“I’m in love with everyone I’ve ever met in one way or another. I’m just a crazy, unhinged disaster of a human being.”
In 1965, “It Girl”, Edie Sedgwick, met Andy Warhol and made Pop Art history. She remains the essence of the charm and the catastrophe of celebrity culture. She was a contradiction, a beauty with star wattage, yet fragile and lost.
She was born in Santa Barbara, California, the seventh child of Alice Delano de Forest and Francis Minturn “Duke” Sedgwick. Both of her parents came from establishment families. Her early life was marked by significant wealth and her family’s connections.
Her father struggled with both physical and mental health issues. Her mother was in and out of psychiatric hospitals, receiving diagnoses for both manic-depressive psychosis and “nervous breakdowns”. Because of his delicate health, her father’s plans for becoming a railroad tycoon after graduating from Harvard Business School were squashed. His doctors advised that he work at becoming a professional artist.
Her mother was painfully shy. When the couple became engaged, their doctors recommended that they not have children because of their health issues. They ignored the advice, and had eight children over the next 15 years because her father liked the idea of making lots of offspring. But, the kids were handed off to a series of nannies and governesses.
Around the time of Sedgwick’s birth her father indulged in many affairs with other men’s wives. At one of her parents’ parties, she watched her father disappear into the bushes with a female guest right in front of her mother and 50 guests. Her mother dealt with by get allergies and go on special diets.
Sedgwick’s parents grew more distant from each other after they moved to a 3,000-acre ranch in California, and her father distanced himself from the family, becoming icy and remote, and her mother became more reserved. Sedgwick and her siblings were mostly isolated from the outside world. She and her two sisters were housed separately from their parents with their nurse.
The kids were educated in a private school constructed on the ranch, and taught a curriculum designed by their father. Their isolated life took a toll on Sedgwick as a small child. She later wrote that her father had pressured her sexually at an early age, claiming that he attempted sex with her starting when she was seven years old. She also wrote that one of her brothers had insisted:
“…a sister and brother should teach each other the rules and the game of making love; and I wouldn’t fall for that either.”
By the time she was a teenager, Sedgwick was coping with the family pressures by sliding into anorexia and bulimia. She was sent away to a prestigious boarding school, but she was sent back home after the school discovered her eating disorders. Her father locked her in her room and forced her to be heavily medicated.
Sedgwick walked in on her father having sex with a stranger. To deal with his shocked daughter, he assaulted her, and had a doctor come to the house to tranquilize her so that she couldn’t talk about the incident.
In 1958, Sedgwick was sent to a private school on the east coast Her only lasted a year. In 1962, her father moved her to a mental health facility, that was more like a country club than a hospital.
When her condition worsened (she dropped to 90 pounds) she was sent to the closed ward at a New York Hospital. Sedgwick later wrote:
“When I was in the hospital, I was very suicidal in a kind of blind way. I didn’t want to turn out like my family showed me. I wasn’t allowed to associate with anyone. Oh, God. So I didn’t want to live.”
Adding to her many troubles, she became pregnant after an affair she had off-campus. She decided to have an abortion, citing her mental health issues as a reason not to have the child. After leaving the hospital for good she studied sculpture with her cousin, artist Lily Saarinen at Radcliffe College. Saarinen wrote that Sedgwick “was very insecure about men, though all the men loved her.” During this period, she partied with the bohemian fringe of the Harvard social scene, with a special affinity for gay guys.
During this time, her older brother Francis Jr. Sedgwick in and out of psychiatric wards with his own issues. In 1964, a day before his 26th birthday, he hanged himself. It was later revealed that he had told his father that he was gay, and then his father tried to force him to be straight. Sedgwick was devastated. But, more heartbreak was to come. A few months later, her brother Robert Sedgwick had a nervous breakdown, and a year later, he rode his bicycle into a New York City bus on New Year’s Eve, 1964. He died two weeks later. He was just 31 years old.
Sedwick moved to New York City in 1964, after receiving an $80,000 trust fund from her maternal grandmother. She wanted to become a model, and began taking dance class, went to open calls for modeling gigs, and attended parties. In March 1965, Sedgwick met Warhol.
At Warhol’s Factory, Sedgwick reinvented herself as a performance artist and a Warhol muse. Together, Sedgwick and Warhol made 18 films, including the beginnings of a film with Bob Dylan and his friend Bob Neuwirth. She had a romantic relationship with Neuwirth, who she later referred to as the great love of her life. But she also had a brief thing with Dylan, who wrote several songs inspired by her, including Just Like a Woman and Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.
By the end of 1965, Warhol and Sedgwick’s relationship was sadly strained. She had received no money from her work with Warhol, and she asked Warhol to stop showing her films in public. She wanted a real film career, she was about to sign with Dylan’s manager, but then she disappeared from the scene completely.
Rumors swirled about the real reason Sedgwick hid from the public eye; most people suspected that she had completely succumbed to drugs. Many friends believe she was abusing prescription drugs, plus heroin and speed. Her parents admitted her to a psychiatric ward again after she set fire to her room at the Chelsea Hotel in 1966, but she was out again quickly. Neuwirth, unable to deal with Sedgwick’s drug use, broke up with her in 1967.
Also in 1967, Sedgwick began shooting of Ciao! Manhattan, an underground film by John Palmer and David Weisman.
Sedgwick’s father died of cancer in 1967. In April 1968, Sedgwick nearly died of an overdose. She returned to California and started shock therapy.
Determined to finish Ciao! Manhattan, Sedgwick began shooting again in late 1970. She recorded audio tapes reflecting on her life story, which the filmmakers used for the movie. It was finally released in February 1972.
By 1971, she married a fellow patient at mental health facility where she had been admitted when she returned to California in 1968. The ceremony was held at the Sedgwick ranch.
Four months later Sedgwick checked-out for good. She suffocated in her sleep, face down in her pillow, gone at 28 years old. Even at the very end of her life, she had planned to make a big return to stardom. That chance never came. Instead, she will forever remain irreverent, insolent, and impressive. Today would have been her 80th birthday. I like to imagine how different it would have been if she had found a real film career. Maybe it would have ended the same, or maybe she would have enjoyed a juicy role on a Netflix series, and enjoyed a birthday party with her cast and crew.
The Velvet Underground‘s Femme Fatale (1967) from the album The Velvet Underground & Nico is about Sedgwick. Edie (Ciao Baby) is a song by English band The Cult.
Jennifer Rubin plays Sedgwick in the film The Doors (1991), directed by Oliver Stone. Sienna Miller portrays her in George Hickenlooper‘s film Factory Girl (2006). The film shows Warhol (Guy Pearce), as leading Sedgwick into a downward spiral of drug addiction and psychiatric problems.