Boys in the Trees, by Carly Simon
I’m not normally a fan of celebrity autobiographies. I find the majority of them largely disappointing, full of mundane descriptions of their hometowns, yawn-inducing descriptions of their family and ancestors, and barely amusing anecdotes from their childhood. Many of them gloss over their tales of fame just as one might Photoshop an unflattering picture– removing all the blemishes and wrinkles, and trimming the fat, so everything looks perfect. A good example of a bad celebrity memoir is Linda Ronstadt’s Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir. Too much about her childhood in Arizona, her Mexican roots, and waaay too much about the music, not the person. Linda had lots of famous lovers in the 1970s (Warren Beatty, J.D. Souther, California Governor Jerry Brown, etc.), but she refuses to “kiss and tell,” even after all these years. She also didn’t write about why she chose to adopt her two children, or about her life-changing Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis. For my full review of this horrible book, click here.
The complete opposite of Linda’s book is a memoir recently released by one of her contemporaries: Carly Simon’s Boys in the Trees. At the same time Linda was having radio hits written by other people (most remakes of oldies), Carly was hitting the charts with songs she wrote, like Anticipation, Haven’t Got Time For the Pain, and the classic You’re So Vain. The latter of those has been the source of endless debate and speculation over the years… Which of Carly’s famous boyfriends was it about? Mick Jagger? Warren Beatty? Husband James Taylor? We’ll get back to that later…
Carly’s childhood was much like a fairy tale. Her father, Dick Simon, was the co-founder of publishing giant Simon and Schuster. (I wondered why Carly’s book was published not by S&S, but by Flatiron Books; the answer will become obvious when you read the chapter entitled The Twenty-Ninth Floor.) Carly lived with her parents, two older sisters, and a younger brother, dividing their time between a townhouse in Greenwich Village, in New York City, and a “Georgian mansion” in Stamford, Connecticut. The family also summered at Martha’s Vineyard, in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Her parents hosted extravagant dinner parties for their famous and influential friends. Typical party guests might include baseball great Jackie Robinson, cartoonist Charles Addams, bandleader Benny Goodman, author and humorist James Thurber, and the venerable composing duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Carly writes with all five senses, describing these soirees, recalling the “tinkling of ice in cocktail glasses… glasses tipped against lips, dips and martinis, shrimp suspended in tomato aspic, bell peals and light flashes” in vivid detail.
Sounds dreamy, but Carly’s childhood was far from perfectly happy. She never felt she was as pretty or as well loved as her big sisters, Joey and Lucy. She longed for more attention and affection from her father, who she viewed as a hero. Although she displayed a talent for music at a young age, Carly also had performance anxiety, which first emerged when she and her sisters starred in a summer theater production of Little Women. It was around that time that Carly developed a stammer that would make the remainder of her childhood miserable, even causing her parents to send her to a therapist. Carly also reveals that she was sexually molested for a number of years by a teenaged friend of her family. The cherry on the cake of Carly’s traumatic youth, was her mother’s affair with the young man hired as a sort of live-in “nanny” for little brother, Peter. This went on right under her husband’s nose, continuing even after Dick suffered a series of mini-strokes. In retrospect, Carly feels that her mother’s actions contributed to her dad’s declining health and early death.
That would be a book in itself, but as we all know, Carly grew up to be famous! As we turn the pages, we get to follow her to Sarah Lawrence College, to Europe with her college sweetheart, Nick, back to New York, and finally, off to England, where she and sis Lucy pursued a record deal as “The Simon Sisters.” (They had one minor hit.) Carly fell head over heels in love with a character named Willie, who promised to make her famous, but who turned out to be a shyster. This was the first– and certainly not the last– major heartbreak for Carly in the Love department.
Life changed abruptly in 1970 when Carly, back in the States and signed to A&M Records, scored a major hit with “That’s the Way I Always Heard it Should Be.” Not only did she have to deal with her stage fright and being suddenly famous, but temptations of every kind surrounded her. Carly does not hold back, detailing her whirlwind romances with Kris Kristofferson, Cat Stevens, Warren Beatty, and Mick Jagger, in a tastefully sexy style.
I never realized what a hellish mess Carly’s marriage to James Taylor was until I read this book. I knew that he had battled depression, but I never knew about his multiple infidelities, or the extent of his drug use. It’s frightening to read, and easy to understand why Carly was constantly worried that James might die. One of the book’s most shocking scenes takes place on page 251, when James forces Carly to watch… oh, I won’t spoil it… read the book!
The only negative thing I have to say about Boys in the Trees is that the story basically stops when her marriage came to a long-overdue end (although it does contain a reflective epilogue). Did Carly ever remarry? Did James? Do they ever talk anymore? This isn’t made clear. Carly says that their two adult children, Sally and Ben, gave her their blessing to go ahead and publish the book. (Actually, I’d find it awkward to read a book with so many details of my parents’ sex life.)
Oh, and as far as “You’re So Vain”… Carly said she’d never reveal who inspired it. Upon the book’s release, she admitted verse two is about Warren Beatty. That leaves us two other verses to wonder and ponder about. I can almost guarantee that neither is about James Taylor. He could be sensitive, insensitive, mean, kind, selfish, loving, and reckless, but I don’t think there’s a vain hair on his balding head.
This is the best celebrity tell-all I have read in years. As Carly herself sang, “Nobody Does It Better.”
- Posted in: Authors ♦ book reviews ♦ Books ♦ music ♦ Musicians
- Tagged: 1970s, Anticipation, Autobiography, Boys in the Trees, Carly Simon, Celebrity Scandals, divorce, drug use, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, marriage, Martha's Vineyard, memoir, Mick Jagger, Simon and Schuster, stage fright, stuttering, Warren Beatty, You're So Vain