Review: Alice Wohl’s memoir on Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol

On the shelf

As it turns out: Thinking about Edie and Andy

By Alice Sedgwick Wohl
FSG: 272 pages, $28

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A teenage girl, Patti Smith, saw a photo of Edie Sedgwick in a magazine and traveled from New Jersey to Manhattan to stand in front of clubs hoping to catch a glimpse of the Factory star. Romance for Smith came from what she saw in print. “Not even by records . . . I’ve never seen people. I’ve never been to a concert. It was all picture.”

Had Edie never made it to New York, she would have been an “ephemeral and purely local phenomenon,” writes her sister Alice Sedgwick Wohl in As It Turns Out: Thinking About Edie and Andy. But Edie made it to New York and met Andy Warhol.

Sedgwick was an early “It” girl who rose to stardom as Andy’s muse, the embodiment of the ’60s Manhattan scene. After an early death from a drug overdose, she continued to fascinate, dissected by Jean Stein and George Plimpton in the oral biopic Edie: American Girl. Wohl’s book isn’t a memoir or mere revision, but an attempt to understand the intense attention, even obsession, of Edie and Andy and how their pairing foreshadowed the influencer’s age.

"As it turns out: Thinking about Edie and Andy" by Alice Sedgwick Wohl

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The fact that Edie made it to Andy is no small matter. Many assume that Sedgwick was an heiress, a debutante, a “poor little rich girl”. That is partially correct. First off, “Edie was from California.” Raised on a ranch, the Sedgwick children were introduced to the cult of “Fuzzy,” their megalomaniac father. Fuzzy had a breakdown before meeting his future wife and when the two married, his psychiatrist advised them that having children was not a good idea. They had eight.

As It Turns Out is divided into three sections. The first, “The Past,” is a chronicle of Sedgwick’s childhood on the ranch: a gruesome portrayal of ranching, an isolated existence of homeschooling and later boarding schools, and even later the suicide of Edie’s older brother. Wohl isn’t trying to reveal himself, just trying to explain where Edie came from.

“I mention all of this,” she writes, “because if it was true of me, it had to be all the more true of Edie when it was her turn to leave the ranch, for the isolation we grew up in took him The passage of time just became years, and in her case it was total.”

So Edie was less a “poor little rich girl” and more a “wild creature sprung from captivity”. Her only desire was to go somewhere, to be on the road. In Wohl’s words, she was always “zoom zoom zoom”. An addiction to stimulants and severe bulimia was overlooked by most who knew her because Edie was so present she didn’t question anything she did. She was simple and what she was was perfect.

This is a book by Wohl in which he “reflects on Edie and Andy”. Don’t think about Edie, or Andy, or how she saw Edie – because Wohl didn’t really know her that well. Wohl was 12 when Edie was born. “As It Turns Out” only thinks of Edie and Andy as a joint venture.

Wohl has an obvious respect for Warhol as an artist. But she is surprised by her sister in Warhol’s films. Edie is magnetic. And Edie doesn’t matter; she is not an actress. Wohl attributes the duo’s split to Edie’s romance with Bob Dylan, who convinced her she could move to Hollywood and become an actress. Edie was not an actor, Wohl writes. Edie was best at being Edie.

A woman with glasses smiles as she looks at the camera

Alice Sedgwick Wohl’s “As It Turns Out” is less a reminder of her sister and more an attempt to understand the Edie phenomenon.

(Ralph Lieberman)

The second part of the book is simply titled “1965”, the year of Andy and Edie. It’s amazing to realize that Wohl is describing all the things – the movies, the parties, the art, the relationships, the conversations, the photographs, the making of myths, the Factory and its superstars, appearing together on Merv Griffin, her Grand entry at the opening of the Andy Warhol retrospective in Philadelphia – all of this takes place within a single year.

That Andy and Edie foreshadowed that cult of personality — actually spawning the age of the Kardashians, reality TV and social media, selfies and influencers — shouldn’t surprise anyone who owns a smartphone. But it’s scary to see how far they’ve come in this game. “You have to remember that she didn’t grow up going to the movies; There was no television on the ranch and no movie theater for forty miles,” Wohl writes. And from Andy: “Remember, there was no such thing as video art… when Andy Warhol made this film.”

The film Wohl mentions is Outer and Inner Space, starring Edie and directed by Andy in 1965. Two Edies can be seen in a close-up. One is pre-recorded and plays in the background while another reacts to viewing her own image. Who is the real Edie? Wohl, the Warhol authority, quotes Callie Angell and describes “the tension that arises between the living reality of a person and the image to which that person is reduced, a conflict that in this film she is forced to act out literally in real time”. Wohl’s description is essential to her (and our) understanding of Edie – but also to our understanding of ourselves as we stage that tension on social media every day.

The last part of the book is “Notes for my Dead Brother”. Edie and Alice had not one but two brothers who died. First Francis, then Bobby, who crashed his motorcycle into a bus and died just before Edie’s rise to pop culture superstardom. Wohl imagines this section as a letter to Bobby describing what became of Edie. In this way she tries to explain herself to us, but even stranger.

A phenomenon may be unknowable. Edie lived only 28 years. “I know around her, but I don’t know her,” Wohl confesses to Bobby. What she knows is Edie’s pure magnetism, which unlike Warhol’s factory art cannot be reproduced. Wohl writes that he will see Factory Girl, the 2006 film starring Sienna Miller as Sedgwick. “It was so wrong that it was painful, not because the actress wasn’t serious or talented, but because it wasn’t possible,” Wohl writes. “Only Edie could be who she was.”

Ferris’ latest book is Silent Cities: New York. Review: Alice Wohl’s memoir on Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol

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