Deconstructing the image of the 60's iconic IT girl
In Popism by Andy Warhol, one of his most entertaining characters is his famous muse Edie Sedgwick. She is mostly known through her ties with the artists, but the most interesting part is, most of what we know about her comes directly from the artist too. Well, at least, most of what made her famous.
She hasn’t written any autobiographies or took on an artistic endeavor to tell her story or express who she really was. This image of a hot-mess-rich girl, that we all know and love, to a certain extent, really was created by Warhol.
We already know Warhol was the grandfather of what we call now ‘reality TV ‘. During his prolific and bohemian life, he was rubbing shoulders with A-list celebrities, rich and famous, and lived in the bubble filled with their drama, gossip, rise and failure. So he figured out that by pointing the camera away from himself, and towards those people, his art instantaneously becomes much more entertaining and salable.
He wrote in his memoir:
I filmed a movie – Poor Little Rich Girl – of Edie talking about being a debutante who’d just spent her inheritance – talking on the phone, walking back to her bed, showing off the white mink that was her trademark. I always wanted to do a movie in Edie’s life. To play the poor little rich girl in the movie, Edie didn’t need a script – if she’d needed a script, she wouldn’t have been right for the part.
I am not saying Warhol’s narration of the life of Sedgwick was entirely fictional. It was mostly true. But it is also heavily constructed, edited and polished to fit in the frames of the bigger world that his art stands for.
He took a real person with a real life and real issues, which are often complex and multi-perspective, and turned it into a two-dimensional image, which is also a product. This product, later on, can be managed, quantified and monetized.
And this is exactly whats his all-famous ‘Factory’ produced. His ‘Factory’ pumped in images and icons into the media and art.
When you’re around them, you forgot you had problems of your own, you got so involved in theirs. They had dramas going right around the clock, and everybody loved to help them through it all. Their problems made them even more attractive.
So for those of you who are interested, I performed a literary autopsy on his book and extracted all the excerpts about Sedgwick. These are one-sided narration, and what Warhol decided were the most intriguing and scandalous episodes of her life.
In January ‘65 I met Edith Minturn Sedgwick. She’d just come to New York that summer. She studied sculpture in Cambridge with Lily Swann Saarinen… and lived in a small studio on Brattle Street. She used to drive around town in her Mercedes to parties, lots of them given by her own brother.
For her twenty-first birthday party Edie had rented the Charles River boathouse and invited about two thousand people. Edie in Cambridge – it was right out of Gatsby.
Edie took a bunch of friends to the Ritz-Carlton one night for dinner after a very drunken all-day lawn party and how all of a sudden she got up and started dancing on the tabletop and the management very very politely asked them to leave. They stuffed all the silverware they could lay their hands on into their pockets, but then as they were leaving, Edie tripped at the top of the stairs and all the knives and forks and spoons spilled out of her purse and went avalanching down the stairs. Even with that the management was polite to her because they knew her father – it was just “Tsk, tsk, don’t do this again, dear.”
She spent most of her time sitting in the window, talking and laughing on the phone all day, smoking cigarettes. It wasn’t surprising that Edie should vaguely decide to be a model. This was the year when the idea of “modelling” held more excitement for a girl Edie’s age than it ever had before… Very soon Edie would be innovating her own look that Vogue, Life, Time, and all the other magazines would photograph – long, long earrings with dime-store T-shirts over dancer’s tights, with a white mink coat thrown over it all.
A discotheque called Ondine opened on East 59th Street at the very beginning of ‘65, Edie went there all the time, throwing a lot of money around in the beginning when she still had it, picking up the check for as many as twenty people every night. She’d be swinging [her arms around], standing on top of the tables, and always kept her both her feet solidly planted on the tabletop – as if she was afraid she’d lose her balance and topple over if she lifted one of them. She was so stoned all the time there, just drinking, having a great time. Her dance moves were sort of Egyptian, with her head and chin tilting in just the right, beautiful way. People called it the Sedgwick, and Edie was the only one who did it.
Launch of a career
Edie was incredible on camera – just the way she moved. And she never stopped moving for a second – even when she was sleeping, her hands were wide awake. She was all energy- she didn’t know what to do with it when it came to living her life, but it was wonderful to film. The great starts are the ones who are doing something and you can watch every second, even if it’s just a movement inside their eye.
Everybody in New York is laughing at me,” she said. I tried to make her understand that if she acted enough of these underground movies, a Hollywood person might see her and put her in a big movie – that the important thing was just to be up there on the screen and let everybody see how good she was. But she wouldn’t accept that. She insisted that we were out to make a fool out of her. She said she wanted a “career” and that she’d get one… but how can you have a career when you don’t have the discipline to work at anything?
One of the last movies we did with Edie was called Lupe. Edie would still vacillate between enjoying the camp of making movies with us and worrying about her image, and by vacillate I mean she’d go back and forth from hour to hour.
She could be standing, talking to a reporter, and she’d look over at us and giggle, then tell him something arch-like “I don’t mind being a public fool – as long as I am communicating myself and reaching people.” That was one side of her, putting the media on like that. But then fifteen minutes later, she’d be having a dead serious tantrum that she wasn’t being taken seriously as an actress. It was a little insane.
I’d seen Edie lighting candles once, and from the absent-minded way she went about it, it was clearly a dangerous routine. I told her she shouldn’t, but she naturally didn’t listen – she always did exactly what she wanted. A fire started in the middle of the night at her apartment on East 63rd Street, and she was rushed to Lenox Hill Hospital with burns on her arms and legs and back.
The sad thing was, Edie was taking a lot of heavy drugs, and she was getting vaguer and vaguer. Her society lady attitude toward pills had changed to an addict attitude. Some of her good friends tried to help her, but she wouldn’t listen to them either.
Moral of the story
Now and then someone would accuse me of being evil – of letting people destroy themselves while I watched, just so I could film them and tape record them. But I don’t think of myself as evil – just realistic… I learned that whenever I got aggressive and tried to tell someone what to do, nothing happened…I learned that you actually have more power when you shut up, because at least that way people will start to maybe doubt themselves. When people are ready to change, they change…you can’t make them change if they don’t want to.
More than anything, this book is about people that made Andy Warhol’s Pop 60’s: people from New York art scene, people who took part in his movies, the ones that hung out in the famous Factory, celebrities he rubbed shoulders with, friends and competitors, and his muse Edie Sedgwick. With all the stories and anecdotes about them, it reads like a celebrity gossip magazine, making Pop even more relatable to the celebrity-driven age we live in now.