“I suppose Edie thought of herself as a caterpillar that had turned into a butterfly. She had thought of herself as just another kid in a big, rather unhappy family, and all of a sudden the spotlights were on her and she was being treated as something very, very special, but inside she felt like a lump of dirt. Then when she was being paid less attention to, she didn’t know who she was. And she went kind of mad.”
“Edie: American Girl” by Jean Stein edited with George Plimpton (1982)
You’re cruising along in the wonderful world of Vintage Media and everything’s swell, right? Then you run into something that brings to the fore the horrors inherent in celebrity. This happened to me in the spring of 2021 when I stumbled on Edie Sedgwick.
But it’s too easy to say that her life was tragic and serves as a warning. Period. Because equally as apparent as the sadness of her premature death is the utter thrill to be found in learning about this captivating firefly. Perhaps the best way to accomplish this is by reading the book we’re looking at today. Author and editor Jean Stein had been a friend and contemporary of Edie’s and she worked with regular collaborator and Sedgwick family friend George Plimpton to create this unique book. By the time it was released in 1982, Edie Sedgwick had been largely forgotten. This book not only returned her to her rightful place in popular culture, it was also lauded as – in the words of Norman Mailer – “the book of the Sixties that we have been waiting for”. Poor Jean Stein suffered from depression and leapt to her death from her Manhattan apartment when she was 83.
There is neither preamble in this book nor actual text. It is all presented in the form of interviews conducted by Stein; 250 people were interviewed over a ten year period and, for the most part, what they had to say is presented verbatim and in their own conversational style. With excerpts from interviews Edie herself gave, this method provides a perhaps surprisingly comprehensive look at Edie’s life and times. Those interviewed range from Edie’s siblings to people who never met her but who understood her and her milieu.
“She had a fatalistic sense of her family being doomed.”– Cambridge friend Bartle Bull
The early pages detail Edie’s startling heritage and then sister “Saucie” Sedgwick makes an interesting point about her parents and her seven siblings. Saucie says her parents were like Greek gods, bright and shining with physical beauty. It’s an environment you can easily see a blinding personality like Edie springing from. It is remarked that the happiness of the family when the children were young was very real; until it wasn’t. Almost as if a switch had been flicked, discontent crept in and fissures appeared. One gets the impression that within the elevated boundaries of the Sedgwick family, one could thrive and prepare to conquer the world; but when a Sedgwick actually entered the outside world, they found they were ill-equipped. So Edie establishes the shimmering glory of Edie’s family heritage, making it all the more jarring when the action turns to New York City and Edie’s sojourn in the dangerous spotlight.
The book suggests a real pivot point in Edie’s life being the moment she discovered her father in the act of being unfaithful to her mother. Edie’s brother describes the event saying that their father became enraged at Edie for walking in and later denied anything had happened at all. This seems to have caused Edie to cease knowing the difference between reality and unreality; everything, from here on in, would be an act, phony and superficial.
“An evening with Edie would only end when Edie had got to the point of exhaustion, which would be at the end of two or three days.”– John Anthony Walker
Exacerbating things was Edie’s increasing mental instability at this time which prompted her father to suggest admittance to a mental hospital, Mr. Sedgwick’s answer to any and all problems that arose in his family.
At the halfway point of American Girl, the reader can plainly see that – only through the use of interviews, remember – the story of Edie Sedgwick is well-plotted from her life as a child at home, to leaving home, to her brothers’ tragic deaths and the effect on Edie of Andy Warhol and his tenuous and slightly toxic world. Speaking of Warhol, the book takes time to tell his story as well through the words of people who perhaps did not know Edie much at all but who were intimates of Andy. This rankled me a bit at first. I didn’t care to know much about Warhol due to the fact that I don’t care much for him. Firstly, I never understood his “art” to begin with and secondly, when you learn Edie’s story and then look at Andy from that perspective, he doesn’t come out looking very good.
Thing is, Jean Stein and her book know better. Stein knows that Edie’s tale is inseparable from Warhol’s and the reader has to think of this as a plus. If you’re curious about Andy Warhol and his world but don’t want to read a whole book about him, you get his story here. Setting up Andy’s early life and how he got to where he was when he met Edie is key to understanding the last acts of Edie’s life. Edie: American Girl does this very well.
Late film director Joel Schumacher of all people is interviewed at length and is able to shed much light on Dr. Charles Roberts, an infamous doctor in New York City who specialized in “vitamin shots” laced with methedrine or speed. Edie became a frequent patient and the book’s interviews do much to describe the debilitating effect Edie’s dependancy on speed had on her health and her everyday life.
“Andy Warhol would like to have been Edie Sedgwick. He would like to have been a charming, well-born debutante from Boston. He would like to have been anybody except Andy Warhol.”– Truman Capote
What Jean Stein’s book makes clear to the reader is that the fun of Warhol’s world and his filmmaking style could never had lead to any real success or a big payday; it was too “out there”. It’s legit, I suppose, to criticize the mainstream but unfortunately that’s where the money is; not in films that say nothing. In a segment that encapsulates the problem with Edie’s career as an actress, Edie’s sometime roommate, music manager and journalist Danny Fields relates conversations with her regarding whether or not she should go to Hollywood. Edie’s complaint was that “Hollywood types” were “morons”, she could never work with those people, play the game. Danny concurs that Andy’s world was fun and filled with (supposed) friends Edie loved. And here’s the conflict that any and all of us can be faced with; stay where the kicks are but have no income or future prospects or take a deep breath and dive in to a world that is decidedly more business than fun but one that comes with stability and sustainability though you may have to associate yourself with people you don’t like. Edie of course never made the move to mainstream and also never had a dime. Instead she had loads of destructive fun.
The book relates, in fact, that Edie lost the chance to work for Vogue magazine – a job that would have afforded her a certain amount of protection – because she was always connected in the gossip columns with the drug scene and Andy Warhol’s “Factory”. Edie is quoted; “My introduction to heavy drugs came through The Factory…I was a good target for the scene; I blossomed into a healthy young drug addict.” At this point, it’s clear to the reader that the book charts a true course through all the mini eras of Edie’s life and, again, all solely through the use of interviews. No small feat.
You can feel it in the later stages of the book. You can feel the descent begin. Knowing the nature of what is to come doesn’t make the downward ride any less compelling. You begin to see that eventually the book doesn’t really report stages of Edie’s life as it becomes less about living and more about one drug reaction after another. Jonathon Sedgwick shares the story of his having brought a yogi around to Edie’s wedding. The yogi was reading palms. He took one look at Edie’s, paused and looked up at her. She looked back with a sad and knowing grin and said “Yes. I know”. By the time Edie’s brother has related this story, the reader has no choice but to face the inevitable.
Edie’s husband, Michael Post, makes a brief appearance and is one of the saddest players in this morose tale. Michael says that he thinks he could have saved Edie and gotten her clean; but then he knows that she would have left him. He says it was true love between he and Edie. The reader wonders. But hearing the details of Edie’s death from her husband is quite harrowing.
“She was so happy with the world. She was charming. She suggested springtime and freshness. She was very clean and clear…freshness and proportion and a sense of the…fun of life. One of the true personalities of the Sixties.”– Diana Vreeland, Sedgwick family friend and Vogue editor
The book illuminates Edie Sedgwick’s status as a damsel in distress. Readers – especially perhaps male readers – feel like if only they were there, in Edie’s life, they could have saved her. But that’s one of the tragic things about her story. Those interviewed make it clear that not only was she not to be saved but she would likely have taken you over the edge with her. No one could have saved her.
“She was an enchanting, remarkable creature of the moment.”– Gloria Schiff, editor, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue
Edie: American Girl is a triumph. You might say that Jean Stein deserves little praise as she did not actually write anything. But the scores of interviews are co-ordinated and sequenced perfectly by Stein and Plimpton. This book works due in part to the scores of different people who were interviewed including those essential to telling Edie’s story such as her siblings and her widowed husband. For the full and true story of the life of Edie Sedgwick, this book is the place to start.
To read my article on Edie’s life, Click here.