Patti Smith discusses her National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids this Saturday, 2pm at the National Portrait Gallery.
In 1967, the twenty-three-year-old Patti Smith left her aimless life in southern New Jersey to try her luck in New York City. Seeking what, exactly? A job? A job in the arts? Something tangible? Perhaps. But more a sense of transcendent liberation and self-expression fueled by her sense that, ultimately, she would make her own way in the world.
It turned out she quickly found a soul mate to help make this journey. Arriving at a friend’s apartment, she viewed a beautiful man with a faun-like head, asleep. She lost track of this youth but then found him again, and he introduced himself.
“My name is Bob.”
“Bob,” I said, really looking at him for the first time. “Somehow you don’t seem like a Bob to me. Is it okay if I call you Robert?”
It was Robert Mapplethorpe, another artistic scuffler in the city, another visionary convinced of his own ultimate success.
Patti Smith tells the story of her relationship with Mapplethorpe against the backdrop of the 1970s and 1980s in her affecting and lovely memoir, Just Kids. It recently won the National Book Award for nonfiction. During the 1970s Smith established herself as a poet, artist, rocker, and all-around American troubadour in the tradition of Walt Whitman; her career is ongoing today. Mapplethorpe, in his wholehearted belief of Smith, was essential to her career and sense of self. She reciprocated that belief, and they remained close even after Mapplethorpe finished the long process of coming out as a gay man.
Smith writes in a brief afterword to Just Kids that she always intended “one day to write our story,” and this is the fulfillment of that promise. The book begins and ends with his final days, dying of AIDS in 1989. In the first scene, Smith listens to his labored breathing over the phone on the night he passed away. At the end, she tells about the last time they spoke and his falling asleep: “So my last image was as the first. A sleeping youth cloaked in light, who opened his eyes with a smile of recognition for someone had never been a stranger.” When word came of Mapplethorpe’s death, Smith played Puccini’s aria “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca: I have lived for love, I have lived for Art. Just Kids shows how great art comes from great love.
- David C. Ward, National Portrait Gallery