Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Dancing Barefoot with Robert Mapplethorpe Patti Smith Illustrates 'Just Kids,' Her Classic Memoir

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Dancing Barefoot with Robert Mapplethorpe Patti Smith Illustrates 'Just Kids,' Her Classic Memoir

Article excerpt

When "Just Kids," Patti Smith's memoir about her long friendship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe was first released in 2000, it was received with rapturous acclaim, and went on to win a National Book Award. It wasn't just a literary success, but found a home in the hearts of readers, including many friends who've told me it was a life-changer. When HarperCollins/Ecco released an illustrated edition, I was thrilled to finally read it. I found that "Just Kids" has aged into a vivid and engaging memoir well worth the read, even if my life remains unchanged.

The press materials for the book include a quote from the writer Joan Didion, who calls this book "honest and pure." That's an apt description of Ms. Smith's style, which manages somehow to be both keen-eyed and nonjudgmental as she recounts her awkward youth and eventual move to New York in the late 1960s. The city is where Mr. Mapplethorpe rescues her from a bad date in Tompkins Square Park, "like an answer to a teenage prayer." He tells her his name is Bob. She says, "Somehow you don't seem like a Bob to me. Is it okay if I call you Robert?" There's a low-key sense of destiny in his agreement. Later, she finds out he was tripping on acid the entire time.

Ms. Smith, who turns 72 today, and Mr. Mapplethorpe fall in love, then help each other become artists. Their poverty is startling; their perseverance in the face of it even more memorable. Ms. Smith tends to give credit to the red hot focus of Mr. Mapplethorpe's desire to become an artist for keeping them alive, but reading, I found the partnership to be their true driving force.

While their relationship was sexual and morphed into a deep platonic closeness as Mr. Mapplethorpe came to terms with his homosexuality, it's the constancy of their friendship that moved me. In one section, Ms. Smith muses on her decision to hold down a full-time job so Mr. Mapplethorpe can create: "My temperament was sturdier. I could still create at night and I was proud to provide a situation allowing him to do his work without compromise." It's rare to have a real partnership and Ms. Smith seems to recognize that.

A stint in the famous Chelsea Hotel allows her to reflect upon many of the movers and shakers of that early 1970s era, when the two of them managed to somehow run with both Janis Joplin and Andy Warhol's Factory denizens. Indeed, I sometimes had the sense that Ms. Smith had met no one who didn't end up being famous; certainly very few of the truly unknown merit a place in her memoir. I was briefly excited to read about a new boyfriend, "Slim," only to find out that it was the late playwright and actor Sam Shepard using a nickname. …

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