I’ll be completely honest; when I first read Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids for a book club, I knew very little about Patti Smith and next to nothing about Robert Mapplethorp and his controversial homo-erotic art.
For the most part, my lack of knowledge about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorp didn’t matter. Just Kids is the story of their friendship and their intimate relationship and it’s not necessary to have much background information on either of them in order to read the book. Their success doesn’t come into play until much later in the memoir and the only times that I felt my lack of knowledge affected my enjoyment of the book were when Patti Smith dropped names of the famous people who surrounded her at that particular point in her life. (At which point I felt a little ignorant about that period of time.)
SPOILER ALERT: I have to warn you that I am physically incapable of writing a book review without including a few Spoilers. I am also the kind of person who peeks to the end of a book and sometimes skips prefaces. If either of these things offend you, you may wish to STOP READING THE PAGE NOW.
My copy of Just Kids is beautiful and contains many images from the pair’s time together in New York City, but doesn’t contain any of Robert Mapplethorp’s more controversial art. What struck me most about the memoir wasn’t necessarily Patti Smith’s prose, which was more poetic than that of other memoirists, but how she wrote about the unique relationship that she and Robert Mapplethorp had because she is so open about her absolute love for both Robert Mapplethorp and his art.
As Patti Smith describes him in Just Kids, Robert Mapplethorp is the more daring and artier than Patti Smith. Early on in his art career, Patti Smith supported him in every way possible--financially, mentally, physically, and emotionally. This is a fact one friend had problems with in the book--my friend thought that Patti Smith took a little too much credit for the “Making of Robert Mapplethorp,” especially in his early days.
I saw the relationship between them differently. I actually found their friendship strangely beautiful; they were each other’s protectors as well as each other’s creative muses. That combination seems rare to me. Even after Robert Mapplethorp realized that he was gay--which probably took some searching since he was raised as a Catholic in the late 1960’s--the two continued an on and off relationship which included physical intimacy.
It was also amazing how dedicated they each were to their art. Supposedly, Robert Mapplethorp knew from a very early age that he was an artist. He was right, but it took him decades before this was confirmed by the world at large.