in my opinion. It endures not only as the most exhaustive source on her life, but as a great example of an oral history. Instead of narrating Edie’s story herself, Plimpton and Stein exhaustively interviewed anyone who crossed Edie’s path, letting them take turns telling the story from their own point of view. In 2007, Plimpton reflected on seeing her in the film, Beauty No. 2, saying, “Her head would come up, like an animal suddenly alert at the edge of a waterhole, and she’d stare across the bed at her inquisitor in the shadows… I couldn’t get the film out of my mind.”

And that’s why I celebrate Edie Sedgwick’s birthday by flipping through that book, and remembering the complicated ’60s icon who used to hang on my bedroom wall. Once you learn about her, it’s hard to get her out of your mind.

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