Rich, beautiful, devious, frivolous, oblivious, electric: The “It” girl is the Platonic ideal of youthful femininity to which all Manhattan arrivistes of the female persuasion in some sense aspire. What goes unmentioned in most modern discussions of the sisters Hilton et al., however, is that she is also a tragic figure. A morality tale in the making. The one who reassures us that we did the right thing trading in the nightlife for a nice guy and a stroller in Park Slope, or Montclair, or the Upper West Side. This is because “It”-ness perforce contains its opposite – dissolution, replacement, oblivion, non-“It”-ness. For this reason, leotard-glitter-fur-and-false-eyelashes-wearing Edie Sedgwick, the psycho-Wasp-waif-princess of Andy Warhol’s 47th Street–era Factory, remains the ne plus ultra of “It” girls.
As recounted in George Plimpton and Jean Stein’s still-riveting oral history Edie, the 21-year-old gamine was fresh from the psych ward and the open wound of the first of two brothers’ suicides when she arrived at Grandma’s house on East 71st Street in 1964. The trouble began shortly thereafter. Aside from the all-night parties, getting dressed was, for a while, the main activity in Edie Sedgwick’s life. A signature style of black tights and geometric barely-there shift dresses soon emerged. Despite a barrage of desperate pleading, committing to one man, or (God forbid) a husband, was of no interest; the prep-schooler could barely commit to finishing a sentence – or a cigarette.That Edie became Warhol’s next “superstar” seems, in retrospect, inevitable. The two master manipulators were, for a while, each other’s perfect match. They even began to dress alike, in matching striped boat-neck jerseys. But being an “It” girl had its necessary price. The pill-addict-in-training soon became a full-fledged “poke” freak. The inevitable fall from Warholian grace came in 1966. Briefly, Edie found a new guru in Bob Dylan. The relationship didn’t last, and the era of mattress fires began. Heroin beckoned, followed by the move to the Chelsea Hotel. Edie Sedgwick wound up dead from an alcohol and barbiturate overdose in Santa Barbara, California, four months married, recently shock-treated, and claiming to have gone drug-free. She was 28 years old. When I first moved to New York, in 1991, Sedgwick embodied my fantasies of weightlessness – she seemed to exist in a plane between the earth and the sky. Practical matters never touched her. In retrospect, it was probably just a fantasy of never growing up.