reasons to love new york

Not All Disaster Movies Contain Explosions

Ciao! Manhattan set out to capture Warhol’s New York underground and instead became a symbol of its demise.

Edie Sedgwick during the filming of Ciao! Manhattan. Photo: Robert Margouleff
Edie Sedgwick during the filming of Ciao! Manhattan. Photo: Robert Margouleff
Edie Sedgwick during the filming of Ciao! Manhattan. Photo: Robert Margouleff

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, semi-cogent 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.

Unfortunately, Sedgwick is already starting to disintegrate, and not at all glamorously. She falls asleep in her room and accidentally sets fire to her mattress, ruining the furs given to her by Margouleff’s father and burning both hands, which must be thickly wrapped in white bandages, thus earning her the name Edie Q-tip. She needs an assistant to help her in the bathroom. She has run through her massive inheritance and has nowhere to live. Margouleff calls her father, Duke Sedgwick, a blue-blooded patriarch, for help. Duke says (according to Margouleff), “Son, you’re a man. I’m not going to take care of her anymore.”

Filming begins. The line between scripted and vérité dissolves. Chaos is the reigning aesthetic. Weisman describes the production as “an incompetent crew, a cast of thousands … all off looking for drugs.”

The following scenes are shot between Easter and Memorial Day 1967: Sedgwick and her boyfriend, played by Paul America, speed at 60 mph over the George Washington Bridge. (Co-cinematographer and co-director John Palmer risks his life straddling the car’s hood to get the shot.) Sedgwick skips precariously along a high stone wall at the Cloisters, a fur coat swinging from one hand. (“Edie’s been awake for about three days in that shot,” said Weisman.) At the office of “Dr. Robert,” based on the real-life John Bishop, speed-laced vitamin shots (“pokes”) are administered to members of the art and fashion worlds. Sedgwick and other actors (Viva, Pat Hartley, Brigid Berlin) attend a pool party at the health club in the basement of the Ansonia, a residential hotel on Broadway at 73rd Street, where they idly drift on an inflatable raft. (“By the time that night was over,” Weisman said, “the entire pool had been replaced by liquid amphetamine, and of course all the drains in the pool had been completely clogged by syringes.”)

Paul America is supposed to drive around the Pan Am Building near Grand Central Terminal, then return to pick up Baby Jane Holzer. Instead, as he nears the camera, he throws the script out the window, keeps driving, and no one hears from him for 18 months, at which point he’s in a Michigan jail.

The final day of shooting takes place at a New Jersey Palisades mansion. The scene, as Wein envisions it, is meant to be a “medium conference” between the teleported youth of outer space (wearing the outfits designed by Johnson, who was paid “in material”) and the youth of the counterculture. “The LSD was flowing mightily,” said Margouleff, “and Allen was running around in the nude.” Margouleff, however, is losing patience and hemorrhaging money. His office in the Diamond District is filled with sand for a beach scene that’s never used. “I would get in the elevator at the end of the day, and I’d be in there with all the rabbis and stuff … and I’d say to myself, Is it going to get any worse than this?

It does. The footage gets cut into tiny pieces. The money runs out. Wein moves on to other projects. Margouleff shifts his creative energy toward synthesizers. And Sedgwick disappears.

Weisman and Palmer are in a jam. How to make a semi-biographical movie without its star? A plan is hatched: Instead of a movie about Sedgwick and her scene, it will be about the businessman named Mr. Verdecchio and his attempt to slow the march of technology by selling LSD to the counterculture on behalf of “the saucer people.” This requires a lot of acting from Margouleff’s father, Jean. (It’s hard not to see this plot solution, in part, as a classic Weisman ploy to secure more financing.) As Mr. Verdecchio, Jean talks on a car phone and watches live surveillance of the louche activities at Dr. Roberts’s.

Somebody tracks down Paul America in jail. The crew road-trips to Allegan, Michigan, and convinces the sheriff to let them film America in his cell. After they return to New York, they discover the footage to be unusably out of focus. They drive back to Michigan to reshoot. America’s defense attorney, as well as the lawyer prosecuting his case, is given a bit role.

In 1970, Sedgwick resurfaces. She’s in a psychiatric ward in Santa Barbara. Weisman and Palmer strike a deal with Sedgwick’s doctors: She can be released from the hospital on an outpatient basis if they agree to look after her. Meanwhile, Weisman shows the existing footage at a university. Afterward, he’s given a ride to the airport by a reputedly pot-dealing student who offers him some finishing funds. Weisman and Palmer begin shooting again, switching to color film. Their idea is this: Susan, rejected by her downtown-Manhattan friends, has returned to her family’s estate in Southern California. The black-and-white footage will become Susan’s memories, to which she’ll flash back from her colorful West Coast present. The tone also changes — less documentary realism, more, in Margouleff’s estimation, “a cartoon.”

And so the story becomes a warped “redemption tale.” Exiled from the family house, Susan lives in the deep end of a drained swimming pool under a rainbow tent, the concrete walls decorated with photos of her former life. Her mother employs a taciturn working-class surfer type named Geoffrey as Susan’s butler, babysitter, and nurse. While she spends her days sprawled topless on a mattress, Geoffrey organizes her medications on a silver tray. He washes Susan’s underwear in a cauldron over a poolside campfire. One day, Susan escapes. A young Texan named Butch finds her, wearing only pants and a jacket, on the Pacific Coast Highway and takes her home. Back in the empty pool, Susan orders Geoffrey and Butch to bring her lip gloss and vodka, dances barefoot on broken glass, and demands a phone to call the editor of Vogue. She goes for shock therapy. Her doctor (played by French director Roger Vadim) kisses her on the lips before inserting the rubber guard into her mouth.

In some versions of Weisman’s telling, Sedgwick is credited as the film’s driving force. “Edie saw a certain moral engagement in what she was doing,” Weisman said, “because she wanted to set the record straight about the way it really was, at the same time coping with her own disease.” He insisted, and others confirm, “Edie was so firmly committed to finishing this movie.”

Still, what’s filmed at the bottom of the pool, in the least discomforting reading, is a messy act of self-reclamation. Sedgwick, according to Weisman, was the one who decided to be topless for many of the scenes (she’d recently had her breasts surgically enlarged). Sedgwick was the one who decided to drop her drink on the floor and dance on broken glass. Sedgwick went off-script and free-associated about how her brother and father tried to seduce her. (Her stories about her childhood suggest these mentions were rooted in real-life experiences.) She was always either slurringly drunk and high or playing at being drunk and high. Her boyfriend, Michael Post, eventually switched out her daytime vodka for something lower proof so she wouldn’t be speechlessly inebriated while the camera rolled.

“She was so smart,” Weisman said. “Was she acting, or was this how she was? The answer is both, and very clearly so.”

In another era, Painter believed, Sedgwick might have been acknowledged as the co-director or writer of the film. (She would have received far more credit, too, for the Factory films she made with Wein and Warhol.) At the same time, Painter pointed out how affording her that recognition might conveniently exonerate those who profited from her exhibitionistic willingness.

By the aughts, Weisman seemed to have an inkling of how his involvement was aging poorly. He had started to distance himself, if not from the film, then from his role in it. “In the opening title sequence,” Weisman explained, “the filmmaker credit doesn’t say ‘directed by’; it says ‘a film by.’ ”

“Why we did that is because the film really directed itself,” he said. “So we didn’t want to take the credit away from the higher power.”

The shooting wraps. Sedgwick marries Post. Weisman and Palmer film their ceremony, held in the grassy hills of Santa Barbara, where the Sedgwick family owned a ranch. Four months later, Sedgwick dies.

Trying to finish the film for a second time, without their star, Weisman and Palmer use the wedding footage in the final cut. Susan enjoys a brief happy ending and marries a man with a beard. Butch travels east. In the final scene, while walking through the Pocono Mountains countryside carrying a samurai sword, he sees Mr. Verdecchio’s Mercedes on the side of the road with a flat tire. When Mr. Verdecchio rolls down the window to lecture him about the importance of old-world craftsmanship, Butch sees the New York Post announcing “Susan’s” death. Snow begins to fall.

In the wedding footage, Sedgwick wears a high-necked white dress. She is tan, alert, and expressive, and if she hadn’t died so soon afterward, these shots might have put more squarely to rest the question of whether her pool persona was more art than life, more a repossession project than an annihilation one. It might have released the directors from their culpability as passive chroniclers or vague enablers of her careering, final days. The heavy lace veil blows in the wind, throwing both sun and shadow over her grinning, dimpled face.

A common question voiced on the director’s commentary that accompanies Ciao! Manhattan’s 30th anniversary DVD is “I wonder if he/she is still alive?” or “I wonder what happened to him/her?” What happened to Charlie Bacis (a.k.a. Dr. Roberts) after he changed his name to Bhavananda and became a “mucky-muck” in the Hare Krishna community? The answer tends to be “No one knows.” The last anyone heard from Paul America was sometime in the ’70s. He called Margouleff for money; he was living penniless on a commune. He had fallen out of a tree, broken both his legs, and lost his teeth.

Margouleff is one of the few people involved with Ciao! Manhattan who survived and thrived. He went on to produce and sound-engineer records by Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, and Devo.

Weisman survived and thrived too. After Ciao! Manhattan, he began to acquire, via charismatic high-seas pursuits, the rights to intellectual properties and archives. He befriended Manuel Puig and persuaded the skittish author to let him produce a movie of his novel Kiss of the Spider Woman. (Weisman was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1986; he lost to Sydney Pollack for Out of Africa.) He acquired the rights to many jidaigeki films (period Japanese samurai movies) and co-directed a compilation called Shogun Assassin. He frequently worked with screenwriter Leonard Schrader, brother of Paul. He collaborated, or tried to collaborate, with many people.

In 2004, he tried to collaborate with me. He wanted us to write a screenplay about Sedgwick because he had heard a Sedgwick biopic was in the works and, feeling somewhat justifiably slighted, believed he was the better person to tell her real story. Our movie never advanced beyond the conceptual phase. (Factory Girl, the Sedgwick biopic, starred Sienna Miller and was released in 2006.) Mostly our collaboration involved his talking and my listening. He was an enthralling oral historian who, by whatever swashbuckling means, had acquired audio or video evidence of seemingly everything and everyone from the mid-’60s onward, archived in his studio. He gave me the sense that he could have leverage over a lot of people, though this power thrilled him more as a chess player than as a blackmailer.

He told a story about Quentin Tarantino, who needed his permission to use clips from Shogun Assassin in Kill Bill: Volume 2. Weisman wanted to meet Tarantino in person before he signed the agreement. Tarantino refused. Weisman told me he lured Tarantino to his house by promising to show him footage of Nena von Schlebrügge, Uma Thurman’s mother, nursing Uma’s newborn brother. (“Those were the breasts that nursed Uma,” I recall Weisman saying.) Tarantino came to his house. Weisman signed.

On one point of “fact,” most people align: Ciao! Manhattan would never have been completed without Weisman, who died in 2019 just two months after winning an eight-year legal battle against Sedgwick’s widower over the rights to her publicity images. (Weisman’s lawyer successfully argued that Sedgwick’s posthumous fame was entirely owed to her role in Ciao! Manhattan; thus Weisman owned all of her publicity images, even ones not associated with the film.) Those who knew Weisman describe a person driven less by creativity than by the challenge of making the impossible happen. They describe a person who enjoyed breaking the rules, who was tenacious and pushy, and who liked, moreover, to “win.”

When I met Weisman, his magnetism remained unweathered, save by a little bitterness. His return, 30-plus years later, to Sedgwick as a persona to produce could be seen in a variety of lights, some more selfless than others. Both Weisman and Margouleff spoke of Sedgwick as a valuable cultural artifact; her reputation needed protecting, restoring. In the case of Margouleff, his paternalistic concern for Sedgwick seemed based on a deep affection, a belief in her as a thinker and an artist, and his ongoing grief or guilt over her early death.

Weisman’s pull toward Sedgwick was more complicated. She provided him a point of access to fame, money, beauty, breeding. She’s the object of his adoration and envy but also his disdain. “The irony of Ciao! Manhattan,” said Painter, “is that David also hated women.” The final cut of the movie conveys his desire, if not to consciously destroy Sedgwick, then to joust with her inventive — maybe artistic — acts of self-annihilation, and to avidly strategize how to enable or outsmart or exploit them for the sake of finishing the film.

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