Just Kids

Image of Just Kids: A National Book Award Winner
Release Date: 
January 18, 2010
Reviewed by: 

When they literally were “just kids,” Patti Smith, poet and rock star, and Robert Mapplethorpe, photographer and sexual provocateur, showed signs of the artists they would eventually become. Smith, born in Chicago in 1946, was captivated as a child by books and the power of words; Mapplethorpe, born the same year in Long Island, by physical beauty and ritual behavior. When they met in New York City in 1967, the two embarked on a romance—with each other, but mainly with art—that transformed them both. Just Kids is Smith’s heartfelt and moving account of their relationship, from its beginnings during the “summer of love” to Mapplethorpe’s 1989 death from AIDS. Smith, the daughter of working class, Irish Protestants, and Mapplethorpe, from a conservative, upper middle class Irish Catholic clan, would seem a wildly unlikely couple. She was bold and rebellious, a true bohemian; he was emotionally inhibited and judgmental, like his father. But their differences were more than a matter of social class and individual temperament. When they had been a couple for barely a year, Mapplethorpe told Smith that he was gay. And though both were committed to living for art, Smith was defiantly countercultural, uninterested in the mainstream acclaim and success that Mapplethorpe craved. Their bond endured despite their differences, because of the singularity of their artistic vision and their unshakeable dedication to it. As Mapplethorpe liked to say to Smith, “Patti, nobody sees as we do.” Yet the path to creative fulfillment, and success, would be rocky for both. When Smith got off a bus from southern New Jersey in New York, she carried few possessions—among them a book of the visionary poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, her idol and inspiration—but considerable history for a 19 year old. She’d worked soul-killing jobs, dropped out of college, and had had a child, whom she gave up for adoption. At first she wandered Manhattan “beat and hungry, roaming with a few belongings wrapped in a cloth, hobo style.” She slept in parks, door wells, and subway cars, “even a graveyard,” all the while telling herself, “I’m free, I’m free.” But constant hunger belied that optimistic “mantra.” During the summer of 1967, Patti Smith, broke, homeless, and hungry, met Robert Mapplethorpe while she was looking for a place to stay in Brooklyn. Another chance encounter, this time in the East Village, while Smith was fleeing an older man’s advances and Mapplethorpe was tripping on LSD, culminated in their moving in together. On their first night as a couple, they told each other that they were committed to a life in art. Mapplethorpe had yet to discover photography; he mainly drew and made collages and installations. Patti also drew, and struggled to write poetry. When Robert gave Patti one of his drawings, she “understood that in this small space of time we had mutually surrendered our loneliness and replaced it with trust.” Their trust survived poverty, creative struggles and setbacks, and diverging sexual interests. Early in their relationship, she accepted that she was “hardly more than a student,” while Mapplethorpe, “though shy, nonverbal and seemingly out of step with those around him, was very ambitious.” (Warhol was his idol and role model, but Smith was unimpressed: “I didn’t feel for Warhol the way Robert did. . . . I hated the soup and felt little for the can.”) Their poverty weighed more heavily on Mapplethorpe, who “fretted over not being able to provide for us;” Smith “told him not to worry, that committing to great art is its own reward.” The romance of two young artists struggling to make it in the Big Apple was complicated by Mapplethorpe’s revelation, during the summer of 1968, that he was gay. Their relationship had already begun to fray; Smith was involved with another man, a painter, and Mapplethorpe was displaying “conflicted behavior” that confused her. She moved out of their apartment, and he took off for San Francisco on a mission of self-discovery. In his letters Mapplethorpe insisted that, although he was now involved with men, he still loved her. Smith, pondering this seeming conundrum, examined her attitudes toward homosexuality. “I knew nothing of the reality of homosexuality,” she acknowledges. “I had prided myself on being nonjudgmental, but my comprehension was narrow and provincial.” When Mapplethorpe returned from San Francisco, he was “transformed.” He now had a “real boyfriend,” Terry, whom he brought to New York with him. Observing their relationship, Smith realized that “homosexuality was a natural way of being.” Mapplethorpe, having embraced his sexual identity, nonetheless “hoped that we could find some way of continuing our relationship.” But Smith, envying the intimacy between Robert and Terry, felt “completely alone and conflicted.” But their bond survived the end of their sexual relationship and Mapplethorpe’s immersion in the gay sadomasochistic subculture, whose eroticized rituals of dominance and submission fascinated him and increasingly informed his photography. Smith admits that both his actual adventures in S&M and his artistic representations disturbed, even shocked her. The “brutality” in the work didn’t square with “the boy I had met.” But, despite her “squeamishness,” she astutely and objectively assesses Mapplethorpe’s erotic photographs: “His mission was not to reveal, but to document an aspect of sexuality as art, as it had never been done before. What excited Robert the most as an artist was to produce something that no one else had done.” Smith of course eventually achieved the same end, crafting a sui generis synthesis of symbolist poetry and rock ’n’ roll. On the way to her artistic apotheosis she met some of the most vital and exploratory figures of the day: the poets Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg (the latter mistook Smith for a “beautiful boy”), William Burroughs (“Part sheriff, part gumshoe. All writer,”), Jimi Hendrix (despite his swaggering rock god image, the guitarist was shy and awkward), and Janis Joplin. (In Smith’s telling, she gave the troubled singer her nickname, Pearl). She and Mapplethorpe lived at the fabled Chelsea Hotel, where she befriended the eccentric musicologist and avant-garde filmmaker Harry Smith, and hung out at Max’s Kansas City, the Manhattan club favored by Warhol and his retinue, and later by rock stars like Lou Reed and David Bowie. Smith, though occasionally beset with self-doubt and worries about her future, was a remarkably self-possessed and assured young woman. At times she wondered why she wanted to make art, but she never doubted that she was a genuine artist. When her poems were well received, she hit on the idea of marrying her two great loves, rock ’n’ roll and poetry. She found Lenny Kaye, a guitarist then working in a Greenwich Village record store, and they performed together at poetry readings. But what she really wanted was to front a band, so she and Kaye recruited a second guitarist, Richard Sohl, the Czech-born keyboardist Ivan Kral, and a drummer, Jay Dee Daugherty. The Patti Smith Group’s debut performance at The Other End was “a jewel in our crown,” especially because the audience included Bob Dylan, her idol and “the one I had modeled myself after.” As Smith was coming into her own as a rock poet, Mapplethorpe’s reputation also was rising. Though he teased her for becoming famous before he did, his photographs, in which exquisite technique served transgressive content, made him an art world star, as well as a cynosure of the “culture wars” of the eighties. Smith left New York in 1979 to start a family in Detroit with her husband, rock guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, but Mapplethorpe was still on her mind. Though she now was far from the world they’d shared, “Robert was ever in my consciousness.” Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. As his death neared, Smith visited him in New York. Their final meeting was heart wrenching, and Smith’s account captures its pathos: “My love for him could not save him. His love for life could not save him. It was the first time that I truly knew he was going to die. He was suffering physical torment no man should endure. He looked at me with such deep apology that it was unbearable and I burst into tears.” When Mapplethorpe died, in March 1989, Patti Smith wrote a song for him. But she had promised him that she would one day write their story. Just Kids is her fulfilled promise, and her gift to the onetime lover, loyal friend, and devoted mentor who helped her become what she knew she was destined to be: an artist.