On Jean Stein’s greatest legacy, the narrative oral history.
Edie Sedgwick was home for the holidays in California, behind the wheel of a fast car, when she barreled through a flashing red light on New Year’s Eve, 1964. G. J. Barker-Benfield, a friend, was sitting in the passenger seat; his head went through the windshield. He remembers the dumbfounded TV reports of the wreck that totaled Edie’s car: “How did two people step out of this car alive?” Others weren’t so lucky. Eerily, Edie’s brother Bobby had crashed his motorcycle around the same time that night, and he died twelve days later. Barker-Benfield had to get twenty-two stitches, while Edie emerged from the crash with only a broken knee.
Not long afterward, Geoffrey Gates ran into Edie at the former midtown Manhattan nightclub Ondine. It was early January. Edie flitted through the party, doing the twist and wearing a cast stretching from her hip to her toe. “The smile was wild … manic,” Gates remembered. “She kept getting up and dancing; one leg sheer white with only a couple of signatures on it just rooted to one spot on the floor, and the rest of her body spinning around the cast as if she were an acrobat. She still had a girl’s finishing-school appearance, but her face and actions showed that something else was coming up very fast.”
We have the late Jean Stein, the brilliant author and a former editor of this magazine, to thank for these vivid remembrances, which feel more cinematic than historical. With George Plimpton, Stein, who passed away earlier this month, compiled the definitive story of Sedgwick’s life, the riveting Edie: An American Biography (1982). Woven together from interviews and firsthand accounts of the people who were there, the book, in its depth and nuance, expanded the scope of the oral history as a form. Edie spans Sedgwick’s blue-blood East Coast lineage, her fraught childhood in California, the days she spent semi-sculpting an enormous horse at Harvard, her time in and out of hospitals, her stint as a Vogue “youthquaker” in New York, and her brief marriage before she died in 1971. Edie is also about a family who kept its secrets close even unto death. (At the family plot, the “Sedgwick Pie,” all the gravestones turn inward toward one another, so that when the Sedgwicks arise on Judgment Day, “they will have to see no one but Sedgwicks.”) Further still, it’s a critical document of a nation in flux—of the burgeoning youth movement that insisted on discarding the values of the previous generation, and of the unexpected costs that came with this lifestyle.
Edie’s strength is the result of Stein’s shrewd reporting and arranging. Even compared to other oral histories, its presentation is unadorned. There’s no narrator leading the reader toward certain conclusions, no bracketed quotes, no unnecessary explanations. Instead, the voices of those who crossed paths with Edie, from Truman Capote to Diana Vreeland to the bikers she hung out with for a spell in California (because, as one T Talley put it, she “saw it as a great new world to enter into”) form a chorus that speaks with often disturbing clarity.
Stein’s seismic approach to the oral history influenced a generation of authors. Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, who wrote the landmark oral history of punk rock, Please Kill Me, told me that Stein’s work had galvanized them. “I think Norman [Mailer] was the one who was like, You gotta read this, Legs. And I was like, Yeah, yeah, right,” McNeil said. “Probably picked it up when I was hungover and read it in like a day. I was just like, Whoa! Just gobbled it up, gorged myself.”
McCain, who was a teenager then, said that Edie piqued her interest after she saw a review of it in the Sunday New York Times that her parents had brought back from a trip to the city. “I actually ordered it from the local library, and I got it and just couldn’t put it down. And it just opened up so many vistas for me.” She sought out other oral histories, like Studs Terkel’s Working, and began to think about what other stories could be told using the format. “I think in maybe fifty years or so that a lot of nonfiction books will be told using the oral history format on almost any subject,” McNeil said. “Like the investigation of Trump and Russia—I think that would make a great oral history. Or Oppenheimer working at Los Alamos.”
McNeil, a “former resident punk at Punk Magazine,” had lived through the movement and knew many of the personalities central to punk’s story—an advantage when he and McCain started work on Please Kill Me. But reading Edie had taught them that the stars didn’t have the real stories—the bit players did. “That, we found, was really, really kind of the key to the whole thing,” McNeil said. “Besides having Iggy Pop and Debbie Harry talking, you get the waitresses, soundmen, and all the incidental people who are not really incidental when you’re in the scene … And they always have the best stories.”
Later, they learned that Stein had written, in the introduction to her 1970 book American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy, a kind of manifesto about her technique. Outlining the challenges of the form, she distinguishes between the oral history, which has traditionally involved gathering interview transcripts, and the “oral narrative” process she developed for Journey.
In an oral narrative, she writes, the author attempts “to subject oral history to the narrative process”; the narrative itself is in the hands of the interviewees, who shape it as they choose what to disclose. “Oral history has been largely thought of as the collecting of interview transcripts for storage in archives in order to provide historians with research material,” she writes. “Somewhat less common is the use of interview transcripts as a literary form, in which the raw transcripts are edited, arranged, and allowed to stand for themselves, without the intervention by the historian.”
That’s not to say the author isn’t a part of the process—some subjects in Edie, for instance, broke the fourth wall and addressed Stein directly, providing a rare glimpse at her side of the conversation. (“You asked me if we need more than one Warhol in this century,” Jasper Johns says in one of his statements.) And, of course, Stein herself appears as an interview subject in several of her books, especially her last, West of Eden, which devotes a chapter to her family.
The success of these books lies in Stein’s interviewing prowess—she relies not so much on a spitfire question-and-answer volley but rather careful nudging. Danny Fields, a former record-company executive and editor who was interviewed for both Edie and Please Kill Me, recently told Gillian McCain about his exchanges with Stein. “He said, I went to her apartment and it was like, ‘Do you want some champagne? Do you want some duck?’ and we just sat down and I just spilled,” McCain says. “He didn’t say spilled, but he said she was quite shy. And then he played me some of his interview, because she had given him some of the tape. And she did: she spoke very quietly. Just the part he played for me, it was just five minutes. It seems like she was prodding him, not actually asking questions. And that’s what Legs and I do. We might start with a question but it becomes prodding. We like our interviews to be really conversational.”
Of course, sculpting a cogent narrative from a host of conversations is bound to lead to some discrepancies—but Stein welcomed these. To her mind, contradiction was central to the narrative oral history. Her essay includes a disclaimer that some testimonials will not make sense from an editorial standpoint, but that it’s crucial to leave these remarks the way they are. Contrary or even incorrect versions of the same event appear in Edie—the uncertainty makes Stein’s work idiosyncratic and alive, unlike preened, supposedly “definitive” oral histories, which sharpen their interviews in pursuit of an elusive perfection. People are unreliable narrators by nature; by displaying these accounts side by side, Stein trusted readers to draw their own conclusions. “The concept of American Journey was not to give a solid historical representation of an era,” she writes. “The technique used is occasionally almost the kaleidoscopic ‘flicker’ technique of films, in which a series of quick images of considerable variety provides an effect of wholeness.”
As anyone who’s read Stein’s books knows, her approach encourages her subjects to air their grievances; as people opened up to her, they revealed stories of turbulence and violence, plus the tensions of classism, sexism, racism, and ageism. McNeil and McCain, who are currently working on an oral history of 1969, have noticed this in their interviews, too, and it may be Stein’s most remarkable legacy: the creation of a form that championed a mosaiclike reality, where every person’s account carries an equal weight as “truth.” Her “oral narrative” carves out a place where history is illuminated by people who had a hand in shaping it, yet had never been so much asked for their opinions, and are held up as sacred as the deeds that line history textbooks. “You can really document injustice and the way things went down so well,” McNeil notes. “I think Jean Stein deserves a medal for that.”
Paula Mejia writes about arts and culture for the New York Times, NPR, Rolling Stone, Vulture, and others. Her first book, a 33 1/3 series volume on the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy, was released in October 2016.