Ediepus

Michael Neve

  • Edie: An American Biography by Jean Stein and George Plimpton
    Cape, 455 pp, £9.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 224 02068 4
  • Baby Driver: A Story About Myself by Jan Kerouac
    Deutsch, 208 pp, £7.95, August 1982, ISBN 0 233 97487 3

The town of Stockbridge, in Massachusetts, is weird. Not in the diminished, all-too-contemporary sense of merely odd, or strange, but weird as Shakespeare might have meant it: ‘having the power to control the fate or destiny of men’, ‘partaking or suggestive of the supernatural’ (OED). Weird, too, in the way that Tennyson meant it, particularly as the word appears in his poem ‘The Princess’. The visitor to Stockbridge is liable to feel certain ghostlinesses in the town: a gloomy Puritan history lingers, a trace, perhaps, of the ferocious Calvinist divine Jonathan Edwards. There is also the eerie emptiness of nature in New England, the dark, wooded landscape that seems hollow, and menacing, without a history. Even the streets of Stockbridge seem empty. No one is around. They are, no doubt, in their cars, and another poet of weirdness, New England weirdness, Robert Lowell, knew also about cars: ‘A savage servility slides by on grease.’ There are antique shops in Stockbridge, where antique seems to mean the day before yesterday. And grand white wooden houses, behind evergreen trees, houses which turn out to be lunatic asylums. Stockbridge, peaceful home of Norman Rockwell, the people’s artist, who gave Middle America what it wanted. Stockbridge, where Melville said something unmemorable to Hawthorne. Stockbridge, the site of the family grave – known, weirdly, as ‘the Pie’ – of the Sedgwick family.

It is the history of the Sedgwick family that makes up Edie, a best-seller in the United States, and a haunted history stretching from 1774 to the present: the author, Jean Stein, and her co-editor, George Plimpton, of the Paris Review, acknowledge the familial dimension by providing a ‘genealogy of principal characters’ near the end of the book. The founding father was Judge Theodore Sedgwick who came to Stockbridge ‘after the Revolution’, and who was a friend of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. His descendants (but not, importantly, all of them) are buried, in ‘the Pie’, with their heads facing out and their feet pointing in, towards their ancestor. The legend is, apparently, that on Judgment Day the Sedgwicks will arise together, en famille, and see nothing but each other.

Jean Stein, perhaps influenced by the interview-seasoned Plimpton, has composed Edie as a series of conversational bursts, quanta of thoughts and recollections culled from tapes and discussions with those many souls acquainted with the Sedgwick family, and especially with Edith Minturn Sedgwick, or ‘Edie’ (1943-1971). The result is a long, dull and scary book, where the sense of dullness is actually part of the editorial skill: the skill at making conversations memorable even when they talk of the inevitable slide downhill, in certain predictable ways, of a group of unusual human beings. Edie is addictive, as a ‘read’, and alert to the dullness of addiction, which is one of its numerous subjects. There are some striking photographs, which evoke ancestral powers or places, especially graveyards and ranches. Photographs, too, of Edie herself. These commemorate an androgynous beauty, the effects of drugs, many, many fucks.

It is hard to tell quite where the history of a ‘family’ begins, which father or mother, but Edie concentrates, reasonably enough, on Francis Minturn Sedgwick (1904-1967). There is a reasonable idea in the fiction of inheritance, especially, say, Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, that grandparents or uncles provide the real genealogical clues: but Francis Sedgwick forces himself here into first place. Stories of this kind tend not to begin with Mother (Alice Delano de Forest, born 1908 and still alive). This is a story set in a certain kind of America, where bullying is pronounced and maternal tenderness and loyalty almost imperceptible. What kind of ‘male America’ is it?

Francis Minturn Sedgwick was born a frail child, the last of four. A sister that might have been, called Edith, lived for less than a day, and Francis’s elder brother, Minturn Sedgwick, can remember ‘picking flowers for her grave in the rain’. Francis’s career was standard early 20th-century East Coast rich: Groton, that exclusive school for the rearing of ‘perfect Christian gentlemen’, and then Harvard. At Harvard, Francis, who was now known as either ‘Fuzzy’ or ‘Duke’, proceeded fairly steadily through the world of exclusivity, joining, for example, the élite Porcellian Club. Yes, it was banking next: Lazard Frères, in London. But then things changed.

In poor health, ‘Fuzzy’ collapsed at work, and was invalided out of big business, to rest at the English country home of an American friend. The friend was one Charles de Forest, another Grotonian. At the house, ‘Fuzzy’ met Charles’s sister Alice. They eventually returned together to America, and married in May 1929. By this time ‘Fuzzy’ was already seeing John Millet, psychiatrist, at the Austen Higgs Centre in Stockbridge.

‘Fuzzy’ was fatal. He was very handsome. He had genuine artistic talents. He insisted on the importance of extreme physical activity, but was himself fragile. He and Alice had eight children, of whom Edie was the seventh. Perhaps most tellingly, he told his children not to call him ‘Daddy’. No. He was ‘Fuzzy’. Partly for health reasons, he moved his family, in the middle of the reproductive spate, to California, with its sun and its ranches: Edie was born there, in Santa Barbara. Fuzzy had failed to pass the medical test for war service, something that hurt him deeply: it is not being glib or sensational to say that the absence of a war abroad seems to have driven him to stage a war elsewhere. He brought it all back home, to the ranches at Corral de Quati, and then Laguna. Suky Sedgwick, the youngest of the children, on Laguna: ‘Do you know Coleridge? “Kubla Khan”? “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure dome decree ... ” The ranch was all those things, and, boy oh boy, does Coleridge know what he’s talking about.’

For Fuzzy, the big thing was the ‘roundup’. Round up the other émigré East Coast families, round up his own family, and then dominate them all. Susan Wilkins, one of the voices in the book: ‘My God, the father was something! A cross between Mr America and General Patton.’ Fuzzy would stride around, in a white bikini, and pronounce, in the sunshine. No one was allowed around who wasn’t beautiful, everybody had to swim, ride horses hard. No one to vote for Adlai Stevenson, because he looked just like a woman. As for the women, Fuzzy wanted them all. And as for bringing up the children, they were to be compelled to repeat his own life.

Repeats first of all for two of the sons, Bobby and Francis (junior) known as ‘Minty’. Groton, Harvard, athletics. Minty was terrified at what his father would think when he realised his son was not an athlete. Maybe he would think of him as a Negro (Fuzzy: ‘The Negro is first cousin to the monkey, and that is a fact’). Or worse. Minty survived, although severely depressed, and, with psychiatric assistance, lasted until 1959, when he entered Harvard. Slowly, he went crazy, and Doctor Millet was needed again, his asylum now being in Silver Hill, Connecticut. Minty killed himself, in the asylum, in March 1964, hanged himself with a neck-tie. There had been homosexual impulses, and he had said: ‘I’m not sure whether I’m Francis Junior or Francis Senior.’

Stein and Plimpton’s staccato interview method doesn’t make the family disaster easy to relate: ‘The deep moans round with many voices.’ The effect of Minty’s suicide on sister Edie seems to have been simple: she wanted to kill her father. She was already damaged by at least one primal scene, having walked into ‘the blue room’ at the ranch one day, and seen her father fucking a strange woman. Fuzzy: ‘You don’t know anything. You’re insane.’ Around this time, Edie became anorexic, and attended exclusive schools; but she, too, went into Silver Hill in the autumn of 1962. Like many upper-class asylums, it was like home, but without the parents. In late 1963, she recovered and made for Harvard: not to learn, but to hang around and behave badly. It was soon after this that Minty killed himself.

Bobby, next of the brothers, was next to go. He was at Harvard, also a Porcellian. He became an intense friend of someone who got to Harvard by a rather different route – the poet Gregory Corso, who arrived via Dannemora prison: ‘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.’ Through work for the Massachusetts Institute of Mental Health, Bobby became involved in left-wing politics, but in what seem furtive and unclear ways. His illnesses deepened, he went to Bellevue Hospital, and then to Manhattan State Hospital. The parents moved him to more luxurious mental homes, and he improved. Thanks to the admirable efforts of Sydney J. Freeberg, now Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard, Bobby returned there, on a graduate programme. But no good. There was a history of riding fast – on horses at the ranch, or on bikes in the city: Bobby died on 12 January 1965, after bashing into an Eighth Avenue bus on New Year’s Eve.

All this by about half-way through the book. The sense of stupid waste and dark thoughts about fathers mingle with the feeling that it’s all well-known to be in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books, or in daily stories about high society, drugs, spouse murder, alimony and – so we are now told – sleeping with trumpets. Edie, because Stein and Plimpton know how to interweave as well as interview, doesn’t succumb to merely piling on the deaths. The book, at the very point where it might be most silly and depressing, is made most intelligent. In early 1965, Edie meets Andy Warhol, and Stein and Plimpton, with their ‘hidden agenda’ of splicing the conversations, quietly promote a discussion: on whether a metropolitan society without morality can generate art.

Andy Warhol (or Warhola, who says he is from Pennsylvania) must be one of the smartest arriviste destroyers in the history of modern cultures. He arrived in a city of enormous affluence, at just the right time. As one of Edie’s acquaintances, Joel Schumacher, puts it, there was a crowd of society youngsters ‘trying to punish their parents and the world of rigid systems that had been so painful to them in their formative years’. Someone – it could, in a real sense, be anyone – who could use this, make ‘art’ out of it, would also become a name. In a society where an idea of taste also demanded art, but was actually only able to generate commodities, the secret was simple: give commodities the appearance of art. Even left-over commodities would do – trash, garbage, junk, waste.

After doing some art teaching, doing displays at Joseph Horne Department Stores, Warhol became, without trying too hard, the ghost in the art-world machine. ‘A white rabbit’, ‘a saint’, ‘a born loser’ (Gore Vidal), ‘a window-decorator type’ (Truman Capote): it really doesn’t matter how you describe Warhol. He could have been anyone, any intelligent watcher and waiter in Manhattan. And his cultural coup was astonishing. He annexed the production of art-works to the production of junk, and nothing will ever be quite the same again. Jasper Johns says here of the famous Brillo boxes: ‘I liked ... the dumbness of the relationship of the thought to technology.’ In his achieved perception of the exhaustion of things, of the ‘ghostly fetishism of commodities’, and of how they almost stupidly migrate between exchange, display and value in bloated economies, Warhol makes Marxist theoreticians of art look like the tired lackeys of bourgeois orthodoxy.

When Edie Sedgwick met Warhol, she was (to read, I hope imaginatively, between the lines) ready for revenge: against a brutal father, against money, revenge – one has to say it – against herself. There would be survivors – her mother, above all. And there would be those who would resist invasion: Bob Dylan (now clearly revealed as the Henry James of our age) not least. But the scene was set. The place: the Factory, Warhol’s studio, on East 47th Street. The fuel: hard drugs, especially amphetamines. The project: to condense the history of metropolitan interiors into a slow home movie, based on sex. For this was Warhol’s cinematic task – to force Nature into the scandalous imitation of a fuck film. This was to be the new family album.

Much of it is familiar, the titles of the films not least: Chelsea Girls, Nude Restaurant, and, with Paul Morrissey taking the upper hand, Flesh, Trash and Heat. Warhol, the voyeur, made everyone else into one. Life turned into a collapsed art; a matter of makeup, sleeping, fucking, giggling, doing drugs, sitting in kitchens all day, fucking again. Daily life at the Factory was all that. Brigid Berlin would compile her ‘cock book’, or listen to a tape of herself being fucked (these tapes were carefully catalogued). Warhol would tell Viva, the ‘Catholic superstar’, about a big-cocked fellow he’d seen somewhere, and recommend she call him. There was even a desultory private language: ‘not being able to fold one’s napkin’ (not coping), ‘the rant runneth over’ (going too far); and of course ‘poking’ (heroin in the backside). Then there was putting LSD in the omelettes. Then Warhol spent time looking in dustbins ‘for something’.

The important thing about Edie was that she looked just like Warhol. And, because of her birth, lineage and looks, she was all over the higher-class fashion pages – Vogue among others – and was model of the year for the TV game Who’s In and Who’s Out. She and Warhol stepped out together, went to parties together. These she always wanted to leave. Warhol didn’t understand this: ‘I mean, people who spend fortunes to have parties can’t wait until they’re over so they can go somewhere else.’ Edie was beautiful, of course. And we have it from Diana Vreeland, now a consultant to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that people on drugs ‘always have wonderful skin’ (What?). More sanely, here is Robert Rauschenberg: ‘her physicality was so refreshing that she exposed all the dishonesty in the room.’

Edie and Warhol moved around in this world drinking, thinking they’d got it made. Edie even introduced Andy to Fuzzy, to show that she was out of reach now. Fuzzy said afterwards, apparently with great relief: ‘Why, the guy’s a screaming fag.’ Whatever the possible secret recognitions here, something else was even more important. As one of Edie’s sisters, Saucie, puts it, ‘that rejection of rhetoric, that deadly banality made Andy a final weapon against my father. There was no way my father would get to Andy Warhol.’ Edie had found the instrument of her revenge in a figure whose near non-existence, as a moral force, replied to the all-too-palpable immoralisms of Fuzzy. Warhol knew that nothing can come out of nothing, and didn’t need to speak again. He had arrived. He had directed the house movie.

This central part of Stein and Plimpton’s story, this weird conjunction, gives way to more ghastly things. Edie was both more and less than her time with Warhol, a time that is sexless with him, and yet, at the Factory, full of sex with others. The early sexlessness of the Warhol ambience was to change. The book is interesting about that forgotten class of dope dealers in late Sixties Manhattan: the doctors. For example, Doctor Roberts, made famous by the Beatles song, who would shoot up his patients with vitamins and methedrine. According to Cherry Vanilla, a client, ‘you’d go round to Doctor Roberts, and after the shots you’d get very oversexed and you’d fuck. People used him that way. His office was a social focal point.’ If you didn’t ball Doctor Roberts, it was probably because you had to go off and appear on television. Doctors seem to have been good dealers in those days. Edie staggers through this world, to go on to, say, the back room at the club Max’s Kansas City (‘how many pills can you take and walk out of Max’s?’), or go and play with the Velvet Underground, or have Bob Dylan avoid her. ‘He was always in an adversary relationship with women,’ says Jonathan Taplin, who thinks that ‘Just like a Woman’ may have been written about Edie Sedgwick, ‘with her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls’.

Slowly, the drugs performed their secret ministry. Yes, speed kills. And other things happened: Warhol was shot at, narrowly escaped death, and became a ghost. The Factory moved to Union Square, Edie to the alarming stew that is the Chelsea Hotel (she seems to have come close to burning it down at one point). She also came to the terrible last point in addiction: if she wasn’t making love, she was on heroin. Rutherford Johnson: ‘You see, it’s immaterial if it’s heroin or sex. It’s very basic: the two are interchangeable.’

Attempting to defy the logic of Warhol and what he had perceived about such things, Edie and others attempted to make a film about her life, to be called Ciao! Manhattan. This part makes sad reading, with Edie, entirely on drugs, playing the empty role of the ‘difficult star’, complete with silicone breasts. To try and make something of a past that made nothing of nothing was futile. Ronald Tavel, one of Warhol’s scriptwriters, reminds the by now numbed reader of this: ‘The way to work was to work for no meaning. Which is pretty calculated in itself: you work at something so that it means nothing. I did have one precedent – Gertrude Stein.’ Edie could not have become a film star, as part of any future: she had already been in films, films that had broken the idea of ‘film’ and replaced it with contentless hours of domestic junkiedom. Meanwhile the family drama summoned her to her final scene.

‘In one year,’ says Jonathan Sedgwick of this period of Fuzzy’s life, ‘my father aged forty years.’ Before being hospitalised, Fuzzy made a sculpture of St Francis, dedicated to his two dead sons, whom he had come to feel he had destroyed. Shortly before dying, in October 1967, he took the last rites. Edie seems, by now, not to have felt much about anything. She was in and out of mental institutions, including the frightening Manhattan State Hospital. In late 1968, she returned to California and was again hospitalised – in the Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara. Here was a kind of Ciao! Manhattan (‘Warhol is a sadistic faggot’). While in the Cottage Hospital she met Michael Post, who was there ‘to quit the drug world’. She married Michael in July 1971, and they were happy, for a while, in Santa Barbara. In November of that year, after a party, she and Michael went home together, and Edie died, in bed, next to him, for uncertain but drug-related reasons. She was 28.

Jan Kerouac survived the dangerous Sixties to write a thin book – which, in the circumstances, is something. Baby Driver (the title comes from a Paul Simon song) shows how much of the mythology of ‘the road’, ‘the road movie’, ‘the road runner’ is a detour, a damaging way to get back. Back, it seems, to Mother. Jan had a father, the famous novelist of ‘the road’, who wanted nothing to do with her. This almost seems to have been a blessing. The violent incestuousness of Fuzzy Sedgwick, his permanent need to dominate sexually, to lord over visiting females meekly brought home by the sons – this was grim. Jack Kerouac’s neglect, even if selfish and unconscious, was by comparison benign. Jan had her mother, and the book ends with her coming (or is it going?) back to her. Part of Jan’s goodish fortune then was that her father was obsessed with his mother, and not with his daughter. Fuzzy Sedgwick both dominated all the surrounding women and had a loyal wife. For him, the monopoly was complete. It is not impossible that part of the American family history of this era (one thinks especially of the effect on Elvis Presley of his mother’s death) will come to be written around the terrible old refrain of Father/Mother struggles – but as a journey towards Mother, in a culture still bent on outlawing femininity as any part of manliness.

Edie does not chronicle the end of an era; nor does it suggest a diminution in the potency of the institutions of East Coast wealth. We, as voyeurs, could be said to be part of Warhol’s victory, part of the commodity relationship with no longer private worlds. As for Edie, she is buried, not in ‘the Pie’, but in a small grave in Ballard, California, over the San Marcos Pass. The Sedgwicks will wake up without her.