Last Updated on January 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1144
Patti Smith is the author, the first-person narrator, and one of the two principal subjects of the memoir Just Kids. After a brief foreword about the death of Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith describes her own childhood and upbringing. She was obsessed by religion as a child and spent a lot of time in prayer. Gradually, however, books—particularly poetry—became as important to her as religion, and soon she added the visual arts to her great enthusiasms, writing that she "happily dwelt in the world of Modigliani, Dubuffet, Picasso, Fra Angelico, and Albert Ryder."
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In 1966, at the age of nineteen, Smith had a relationship with a seventeen-year-old boy, leading to an unwanted pregnancy. She found a couple willing to adopt the child and, when she was twenty, moved to New York City, where she worked at Brentano's bookstore and met Robert Mapplethorpe. The two of them moved into a cheap apartment in Brooklyn and worked on their respective arts.
Although it was always clear that Smith would be an artist, she spent a long time experimenting before she decided which particular art she would pursue. For many years, she was primarily a poet, and she had achieved some success in this field before it occurred to her to add a guitar to her poetry performances and become a singer-songwriter. The picture of Smith that emerges from the memoir is one of a child, girl, and woman completely focused on the arts, never seriously doubting her vocation to be a creative artist. Her references to dead poets, such as Rimbaud, are much the same in style and tone to her writing about artists she actually knew. Art is central to all her relationships. Mapplethorpe seems to have become such a vitally important figure in her life at least partly because their artistic visions aligned, and she found in him her ideal collaborator.
Robert Mapplethorpe was born in 1946, the same year as Patti Smith, and grew up in a poor family on Long Island. He loved drawing and creating delicate pieces of jewelry for his mother and sisters. His mother wanted him to become a priest, but unlike Smith, his interest in religion was purely aesthetic, focused on vestments and ritual. Throughout his life, Mapplethorpe was drawn to beautiful objects, and he took great care with his clothes and appearance. Although not a jealous (or faithful) lover, Mapplethorpe felt a romantic jealousy where objects of beauty were concerned. He once destroyed a William Blake etching so that no one else would be able to possess it.
Mapplethorpe and Smith were initially lovers, but within the first year of their relationship, it became clear that he was predominantly homosexual. Over the next two decades, he had various gay relationships, as well as working as a rent boy. His most stable and successful sexual relationship was with Sam Wagstaff, a wealthy older man who supported his artistic career. Smith believes that Mapplethorpe needed a patron to support him and bring out his talent. Although he and Smith initially lived the same bohemian lifestyle, wealth and success were always more important to Mapplethorpe. He was attracted to Wagstaff's privileged background and, toward the end of his life, mixed with the rich and famous as much as he could.
Mapplethorpe is portrayed in the memoir as a highly complex, contradictory, and ultimately self-destructive figure, with a very strong streak of selfishness which is redeemed, at least for the author, by the fact that he places even himself second to his artistic ambitions. Like Smith, he takes some time to discover the area of art in which he will eventually find fame. In 1967, he is principally focused on sculpture and collage. He regards Smith as an important collaborator and takes several iconic photographs of her.
Sam Wagstaff is Mapplethorpe's patron and lover. He is older than Mapplethorpe, "intelligent, handsome and rich." He has had a privileged background, being a Yale graduate from a wealthy family, and is an art connoisseur and collector, a former curator of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Wagstaff meets Mapplethorpe at a time when he has inherited a large sum of money and is "at the center of a philosophical standoff, equidistant between the spiritual and the material." His encounter with Mapplethorpe's work, and later with Mapplethorpe himself, soon leads him to decide that he will become the patron and champion of his work. A romantic relationship between the two quickly follows. Wagstaff's strength, certainty, and calm are a good influence on Mapplethorpe, giving him the emotional as well as the financial means to fulfill his artistic potential.
David Croland is a model and actor whom Smith and Mapplethorpe encounter toward the end of their time at the Chelsea Hotel. He becomes intimate with Mapplethorpe and helps with his career, obtaining an important commission for him at Esquire. Initially, Croland and Mapplethorpe hide their relationship from Smith. Despite being an important figure in Mapplethorpe's life, and later one of his favorite photographic subjects, Croland is not described in much detail as a personality, apart from being suave, sympathetic, and generous, rather like a younger Sam Wagstaff.
Fred Sonic Smith
Fred Sonic Smith is a rock guitarist with whom the author began living in 1979 and whom she later married. She leaves New York and Mapplethorpe to live with him in Detroit, where their bohemian, unmaterialistic lifestyle recalls to her the early days of her relationship with Mapplethorpe. Since he is not the focus of the memoir, Smith says little about him, except that he "was a king among men." He shows no jealousy of the close relationship between Mapplethorpe and his wife, though he does remark to her that "all his photographs of you look like him."
Linda Smith Bianucci
Linda Smith Bianucci is the author's sister and the family member with whom she has the most contact. The two go to Paris together and explore its artistic and literary heritage. Linda shares several of her sister's preoccupations, including art and photography, and she also comes to New York City and takes a job at a bookstore. Later, when the author begins performing her poetry on stage, she writes:
I had no musicians or crew, but the soul of my sibling army, Linda, acted as roadie, foil, and guardian angel.
It appears that Linda is the only one of Patti Smith's family who has significant contact with Mapplethorpe and their life in New York.
Just Kids is full of the names of people who helped Smith and Mapplethorpe in their careers, or who were important artistic influences, or who were part of the artistic and cultural milieu of New York in the late 1960s and 70s. Several of these people are famous, perhaps the most prominent being Allen Ginsberg and Janis Joplin. They are all minor figures in the memoir, and all play rather similar roles.