Ondine on Edie, On Warhol, on Ondine
A 'Chronicle' Reprint
Edie: An American Biography by Jean Stein, edited with George Plimpton, is currently one of the most discussed cultural topics in this country. Given the nature of the life and fame of the book's subject, Edie Sedgwick, it is ironically appropriate that she has become a bigger star in death than in her life. In the wake of this enormous success, it is not surprising that some of the films Sedgwick starred in are being re-released. Most prominent among them is Ciao! Manhattan which started out as a fiction film in which Sedgwick was to star and evolved over the five years of its making into a hybrid documentary which came to be focused on Sedgwick. On Sept. 15 and 16 (Wed. & Thurs.) at 7 and 9 p.m. Ciao! Manhattan will be presented at Batts Auditorium on the UT campus for only $2.00 by CinemaTexas and the Austin Chronicle (for more information call 471-1906).
Edie Sedgwick was born (in 1943) into a traditional, old money, New England family. Her father, a definite eccentric, moved his family to California. Sedgwick grew up beautiful and wild. She began to hang out with Andy Warhol, becoming something of his disciple and look-alike mirror image. She became a model, starred in Warhol movies, was labeled by Vogue as a "Youthquaker", was featured in a Life fashion photo feature, became an item, became an event. At the age of 28, in keeping with her life, Edie became a suicide, probably by mistake.
Reviews of the book can be said to express one of two basic attitudes, that the book is trash, but great trash and a fun read: hell it has everything, drugs, sex, stars, cinema, art, outrageousness, decadence and glamour. The other is that it is trash and that there is something vile and degrading about this trash, that to read about decadence is not only decadent but morally corrupt. It seems fascinating and disturbing to us, that none of these reviews are more critical. For here is a book culled down from over 250 interviews, but a book that speaks with the voices and words of its characters rather than its authors. In this way it pretends to objectivity and to truth.
The overall view of the book, however, is to deal with the world that Edie lived in as though it were a world of meaningless decadence and pathetic pretense. The book is anti-Warhol and contemptuous of the life style and aesthetics associated with him.
To try and determine whether this bias arose naturally from the material or was a manipulative result of the author's prejudices, we decided to talk to Ondine (who we were fortunate enough to meet when he brought Chelsea Girls to Austin) who was involved with Warhol, Edie and the factory. It is his brilliant performance in segments of Chelsea Girls that helps hold the film together; he also starred in other Warhol films and was regarded as so brilliant, according to former Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison, that he was the logical choice to "star" in Warhol's novel A which consists largely of Ondine talking into a tape recorder for 24 hours. What we were fascinated by was the question as to whether the viewpoint, cogently and coherently articulated in the book, was the only view of and attitude toward the period by those who had lived through it.
Edie: An American Biography: "[The book is] probably very accurate. I don't know how much of it is supposition, how much the picture of Edie is supposition; it's the kind of book where you read a lot into it. If you look at the words its okay but whatever you make up in your mind is whatever you make up in your mind."
Later, however he added, "I haven't read the book and [laughing] I don't think I'm going to. It sounds like a bummer".
The book however has affected his life and he is again, in a way, famous. "I don't even consider it [being a celebrity again]. I live in New York and I've always been a New York creature, I just hang around with the people I hang around with so nobody comes and tells me I'm famous. I guess its nice to see your name in print, I don't know, I wonder how famous I am; I don't think I'm that famous.
"Every place I went this summer there was a copy of the book. It's really sick. In the Seventies they said Ondine who? In the Eighties it's, 'You know Ondine, ohhhh fabulous,' I don't understand it, its really weird, like being a victim of circumstances.
"I think probably [the renewed interest in Warhol and the factory] is because of the excruciating boredom of the Seventies and the beginning of the Eighties. The absolutely hopeless state of whatever it is you're looking for, film or art or television; it's so desolate, so horrible, that these pieces from the Sixties that are just the first steps, they're all very primitive, seem like glowing works of art. I think its just because there is such a dearth of other material.
"Does Edie's story grip you? It grips me too but I bet it grips the authors more. But if this stuff surfaces again do you think there will be a backlash against us they way there was?"
As we begin to talk more, Ondine discussed the subtitle, An American Biography by commenting, "It's not a European biography, I don't know, it's a lot of stuff about nothing, Edie: An American Biography is like saying, Trigger, a Western Horse. Now what the hell does that mean? It's all very simple, no wonder it's a best seller, it's all very primitive."
ON EDIE: "I was a good friend of Edie's, I liked her very much, I thought she was a charming girl, she was fun to work with, she had things that I liked, I enjoyed helping her in some ways, she enjoyed my company, we enjoyed dabbling in the occult and things like that from time to time, I also worked for her for a period of time, I just liked her as a colleague, from time to time.
"Anybody who could tell a girl like Edie Sedgwick that she was being stabbed in the back by Andy Warhol, of all people, were idiots, it's where she got her fame and basically the reason why Edie was even known was because of Warhol. Let's just face it, it's all Warhol, Warhol, Warhol.
"People turned her against Warhol for their own devious reasons. They convinced her she was the next Marilyn Monroe. I think personally she was a great screen presence. But I don't think she was the next Marilyn Monroe because she wasn't a Hollywood type. Who would use her out in Hollywood?"
CIAO! MANHATTAN: "So many of the people connected to the making of Ciao! Manhattan were on drugs. I mean they were all stoned in an effort to recreate 'The stoned movies of the factory.' All these people were nurtured by Warhol and they turned against him. And they took his biggest female star away. They wanted to make a movie 'a la Warhol' but they wanted to make it in a Hollywood way. But what they came up with was just placenta.
"Contrary to the opinion that drugs killed Edie, I think it was Ciao! Manhattan that killed her. I really do. I think that when she saw it on screen she realized she was washed up. It may have been the reason why Edie had a long slow suicide.
"After Ciao! Manhattan she came back to the factory and we tried to make a movie with her, Warhol and I, but we just wiped our hands of her, there was nothing we could do with her. How many times can you tell a person to stop doing something without really getting bored with it? I'd never seen Warhol walk away from his camera in a fit of just absolute, abject disgust but during that filming, a little movie of his called Edie and Ondine he just said, 'Stop, I won't film anymore.' He said 'this is disgusting, just absolutely disgusting.' She was so full of self-pity and so humble and so everything else it was just awful, it was horrible, intolerable.
"She tried to make a film again because there was nowhere else for her to go. She was obviously a product of the Warhol era. She was a Warhol creation in certain ways. A Warhol creation released from its master is hopeless. Viva is not a Warhol creation. Taylor Mead is not a Warhol creation. I'm not a Warhol creation. We are creations of our own. But Edie is like a Warhol creation. She really could not do without him.
"When she listened to Warhol it was fine, when she didn't listen to him she went down the tubes, and Warhol isn't one to give many messages. If Warhol says 'really' during an entire interview you're lucky."
The book liberally quotes Edie's monologues from Ciao! Manhattan and their thrust seems to emphasize Edie's bitterness toward Warhol and the factory and to blame the experience for her drug abuse. Ondine commented that "you can't blame anybody for your drug use. You take drugs and you abuse yourself. Everybody abuses themselves. They say drugs destroy the mind. Drugs destroy the body. You have to have a mind to destroy."
ON ANDY WARHOL: "People went up to Warhol to be exploited. You went to Warhol to be exploited. Fortunately or unfortunately I got involved with Warhol before I knew he was what he was or who he was. He made no impression on me. His artistic 'whatever it was' made no impression on me. I saw him as a friend and as a part of a long process which started in the Fifties in the avant garde. I traced his roots all the way back there so he never was particularly a person who was going to exploit me. Even though he did, I didn't mind it because it was part of the game.
"I think he's fabulous. I think he's absolutely totally completely fabulous. There's no one as fabulous as he is. He's just a marvelous, marvelous person or a marvelous, marvelous non-person, whatever you want to call him. There's something about him that's magic and it may be the fact that there's nothing there."