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Patti Smith and Jonathan Lethem at the PEN World Voices Festival

By Geoff Wisner

I was lucky enough to be in the middle of reading Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids when I went to hear her in conversation with Jonathan Lethem. The book centers around her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she met almost as soon as she arrived in New York City at the age of twenty, and it ends with his death from AIDS at the age of forty-two. It is an extraordinary book -- in its emotional honesty, the beauty of its language, and its willingness to face difficult questions.

I knew about Mapplethorpe mainly from having seen his exhibit "The Perfect Moment" in 1990, the year after he died -- which included the famous or infamous X Portfolio of sadomasochistic images. Just Kids gave me a great deal more insight into Mapplethorpe's aesthetic sense, his struggle with his sexuality, and what drew him to S&M. Yet although Mapplethorpe is often defined by his sexuality, his relationship with Patti Smith seemed almost equally intense whether they were lovers, friends, fellow artists, or any combination of these roles.

Lethem and Smith had never met before the day they appeared onstage together, and Lethem might have been understandably reluctant to plunge right away into this aspect of the memoir. Instead, as a book person, he began by asking Smith about her early days when she was working at the Scribner's bookstore and supplementing her income as a freelance book hound. As she writes in the book,

I had a good eye, scouting rare children's books and signed first editions for a few dollars and reselling them for much more. The turnover on a pristine copy of Love and Mr. Lewisham inscribed by H.G. Wells covered rent and subway fares for a week.

Smith explained to Lethem that she grew up at a time, the Fifties, when people were heedlessly discarding the old in favor of the new: getting rid of fine porcelain and replacing it with melamine, getting rid of leatherbound books and replacing them with Reader's Digest editions. She realized that treasures could be picked up for almost nothing and either kept or else sold to those who still cared about them. She mentions in Just Kids that she had a brief career as a book restorer for the Argosy book shop, but to Lethem she confessed how she lost that job: by spilling rabbit glue all over a 19th century Bible (not a valuable one, fortunately).

Smith said that Allen Ginsberg once explained to her that each of us has two family trees. One is genetic and the other is the golden chain that connects you to those you feel an artist or spiritual affinity with. Rimbaud is obviously an important ancestor in Patti Smith's artistic family tree, and she has collected objects from Rimbaud and other "relatives" who are important to her. She has a page from Jim Morrison's last notebook, and Lethem mentioned with awe that she had let him hold Rimbaud's calling card.

Unlike friends who keep their rare manuscripts in vaults, Smith told the large audience at the Cooper Union that she lives with her things, where she can see them and touch them. I can only hope she has a good security system.

Published May 3, 2010   Copyright 2010 Geoff Wisner

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