THIS IS THE STORY of a girl, Edith Sedgwick, who grew up in Paradise with seven brothers and sisters and their handsome, vibrant, wealthy parents. She was beautiful, intelligent and doomed: a California version of Edith Wharton's Lily Bart, perhaps, or William Faulkner's Caddy Compson, except that Edie Sedgwick was a real, live girl and this terrible story actually happened. Its moral, located by the poet Gregory Corso, who knew Edie's brother Bobby in college:
"When I went to Harvard, I suddenly learned that rich kids do not have it better than others. They're still locked into something. I was coming from the cold of prison and these people were coming from the warmth of a six-thousand-acre ranch, but, good God, they still can't get out!"
The story begins with Edie's birth on April 20, 1943, and ends with her death on November 15, 1971. It is told not in a linear narrative but in the recorded words of those who knew her: two of her sisters and one of her brothers, friends from the days when she haunted the fringes of student life at Harvard, fellow participants in the self-indulgent madness that was Andy Warhol's "Factory," the young man to whom she was married in the last months of her life. Though this method has its built-in frustrations --one yearns from time to time for a word of explanation, or clarification, or elaboration, from Jean Stein or George Plimpton or someone--on balance it succeeds, because the voices of Edie's sorrowful, bewildered family and friends give the book an unusual immediacy and poignancy.
Though Edie was by birth a Californian, her roots were in Massachusetts, where Sedgwicks go back forever, "always well educated and fairly well off, brought up to think of themselves as neither rich nor poor," old- line aristocrats with St. Grottlesex values and a certain endearing barminess nicely characterized by a woman who had married into the family: "The house contained the strangest combination: beautiful braided rugs were everywhere, made in the local abbeys up there . . . glowing rooms with satiny walls and lovely lamps . . . and yet the lampshades were bought down at J.C. Penney's and they had Mickey Mouses on them." For some years John P. Marquand was married to a Sedgwick, and thinly disguised members of the clan can be found in his novel Wickford Point; they are faintly regal and faintly crazy.
As was Edie's father, Francis Minturn Sedgwick, a fierce bantam rooster known as Duke. Before his marriage to Alice de Forest he was diagnosed as having "manic-depressive psychosis," a condition that plagued him and his large family for all of their lives. Moving the brood to California in 1943, he bought a vast ranch to the east of Santa Barbara and set up his own universe there. The eldest child, Alice, known as Saucie, describes it: "My parents owned the land from horizon to horizon in every direction. Imagine a situation like that where nobody entered who wasn't invited or hired! In this landscape my mother and father rooted out any influence that they could not dominate. . . . Edie had so little to work with. How small the furniture of her life was! She grew up with a total lack of boundaries, a total lack of a sense of scale about herself."
She was at once enormously spoiled and enormously deprived. She was also enormously influenced by the presence of her father, "a cross between Mr. America and General Patton." He was a flamboyant, exhibitionistic philanderer who imbued the household with an air of intense, slightly off-center sexuality--an impossible rival for his sons, an erotic threat and attraction for his daughters. He oozed sex and withheld love; his wife, repeatedly humiliated by him in the presence of family and friends, fluttered nervously around the edges. It was a household where the pressures for familial identity and piety were intense, even stifling, yet where affection was denied and mocked; small wonder that Edie, lovely and sensual and emotionally frail, spent her short life in a desperate search for it.
The search was first conducted in Cambridge, where she established a reputation as "something different": a seemingly blithe spirit who could bring life and energy to any gathering. A friend says: "She was a catalyst . . . The female energy which dynamizes: by being in contact with her the edges were sharper. 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. There's that old Yogi axiom: the higher you go, the further you fall. We all know that. She liked walking very close to extinction, always."
In 1964 she drifted to New York, where the old rules of society were beginning to change, where young people seemed to be "trying to punish their parents and the world of rigid systems that had been so painful to them in their formative years." For Edie there were drugs and booze and sex, mad binges in which she hired limousines and spent money with absolute contempt for its value. Then she was discovered by Andy Warhol, the high priest of emptiness, and became "the queen of the whole scene." She appeared in his films, traveled in the van of his retinue, and "blossomed"--the words are her own-- "into a healthy young drug addict." She became a paradigm:
"She was the total essence of the fragmentation, the explosion, the uncertainty, the madness that we all lived through in the Sixties. The more outrageous you were, the more of a hero you became. With clothes, it was almost a contest to see who could come out with the most outrageous thing next. 'I'm going to make a dress out of neon signs.' 'Oh, well, I'm going to make one out of tin cans!' 'Oh, yeah? You are? I'm going to make one out of sponges!' 'Oh, yeah? Well, I'm going to make one out of a toilet.'"
A man who knew her toward the end puts it succinctly: "Edie was a little larger than life in her capacity to hit the depths." Her addiction to drugs became the center of her existence; she carried around "a picnic basket that was about two feet wide and a foot and a half deep which was filled with hundreds of little zipper bags, plastic bags, plastic boxes, bubblegum bubbles, a lot of it to hold syringes, cotton balls, little vials of alcohol, amphetamines, pills, tranquilizers." She was doing what, in their different ways, two of her brothers had done: committing suicide. Her death, by inadvertent suffocation during sleep, was an anticlimax.
That is because she had been suffocated years before, by her all-consuming family. As her brother Jonathan, a survivor, remarks: "Sometimes I wonder how many people a family can destroy with their stupidity." Much of the emphasis of this book is on the tawdry glitter of the Warhol years, but that is not what killed her; indeed, though she was an emblematic figure in certain ways, it is facile to describe her as a victim of the '60s. Give credit where it is due: to Duke Sedgwick, and his family's clammy embrace.