Book Review: Patti Smith’s Memoir Just Kids

Jill Koenigsdorf
5 min read
When Robert Met Patti
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On an Indian Summer day in 1967, a newly smitten Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe reclined on the grass in Washington Square Park in New York City. A tourist couple stopped and looked down at them. The wife squealed, excited to see real artists and said her husband should take their picture. He disagreed, saying Smith and Mapplethorpe were “just kids.” In this moment, before she would become the world-famous poet and rocker and he a groundbreaking photographer, both observations were true.

Patti Smith’s memoir is steeped in atmosphere, and it captures a time and place so vividly that any reader—whether they have salient memories of those years or not—will be carried away.

The memoir begins with Smith’s arrival in the Big Apple. Even after giving up a baby for adoption back home and dropping out of teachers’ college, when Smith stepped off that bus in New York City, she had no other plan than to be an artist. When she showed up at the one address where she could anticipate welcome, she found her friends had moved. But there, lying on a cot, bare-chested with his head full of angelic curls, was Robert Mapplethorpe.

After sleeping in various parks, Smith saw that she was in “a real city, shifty and sexual … I had my mantra: ‘I’m Free, I’m free.’ Although after several days, my other mantra: ‘I’m hungry. I’m hungry,’ seemed to be in the forefront.” Yet she felt safe, part of a roaming tribe of young people. She and Mapplethorpe soon set up house in a squalid place near the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn with “blood smeared on the walls and syringes in the oven.” Mapplethorpe whitewashed the walls and cleaned, while Smith “tacked pictures of Rimbaud, Bob Dylan, Lotte Lenya, Piaf, Genet, and John Lennon.” It was here they made a pact to always be in one another’s lives, sharing their writing, drawings and dreams.

Smith devotes many pages to their young, pre-fame years, and it is a pleasure to share her enthrallment with all things bohemian. Even their desperate times sound appealing in hindsight, knowing how each experience contributed to the artists they would become. The book is graced with soulful black-and-white photos of the two of them from her own collection. And though they were involved in the mythology of their own lives, none of the writing comes off as precious or self-aggrandizing.

While the reader may find Mapplethorpe tricky to grasp, seeing him as far more focused on connections and fame than Smith, she remains his biggest champion. When Mapplethorpe (a refugee from a staunchly Catholic East Coast background) struggled with his homosexuality, it was the art that saved them both. “I stand naked when I draw,” Mapplethorpe wrote. “God holds my hand and we sing together.” Even though his sojourns into the darker side of his sexuality perplexed her, it was Smith who encouraged him to go to San Francisco to explore. Once a perfect set of androgynous twins, they seemed to be moving in different directions, until the pivotal moment when they scored a room at New York’s Chelsea Hotel—or as she describes it, “a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone.”

The roster of tenants at the Chelsea reads like a who’s who of the art and music world in the ’70s. For Mapplethorpe, keen on entrées into art’s rarified society, it was a potential door into Warhol’s revered circle. Smith, meanwhile, installed herself in the lobby, where anyone might walk by, from Janis Joplin to William Burroughs to Sam Shepherd (with whom she had a brief affair and later collaborated on the piece
Cowboy Mouth ).

The reader knows who Smith and Mapplethorpe will become, so it is intriguing to read about his continued attempts to encourage her to become a musician, while she urges him to delve into photography.

Gradually, thanks to their Chelsea community, people begin buying Mapplethorpe’s work, and Smith’s performance poetry readings become packed with both hecklers and admirers. She got her first guitar, and Mapplethorpe got his first camera and a patron, Sam Wagstaff. Everything accelerated for the two of them. Mapplethorpe shot the cover of Smith’s breakthrough album,
Horses . After his images of S&M gained notoriety, Smith says: “I admired him for it, but I could not comprehend the brutality.” He was trying to do “sexuality as art” in a way no one else had ever done. “It was hard for me to match it with the boy I had met.”

As the ’80s dawned, the changes picked up speed. Smith dropped out of the world of rock and roll to live in Detroit with her future husband Fred “Sonic” Smith. The day she found out she was pregnant with her second child, Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS. On one of their last visits together, he looked up at her and asked: “Patti, did art get us?”

Her answer: “Only a fool would regret being had by art; or a saint.” Smith promised Mapplethorpe before he died that she would write their story
. Just Kids fulfills that promise, encapsulating a breathless, hopeful time, when two kindred spirits felt their love and art could conquer any obstacles.
When Robert Met Patti

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