AS IT TURNS OUT
Thinking About Edie and Andy
By Alice Sedgwick Wohl
Illustrated. 259 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $28.
Growing up in the first half of the last century, Alice Sedgwick Wohl was taught, among many other draconian rules of WASP etiquette, that “it was wrong to begin a letter or even a paragraph with the pronoun ‘I.’” Though letters and even paragraphs may now be as threatened as the Arctic ice caps, Wohl has defiantly written an entire book in the first person singular. Her late-life memoir, “As It Turns Out” — published just before its author’s 91st birthday — is beautiful, if not exactly joyful.
Wohl was the first child of eight in a family of genteel birth and uneven mental health, the Sedgwicks, who moved from Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., to a succession of ranches in California. On one of those properties they struck oil, fortifying their attenuated fortune. Their rich ancestry included Theodore Sedgwick, a speaker of the House under Thomas Jefferson; Ellery Sedgwick, the longtime editor of The Atlantic Monthly; and Ellery’s brother Henry Dwight Sedgwick, a prolific popular historian who “knew and didn’t particularly like” Henry James. Brought up “not to talk about anything personal,” Wohl writes, “I am uncomfortably aware that the mere recitation of facts like these can amount to bragging.”
The seventh child, Edie, would become the famed — and doomed — muse to Andy Warhol right as the ’60s were turning sour (she died of a barbiturate overdose in 1971, at 28). Wohl’s book is lassoed around the pair’s double star, but loops back touchingly to the second child, Bobby, to whom Alice was close and who in 1965, at 31, fatally collided with a city bus while riding his motorcycle. Another younger brother, known as Minty after his middle name, Minturn, had committed suicide the previous year.
Silly nicknames were another WASP custom (Henry Dwight was called Babbo), and often they stung. Minty hated his sobriquet, according to “Edie: An American Biography” (1982), the oral history edited by the Sedgwick intimates Jean Stein and George Plimpton, to which “As It Turns Out” serves as a kind of sidecar volume. (There have been several other books, documentaries and a feature film centered on Edie, but none have the Stein-Plimpton collaboration’s heft.) Alice herself was referred to as Saucie because her father, Francis Sedgwick, thought she resembled a sausage at birth; Francis, a sculptor with a carefully maintained Charles Atlas physique, fretted continually about Alice’s weight. To his friends, he was known as Duke, which gives some idea of his preening self-regard, a facade after nervous breakdowns torched banking and military careers. Before his marriage to the long-suffering Alice Delano de Forest, he had been advised by a psychiatrist not to procreate.
To the Von Trapp-like brood he obstinately sired anyway, christened “in a batch on the terrace,” Francis was not Daddy but Fuzzy, a nickname borrowed from his wellborn father-in-law’s nickname. He “wasn’t fuzzy, was he” as the old nursery rhyme goes, but cruel and abusive, administering spanks with a hairbrush, calling Minty “an old woman and a sissy” and writing a hurtful roman à clef, “The Rim,” about his own philandering. Edie said she’d not only walked in on Fuzzy in flagrante delicto, resulting in him slapping her and shooting her full of tranquilizers, but was herself subjected to his sexual advances when she was as young as 7. “The fact that I find it hard to believe doesn’t mean some of it couldn’t have been true,” writes Wohl, who herself witnessed Fuzzy’s jealous, seductive behavior and his shocking racism.
A translator of art books, an understandable choice of profession considering the strange codes she was forced to interpret growing up, Wohl adds sensitive shading and texture to the group portrait of the Sedgwicks that emerged in “Edie” — and a spray of light. She describes lying on haystacks gazing at meteors in the night sky, carrying a trout that she and Bobby caught back to the house in her moccasin for her father’s delectation, and riding a beloved gray gelding called Grenadier. “Only music, only a Brahms symphony, comes close” to the sensation of those prelapsarian gallops, she writes.
With its primitive and sometimes barbaric rituals (cattle branding, etc.), the isolated ranch was Duke’s elaborately constructed duchy — opposite and yet parallel in some ways to the hypermodern tinfoil kingdom of Warhol’s Factory: “Each of the two worlds was dominated by a powerful male figure, one gregarious and priapic, the other shy and deliberately ‘swish,’” Wohl points out. Each was fixated on appearances; each was fogged by narcotics. Warhol, the Byzantine Catholic from working-class Pittsburgh, handed out funny nicknames as well.
“As It Turns Out” affords opportunity for Wohl, with the perspective of decades, to walk back some of the comments she made to Stein about the artist, to acknowledge his creative and emotional breadth and his prescience. “I am ashamed to see the shallow things I said,” she writes. “I just didn’t get it.” She finds his trick of dismissing personal problems with a simple “so what” particularly handy.
Wohl is also determined to refine the popular impression that her little sister was an innocent done in by Warhol’s Svengali. “She was not Miranda in ‘The Tempest,’” Wohl writes, “she was more like a feral creature springing out of captivity,” who would carry around a copy of“A Tale of Two Cities” for show and at first mistook her silver-haired doppelgänger’s project as “Pop Tart.” In this telling, Edie, blessed or cursed by exceptional beauty, is spoiled by her parents and develops a domineering personality, becomes a reckless shopaholic with few skills other than ordering stuff over the telephone, a “scamp, and totally kinetic” (or “all zoom zoom zoom,” as the eighth child, Suky, liked to put it) — really kind of a pain, whose enduring mystique is owed to nothing more than the ascent of image culture.
Wohl has maintained what seems a cool remove from this difficult sister, learning her precise birth date from a 2015 Vogue article and expressing surprise that the magazine was still celebrating Edie. A few of her passages land as stubbornly, perhaps self-protectively, naïve. “I knew about the drugs, but I had no idea she drank,” she remarks of Edie after seeing her order vodka in a Warhol film. In one breath Wohl wonders why no one found Edie’s binging and purging at fancy restaurants disgusting; in the next she’s noting — bingo — that her sister always picked up the bill.
The Sedgwick children’s grandmother, a Colony Club member so stratospherically snobbish that she found the Social Register vulgar and the Vanderbilts de trop, once bragged that her bare feet had never touched the ground. Lucky for Wohl, and for her readers, that she managed to dig deep into the dirt, wiggle her toes — and then run the full distance.