Karen Ocamb

NYT's Dowd on the Love Story of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

Filed By Karen Ocamb | December 27, 2010 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: Maureen Dowd, patty smith, robert maplethorpe

I confess I'm am less an avid fan of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd than of her colleague Frank Rich, an LGBT hero. But Dowd's 1994 cover story for POZ magazine on Mary Fisher, the Republican straight woman with HIV/AIDS who was the compassionate counterpart to the ugly hate of Patrick Buchanan at the 1992 GOP convention, still stands as a monumental work capturing both Fisher and the times.

So out of curiosity, I dipped into Dowd's Sunday column "Because the Night Belongs to Her" and found a couple of surprises. First, though she uses a million dollar word to say it ("lacunae"), Dowd admits that there was a gap in her cultural awareness of iconic 70s punk rock singer Patti Smith - and then she writes about the startling pleasure filling that gap by reading Smith's memoir Just Kids, which won a National Book Award last month. Rather than delighting in being cleverly snarky, the trait for which she is best known in political circles, Dowd delights in being surprised and sharing that with us.

She writes:

"For anyone who has had a relationship where the puzzle pieces seem perfect but don't fit -- so, all of us -- "Just Kids" is achingly beautiful. It's "La Bohème" at the Chelsea Hotel; a mix, she writes, of "Funny Face" and "Faust," two hungry artists figuring out whom to love, how to make art and when to part."

The other surprise for me was the relationship between Smith and gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, which I didn't know about either. In the mid-70s, I was leading a double life: supposedly straight journalist "by day" and serious alcoholic and drug addict at night. I think I remember watching Patti Smith scream her poetry at CBGBs or Max's Kansas City - but then, I may have only planned to do that and hung out with the punk drug-addicts in lower Manhattan instead. Now, after reading Dowd's column, I want to get Smith's memoir to see what I missed by being there but being so out of it that I wasn't "there" at all. But it was all mixed up and hazy back then, so I'm glad to have someone fill in the "lacunae" in my memory.

Here's Dowd:

Smith describes the wondrous odyssey of taking the bus from South Jersey and meeting a curly-haired soul mate who wanted to help her soar, even as the pair painfully grappled over the years with Mapplethorpe's sexuality and his work's brutality.

"Robert took areas of dark human consent and made them into art," Smith writes about the former altar boy from Floral Park, Queens, who was bedeviled by Catholic concepts of good and evil. "Robert sought to elevate aspects of male experience, to imbue homosexuality with mysticism."

When he began exploring his own desires in San Francisco, she said it was an education for her too.

"I had thought a man turned homosexual when there was not the right woman to save him, a misconception I had developed from the tragic union of Rimbaud and the poet Paul Verlaine," she writes, adding that she mistakenly considered homosexuality "a poetic curse" that "irrevocably meshed with affectation and flamboyance."

As they redefined their love, she writes, "I learned from him that often contradiction is the clearest way to truth."

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Hmmm...sounds like you and I may have known some of the same people, Karen. I spent a lot of time downtown in those days, most of it pretty messed up on anything short of shooting heroin (luckily, I had a fear of needles).

I probably saw the Ramones like 40 times in those days. I never got to see Patti though. The clubs she played were almost always 21 or over (I wasn't) and if it was a non-club show it was usually somewhere outside the city I couldn't reach easily.

The city was a different place then. Guliani changed everything, and it's never been the same since.

Tavis Smiley interviewed Patti Smith on February 5, 2010 regarding the release of her memoir Just Kids, which tells the story of her and Mapplethorpe. The interview was recently re-played.

Here are links to the [_VIDEO_] and the [_TRANSCRIPT_].

With Mapplethorpe's clearly meaningful and ongoing relationship with Smith, I do not understand why history categorizes Mapplethorpe as gay and not as bisexual ... but I am not the one to make this call.

Paige Listerud | December 27, 2010 7:08 PM

So you JUST found out that Robert Mapplethorpe put his cock in Patti Smith's vag? Okay, girl, better late than never, I guess.

I think BiNet has had that info in the bi history section of their website since 1996. Certainly bisexual columnists Mike Szymanski and Sheela Lambert have brought up their affair over years of writing for examiner.com.

Oh, well, it's not like paying attention to anything bisexuals say matters, right? No need to check in with our community resources every once in a while. Nope. Just keep on labeling people gay or straight and ignoring the sexuality fluidity till you (*gasp*) DISCOVER the breeder sexual activity in the gay/lesbian community.

Whatever. It still makes me tired.

Despite my comment above, I realize "it can be complicated". Someone can be interested in one sex during their teenage years, then later in life totally lose interest in that sex and become totally interested in the other sex.

Say if a man first likes women and later likes only other men and loses his interest in women and discontinues all his sexual relationships with women, then I might indeed call that man "gay" rather than "bi".

Maybe this happened between Smith and Mapplethorpe, I don't know. But clearly they had an enduring emotional connection until his death that reflected their original physical relationship.

I'm not interested in getting into the bi vs gay labeling game, but I think it's helpful to look a little closer at the person who's orientation is being parsed.

While it may seem at odds with what we know of his work and legacy the Mapplethorpe that Smith portrays in the book is a man deeply conflicted about his homosexuality and desperate not to disappoint his conservative and deeply religious family.

I don't doubt that his original interest in Smith and his ongoing love and affection for her was sincere, but it was not long into their relationship that he begins his long nighttime forays into gay scene of 70's NYC. At about 3 years into their coupling it's Smith that ends the sexual aspect of their relationship after Mapplethorpe brings home a STD.

She clearly implies in the book that his wish to continue a romantic relationship with her, or at least the appearance of one, was largely driven by his desire to maintain appearances for the sake of his family and not by any great interest in putting his cock in her vag—so to speak. She was shrewd enough to understand that while they may have had each others affections his increasing sexual awareness was taking him elsewhere.

From that point on Mapplethorpe's relationships are all directed towards men—eventually settling into a long term relationship with Sam Wagstaff that ended with Wagstaff's death in 1987.

Paige Listerud | December 30, 2010 3:23 PM

First of all, as the child of two die-hard Republicans, one of them an ultra-right Catholic, let me just say that coming from a conservative background can make accepting your sexuality, fluid or not, a lifelong process. Gay men and lesbians do not have the corner on suffering or personal struggle towards self-acceptance.

As to what Robert really felt when he was putting his dick in Patti's vag--we may never find out.

First, it's really sad that he's gone because he was such a wonderful artist. Second, we'll never get to ask him, "On a scale of one to ten, how Patti's vag compared to the sex you've had with men, especially your long term relationship with Wagstaff?" Then we would be able the narrow things down and achieve an almost scientific understanding of what Patti meant to him and he meant to Patti. Or that understanding might still be as worthless as the understanding we have now.

What's bothersome is not Mapplethorpe's sexuality or his identification--he identified as gay and gay is good. What's bothersome is the big, gaping blindspot most monosexuals have about sexual fluidity, which directly corresponds to the oversold silencing and dismissal and discrediting of anyone who stands up and says that their sexuality is fluid in some way.

Do you get it? People who identify as bisexual, pansexual or queer are just the tip of the iceberg. Yes, Virginia, there are straight people boinking their own gender; there are gays and lesbians boinking people of the opposite sex--and they've boinked them long after they came out as gay and lesbian.

Don't tell me it doesn't matter because it's just sex, not love. Gay and lesbian silence about it matters, because that silence is shameful. It's not a sign of liberation--it's a sign you don't want to be outcasts, like the bisexuals you look down on and ridicule and erase from your history.

Sexual fluidity is as much a dirty little secret in the gay community as the straight one. That's why finding out about Robert and Patti is such a shocker for y'all. And the gay community is suppose to be the alternative to the repressed straight one. LOL.

So now that we all know Robert put his dick in Patti's vag, does that make him less worthy in gay eyes? Or is he a lesser gay, a disgraced gay because of his breeder behavior? Is there a rush to re-assert his gayness in the presence of Patti's vag? Do you ever get the feeling that Robert would rise from his grave and say, "I fucked who I fucked. Deal with it."?