There has always been an intensity and love for Patti Smith from other artists that is rare. She lays her life all out in a compelling and beautiful memoir Just Kids of her friendship and life-long love affair with Robert Mapplethorpe. They are lovers and brother and sister and best friends. There is mystical trust between them from the time they met in 1967 until 1989 when Robert died of aids.
The title Just Kids comes from an older woman who asked her husband if they should take their picture because they were artists, and the husband replied that they were “just kids.”
Patti Smith grew up in a loving Irish family. She had a baby at nineteen with a boy who didn’t mean much to her. She gave the baby up to a fine family and moved to New York where she lived in the streets. It was at Brentano’s bookstore where she first laid eyes on Robert Mapplethorpe, who later, out of the blue, appeared on the street to save her from an uncomfortable dinner date she had accepted because she was starving. It turns out they were both homeless, and from that moment on, and as she said many times, they took care of each other.
One small episode symbolized them in these years. They saw a Bonnie and Clyde movie poster and Robert admired the tagline: “They’re young. They’re in Love. They rob banks.”
They save enough for an apartment that they decorate with found objects and Robert’s painting. Patti is the breadwinner throughout their relationship. Robert doesn’t have the ability to hold a regular job.
The relationship that seemed so beautiful started to unwind. Mapplethorpe turned bizarre and withdrew. Patti secured a job at Scribners and decided to break up with him. He tried to get her to take him back and threatened that if she didn’t that he would start sleeping with men. It was over.
Patti traveled in Paris and visited the graves of Rimbaud and Jim Morrison. Robert moved to San Francisco and came back with a boyfriend. They continued to be close friends and eventually their relationship was renewed, and they were back together.
Mapplethorpe had come from a family with an authoritarian father, and I trace that relationship to many of his issues. He became immersed in the homosexual underground, including S&M.
They hit rock bottom when Robert became very sick with a terrible case of Gonorrhea, and they lived in a rundown hotel for junkies that they had to sneak out of because they couldn’t afford to pay up, but even there, she found beauty and friendship.
The most disturbing aspect and the parts that might make you wince are Robert’s obsession with dark or evil forces. He seemed to be searching or open to a Faustian pact.
Life changed when they moved into the Chelsea Hotel where they met other artists, including William Burroughs, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Robert Rauchenberg, Allen Ginsburg…. They hung out at Max’s Kansas City with members of Warhol’s factory and others. Robert thought if he could meet Andy Warhol that he would see Robert as an equal.
To make money Robert along with Jim Carroll hustled their bodies to men. Robert didn’t know if he did it for money or pleasure.
Their relationship could not survive Robert’s obvious preference, but they remained each other’s “artist and muse” during their fascinating ascents as their careers began to blossom.
One of the many treasures of Just Kids by Patti Smith is that it is so intimate. This is a breathtaking story of two special people in the iconic period of the ‘60s and ‘70s in Manhattan.
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