Reading List July/August 2005

The Lady Is a Tramp

Five books about endlessly inspiring, morally vacuous women
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Edie: An American Biography, by Jean Stein, edited by George Plimpton (1982). Nearly thirty-five years after Edie Sedgwick's death from an overdose, at the age of twenty-eight, her glamorous vapor continues to intoxicate alienated, artsy, wannabe-anorexic teens (who, rightly or wrongly, credit her hipness to her lack of hips); fashion designers (John Galliano's spring 2005 runway show for Christian Dior Haute Couture opened with twenty Edies in black tights and skimpy Gernreich-y sheaths); and film executives (Sienna Miller was set to star in the next attempt at a biopic). But who was this waspy twig? In Jean Stein's impressive oral history focusing on the Factory years, Edie emerges as a speed freak who wore fur coats over bare skin, arrived late to parties and left early, and tore through a sizable inheritance in a matter of months, and whose only real work involved making over her legs in the summer of '64. The persistence of Edie's iconicity can be credited, paradoxically, to Stein's attempt to make real this woman whose short life was at once a sad waste of time and culturally, ad infinitum the time of seemingly everyone's life.

The Education of a French Model, by Kiki (1955). A smashing little memoir, with an introduction by a thoroughly smashed Ernest Hemingway, by Kiki de Montparnasse, the artist's model who was muse or whore to artist or john (depending on the soir) in Paris in the 1920s. First published in 1929, it chronicles her early years (peasant roots, single mom, gnawing hunger and desperation) and her glory days (Man Ray, Cocteau, Papa H.); the English edition also contains Kiki's account of her impoverished existence in New York in the 1940s, where surreally she found comfort in the presence of a dead fish.

Faithfull: An Autobiography, by Marianne Faithfull and David Dalton (1994). Were there ever more-glamorous groupies than Faithfull and her stunning partner in just about everything, Anita Pallenberg? They bed-swapped with the Stones, when getting inside Mick's trousers still meant something, and then Marianne dropped the Stones for drugs. This wonderfully matter-of-fact account of sixties decadence British-style is evidence that Faithfull cannot ultimately be charged with moral vacuity: self-knowledge may have come late ("I was the victim of cool, of the tyranny of hip," she writes. "It almost killed me"), but not too late for her to record with clear eyes the years in which clear eyes rarely existed. The same cannot be said for Faithfull's fellow blurry young things: Pallenberg and Talitha Getty (Jean Paul Getty Jr.'s junkie wife, who before dying young was photographed on a Marrakesh rooftop wearing a caftan that has inspired designers to think "ethnic" every fourth spring).

Holy Skirts, by René Steinke (2005). The German-born Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was at once a sexual and artistic adventurer/revolutionary and a kookily clad nut case. She arrived in Greenwich Village in 1917 and stunned the self-styled culturally avant-garde set by swanning about in bustled evening gowns with flashing taillights, dresses made from newspaper, and necklaces of spoons. René Steinke's fictional re-imagining of Man Ray and Duchamp's mad muse is wonderfully insightful about the self-absorption required to be a fashion avatar.

Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon, by Sue Tilley (1997). Club impresario and performance artist Leigh Bowery was of course not a woman, but as someone who during his life always sought to defy gender categorization, he surely would have taken a perverse pleasure in being cast as such. Sue Tilley's biography a big sloppy kiss to her enormous friend offers a fascinating glimpse into the mundane business of being fabulous. She and Bowery scour charity shops, sew costumes, have little bitchfests about the preceding nights at Taboo. How does one actually go about dressing up as a Paki from space, or with a face covered in brown paint full of some kind of crispy cereal and a urinal on one's head? Surely the magical, unfathomable force that led Bowery to create his many grotesque personae lies at the crux of his appeal to artists (from Lucian Freud to Madonna) and designers (most notably Westwood, Gaultier, and Galliano). Tilley goes a long way toward dispelling the mystery without breaking the spell.

Sally Singer is the fashion news and features director at Vogue.
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