’CIAO! MANHATTAN,’ made between 1967 and 1972 by current or newly expelled members of Andy Warhol’s Factory, featuring cameos by Warhol Superstars and countercultural icons like Allen Ginsberg, and funded, in turn, by a furrier and a rumored marijuana entrepreneur, is, by objective measures, a disaster movie. It involves no earthquakes, tsunamis, or meteor strikes. But the film and the making of it—the distinction is spurious—involve disappearances, hospitalizations, incarcerations, and death. It wouldn’t exist at all had it not been charismatically bullied into being by its co-director David Weisman, a man described by one collaborator as a “full-on pirate.”
Shot at first in black-and-white, Ciao! Manhattan was conceived as a quasi-cinéma-vérité portrait of the ’60s underground lifestyle seen through Edie Sedgwick, one of the Factory’s most mesmerizing collaborators (or commodities), but later moved to California to become about the bleak aftermath of drug abuse and fleeting “downtown” celebrity, shot in color.
There’s an apocryphal tale about Ciao! Manhattan that equally applies to any attempts to piece together the story of its making. One night, Genevieve Charbin, a filmmaker who had a bit part in Warhol’s My Hustler (1965) and who co-wrote, sort of, the original script that eventually became Ciao! Manhattan, sat on the floor and cut the existing footage into thousands of tiny frames. Assembling the origins of Ciao! Manhattan is a bit like trying to locate those pieces after nearly 50 years and resplice them to produce a semi-factual, semicogent timeline of the movie, which took five years to film in part because Sedgwick, gripped by a downward addiction spiral, vanished in the middle of making it.
I first learned about the movie while reading Edie: American Girl, an oral biography, by Jean Stein and edited by George Plimpton, published in 1982. Sedgwick, an heiress from Santa Barbara with a history of mental-health struggles, “Girl of the Year” in 1965, star of nearly two dozen Factory films, had briefly been a breakout success. (Dubbed a “Youthquaker” by Vogue, she appeared in its pages ballet-posing on the back of a fake stuffed rhino, wearing black tights and a T-shirt.)
As Warhol and his scene eventually distanced themselves from Sedgwick’s ugly drugs-and-drama implosion, so too have some of the original participants distanced themselves (a few by dying) from Ciao! Manhattan. “It’s so sad,” Betsey Johnson said of the film. (She designed the alien costumes for the party scene in which a naked Ginsberg briefly appears.) “It just got really messed up. Maybe now it’s a cult movie, but it’s lousy. It’s not the real deal.”
Robert Margouleff, son of the furrier investor and one of the movie’s early collaborators, also finds Ciao! Manhattan “sad” for reasons involving Sedgwick’s luridly documented ruin, rather than the film’s inauthenticity as a historical document. “Every time I watch it,” he said, “I have two weeks of bad luck.”
Certain aspects of the finished film, however, are very authentic. In the final scene, a New York Post rests beside a sinister businessman–drug dealer with the headline andy’s star of ’65 is dead at 28. The newspaper was not a prop. Sedgwick died after consuming a combination of alcohol and barbiturates in 1971, shortly before the movie was finished.
Perhaps predictably, given her tragic turn, Sedgwick has proved a persistently revivable pop-cultural icon. In part attributable to the clichéd and durable obsession with charismatic women who flagrantly self-destruct, her recurrent allure is probably also connected to the rise and fall of a glamorously debauched time-capsule sliver of the ’60s.
Melissa Painter, who collaborated with Weisman on a 2006 book about Sedgwick called Edie: Girl on Fire, offers a third explanation for Sedgwick’s, and Ciao! Manhattan’s, ongoing relevance. “To me,” she said, “the other true story of a film like Ciao! Manhattan is the blurring of public persona, private persona, ownership of your brand, who owns your brand, how do you sign away your life rights—all of these things that have actually turned out to be very, very modern questions.”
IT’S 1967. Margouleff, an Army photographer just back from overseas, receives money from his wealthy family to start a film-production company. He and his partner approach Chelly Wilson, owner of multiple sexploitation movie theaters around 42nd Street, who was known to give inexperienced filmmakers $15,000 to $25,000 to do some on-the-job learning producing soft-core porn.
A few blocks away, Chuck Wein, Warhol associate and Factory filmmaker, is writing a script with Charbin. Script is possibly too formal a word; Wein and Charbin want to make a movie about a woman named Susan based on the life of Susan Bottomly, a model and Factory actress known as International Velvet. Weisman—cinephile, polyglot, cultural omnivore, and avid connector—somehow becomes involved. (When you ask a question enough times and never receive a direct answer, one conclusion may be: The moment was never committed to anyone’s memory. “I only got loaded once,” said Margouleff. “That was in 1958, when I was 17 years old, and I came down in 2012.”) During a few “collisions” in the back room of Max’s Kansas City and elsewhere, Wein and Weisman brainstorm with Margouleff, whose appeal as a creative partner, in addition to his talent for hanging out of helicopters with a camera, is probably his family’s money.
But Bottomly’s society father forbids her from getting involved. Sedgwick takes Bottomly’s place. Her life, instead of Bottomly’s, provides the faint container for the film. The movie will be a sort of documentary about the underground lifestyle via one of its most glamorous icons.
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