In early spring, I received an e-mail from Lauren Roberts, a publicist at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She asked if I’d like an advance copy of As It Turns Out, about the super-est and starriest of the Warhol superstars, Edie Sedgwick, written by Edie’s eldest sister, Alice Sedgwick Wohl. Never have I typed the words “Yes, please” so fast.
A bit of context: Edie, the 1982 oral history by Jean Stein with an assist from George Plimpton, is a book that I believe contains the key that opens the door to 20th-century American pop culture. I know it inside and out, backwards and forwards. And I recalled Alice vividly from it, though Stein didn’t identify Alice as Alice, identified Alice as “Saucie,” “Saucie” being short for “sausage,” the cruel nickname given to her by her and Edie’s father, Francis Minturn Sedgwick. (Francis—dashing, savage, and preposterously handsome—is a monster out of the most lurid WASP-gothic fantasy. Edie told a Factory friend that he’d forced her and her sister Susanna to “sit in a sphinxlike position with bared breasts on the top of columns flanking the entrance to [their] driveway.”)
Alice was Stein’s mole, Stein’s inside source on the Sedgwick family. (Alice wouldn’t corroborate Edie’s outrageous-sounding sphinx claim. She would, however, tell of a night that Francis spent castigating her for getting engaged to a young man he deemed unsuitable, only to come by her room later. “He put his arms around me and his head on my neck and he said, ‘Don’t you think I understand how all these men feel about you? After all, I’m a man, too.’ I don’t know if he even realized that he was making a pass at me. Still, I thought, ‘Well, you filthy old creep. So that’s what the trouble is.’”) I assumed this new book would be a continuation of the old, would be more Edie. And it is. Alice herself says, “You could look at my book as a kind of sequel to Jean’s.”
What it is, as well: a history that’s also a present and a future. (Alice understands and explains the cultural impact and implications of Edie and Andy in a way nobody ever has.) It’s a brilliant and profound work, and, by the end, an almost unbearably moving one.
Alice and I spoke on the morning of August 3. And then again on the morning of the 18th.
Our conversation, condensed and cherry-picked:
LILI ANOLIK: Alice, you’re 91. And Edie has been dead [of a barbiturate overdose at 28] for over half a century. What prompted you to write this book now?
ALICE SEDGWICK WOHL: Because I missed it then, I suppose. And I missed it in part because I couldn’t see it. My husband and I didn’t have a TV. We were art historians. We lived in the country. I was aware, obviously, that Edie was famous. But this was the moment of the Vietnam War, of the civil-rights movement. And I thought, People are giving time to this vain, shallow, spoiled child doing silly, meaningless things? And as for Andy Warhol—all I can say is that I just didn’t have the eyes to see.
The other part of why I missed it was because I was devastated by the deaths of my brothers [Francis Minturn “Minty” Sedgwick by suicide in 1964; Robert Minturn “Bobby” Sedgwick by motorcycle accident in 1965]. I’d just had a baby boy when Minty killed himself. On top of all the horror, I felt I’d failed to save him—my lovely young brother. I was shattered. I could barely function. But I had to hold myself together. I had to keep going. So there was no way I could’ve paid attention to Edie and Andy, even if I’d been inclined to.
And then, maybe six or seven years ago, I happened to be at the Addison Gallery at Philips Academy in Andover. I remember climbing these wooden steps, by myself, to the top floor. And there, in front of me, on a film screen, were two enormous heads of Edie.
On the left was an Edie who was very pale, with silvery hair and a kind of mystical look on her face, and she was speaking slowly, and there was no sound. And then there was a darker head that was smaller and on the right. The Edie on the left was responding to the Edie on the right. And she never stopped moving, talking, smoking, reacting. She was absolutely kinetic. Just so alive, more alive than I’d ever seen her in real life. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
And when I saw what Andy had made of her—all the layers and dimensions that were at play in this film—I thought, Warhol is a genius. That’s what I thought. And I finally understood that the two of them, together, had set in motion something that we’re living out in the present. I hadn’t understood it at the time, but now, seeing this masterpiece—Outer and Inner Space, it’s called—I did. And I realized that I’d got everything wrong.
L.A.: This is a book of paired opposites. Let’s start with fey and funny-looking Andy Warhol and your hyper-masculine, dreamboat-looking father.
A.S.W.: Yes, Andy and my father were certainly opposites, mirror opposites. They were both artists, but my father was at the isolated end of an exhausted tradition. The type of art he’d been making had been out since Daniel Chester French. Andy lived in the future. He understood the importance of images, understood that we were becoming an image culture. Both Andy and my father were obsessed with fame. Andy got it. My father got none.
Also, the sexual thing—my father was outrageously narcissistic and dominating. He was also openly priapic. Andy’s ego was just as big, only he was painfully shy. And, of course, he was swish, as we called it then. He bought himself a pink corduroy suit in 1947. Think what that meant when consensual sex between men was not just stigmatized but criminalized!
Then there’s my parents’ ranch [Corral de Quati, the working cattle ranch near Santa Barbara where Alice, Edie, and their six siblings were raised], which was a great, huge, empty space. And the Factory was one tiny area in a medium-sized building in New York City. The ranch was exclusive to an extraordinary degree, and the Factory was inclusive. Yes, they were absolutely mirror opposites in every way.
L.A.: Do you believe Andy was in love with Edie?
A.S.W.: I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that love and sex have nothing to do with each other. I mean, sometimes, if you’re lucky, they coincide. So the fact that Andy was homosexual or that he wanted to be Edie—that they had a kind of symbiosis—didn’t matter. He loved her. He did. He really loved her. There’s a picture of him looking at her—do you know the one? You can see that he was in love with her in that picture.
People who say Andy destroyed Edie don’t get it at all. I hope my book puts that myth to rest because, first of all, she was the one who hurt him. Edie left Andy. She walked out, publicly, with Bob Dylan.
“People who say Andy destroyed Edie don’t get it at all. Edie left Andy.”
Second of all, she was addicted to drugs going in, and she’d been addicted to drugs ever since she was living at the ranch with my parents. Edie’s story is that she found my father with a woman on the floor of the sitting room right next to my parents’ bedroom. She screamed and he chased her, and then he called the doctor. My brother Jonathan told me that when he and my other brothers and sisters came back to the ranch for Christmas vacation in 1957, they never saw Edie. She was shut in her room, and every few days a doctor would come and sedate her.
In my view, Edie’s relationship to Andy was nothing but positive. It was she who couldn’t believe in it. She had no idea what Andy was doing. Had no idea how to evaluate her role in the films they made together. And, in fact, that’s what made her so very good. Do you know that film by Truffaut, L’Enfant Sauvage? She was like that. She was a feral creature. She was intensely physically alive the way an animal is, the way a horse is. She wasn’t acting herself. Edie just was.
People think of her as this sophisticated debutante from Boston, but it’s impossible for you to imagine how little she knew. She was the least equipped for life of any of us because the rest of us had been away to school. Edie was confined in one way or another until she was 20 years old.
“She wasn’t acting herself. Edie just was.”
And the only escape from the confinement of the ranch was more intense confinement. First in boarding school, where she couldn’t stay, and then in two successive mental hospitals, the first open, the second closed. And then my parents sent her to Cambridge, where, I imagine, in their fatuousness, they thought she would meet a nice boy from the Porcellian Club, get married, and live happily ever after. Instead she moved to New York and met Andy. Imagine hanging on to someone, starving them, incapacitating them the way my parents did Edie, and then just letting her go.
Edie was someone who had no inner structure. She had no attributes, no conversation, no education. She didn’t read. She didn’t care. She wasn’t interested.
But she was smart! You can tell from the transcript of Afternoon [the 1965 Warhol film starring Edie, Ondine, and Dorothy Dean] that she was picking things up, that she could hold her own. And she was an amazing athlete—a natural rider, absolutely fearless, and a beautiful swimmer. And she had a tremendous amount of charm. It’s why she never learned to function, because she had such irresistible charm she could manipulate everybody to do things for her.
Edie was all energy and no outlets. So the energy was just bursting out of her. Andy captured that. I said in my book that she came through the lens like a fist, and she did.
L.A.: Edie’s period with Andy was so brief.
A.S.W.: What I call the high season of Edie and Andy lasted for just a few months, really. Everything significant that happened, happened between March 26, 1965, and October 8, 1965, the date of Andy’s opening at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia.
L.A.: And yet Edie’s an enduring phenomenon, as culturally relevant as ever. Why do you think that is?
A.S.W.: Well, I think that it’s not the phenomenon of Edie so much as the phenomenon of Andy and Edie.
There’s a picture of Edie in Vogue—part of the magazine’s famous piece on “Youthquakers.” She’s wearing tights and a leotard, and is balanced sort of spread-eagle on one foot. Patti Smith, who at that time was just a kid—a teenager—really responded to it. In fact, Patti developed a crush on Edie and would travel to Manhattan and hang around the places that Edie went to just to get a glimpse of her. Patti said, “She was such a strong image that I thought, ‘That’s it.’”
What’s so interesting to me about Patti’s statement is that she doesn’t speak of Edie as having an image. No, Edie was the image. That’s what was new about Edie, and it was Andy’s doing.
“Imagine hanging on to someone, starving them, incapacitating them the way my parents did Edie, and then just letting her go.”
Andy was a sickly child and in bed the better part of a year. And his mother, a very eccentric sort of woman, gave him movie magazines. That’s when he saw stars. He understood that people wanted to be images themselves, that consumer culture was rising, and that the self could be commodified. What Andy was giving people with Edie was an image of a way of being. And that way of being appealed to Patti Smith and to many other people.
There’s a word in French—déclencher. It means “to unleash” or “to activate,” and that’s what Edie and Andy did. Together they unleashed something that society was ready for. Andy was its consciousness and Edie was its face.
L.A.: According to conventional wisdom, the movies are the 20th century’s great cultural contribution. Andy’s key insight, I think, was to realize that it was movie stars that were the cultural contribution. Movies themselves were incidental. Andy didn’t want Edie to act. He wanted Edie to just be. And that’s the modern form of stardom. The Kardashians are the biggest movie stars in the world—the public is obsessed with their looks and glamour, what they wear, where they go, the ups and downs of their love lives—only they’re not in movies.
A.S.W.: Of course Andy foresaw the Kardashians. Of course, of course. Look, the great artists of the Renaissance rose because there was a market for great art. And now there’s a market for people like the Kardashians, and so the Kardashians rose. They understand instinctively how to embody and exploit the moment.
L.A.: Edie, Jean Stein’s oral history, is a model of the form, and a true cultural touchstone. It was you, not Edie, who knew Jean. Is that right?
A.S.W.: It means so much to me that you think so highly of Jean’s book. I had known Jean since boarding school. We met when Jean was 14 and I was 16. She told me—and this was years later—that after she introduced me to her mother, her mother said, “You hear how that girl talks? I want you to learn to speak as she does.” I think what Jean’s mother was really saying was, “Now look, that girl has class markers I’d like you to have.”
“Of course Andy foresaw the Kardashians. Of course, of course.”
L.A.: Jean’s mother was married to Jean’s father, Jules C. Stein, one of the founders of M.C.A. [Music Corporation of America]. I’d assume that people also wanted to know the Steins, though I suppose there was a lot of anti-Semitism back then.
A.S.W.: I don’t believe there were many Jewish boys at Groton with my brothers. Jean and her sister Susan weren’t the only Jewish girls at Branson [the Katherine Branson School, in Ross, California], but I did become aware that something set them apart. Not that it bothered Jean and Susan. They were so sophisticated and self-assured.
Both Jean’s parents were ambitious for her, but Mrs. Stein’s ambitions were mainly social. And Jean was not immune to that. After all, she did visit the Duke and Duchess of Windsor on her honeymoon. But Jean resented her mother’s pretensions and didn’t have a lot of respect for her mother. At the same time, I think Edie was a little bit about showing her mother that being a Sedgwick is not all it’s cracked up to be. And I can tell you, it’s not!
L.A.: Andy and your father are, as I already pointed out, one pair of matched opposites in your book. You and Edie are the other. You said to me the other day, “If you picked the world up, turned it upside down, and shook it, you couldn’t find two more opposite people than Edie and me.” And it’s true that Edie became a Factory girl and a celebrity and an underground-movie star, and that you became, in addition to an art historian, a scholar and translator (of The Life of Michelangelo, by Ascanio Condivi, among other works). But were you two really so different?
A.S.W.: The answer is yes. I’m basically shy. I don’t like the spotlight. I don’t like to be photographed. It makes me uncomfortable. I’m an anti-narcissist, I guess you could say. Edie, of course, was the opposite.
I was able to get away from my parents, get away from the ranch because my parents didn’t really have much use for me. They took against me when I was very small. I don’t know if I was rebellious, but I guess I must have been. I mean, what normal three-year-old runs away from her mother and locks herself in a bathroom?
Edie was my parents’ most favorite, most adored child. The rest of us were under a very strict system of rules, and we were punished severely, I mean, really severely, spanking and shaming. But Edie never was, and she never recognized any limits whatsoever. And it started when she was very little. How old could she have been when she got her nurse fired?
You know, I think I would’ve been in serious trouble if my parents had loved me or been nice to me. I might not have been able to break away. I don’t know. But I never trusted them, ever. I was not happy around them because they were unbelievably and indefatigably mean to me.
But not to Edie. And she couldn’t sustain any other kind of life because she was still obsessed with them and the ranch, even when she was at the Factory—Chuck Wein [a Factory member] says this. I stayed away to preserve myself. But Edie kept going back and going back. She was never able to get free.
As It Turns Out: Thinking About Edie and Andy, by Alice Sedgwick Wohl, is out now
Lili Anolik is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL. She is the author of Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A., and the creator of the podcasts Once upon a Time… in the Valley and Once upon a Time … at Bennington College