Just Kids – by Patti Smith – book review

A story that is both sweet and sad. This is Musician Patti Smith’s memoir, sharing her 20+ year journey as lover, muse, and friend to Artist/Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89). And the two of them are fascinating! The book reads a little like Smith’s diary — personal anecdotes, poetically written, that taken together, honor this couple’s intimate connection. Awarded four stars on Goodreads.

At the start of the book, it’s the early 1960s. Smith and Mapplethorpe are both teenagers– poor, alone, and struggling in New York City. When they meet, their connection is immediate, seems pre-ordained, and they quickly become live-in lovers. Each is trying to find his/her artistic identity — or at least discover the medium that would eventually make each famous.

They are two misfits who fit better when together. Mapplethorpe experiments with art. Smith gets work in a string of bookstores, barely supporting both of them. Not having enough money to eat or a steady place to live becomes their continual struggle. Theirs is a quintessential story of struggling artists, doing anything to simply get by.

The names of their friends and acquaintances over the years reads like a who’s who of the 1960s and 1970s. Jimi Hendrix, Allen Ginsburg, Janis Joplin, Andy Warhol, Sam Shepard, Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon and Yoko Ono — to name just a few.

Mapplethorpe’s work is initially focused on artistic collages, but he is also in the middle of a struggle with his own sexual identity. As years pass, Smith moves from writing poems and sketching into music, where she finally achieves fame.

Eventually, Mapplethorpe accepts who he is, moves into New York’s homosexual underground, and later S&M. His art shifts to photography where he captures experiences that many see as controversial, even pornographic. Nevertheless, his work is instrumental in making photography accepted as an art form.

Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe 1974 Courtesy Indiana Public Media

In the 1970s,, when Smith’s music career takes off, she heads out on tour while Mapplethorpe happily settles down with his wealthy patron and companion, Art Curator Sam Wagstaff. And though Smith and Mapplethorpe spend less time together, their connection remains solid and intense. It’s quite lovely to read how important each is to the other, long after they cease to be lovers. They are true soul mates.

Patti Smith Image by Jesse Ditmar Courtesy of pattismith.net

Still later, when Mapplethorpe is diagnosed with AIDS, Smith spends more time with him again. This book was written out of a promise Smith made to the dying Mapplethorpe that she would write “their story.” I, for one, am so glad she did.

More about the author, Patti Smith.

More about Robert Mapplethorpe.