BOYS IN THE TREES: A MEMOIR
By Carly Simon
Flatiron Books, $28.99, 376 pages, illustrated
It would be easy to dismiss singer-songwriter Carly Simon as just another narcissist diva. Indeed, at times reading this spirited memoir where her narcissism is on display over and over and over again, it is hard not to do so. But this would be a mistake, for there is a great deal more to Ms. Simon; and her memoir showcases all that as well. Admittedly, some of it is as unattractive as the “look at me” leitmotiv: an air of entitlement, a sense of existing in a series of hothouse environments or other bubbles, a reflexive tunnel vision. There are a lot of snakes in her grass, a lot of demons with which she has had a lifelong struggle, including a stammer, among other inhibitions. The frankness with which she writes about them is not only profoundly moving but winsome, an important factor in transforming what could have been merely an insufferably boastful account of romantic conquests and other triumphs into an engaging narrative, which truly enlists the reader’s sympathy.
Useless to deny that Ms. Simon dishes up a lot of hot gossip and a host of juicy stories, any one of which most other people would dine out on for the rest of their lives. Although many of these involve celebrities and mega ones at that, she can be just as amusing and insightful when telling us of encounters with lesser-known folk. But if you want to know details of how Warren Beatty’s seduction technique extends far beyond his skills in the bedroom or just how magnetic and persistent a wooer a motivated Mick Jagger can be, this book will certainly not disappoint. More astonishing is the unabashed tenderness with which Ms. Simon recalls the loveliness of her early years of marriage with fellow superstar James Taylor before it all soured, his sweetness and unvarnished uxoriousness equaled only by his paternal pride in and devotion to their offspring.
Still more surprising is how good a writer Ms. Simon is. Song lyrics and prose narratives both benefit from the capacity for a neat turn of phrase and the ability to tug at the heartstrings. It is nonetheless remarkable to find such a wealth of just plain beautiful writing, whether describing the very different beauty the author finds in her native New York City and her adopted heart home Martha’s Vineyard or her feelings for her beloved daughter and son and the redoubtable maternal grandmother who meant so much to her in her troubled youth.
The youngest of three daughters of Richard Simon, founding genius of Simon & Schuster (there was also a son, three years her junior), Carly was very much the ugly duckling and not just in her own mind, although she leaves us in no doubt as to the genuine anguish she felt. She adored her father, indeed some of this memoir’s most moving passages deal with her deep love for him, both before and since his sad decline and premature death when she 15. “Boys in the Trees” is infused by two profound bittersweet emotions: this lifelong love for a parent so indifferent to her that her mother actually had to remind him to kiss her goodnight (when he needed no such prompting when it came to her older sisters whom he doted on); and an abiding attachment to a husband who hasn’t spoken to her for decades as she continues to live in the house they built and still sleeps in the bed they shared.
There is, of course, a 600-pound elephant in the room in Ms. Simon’s account of her fairy tale marriage to fellow songsmith James Taylor and its brutal denouement: his struggle with addiction to that hardest of hard drugs, heroin. It’s not that she ignores it, far from it. One of the most searing episodes in her book is when she describes in excruciating detail his injecting himself with the stuff as part of an effort to convince himself and her that his habit cannot coexist with her and that she must understand his difficult struggle to give it up.
Of course, it would have been facile for her simply to blame the implosion of their marriage on her husband’s addiction. There is a lot more to it, including infidelity on both sides, some of it emotional as well as physical, although it is typical of Ms. Simon to let the chips fall where they may so honestly that she is upfront about Mr. Taylor telling her that she needs to be tested for a painful and dangerous sexually transmitted disease as a result of one his many peccadilloes. But what I find troubling is her own casual acceptance of drugs, whether as a part of the music scene or life in general, and especially her own unquestioning use of marijuana. That tunnel vision again, I suppose, yet it is disappointing that someone capable of such insight into herself in all sorts of ways should be so blind to the ineluctable necessity of connecting a series of glaring dots staring her in the face.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.