Small Appreciations

Just Kids by Patti Smith

It’s the commitment that is the most striking aspect of Patti Smith’s memoir. That is, her commitment to the pursuit of art through hunger, sleeping rough and squalid living conditions in New York in the late sixties and the beginning of the seventies. That commitment was inspired by a rare family trip to the Museum of Art in Philadelphia when she was 12, where “…secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.”

That New York life also featured the company of friends and the young man with curls who saved her by agreeing to pretend to be her boyfriend to help her escape from a man who had taken her to dinner, but from whom she now wished to flee. Robert Mapplethorpe saved Patti Smith and then they were inseparable. She later saved him from his sickness in the sleazy Hotel Allerton, by first persuading the manager of the Hotel Chelsea to give them a room (number 1017, which was the smallest room in the hotel) based on the promise of an advance from an employer she did not yet have and then having that hotel’s doctor treat Robert, again for later payment.

The Hotel Chelsea housed a diverse cast of characters, including fashion designers, photographers, musicians and poets. Patti describes an encounter with Salvador Dali in the hotel lobby, where naturally she is holding a stuffed black crow that she had bought from the Museum of the American Indian. The encounters with the famous and the about-to-be famous are very interesting, as they provide background details about the culture of the time, but the greater interest lies in Patti’s and Robert’s creative journeys and their constant belief in each other’s talent and in their art.

Patti details Robert’s creative arc from jewellery to drawings, installations, collages and then his own photographs. She was his muse, but also his equal. He encouraged her artistic development through drawings, paintings, poems and then the songs, and was troubled when she wasn’t drawing or writing. She describes how when they were walking down Eighth Street they heard the sound of her hit record “Because the Night” playing, Robert smiled and walked in time with the music. “Robert was unabashedly proud of my success. What he wanted for himself, he wanted for us both.”

This memoir also has a greater richness, not only because of the photographs and poems that complement the narrative, but also because of the power of some of the objects Smith describes. She and Robert invested objects with a greater significance, so they became totems and talismans, such as a Persian necklace, “two violet plaques etched in Arabic, strung with black and silver threads,” because they saw as others did not.

Just Kids by Patti Smith was published in 2010 by HarperCollins Publishers