The Tragic Story Of Edie Sedgwick: The Femme Fatale That Inspired Andy Warhol And Bob Dylan

Published May 2, 2018
Updated May 10, 2019

Edie Sedgwick tried to maintain a balance between her demons and rising fame. But ultimately, the two went hand-in-hand.

Edie Sedgwick With Warhol And Friends

Steve Schapiro/Flickr Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick in New York City, 1965. Steve Schapiro

“It’s strange, wherever I’ve been, I’ve been quite notorious and quite instantly so. But I’ve never been anywhere where I haven’t been known.”

Edie Sedgwick said that in an interview during the height of her fame when she could be found attending gallery openings with famous artist Andy Warhol and was crowned as his “Girl of the Year.”

The young, beautiful, and rich girl seemingly had everything going for her. Men fell for her beauty and even Warhol, who was widely rumored to be gay, took her in as his muse. But behind this pleasant facade was a damaged young woman, marred by an abusive father, a family history of mental illness, and escalating drug abuse.

Like a bonfire with too little fuel, the femme fatale would shine bright but only for a brief moment. So, who was Edie Sedgwick? And how did she fall from grace seemingly as quickly as she became famous?

The Sedgwicks — Blessed With Brilliance Yet Doomed By Illness

Theodore Sedgwick Portrait

Wikimedia CommonsTheodore Sedgwick (1746-1813), one of the most prominent members of the Sedgwick family. He served as a U.S. senator and Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The seventh of eight children, Edie was born on April 20, 1943 into the illustrious and wealthy Sedgwick family. First coming to the United States from England in the 1600s, the Sedgewicks became a prominent family in America’s history. Indeed, many of them attended Harvard and the elite Gordon school and reached success as actors, writers, politicians, and lawyers.

But despite their prominence, the family continuously struggled with mental illness throughout the centuries-long history. As noted by Harry Sedgwick, a well-known 19th-century author and lawyer, depression seemed to be the “family disease.”

Given this inclination to be both highly passionate and successful, but also prone to depression and other mental disorders, it’s not surprising that Edie’s life played out in a similar course to her predecessors.

Edie Sedgwick’s Troubled Childhood

It all began with her father, Francis Sedgwick. Despite being referred to as “Fuzzy” by his kids, Francis had strained relationships with Edie and the rest of his children. True to the Sedgwick name, the patriarch of the family was a gifted sculptor but simultaneously struggled with bipolar disorder.

This meant he would go through alternating bouts of depression and excitement. Hellbent on having complete control over the lives of his children, Francis raised them on a massive, isolated cattle ranch in Santa Barbara.

Edie and her siblings responded to their unstable father by intermittently adoring and loathing him. To make matters worse, Francis inadvertently damaged his children through his not-so-secret affairs. One day during her adolescence, for instance, Edie walked in on Francis and another woman in bed.

Instead of apologizing, “Fuzzy” responded by slapping his daughter and telling her she imagined the whole thing. He even called Edie insane and had a doctor prescribe her tranquilizers.

This event would signal the start of Edie’s lifelong struggles with drugs. But this still wasn’t the worst of it. According to Edie, her father even made sexual advances towards her as early as seven years old.

Anorexia, Boys, And Personal Loss

Given this abusive childhood environment and unfortunately family history of mental illness, it’s not surprising that Edie Sedgwick’s later years were filled with personal difficulty.

For one, she continuously struggled with mental issues and anorexia — an eating disorder characterized by an unhealthy obsession with maintaining low body weight. As a result, Edie was committed to Silver Hill Hospital in Connecticut, a psychiatric hospital in 1962.

At the same time, Edie’s teenagers years also revealed her beauty. By the time she attended Radcliffe, a women’s college at Harvard, she had all the boys fawning over her. As one of her former classmates later recalled, “Every boy at Harvard was trying to save Edie from herself.” Edie’s combination of a fragile, unstable personality and good looks proved to be irresistible.

As such, it’s not surprising that around this time Edie became pregnant following a brief relationship with a fellow Harvard student. Instead of keeping the baby, however, she decided to have an abortion.

Then, in 1963 she moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to study art, but bouts of anorexia caused her to drop out of school. To make matters worse for the young Edie, two of her brothers killed themselves within 18 months of one another.

Francis Jr. aka “Minty,” who had a very close relationship with Edie, fell in love with a man and hanged himself as a result in 1964. Meanwhile, her older brother Bobby’s mental instability caused him to drive his motorcycle into the side of a bus. Despite her seemingly successful efforts to break free of her father, Edie could never get away from her family’s mental curse.

Meeting Andy Warhol

Wikimedia CommonsVanity Fair’s Girl of the Year of 1965, Edie Sedgwick.By 1964, after turning 21, Edie Sedgwick moved to New York. After her turbulent past, it seemed like the perfect time to start anew. At first, Edie spent most of her time going to parties. However, she quickly realized that was not enough; she had aspirations of acting, dancing, and modeling.

It was at a party for famous playwright Tennessee Williams in 1965 that she first encountered the eccentric man who would help satisfy her ambitions: Andy Warhol.

Movie producer Lester Persky was hosting the party and recalled Andy’s first glimpse of Sedgwick to Jean Stein, author of the biography Edie: American Girl. Persky said “Andy sucked in his breath and said ‘Oh, she’s so bee-you-ti-ful.’ Making every single letter sound like a whole syllable.”

Just like that, the famous quirky duo was born. Warhol suggested Eddie stop by his infamous “Factory” at East 47th Street in Midtown Manhattan.

When Sedgwick came by, Warhol was in the middle of making Vinyl, an all-male film. Despite this, he decided last minute to give Sedgwick a short role. Her part was all of five minutes and involved smoking and dancing with no dialogue. But it was captivating.

Andy Warhol’s Muse

From that point on, Edie became Warhol’s muse. She dyed her hair silver to match Warhol’s iconic look. Meanwhile, he proceeded to put her as the leading lady in at least 10 of his films. Everyone in the pop art subculture scene came to know Edie Sedgwick’s name and consequently, she was labeled as Vanity Fair’s Girl of the Year of 1965.

In a sense, Edie became famous for being famous, and her unique look — short hair, dark eye make-up, black stockings, leotards, and miniskirts — became instantly recognized.

As for Sedgwick, she saw Warhol as a father figure. Much like the estranged patriarch of the Sedgwick family, Warhol was an artist. While the two men had wildly different personalities, they did have one thing in common: they both established “empires” which they could rule over. But this infatuation was not to last.

Though Warhol and Edie were inseparable for a time, it took less than a year for things to fall apart. Sedgwick began to lose faith in Warhol as early as the summer of 1965, increasingly believing that the movies he was putting her in made her look like a fool. Additionally, she began to gain interest in another popular art figure.

Edie Sedgwick And Bob Dylan

Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan

YoutubeAndy Warhol and Bob Dylan at the Factory.

Edie Sedgwick met famous singer-songwriter Bob Dylan through a chance encounter at Warhol’s Factory. The details of the exact nature of Sedgwick and Dylan’s relationship have never been made clear, but it’s known that Sedgwick’s infatuation with the musician was immediate.

While no official romance between the two was ever confirmed, their flirtatious nature didn’t go unnoticed. Many have speculated that Dylan’s hits “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” “Just Like a Woman, ” and “Like a Rolling Stone” were all about Sedgwick.

But in November 1965, Dylan had already wed Sara Lowndes in a secret ceremony. Shortly after, Sedgwick started a relationship with Dylan’s good friend, folk musician Bobby Neuwirth.

Rumors of the exact nature of Sedgwick and Dylan’s relationship would go on for years. Most famously, her older brother Jonathan would go on to claim that she became pregnant with Dylan’s child, but had to get an abortion because of being admitted to an insane asylum from drug abuse.

By then, she was no longer appearing in Warhol’s films and found herself estranged from him and his inner circle. In the final movie they would do together, Lupe, Warhol allegedly gave the writer a sole chilling direction: “I want something where Edie commits suicide at the end.” It was a telling sign of the state of their relationship.

Continued Success And Escalating Drug Use

As the searing momentum of Edie Sedgwick’s career continued, so did her demons.

In 1966, she was photographed for the cover of Vogue and the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Diana Vreeland, named her a “Youthquake,” which represented a new 1960s cultural movement. However, Sedgwick’s excessive use of drugs stopped her from becoming part of the Vogue family.

“She was identified in the gossip columns with the drug scene, and back then there was a certain apprehension about being involved in that scene,” said senior editor Gloria Schiff. “Drugs had done so much damage to young, creative, brilliant people that we were just anti that scene as a policy.”

After living in the Chelsea Hotel for a few months, Eddie went home for Christmas in 1966. Her brother Jonathan recalled her behavior back at the ranch as strange and alien-like. “She’d pick up what you were about to say before you’d say it. It made everyone uncomfortable. She wanted to sing, and so she would sing…but it was a drag because it wasn’t in tune.”

Autobiography And Untimely End

Rare 1965 interview of Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol.

Unable to handle her drug habit, Neuwirth left her in early 1967. In March of the same year, Sedgwick started to film a semi-biographical film called Ciao! Manhattan. Although her poor health due to drug use stalled the film’s production, she managed to complete it in 1971.

By this point, Edie had gone through several more mental institutions. True to her nature, she quickly formed a new relationship in 1970 with a fellow patient, Michael Post. They married on July 24, 1971.

Edie allegedly stopped using alcohol and drugs for a short period following her marriage. But in October 1971 she was prescribed pain medication, which led to renewed abuse of barbiturates and alcohol. She would go on to meet her end on November 16, 1971, from an overdose on barbiturates, the same drug that killed Marilyn Monroe. She was only 28 years old.

Her father passed away five years later. Shortly before his death, he announced, “You know, my children all believe that their difficulties stem from me. And I agree. I think they do.” It was a single moment of clarity where Edie’s father admitted his role in the tragic lives of his children.

Enjoyed this glimpse into Edie Sedgwick’s turbulent life? Next, read about rock and roll groupies who changed music history. Then check out the life of eccentric artist Andy Warhol.

Kara Goldfarb
Kara Goldfarb is a writer living in New York City.