Poet and singer/songwriter Patti Smith won the National Book Award for nonfiction with this memoir of her life with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Seen through the filter of a few decades, and the loss of Mapplethorpe to AIDS in 1989, it’s an almost unbelievable story of two artists in their early twenties finding their way in New York City in the late 60s. They met by chance, and formed a bond that would take them from penniless obscurity to recognition as artists, on their own terms. Along the way, they lived in the infamous Chelsea Hotel, and had contact with virtually every counterculture artistic figure of the era.
Smith and Mapplethorpe, in their early years, lived their own version of La Boheme, with him as the more delicate of the two. There was a thread of romantic love that ran through their relationship till the end, even though, for much of their life together, he was in the process of discovering his attraction to men. As I read the book, I was conscious that Smith had had a few decades to gain perspective and make peace with what must have been a very difficult transition for both of them. Their deep friendship and support for each other’s artistic endeavors survived beyond the challenges of their lives, and even beyond Mapplethorpe’s early death.
This is a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in either Smith or Mapplethorpe as an artist, 60s counterculture in general, or New York as a breeding ground for fame and art.
Here’s a 5-minute YouTube video that includes Smith performing and interviews with both Smith and Mapplethorpe.