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Film

No direction home: The life of Edie Sedgwick riding the highs and lows of counterculture

@TomTaylorFO

When Edie Sedgwick’s ancestors arrived in America they were among the richest and most powerful to come ashore. Therefore, it seems an oddity that she would become such a paradigm for the iconoclastic counterculture movement. However, when you dig beneath the surface, it perhaps isn’t all that surprising after all. 

Edie Sedgwick was born in Santa Barbara in California in 1943. To a large extent, her family’s wealth and social status had been retained, but as the icons of the 1960s would continually avow, money isn’t everything, and her life is proof of that from the get-go. As a child, she was raised along with her siblings almost in isolation. Nannies enacted a strict regime set out by her parents which centred around a separation that was meant to impart their superiority over other children. 

Her childhood is a tale that seems positively Victorian, but this was post-World War II California, and soon, there would be a wash of culture that would be impossible to insulate anybody from, least of all children eager for a view of the world beyond guarded aristocracy. Her childhood had been one of trauma, her father’s controlling ways and declining mental health beset her life with turmoil. She developed bulimia at around the age of 13 so that when she did eventually depart the family home for boarding school, her father quickly withdrew her on account of her declining health.

In 1958, she returned to school, this time in Maryland, however, her condition soon progressed to anorexia, and she was withdrawn from school once more, returning to her abusive family home. With these early tales of suffering and the fact her life would end so distressingly young at 28, it is easy to frame the life of Edie Sedgwick as a tragedy, but it was far more convoluted than that. What became of Sedgwick’s life in the 1960s, is emblematic of the highs and lows of counterculture of which she wasn’t merely a passenger, as it is often portrayed, but a driving force. 

In the autumn of 1963, after a stay in a psychiatric hospital, it would seem that Sedgwick’s life was finally on the right track. She moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts and studied sculpture. It was therein that she began to mingle with the bohemian demimonde of the Harvard social scene. Having always felt like an outsider, she quickly identified with an emerging group of homosexuals fighting for liberation within the rapidly changing world.

In 1964, when she received an $80,000 trust fund from her grandmother, she decided to disavow the conventional route of aristocracy and ventured to the bohemian world of Greenwich Village where less than a decade earlier beat literature had established the central tenet of counterculture. Whereby Jack Kerouac and his fellow downtrodden literary stragglers were the perfect picture of ‘beats’ in more ways than one. Teetering on the brink of destitution, their outlook was that if they were going to fail, they would fail on their own terms, unlike their forebearers. This philosophy formed the central core of the counterculture movement.

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Whilst Bob Dylan and the fellow folk stars she would later cross paths with in ‘The Village’ might have had wildly different upbringings from Sedgwick, her trip to New York is proof of a shared singularity and a view to conform to a sovereignty of one. Their failings and successes were personified by uncompromising creative intent and a desire to be an artist, unlike the ‘cheap entertainers’ or snooty ‘virtuosos’ of old.

In New York, she began modelling and acting. She met Andy Warhol and starred in several of his films and art projects but there is one work that stands out from the rest as an encapsulating piece — in 1965, he decided to give her a starring role in Poor Little Rich Girl. This title is something that would become a tagline for her persona in New York. Now, in retrospect, it would seem that in leaving her past behind she also left the subtext to her subsequent issues and all the cynics saw was money, campaign socialism and self-sabotage, while those more forgiving simply saw something akin to Pulp’s ‘Common People’ protagonist.

In truth, however, she boldly sported the slings and arrows as scars and continued her bohemian ways. This defiance was subtly subversive in itself. Even the very notion of her close association with homosexuals in the staunchly conservative mid-1960s was a liberating act, whereby you had a front page phenom unafraid to celebrate the diversity and difference in the bohemian world she was part of even if it came at a cost.

As fame followed her appearances in Andy Warhol’s short films, she became something of a proto ‘influencer’. Her outfits at Factory parties were scrutinised by the press and all the other trappings and pitfalls associated with the modern equivalent beset her. It was during this period that she reportedly developed a crush on Bob Dylan.

While there are plenty of rumours and very little corroborating evidence for the pair being more than being figures who occupied the same circles, it isn’t much of a leap to say that Dylan’s defining anthem ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ may well have been penned about her. From the colonial context of her ancestry to the simple notion of a fall from grace in a spiritual sense, it is all wrought out in his blistering tune that held a mirror to counterculture.

It is widely reported that Dylan began an affair with Sedgewick shortly before marrying Sarah Lownds. It is even claimed by Sedgewick’s brother, Jonathan, that his sister fell pregnant to the folk star. As Jonathan remarked according to the New York Post: “One day, she called me up and she said, ‘I’ve met someone.’” She didn’t tell him who it was at first, but when she added that he was a fabulously talented folk singer full of conviction, it became clear it was Dylan. 

Jonathan continues: “She told me she was totally in love with him. She also explained she lost a child which she claims was Bob Dylan’s child. She had gotten into an insane asylum, and she was so whacked out on drugs that they aborted her because the child would’ve just been strung out. She said that was the saddest moment of her life.”

While these claims from Jonathan Sedgewick remain unsubstantiated, there is no doubting that Dylan and his sister were indeed familiar with each other. Thus, if they are true then the visceral edge to the song is imbued with even more caustic furore as Dylan embarks on a scathing condemnation of her decadent ways. While her departure from high society to the art scene was all well and good, it was her dive into the darker side of the counterculture and a sense of sixties falling off track that led to Dylan’s sonic lambasting.

What remains, beyond the gritty rumour mill that requires judicious dissecting, is a song that, thankfully, spares its target the indignity of specifics. As such it soars with a universality as Dylan truly marked himself as an unflinching electric folk iconoclast. While a fall from grace might be the plotline of the song, there is so much more in the welter, much like the complicated life of Edie Sedgwick.

Dylan’s lambast in 1965 coincided with the time that Sedgwick began to part ways with Andy Warhol and his Factory scene. Thereafter her fame began to decline. The counterculture movement got wise to itself and soon the fashion trends by working-class stars like Twiggy on the far side of the pond came to the fore. However, tragically, Sedgwick had nowhere to go, in a bleak foretelling it is the Dylan line “How does it feel to be on your own, with no direction home,” and Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” that seemed to grimly prognosticate her fate. 

In the following years, she developed a barbiturate addiction, a dark side-effect of the movement that impacted so many. This addiction plagued her with issues when she began filming the semi-autobiographical Ciao! Manhattan in March 1967. The film was her last gamble to establish a legitimate career. Sadly, filming would be suspended indefinitely when a series of hospitalisations forced her to return to her family ranch. 

However, it is testimony to her inviolable spirit that she remained determined to finish the movie and have her story told. Despite almost four years of treatment, drug arrests and turmoil, she continued to record audiotapes and work on the film privately, eventually teaming back up with the directors John Palmer and David Weisman in 1971 and completing the project.

Although it has since faded into obscurity and is often lost amid the narrative of a poor little rich girl, Ciao! Manhattan is a defining part of not only her legacy but the whole counterculture movement. And even though she passed away shortly after completing the film in 1971, and it was beleaguered by bad health, there is hope in the fact that it was finished and she had her say. 

If counterculture can be boiled down to the youth doing things differently and making their voice heard, then Edie Sedgwick was a shining light of it. The turmoil of her abusive upbringing and the narrative of superiority that was thrust upon her should never be forgotten as she battled to embody change within the world. Her search may have been wayward on this front, but she is not alone in this regard, we are all fallible.

As the subject of songs such as ‘Femme Fatale’, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and many others, she was the embodiment of an entire scene. One that was riddled with the same dramatic highs and lows that ran the course of her life.