On Tuesday, counterculture queen Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids won the National Book Award for nonfiction. Taking part in the finalist readings, she described it, saying: "My book is the story of my friendship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, which has never ceased even with his death in 1989." (See the cut for a short transcript of her reading, photos from Just Kids, and full details about tonight's author event.)
In the earliest sense, the Smith-Mapplethorpe story began almost a half-century ago. As a 16-year-old girl, Patti Smith wasted an entire summer working in a factory that made handlebars for tricycles. She hated it, so she spent her days lost in arty fantasies of some future life in a faraway place.
"I'd brag that I was going to be an artist's mistress one day. Nothing seemed more romantic to my young mind," Smith, now 63, writes.
And though the notoriously tough proto-punk poet shed her early, innocent yearnings for mistressdom, she still found that dream boy. Of course, there was her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, the late MC5 guitarist. But even before him, she loved and supported and worked with a soon-to-be-infamous photographer named Robert Mapplethorpe.
In the four decades since the two artists first met in New York City and 21 years since Mapplethorpe died of complications from AIDS, their friendship and occasional collaboration has become one of the great love stories of American culture's outlaw, post-hippie period. This book provides an intimate and lyrical personal account.
Just Kids sometimes reads like a 308-page prose poem, even slipping into verse near the end: "Little emerald bird/We must say good-bye."
A transcript from Patti Smith's National Book Award finalist reading:
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It snowed on Christmas night. Robert and I walked to Times Square to see the white billboard proclaiming "War is Over! If you Want It. Happy Christmas from John and Yoko." It hung above the bookstall where Robert bought most of his men's magazines, between Child's and Benedict's, two all-night diners.
Looking up, we were struck by the ingenuous humanity of this New York City tableau. Robert took my hand, and as the snow swirled I looked at his face. He narrowed his eyes and nodded in affirmation, impressed to see artists take on 42nd Street. For me it was the message. For Robert, the medium.
The Sixties were coming to an end. Robert and I celebrated our birthdays. Robert turned 23. Then I turned 23.
The perfect prime number. Robert made me a tie rack with the image of the Virgin Mary. I gave him seven silver skulls on a length of leather.
He wore the skulls. I wore a tie. We felt ready for the Seventies.
"It's our decade," he said.
Listen to the entire reading at NPR.com.
An Evening With Patti Smith, presented in collaboration with O, Miami. Friday, November 19. Miami Dade College, Chapman Conference Center, Second Floor, Room 3210), Miami. The author event begins at 8 p.m. Visit miamibookfair.com.