Patti Smith made a promise. Her longtime friend and former lover Robert Mapplethorpe was dying due to complications from AIDS. But he didn’t want to be remembered that way. The complex, controversial photographer could already see that his life and work were being reduced to the spark that launched the culture war. (Shortly after his death in 1989, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., pulled a Mapplethorpe retrospective under pressure from right-wing members of Congress.) He wanted to be remembered for who he truly was. And he made Smith, his longest friend and confidant, promise to tell their story as it truly happened.
It took Smith nearly 20 years to make good on that promise, releasing Just Kids at the beginning of 2010. The book was quickly praised as a snapshot of New York bohemia, capturing the gritty creativity of two would-be artists struggling to find themselves, their voices and their chances to influence world. “I didn’t write this to be my memoir,” she says. “This was to tell our story. I would have written much less about myself if I could, but I had to write about me moving into rock ’n’ roll to get to the shooting of the cover of Horses. But this is the story of Robert and me.”
Smith’s ode to her friend also just captured one of the highest honors in literature—the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Are you surprised with the reception the book has received?
Truthfully, yes...One is always hopeful that one will get a good reception for their work, and by my track record my work is well received but always by a minority. But this, it’s almost like having a hit single, which is a rare thing.
I can only assume writing the book makes you miss him, as well as relive parts, like Robert’s death, that you didn’t want to delve into again?
I was writing about when I was 20, so naturally the book would be infused with life. I was writing about childhood, and people evolving, and the joy and pain of evolving as a person and as an artist. And the fact that we stuck it out together; we never gave up on our friendship. We never gave up on being the bank of knowledge for each other about ourselves. Another sad thing about when he died, he took so much knowledge of me with him. But I wanted the book to be like a movie—for people to take a lot of pleasure in reading it, but maybe also shed a few tears. Death is part of the package, but the book is about life.
It’s been said that your legend began with Robert. The two of you are often held up as embodiments of New York’s art scene in the ’70s—it’s gritty royalty. Why do you think people have romanticized your relationship so much?
I don’t know. Honestly, I wasn’t aware of that. For me, it’s quite the contrary. A lot of people say that they didn’t know Robert and I had a relationship, or imagine that Robert and I were a couple of convenience. A lot of people thought that we were two gay kids hiding our persuasions. Robert and I loved each other—you can’t over-romanticize two people who love each other. And I think this book is the first time people understand what our relationship was. It was mutual kindness and respect. We suffered together. We had great moments together. People haven’t romanticized it, but more misconstrued what it was.
Part of it probably has to do with the fact that the two of you, whether intentionally or not, were at the epicenter of a movement.
When I look back I was very lucky that I was—that I had communication with these great minds that I met at the Chelsea. But I lived there. People say you ran into all these famous people. Well, they weren’t famous then, and they were coming into my home. They came into my turf. And why they spent so much time with me—maybe they saw me as a diamond in the rough, saw something in me that I didn’t. But I also respected them. If you want to learn poetry you go to the master.
And so I knew enough to speak to William S. Burroughs about poetry and speak with Allen Ginsberg about activism or whatever interested them. I wasn’t looking to hang out with famous people. I was looking for knowledge. Sometimes I’m amazed—still amazed—that I have I been lucky to cross paths with all these people, and they all gave me their time. Even Jimi Hendrix gave me 15 minutes right before he died, and it included his philosophy of life and music.
In an interview you said that you believed that, “Robert sought not to destroy order, but to reorder, to reinvent, and to create a new order.” Why do you think that message still has a hard time getting through?
I don’t know why. It doesn’t seem so difficult to understand. Believe me, some of Robert’s pictures are too hard for me. I embrace all of Robert’s pictures as art, but it doesn’t make some of his pictures easy to look at. And he knew that. He wouldn’t press those pictures on people, even on his own mother. I don’t think it’s that people don’t comprehend him as an artist…If they comprehend his flowers, they comprehend his work. His flowers, like nature, are hypersexual. And if they comprehend some of that in his flowers, they understand his work—see things in a new way.
Is Robert himself still misunderstood?
Absolutely. There’s very little documentation of Robert as a young man, and what is written is very cynical or very cavalier. A lot of it focuses on his later life. He didn’t want to be remembered as a dying man. He wanted to be remember holistically. I haven’t read anything that really captures his humor, his kindness. I hope this book will give people more holistic sense of Robert, that he was more than a creator of controversial photographs. That he was loving and funny and very stoic.
Both of your careers went through a metamorphosis, the two of you discovering a voice in a different medium than you ever intended. Why do you think you both go in different directions? Was there ever a real epiphany for both of you?
It’s interesting, isn’t it? I have—to this day it’s hard to believe that my path veered like it did. When I was young I was interested in photography. He wanted me to sing. But the epiphany for Robert was the immediacy of a Polaroid. He could work for hours and hours on a project, but it was immediate with the Polaroid. You could see it right away. So much of art is struggle. Working on a poem for 20 hours or working on a collage for days. But with a Polaroid, all your knowledge of light and framing comes out in that one moment.
Were you a little heartbroken when Polaroid quit making film for the cameras?
I stockpiled—spent some large amount of money on boxes. I have enough for another 1000 pictures of slightly exposed film. I don’t mind that slightly exposed film. It makes things more interesting.
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HarperCollins / January 2010 / 9780066211312 / $27.00
This book was featured in the Kirkus Best of 2010