In her memoir of early life with photography icon Robert Mapplethorpe, Godmother of Punk Patti Smith has crafted an evocative tale of how two kids from New Jersey and Long Island, once factory workers and hustlers, rose to the upper echelons of the art world. And she does a good job with that. Enough to win the National Book Award. Enough to appear on The Colbert Report and gobs of other shows.
But it wasn’t the starving artists plucking lice from each other’s hair moving on to rubbing louse-free wigs with Warhol’s dandies that got me hooked. What I liked most about this book was the dear, unconventional and unconditional love between Patti and Robert.
After they met in Brooklyn in 1967, at first Patti and Robert were actual lovers. He bought her trinkets that symbolized his devotion to her. She wrote poems expressing their love for each other and for Art with a capital A. Patti was Robert’s muse, posing for some of his first photos. He even took Patti home to meet his conservative Catholic family, and introduced her as his wife even though his dad was on to their charade. Patti supported Robert financially, working day jobs so he could focus his energy and time on Art. But she also supported Robert’s personal growth. Even though it wasn’t really her thing, she escorted him to Max’s Kansas City so he could hobnob with the clique he craved to be a part of.
When Robert decided to explore a side of his sexuality he had previously kept hidden, their physical affair ended, although their love for each other continued to grow. Patti went on to form a band, releasing the inimitable album, “Horses.” She married another poet/rocker and they had two children. Robert met his benefactor and lifetime companion, Sam Wagstaff. But even when the limbs of Patti’s and Robert’s lives branched in different directions, their love was forever rooted. This memoir is a tribute to that love.
When Robert was dying of AIDS, Patti went to visit him at his exquisite loft, a far cry from their infested room at the Chelsea hotel they had shared before becoming famous. Surrounded by Robert’s material possessions and best Art, Patti wrote this in a letter to Robert, “…it occurred to me looking around at all of your things and your work and going through years of work in my mind, that of all your work, you are still your most beautiful.”
When artists die, their work lives on. When friends die, their love lives on in our memories. Thank you, Patti, for sharing your memories with us.