Girls on Fire

by Mara Jebsen


…But really, since I exist at all, I believe that it is possible for people to…I've lived through impossible situations. So I believe in it. I just believe, and that's the magic…That's the whole thing, you talk about magic that's there to believe in, and it is there. But most people don't really believe it.

–Edie Sedgwick

This summer I had a crush on Edie Sedgwick. Recently, I tried to “be” both Edie and Andy Warhol for Halloween. It was easy, because he used to dress like her. The source of her ability to fascinate is hard to explain, even now that she's dead–and I imagine it was even harder for her devotees to explain back then. Over the summer, I read several books about Edie, all of which were half-dominated by glossy photos. In a short time, I developed the sort of crush good girls get on bad girls in Junior High. It just seemed sort of fascinating and marvelous that a person could be almost nothing at all but will and whimsy, and could empty themselves of anything but surface. By this I mean to to say that a young woman, very pained and twisted by the forces of childhood, could become a sort of Peter Pan and fly through New York as if there was no future.

She can hardly have been the first person to turn partying and the wearing of odd clothing into a primary form of expression, but she seems to have had a real gift (a curse-gift, of course, the kind of gift that kills you) for just that. A few writers attribute our whole fascination with androgyny (particularly, slim little boy-women) to Edie, which is maybe not the best legacy to have left on the world, but from what I've read, I can't imagine she intended for generations to copy her. And while its clear that her life in New York, and at the Factory, made her into a sort of combustible, dancing, fairy-machine that ran off of attention, I don't think that fame (at least, as we understand it now) can have held real attraction for her. I sometimes think I can understand what made her go, but have only been able to access that through poetry.

Before my crush on Edie, I had a fascination with Judy Garland. It wasn't the same thing at all. The thing about Judy Garland that got me going was that I saw footage of her from before she did “The Wizard of Oz,” in blackface, performing as part of a minstrel show. It got me thinking about how we could potentially track shifts in American history through the lives of our favourite performers. If I were a historian, that's what I'd do. Little Judy in blackface in 1938 is pretty disturbing and can make your brain want to shut, but the part of you that pays attention to everything will notice that she has something. Its not clear where she got it from, or what she should be doing with it, but she has It.

Of course, the It of an “It Girl” and the It of a professional performer who “has It” are not the same thing. But in the case of these two very different women, we can think about how they absorbed and radiated back the aesthetic energy, the zeitgeist, around them.

I was fascinated to learn that had actually met, although 'met' is not the right word. It was in New York, at what sounds like a really awful party thrown by Lester Persky. Edie was blowing through her inheritance then, and Judy was no longer a young woman, but very accustomed to holding a crowd. I'm tempted to call Persky's party an important moment in the history of performance. But lately, I've only been able to think through poetry:

The Kind of Gift That Kills You

Then at that famous, vicious, fete

down in the village, a SnakeThing happened–

the esprit that animated

Judy, slithered from her lips & dropped to the floor

to Edie–across the room. The place

was black & starred; junked up

& glam like everybody

in it. Truman Capote,

skilled in the calibrations of psychic

loss, shuddered at the feel of a mystic

passing, and in a fit

of kindness, hoisted

and paraded Judy

across the room, to beckon the silver snake

of her queendom

back. It was a spectacular

mistake–every eye was already

on Edie, a narrow, baby-skinned bolt

of breath; furiously sexy in a paper-doll

dress; receiving the mercury

of the SnakeThing down

at her toe-nails where it mixed

with amphetamine, flared & made

short work of her tiny, leaflike

frame; she was

sparkler then; radio tower, skull

crackling with powerful circles

of white white light; an upright

wedding of eyes &

narcotics; her head an electric

dandelion– god, they said, the girl's

on fire!

(Judy, in the corner, felt at once

her human flesh, sinking,

with Capote

the fourth Martini)

Ultimately, female American performers, whether they had talent or glamour or both, became part of a destructive machine, but were also, I imagine, helplessly themselves, because of the It, which feeds off of attention and throws it back to the audience with great, invisible, waves of energy. I can't define It, of course, but it has something to do with a sort of vibrant, wistful optimism.

Judy's famous for telling her audience:”'I've always taken 'The Wizard of Oz' very seriously, you know. I believe in the idea of the rainbow. And I've spent my entire life trying to get over it.” Edie said: “There's magic that's there to believe in.” Both were often astonished that they were alive.

“I've spent my entire life trying to get over it?” I want to ask Judy Garland: the rainbow, or the idea? Many of us spend our lives trying to get over the idea of the rainbow–as if heaven on earth were a child's notion. Its definitely a dangerous one. But I think these performers thought of the other side as an actual, accessible place. They used the energy of our love to get there. It begins to strike me as important that there are dozens of accounts of Edie, in which her contemporaries (many as on and off drugs as she) describe her as “otherworldly”, even when sober.

I'm still not sure I can define the “It” of the “It-Girl”, but I suspect that this “otherworldly” business has something to do with it. They are charismatic because they desperately believe. They believe in purely good places you can get to before death–and when we catch them believing it, we get a glimpse of the rainbow's other side.

Photo 312(as Edie and Andy)Photo 321