The Velvet Underground are inseparable from the downtown New York City avant-garde scene from which they flourished. With Andy Warhol at its centre, the Factory became an incubator for an entire wave of artists, musicians, actors, models and photographers for whom New York was home.
Warhol’s strength was his understanding of – and participation in – America’s obsession with glamour, with that burgeoning feminine beauty that swept across the Western world in the 1960s, bringing us everyone from Twiggy and Bridgette Bardot to Nico to Edie Sedgwick, the latter of whom rose to fame after starring in several Warhol’s underground films.
The success of Warhol’s vision relied on an understanding of women as purely aesthetic entities. While the Factory is continually celebrated for its innovations in the art world, it was far more backwards in its treatment of its female members than many would like to admit. Indeed, a number of Warhol’s Superstars would later comment that being a woman in the Factory crowd was to be valued purely for one’s looks. Edie Sedgwick likely knew this better than most and decided to split with Warhol in 1966 in an attempt to forge an independent career. Unfortuantely, her addiction to drugs and alcohol would lead to her death just five years later.
One wonders how much Sedgwick’s substance abuse was a reaction to the intense claustrophobia of life within Warhol’s world. There’s a very telling photo of the pair sitting side by side on the set of a photoshoot. Hidden behind dark glasses, Warhol holds a match to Sedgwick’s tenth cigarette of the morning – her body slumped slightly inward. It’s the perfect encapsulation of the way Warhol moulded Edie into the archetypal ’60s party girl, a woman at once irresistible and carnivorous.
The Velvet Underground also participated in forming Sedgwick’s image, writing their track ‘Femme Fatale’ about the model. The Femme Fatale, a trope most associated with the noir thrillers of the ’40s and ’50s, is a seductive and mysterious woman who seduces her lovers with spiderlike agility, only to lead them into a trap. Warhol, who was managing The Velvet Underground at the time and had just bought Nico into the fold, approached the band and asked them to write the track for Sedgwick in the hope that it would emphasise her bad-girl image.
Released on The Velvet’s iconic Loaded album, the 1967 track is a slice of angular bossa nova that slides along with cat-walk grace. Over Sterling Morrison’s guitar and Moe Tucker’s tambourine pulses, Nico warbles a portrait of an unrepentant maneater: “Little boy, she’s from the street/ Before you start, you’re already beat.” In reality, Sedgwick was from a long line of aristocrats, socialites and politicians. To give you n impression of her lineage: her great-great-great grandfather, William Ellery, was a signatory of the United States Declaration of Independence. Still, Sedgwick’s illustrious family history couldn’t save her from the dark underbelly of avant-garde New York, to which she would eventually succumb at the age of 28.