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.
"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.
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."