Everyone, we are assured at birth, is guaranteed their 15 minutes of fame. It’s the 11th Commandment, the 28th Amendment, and the Fifth Law of Physics. Naturally, the Bible, the Constitution, and even Sir Isaac Newton are stony on such matters. Instead, it would be left to Andy Warhol — smirking artist, sneering prophet, and high-glam flim-flam man — to deliver this revelation as if he were the second coming of Moses.
And maybe he was.
Very much on Warhol’s mind at the time — the mid-1960s — was a dazzling vortex of doomed beauty named Edie Sedgwick, who nearly 50 years later remains the Santa Barbaran most famously famous for merely being famous. (By contrast, Martha Graham danced, Katy Perry sings, and Sam Cunningham integrated college football by running the pigskin for USC into the end zone of an all-white Alabama football team two times on 12 carries in an historic 1970 game in Birmingham.) Conventional wisdom holds that Warhol made Sedgwick — the scion of Boston Blue Bloods who would transform themselves into the landed gentry of Santa Barbara — into “Edie.” I think a good case could be made it was the other way around. Either way, long before there were Kardashians — and even before the invention of “branding” — there was “Edie,” impossibly thin, ridiculously vibrant, and irresistibly outrageous.
She also happened to be seriously mentally ill. And a hard-core drug addict. I could say, “But that’s another story.” Except, of course, it’s not.
Edie Sedgwick would get her 15 minutes of fame. In fact, she’d get a whole lot more: a best-selling book in 1982 and a Hollywood movie starring Sienna Miller in 2007. But all that happened after November 16, 1971, when she was found dead — face in her pillow — killed by a barbiturate overdose in an apartment on the 2500 block of De la Vina Street. She was 28 years old.
I dredge all this up because Judge Donna Geck just issued a court ruling resolving a long-festering legal fight as to who can — and can’t — capitalize on Edie Sedgwick’s still smoldering publicity rights. At odds were Michael Brett Post, a Santa Barbara postal worker who met Sedgwick at the psych ward of Cottage Hospital and was married to her for just the last three months of her life. In 1989, Post filed legal papers asserting his rights to market his ex-wife’s likeness. Opposing Post was filmmaker David Weisman, to whom Sedgwick had signed away all publicity rights for the making of Ciao! Manhattan, a rambunctiously incoherent and inspired mess of a movie that makes sense only to viewers who take as many drugs watching it as the actors do playing their roles.
Geck’s ruling hinged on a narrow legal question: Was Edie famous before or after she died? Was she what’s known in the eyes of the law “a deceased personality”? Weisman — who would later make the critically acclaimed Kiss of the Spider Woman — argued via his attorney James Ballantine that Sedgwick’s commercially exploitable fame derived exclusively from her appearance in the film Ciao!, which first screened eight months after her death. Sedgwick appeared in no other films except for Andy Warhol’s home movies made during Factory heydays, along with other creative exhibitionists and pioneers of sexual “fluidity” long before the term existed. Geck would conclude Edie had not achieved the exalted status of being a “personality” at the time she became “deceased.” All Sedgwick’s publicity rights, she ruled, had been signed over to Weisman. Case closed. Slam dunk.
The Sedgwick saga always resonates with perverse morbidity, but especially now, as Santa Barbara gets ready to go crazy with Fiesta, Santa Barbara’s collective exaltation of drunken overindulgence and ranching culture. Francis “Duke” Sedgwick moved his family from back East to the Santa Ynez Valley in the late ’40s after he discovered he could not become the railroad tycoon he’d always dreamed of being. Instead he took up ranching, painting, sculpting, and chasing women. Doctors had warned Sedgwick not to have children; insanity ran in his veins. (He himself had been institutionalized several times, diagnosed as “manic depressive.”) He would defy the doctors and have eight, Edie being the seventh. One child would hang himself with a necktie; one would die in a motorcycle crash shortly after being released from a sanitarium. Edie’s death is a hybrid: part suicide, part accident waiting to happen. Duke, famously, would have affairs. He was not remotely discreet. His long-suffering wife, Alice Delano DeForrest Sedgwick — just as famously — had allergies. She sneezed an awful lot. She would, however, live longer. Before he died, Duke made the bigger-than-life-bronze California Cowboy statue in front of Earl Warren Showgrounds; he did the bronze of Earl Warren on a horse, too. More than that, he and his wife donated 6,000 acres — 9.2 square miles — of prime ranchland, so big it encompassed two watersheds, to UCSB’s Reserve System for environmental preservation and education. About 20 years later, UCSB would try to weasel out of that deal so they could sell the land, but Ballantine — just coincidentally? — teamed up with Environmental Defense Center lawyers to thwart that effort. As legacies go, it doesn’t get more lasting than that.
As for Edie, history may remember her as just another muse with a short fuse, but that sells her short. Among other things, she inspired Bob Dylan — with whom she’d had an affair — to produce Blonde on Blonde, still the single best thing he ever produced. “Just Like a Woman” — “with your fog, your amphetamines and your pearls” — was clearly written directly to her; “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” — “You know it balances on your head just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine” — was written directly about her and ranks — in my book at least — as the single best song Dylan ever wrote.
In life, Edie got short-changed her allotted 15 minutes of fame. But life, as someone famously famous once said, isn’t fair. And it wasn’t that creep Andy Warhol, either.
Correction: Though Sam Cunningham did score a still-legendary four touchdowns in the 1973 Rose Bowl game for USC — he was on the team’s 1972 roster — his segregation-busting game was in 1970 against Alabama’s Crimson Tide in which he scored twice on 12 carries for 135 yards. This story further corrected the year of Sedgwick’s death, which was 1971, not 1970; Michael Post’s middle name was “Brett,” not “Scott”; and Ciao! Manhattan first debuted eight months, in Amsterdam, after Sedgwick died, and in the U.S. about a year after that.