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Reshaping the muse mold

Edie Sedgwick, the focus of `Factory Girl,' made a familiar role new in the counterculture era.

January 07, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

THERE'S a moment in "Factory Girl," the new film about Andy Warhol's most sparkling superstar, Edie Sedgwick, that almost gets things right. It occurs when the beautiful waif meets the film's nominally disguised Dylan figure, Billy Quinn. Pushed toward her backstage at a concert, he grabs Sedgwick and points her at the clutch of cameras recording the encounter. He knows her value -- not as a girlfriend or artistic partner, but as a sort of living auto-focus device for the age of exploding flashbulbs.

This is what muses became in the Pop moment: guiding forces within an ever-expanding maze of media opportunities and radical-chic connections, styling and positioning their "great men" within a world that cared as much about their hairstyles as their art. Sedgwick never actually served this role for Dylan; his recent legal actions challenging the verisimilitude of "Factory Girl" rightly assert that, though they shared a scene and certain ambitions, he and Sedgwick were never that close. What is true, however, is that Dylan needed and found this kind of woman to help him up fame's moving ladder, as did most of the major pop stars in this era. Sedgwick emblematized that role in her relationship with Andy Warhol, and "Factory Girl," which opened in Los Angeles on Dec. 29 and is expected to open more widely in February, hints at her gift for modernizing the muse before devolving into a boring and implausible romantic triangle.

As social-climbing bad boys like Dylan transformed rock from a teenage diversion into a countercultural force -- and Warhol, from the other side, imbued art with rock's energy and flash -- a remarkable group of women revived the role of the muse for a new cultural moment.

Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithfull with the Rolling Stones, Angie Bowie with her husband David, Suze Rotolo and Joan Baez with Bob Dylan: these companions were image enhancers, social connectors and informal educators for their men. Earlier muses inspired the works of artists and fashion designers and displayed them. In the rock era, the emphasis shifted from private to public with the rise of mass-marketed consumer culture. The muse became an arbiter of image and lifestyle.

"She transformed him," said writer and occasional Warhol collaborator Robert Heide of Edie's relationship with Andy. "Edie had an impeccable sense of style -- with those long legs and the little striped shirt -- she invented that shirt, by the way, it wasn't Andy." Andy and Edie became like twins, her adopting his silver mane, him copping style tips from her.

"I thought at first it was exploitive on Andy's part, and then I changed my mind, and decided if it was exploitive on any part, maybe it was exploitive on Edie's part," said photographer Fred Eberstadt of their mutual need. Early on, "Factory Girl" captures this mutual exploitation, but ultimately it posits Sedgwick as an innocent victim, downplaying the drive and artistry she exhibited through her public partnership with the man who "created" her.

If Andy and Edie created each other, they weren't the only pop pair to do so. A 1976 London Daily Express article described Angie and David Bowie, then seven years married, at home in London: "Angie glamorous, thinner even than he is, with ginger eye makeup to match his hair, and looking incestuously like his twin sister." Was this mere narcissism on the part of privileged men? Or did these women actually mold the men who seemingly dominated them?

The 1960s consorts of the Rolling Stones were famous as perfect rock chicks, and, later, drug casualties; but these cultured women did more than hang around. Pallenberg, especially, who first loved Brian Jones and, later, Keith Richards, was a classic upper-class bohemian whose links to a cosmopolitan, aristocratic scene gave the band a chance to become more than just rock ruffians.

"How Anita came to be with Brian is really how the Stones came to be the Stones," Faithfull, Mick Jagger's equally classy consort, wrote in her 1994 memoir. "She almost single-handedly engineered a cultural revolution in London by bringing together the Stones and the jeunesse doree.... [I]t transformed the Stones from pop stars into cultural icons."

A strong woman's job

PALLENBERG also contributed to the Stones' descent into drug addiction; it may not be a coincidence that these strong-willed women were often prone to self-abuse. They were, in a strange way, as ambitious as the artists they helped mold. But when their efforts worked, and their consorts succeeded, often they were left behind.

This was the decade before feminism's second wave took hold, and these women didn't have a sense of their labor being worth anything. This was partly Sedgwick's problem, which "Factory Girl" suggests: her failure to establish a real career, more than her lack of a true love, ruined her.

In one case, however, a rock muse's efforts in transforming her man were so pointed and singular that she did get the credit she deserved. Forget Edie and "Billy Quinn" -- it was Baez who helped shape Bob Dylan, and lost her heart, though not her head, in the process.

A few years later, the very concept of the rock muse was shaken by the resolutely equal partnership of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. "We are two halves, and together we're a whole," Lennon famously said.

Today, the glamorous partners of rock stars (or art stars) have prominent careers as writers or models or rock stars; they make their own money and tend to their own images. Most stay in the background, letting others direct their mates' public lives. After all, a new panoply of partners has arisen to tend the needs of rough-edged geniuses. They're called stylists. They might demand scale, but at least there's no trail of broken hearts.

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