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I've resisted reading Patricia Morrisroe's biography of Robert Mapplethorpe for a long time, and I'm not sure why I even picked it up and finally started it. But starting it was fatal to my resolve. The first chapter must be among the best let's-begin-with-the-funeral opening gambits ever played. Its premonitions of the family drama staged nightly in casa Mapplethorpe in Floral Park, Queens will entice anyone fascinated by the extremities of family dysfunction. I'll tease you with just one fact. Mapplethorpe's parents, who lived 13 miles from the epicenter of their son's infamous celebrity (a celebrity that became increasingly national all the while), had no idea until shortly before his death that he was gay. And his mom still didn't believe it.
I thought I mostly knew Mapplethorpe's story, and wasn't too eager to revisit the wreckage of those years in any event, but I'm glad now I did. I knew less than I thought, and was wrong about some of the things I thought I did know. I didn't close the book liking the man much, or caring any more about his work than I ever did (a handful of great pictures and a truckload of pretty ones), but I ended up respecting his ambition, and admiring the courage that fueled his escape from Floral Park.
Two anecdotes from the book.
1. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe set up housekeeping:
Their attraction to one another was instantaneous. Since Smith had no place to live, she followed Mapplethorpe home to Brooklyn, where he was now sharing an apartment on Waverly Avenue with Pat Kennedy and his soon-to-be-wife, Margaret. Pat met Robert's new girlfriend the next morning, when he was sitting in the living room with his parents, who had just arrived from Wisconsin. He heard a door squeak and looked up to see the spectral figure of a naked woman coming toward the living room. "It was a long railroad apartment," Pat Kennedy recalled, "so we watched her for what seemed like an eternity. She looked like a swamp rat, and I kept hoping she'd disappear into the kitchen, but she sauntered into the living room and said, `Hi!' My parents are really Midwestern, so when my mother saw Patti, she was in shock. `My God!' she said. `I was afraid New York was going to be like this.' "
2. O'Henry phones in a deathbed scene:
One afternoon a nurse presented him with a modest floral arrangement that he might otherwise have thrown in the trash, except for a card that read "Love, Mom and Dad." He knew his mother was ill so it meant Harry had sent the flowers himself, and moved by the gesture of reconciliation, he turned to Knaust and said, "Do you believe my father took care of this?". A few minutes later, the nurse reappeared and apologized for the mix-up. "The flowers," she explained, "were meant for the patient across the hall."