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The allure of Edie Sedgwick: mockery in the face of reality

by Beatrix Stark Edie Sedgwick is enshrined in popular culture as a 1960s fashion icon and muse to Andy Warhol. The seventh child of Francis and Alice Sedgwick, Edie was born into a life of luxury and privilege. The Sedgwicks were an extremely wealthy, influential American dynasty that stretched back centuries and appeared to live […]

by Beatrix Stark

Edie Sedgwick is enshrined in popular culture as a 1960s fashion icon and muse to Andy Warhol.

The seventh child of Francis and Alice Sedgwick, Edie was born into a life of luxury and privilege. The Sedgwicks were an extremely wealthy, influential American dynasty that stretched back centuries and appeared to live a charmed life.

However, despite their material wealth, the family was deeply troubled; the Sedgwicks had a history of mental illness which plagued the generations and ultimately destroyed Edie’s life.

Edie’s father, the incredibly handsome Francis Minturn Sedgwick, was highly abusive and allegedly attempted to sexually assault Edie for the first time when she was seven years old. When Edie was a teenager, she accidentally came across her father having an affair with another woman. In response to this encounter, Francis struck Edie across the face, called for a doctor to administer her with sedatives, and sent her to a psychiatric hospital.

Throughout her life Edie, would use self-destructive methods of behaviour in order to try and numb the acute pain inflicted on her in her childhood. Edie’s troubled life was common knowledge in the high society circles she mixed in, where she became known as “the poor little rich girl” (derived from the title of a film Warhol would create for her).

Edie was renowned for her stunning beauty, which combined innocence with tragedy, fragility with strength. She was first introduced to Andy Warhol in 1965 at a party for Tennessee Williams when she was 21 years old. Warhol was immediately enthralled by Edie, perceiving her as the embodiment of all his unfulfilled desired: wealth, beauty, and fame.

During this period, Warhol was at the cutting edge of modern art after unveiling his new form of artistic expression known as Pop Art. His silk screen prints of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s soup cans became synonymous with consumer culture and the modern world. Andy saw Edie as his new muse, someone who would allow him to fulfil his dreams in the world of film and gain recognition in Hollywood.

The two became an inseparable duo. Edie’s cropped metallic blonde hair cut mimicked Andy’s own physical appearance, satisfying his vanity which was never fulfilled by his own looks.

However, beneath their carefree relationship, Edie’s life increasingly began to spiral out of control. She was haunted by the death of her two brothers who had committed suicide, in the year before she met Warhol. Sedgwick commented “while I was girl of the year, and superstar I was very upset that two of my brothers had committed suicide, two that I loved very much it kind of screwed up my head, so I just freaked out for a while.”

Edie would “freak out” by consuming heavy drugs which she was introduced to for the first time at “The Factory”, Andy Warhol’s ultra-modern art studio in New York. Edie said that she welcomed the introduction to drugs she received and in her characteristic playful cynicism describes how she “blossomed into a healthy young drug addict.”

“The Factory” was the place where everyone who was anyone wanted to be however it was also a place that had an underlying sense of danger. It was an environment where drug use was commonplace and where vulnerable people could easily become consumed by it. For example, Freddy Herko a dancer, and member of the Factory fell to his death after dancing out of a window from the fifth story of a building high on LSD and speed.

The destructive reality of drug culture was often trivialized and romanticized as a rebellious characteristic of the modern art scene. Edie recognized that her addiction to drugs was not perceived as a cry for help but as something which added to her appeal. She commented in an interview, “I’d freak out in a very physical way and it was all taken as a fashion trend’. Edie, who was ‘Girl of the Year” in 1965 and global icon, was in fact struggling to keep her head above water.

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The intense relationship between Edie and Warhol was short lived, and began to break down when it became clear that Edie was not going to take Andy to Hollywood. The films Andy made were less Hollywood movies and more voyeuristic documentations of Edie herself.

By the end of 1965, Edie was heavily addicted to heroin, and found it almost impossible to remember the lines from the scripts she was given to memorize. The relationship ended completely when Edie became involved with Bob Dylan, a rival and critic of Warhol.

The public fascination with Edie partly stems from our obsession with the tragic element of her story. Edie’s seeming innocence and vulnerability was undercut by her insight into the depths of darkness which human beings can experience. When asked about the flower generation of the 1970s Edie remarked ‘It’s sort of like a mockery in a way of reality because they think everything is smiles and sweetness and flowers when there is something bitter today and to pretend that there isn’t is foolish. And the ones that wander around and know at the same time and wear flowers then they deserve to wear flowers”.

In 1971 at the age of just 28, Edie would die of taking a fatal overdose of barbiturates. Meanwhile, Andy met his metaphorical death in 1968 when he was shot by a disgruntled former Factory member; although he would live for another 20 years, he would never reach the same artistic heights as before.

It is important to confront the fact that there is part of our culture which finds the story of a girl falling from a great height alluring. Popular culture is extremely good at romanticising destruction and idealising the real.

We are living in a world where Andy Warhol’s prophetic declaration “in the future, everyone will be world- famous for 15 minutes” has been realised.

In the age of social media it is easy to become enticed by the projection of “the perfect life” and to compare yourself to people who seemingly have everything. However, fame and money are not indicators of happiness and we should be careful not to fall into the trap of romanticising lives which we are only interacting with superficially.

In many ways Edie sacrificed herself to satisfy other people’s creative desires. Andy Warhol and the entire celebrity culture of the time fed off Edie’s destruction in order to create content. Behind the icon, Edie was a vulnerable person who received a shocking lack of humanity from the people who surrounded her

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