When Patti Smith moved to New York City—when she was just 20-years-old in 1967—she was like a rabbit in the headlights after arriving in one of the world’s great metropolis’ from Pitman, New Jersey, but photographer Robert Mapplethorpe made her feel welcome in the city that never sleeps.
Smith had made the gigantic leap as she went to chase her artistic dreams, a path which must have been the definition of daunting and Mapplethorpe was a huge help for her finding her feet in New York City, which would be the place that let Patti become an era-defining artist. Smith met the photographer on her very first day after arriving in the Big Apple, a meeting of minds at a bookstore with her friend and poet Janet Hamill. They went on to share an intense romantic relationship, one which was tumultuous as the pair struggled with times of poverty and Mapplethorpe battled with his own sexuality.
In her book Just Kids, Smith described Mapplethorpe as a “hippie shepherd boy” who she said made her feel like they were a two-of-a-kind due to their shared artistic drive and they “fulfilled a role for each other”. “As it says in the book,” Smith said to NPR in 2010, “we woke up knowing that we were no longer alone.”
“Really, when I met Robert, we were unformed. That’s why I called the book Just Kids,” Smith added. “I really want people to comprehend that we were young. And it took a while to become who we evolved into. And I think for Robert it was a struggle because at a certain point it meant that he had to make a choice.
“I knew that I could never have a relationship with him the way that he would with a male,” Smith continued. “But of course as time went by, I realised that what Robert and I had, no one else would have, male or female.”
Without a chance meeting with one another, Smith wouldn’t have had that sense of belonging which let her thrive and become the star that she had the raw talent to become. Likewise, Mapplethorpe would never have been encouraged to enter the world of photography if it wasn’t for him entering the bookstore at that time on that 1967 day.
In 1989, 22 years after their first meeting and the start of friendship by which time they had long separated romantically, the two were still the closest of friends who shared a unique bond and Smith was devastated when he passed away sometime after being diagnosed with AIDS.
In the days before his tragic death which ripped through the soul of the LGBTQ+ community, Patti wrote her best friend a letter which he never got the chance to read, which you can see the transcript of below.
“Often as I lie awake I wonder if you are also lying awake. Are you in pain, or feeling alone? You drew me from the darkest period of my young life, sharing with me the sacred mystery of what it is to be an artist. I learned to see through you and never compose a line or draw a curve that does not come from the knowledge I derived in our precious time together. Your work, coming from a fluid source, can be traced to the naked song of your youth. You spoke then of holding hands with God. Remember, through everything, you have always held that hand. Grip it hard, Robert, and don’t let it go.
“The other afternoon, when you fell asleep on my shoulder, I drifted off, too. But before I did, it occurred to me looking around at all of your things and your work and going through years of your work in my mind, that of all your work, you are still your most beautiful. The most beautiful work of all.