Carly Simon would like to correct the notion that she is any kind of bourgeois princess, even if one of the first things she did after marrying in 1972 was to change her Bloomingdale’s charge card to read “Mrs. James Taylor.”
Her upbringing as a privileged daughter of Richard L. Simon, a founder of Simon & Schuster, used to be held against her. In her bohemian days — that is, when she wore bohemian clothes — it may even have hurt her professionally. Albert Grossman, the manager whose clients included Bob Dylan, called her “a nine out of a perfect 10,” docked one point because of her prosperous background.
“Boys in the Trees,” Simon’s overripe memoir, means to correct the impression of extravagant good fortune. She writes of a pummeling childhood, a history of serial betrayals by boyfriends, and a mostly bleak marriage to James Taylor, with whom she is apparently not in communication.
This book’s style recalls that of her songs: a little precious, a little redundant, a little too much. She recalls “my parents’ dinner parties, one after another, like gold, shimmering beads strung on a necklace.” She overplays the drama. (“He was my captor and I was his slave.”) And in the too-much-information department, well: “James was my muse, my Orpheus, my sleeping darling, my ‘good night, sweet prince,’ my something-in-the-way-he-moves.” But the barrier thrown up by this language isn’t insurmountable. And Simon has a tumultuous story to tell.
About that childhood: She describes herself as the least dainty and favored of three sisters and a baby brother, the offspring of a troubled marriage. Her father, who left her with daddy issues lasting a lifetime, plus a fetish for long legs like his (and hers), wrote her this poem: “Roses are red / Violets are pink / I love you with your darling fat nose / I’ve just had a drink.”
And from her mother, Andrea, a legacy of flagrant infidelity and cruelty: At 42, Andrea moved a 19-year-old lover into the household, nominally as a tutor to the girls’ brother. Carly Simon hated him for destroying her parents’ marriage. She knew she was growing up when she began to sense his sexual power, too.
Simon, although described as a “feminist icon” on the book’s jacket, has organized her memoir around boys and men. One guy who made a big impression was the one she calls Billy, the 16-year-old boyfriend of her sister Lucy. Carly was around 7 when Billy started with the come-ons, like “give me your dime and I’ll let you pull the towel off my waist.” Whatever went on between Billy and little Carly lasted six years, did not offend her and mirrored the household’s covert adult activity. It surely helped usher her toward the sexual abandon that looms large throughout the rest of her memories.
Although “Boys in the Trees” essentially ends when her marriage to Taylor did (they divorced in 1983), it packs in a lot of variety. There are the early stages of her singing, which began as a good way to stop her stammer. There’s her stint as half of the Simon Sisters with Lucy — who, she notes, has long legs, as does Taylor. There are her first forays as a solo artist, when she elicited a string of offers from the great seducers of the day.
Want to know how they did it? She’ll tell.
Kris Kristofferson: “Every signal Kris conveyed said ‘I’ve got to have you.’ ” Jack Nicholson: “What if we go over to your apartment?” followed by “Do you ever drink coffee in your bedroom?” Warren Beatty: “Can I see you?” Speaking of Beatty, there’s an All About “You’re So Vain” section here in which Simon discusses perhaps the song’s least-scrutinized aspect: the word “gavotte.” Turns out she just used the word. It wasn’t cryptic. It wasn’t about anyone. It just rhymed.
The book describes her having trysted her way very thoroughly through these circles, winding up with a priceless anecdote busting Beatty for his women-scheduling techniques. Then Simon devotes the last third of “Boys in the Trees” to Taylor. She exposes so much of that life that the book feels squirm-worthy at times. She has adoring, erotic and complaining things to say about him, all in the kind of detail that suggests years of analysis.
“Our relationship is far from the idyllic one that the general public reads about,” she wrote in her diary in 1977, when the long-troubled marriage had disintegrated into his chilliness and cheating, her neediness and fury.
She writes this book as someone much worldlier than the “cleverest, wisest, most perfect girl” (in the words of one boyfriend) who lived it. And she looks back knowing what to make of past slights.
One of the most jaw-dropping: a 1984 visit to the Simon & Schuster offices to show her two children, Sally and Ben Taylor, what their grandfather and Max Schuster founded. She had been invited by Richard Snyder, then the company’s chief executive. She says that Snyder was an hour and a half late, then approached the threesome “looking down his Pinocchio-pointy nose at us.” And then, “with the confidence of any number of white boys in pinstriped suits,” he asked the children if they’d like to work at Simon & Schuster someday.
As she tells it, the kids expressed enthusiasm just before Snyder, like so many male sadists around their mother, lowered the boom. Apropos of Richard Simon’s having sold his share in the company, Snyder said: “Well, if your grandfather had been smart, this could have been yours.” You’d think a publishing executive would know that crack would wind up in a book someday.
“Boys in the Trees, A Memoir” by Carly Simon (376 pages; Flatiron Books; $28.99)