Part elegy, part bildungsroman, Patti Smith’s Just Kids, winner of the National Book Award for Non-Fiction in 2010, recounts the formative years in the lives of Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe, lovers and friends, muses, and makers.
In the summer of 1967, at the age of twenty, Patti moved from her home in New Jersey to Manhattan, where she started work in a bookstore. One day Robert Mapplethorpe walked in. She’d already met him but it was only in passing; they’d barely said a word to each other and she didn’t yet know his name. He bought a necklace and
she said to him, ‘Don’t give it to anyone but me.’ One night shortly afterwards Robert appeared in a park just as Patti was trying to fend off the unwanted advances of an older man. Robert pretended to be her boyfriend. They spent the rest of the night wandering the East Village, then moved in together. He gave her the necklace. And so began a lifelong friendship.
There is something mythical about this meeting; it seems fated, serendipitous, the kind of meeting that only happens in movies. But Just Kids follows its own girl-meets-boy trajectory. Girl meets boy, girl and boy fall in love, girl and boy live in the Chelsea Hotel together, they make art, boy discovers he likes boys, boy and girl stay friends, boy becomes Robert Mapplethorpe – a famous photographer known for his visceral images of sado-masochism – and girl becomes Patti Smith – rock-poet and ‘godmother of punk’.
Whether this meeting was scripted by Patti herself, or by the universe, I couldn’t say; I’m not cynical enough to doubt its veracity completely, nor am I romantic enough to swallow it whole. I do know that memory is such that we reconfigure things in our minds all the time, and I’m okay with that. The stories we tell ourselves make up the narratives of our lives and memoir is the ultimate life story.
Just Kids isn’t just a memoir. It is as much, if not more, a tribute to Robert Mapplethorpe, who died from AIDS in 1989, aged 42. In many ways, it’s Robert who we see most clearly – a young Robert through Patti’s eyes. The spotlight is on him throughout the book. She tells us of his fears, ‘he worried incessantly, about how we would survive, about money,’ and his motivations, ‘Robert had a fascination with human behaviour, and in what drove seemingly normal people to create mayhem’. Equally, the Patti we see most clearly is from Robert’s perspective, through his words, and of course his photographs, which are scattered throughout the book so that so Just Kids – like so much of their work – feels like a collaboration.
Melissa Fagan has been (among other things) a nanny, tour leader, swimming instructor, editorial assistant, and real estate receptionist. She is currently a Brisbane-based writer and editor, and MPhil candidate in Creative Writing at UQ.