Arts & Culture » Lit Feature

A Chelsea of One's Own

Patti Smith's Just Kids helped Gina Frangello remember the instant symbiosis of young artists.

by

comment

I worked under-the-table jobs in London when I was in my early 20s, living in squats or cheap, crowded rental rooms. My version of Manhattan's famously edgy Chelsea Hotel was a place called Arthog House, just south of the original Chelsea. It was the sort of place where you'd start your day as the only American woman among strangers and end it with a new tribe: allies who'd spot you their scant money and a lover with whom you now shared a mattress on the floor, having entirely skipped over the dating phase and become an instantly symbiotic couple.

We had vague artistic dreams. At Arthog House, which harbored 11 men and two women, there was a South African circus performer, a brilliant junkie photographer from Georgia, and an Australian woman who made intricate stained glass windows that she had nowhere to hang and simply left behind when she moved on. Nobody owned much, but there were several guitars. We subsisted on cigarettes, tea, frozen vegetables, rice, Southern Comfort, and the hash cakes we called pixie dust bars. As for me, I wanted to be Anaïs Nin, and at night they read my stories.

This seemed to go on forever, though, in fact, I didn't live there very long. Time is suspended in places like that. For years I dreamed about flying back in through the open upstairs window—a Wendy among Lost Boys—and looking for the men who inspired me during that period. But in my dreams, as in life, they were already gone. I'd find new collaborators, new tribes, as most of us do in this world of constant movement.

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe never let go of each other.

Just Kids, Smith's stunning memoir about her lifelong relationship with Mapplethorpe, is a book for everyone who's ever had a Chelsea Hotel, every seeker who's ever wanted to be an artist and found unconditional friendship and acceptance along the way.

Smith and Mapplethorpe met by chance, down on their luck, and soon shared everything from Coney Island hot dogs to a bed. Later, after Mapplethorpe accepted his homosexuality, he and Smith transitioned from lovers to comrades. She continued her unyielding support as he took up hustling and boyfriends and then began his professional ascent into a moneyed society alien to their shared bohemian past.

Even when Mapplethorpe's obsession with S-M reached levels Patti could no longer understand, she never dropped him. And as his life became more decadent and glamorous, he likewise never faltered in his loyalty to her. Their devotion transcended divergent career paths, relocations, Smith's marriage and children, and brought them all the way to Mapplethorpe's final days. As he died of AIDS, Smith was by his side, sharing her children and her time with him as selflessly as she once shared her money.

Put simply, this is a book about love and art. All its name-dropping is just sexy decoration. Does it really matter that Allen Ginsberg once tried to pick Smith up, mistaking her for an especially pretty boy? Or that Grace Slick said "Hello yourself" to her in passing? The many cameos by stars such as Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison are culturally titillating and highly atmospheric, but in the end Smith and Mapplethorpe's story would be as compelling if they'd been surrounded by fewer luminaries—or even if they'd never achieved great success themselves. When the dying Mapplethorpe said to Smith, "We never had any children," and she responded, "Our work was our children," neither of them was speaking of fame or money, but of their shared passion, their sacrifices for the beautiful creations they nurtured together.

Add a comment