Carly Simon's New York Times bestselling memoir, Boys in the Trees, reveals her remarkable life, beginning with her storied childhood as the third daughter of Richard L. Simon, the co-founder of publishing giant Simon&Schuster, her musical debut as half of The Simon Sisters performing folk songs with her sister Lucy in Greenwich Village, to a meteoric solo career that would result in 13 top 40 hits, including the #1 song "You're So Vain." She was the first artist in history to win a Grammy Award, an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award, for her song "Let the River Run" from the movie Working Girl.
The memoir recalls a childhood enriched by music and culture, but also one shrouded in secrets that would eventually tear her family apart. Simon brilliantly captures moments of creative inspiration, the sparks of songs, and the stories behind writing "Anticipation" and "We Have No Secrets" among many others. Romantic entanglements with some of the most famous men of the day fueled her confessional lyrics, as well as the unraveling of her storybook marriage to James Taylor.
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About the Author
Carly Simon is a songwriter and singer of songs. Her children are Ben Taylor and Sally Taylor Bragonier. She has one grandchild: Bodhi Taylor Bragonier. She lives on Martha's Vineyard and is the author of Boys in the Trees.
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Boys in the Trees
By Carly Simon
Flatiron BooksCopyright © 2015 Carly Simon
All rights reserved.
133 west eleventh street
This day may have been the day, the very day when my identity was born. Before the incident occurred, I didn't think about who I was. After, I would spend the rest of my life testing myself to see if I had been right.
The whole family was gathered after dinner to make the acquaintance of a possible nurse for Peter, my brother, just born five months before. Lucy and Joey, my two older sisters, and I were all under the age of eight. We lived in the top floor of a six-story town house on Eleventh Street.
"Quick, girls, it's almost eight, the plane got in an hour ago. Get dressed and wear shoes and socks and brush your hair." Mommy was holding a cigarette between her lips. She tried to get a brush through the tangles of my feathery hair, and finally grabbed a barrette, attempting to get my hair to go somewhere it stubbornly wouldn't go. She left it in a web of blond knots and went on to an easier task: brushing Lucy's hair.
Andrea Simon still had to neaten up her chignon, don her black calf heels, and apply a new layer of lipstick. She always wore bright red.
From at least three rooms away I could hear Daddy playing the piano: a strong, beautiful classical piece he'd been working on. It sounded just like a record.
Daddy had been in the hospital for five weeks after Peter was born. He had had a "nervous collapse." I would not learn about psychology until later, when the names and labels and diagnoses would collect and sprawl before me.
"Quick, girls." Mommy hurried us along. "Don't forget your manners," she might have repeated several times so it would stick.
"I wish he'd play something from Carousel or South Pacific," Mommy thought aloud. "It would make Mrs. Gaspard feel more comfortable, I should think. Rachmaninoff isn't for this kind of meeting," as if any of her three young daughters would know. She really did mean it, though, because she issued one final direction to us and then walked very fast into the living room to tell Daddy, I presume, to stop playing what he was playing and play something more "fun." We girls followed her and could hear them having a minor argument, and then Daddy started playing "The Man I Love," from Strike Up the Band, by George Gershwin. Gershwin had sent him a copy. My father was at the center of the publishing world in 1948, and he had gotten to know Gershwin while the company was doing a book on him. Daddy had started the company, Simon & Schuster, in 1924, with Max Schuster, and by 1948 things were only getting better.
"And he'll be big and strong, the man I love," Joey sang at the top of her voice. Daddy looked up approvingly at his eldest daughter. Mommy had gone for a minute to neaten her hair, and no one noticed that I was not only barefoot but I also had not changed out of my nightgown. It was almost as pretty as a dress, though. The best thing was that Daddy was back! Back to his old self! He was back at the top of his game.
The doorbell rang, and Mother, coming refreshed from her and Daddy's bedroom, said in a singsong voice, "Coming." She opened the big, heavy front door, and a woman entered slowly and with the grace of a ballerina. She was tall and had an attractively square head surrounded by light red, very wispy hair. I was nervous that maybe she would be very strict. But she was so tall and regal, us kids all came to the same conclusion: the potential nurse was auditioning for the job the way an actress would for a part in a play.
Daddy stopped playing and came out in front of the piano and introduced himself to Helen Gaspard. It was the kind of exchange Daddy was famous for: witty and charming. Helen seemed quite taken with him, as was everyone. With his height, standing straight at six foot five, his narrow and piercing blue eyes, and his full lips, he looked like a man back on the track. A man who could do almost anything.
Mother spoke to Helen as if she were sauntering down the gangplank of the Mayflower, a slowly enunciated, plummy Philadelphia accent. The accent was real — she had been born there — but it had also been consciously honed by watching Katharine Hepburn movies. Helen, however, was from Canada, and Mother's pretentions were lost on her.
The entrance and placement of the Simon daughters must have looked choreographed: first Joey, tall and gangly but ultra-sophisticated, with perfect constellations of freckles like Daddy's crossing her straight and perfectly proportioned nose. Her eyes, like Daddy's, were narrow and blue, and her mouth was ingénue-perfect. She wore a white cotton blouse and a gray cardigan carefully tossed over her shoulders in just the right careless manner — a touch maybe inspired by some late-night Lana Turner melodrama. Her decorous full plaid skirt came to the middle of her slightly knock-kneed legs, and her white high socks fit neatly in black patent leather Mary Janes.
Lucy, five years old, was as demure as Bashful the dwarf. Her nose and freckles were almost identical to Joey's, but Lucy's eyes were like those of an Eskimo princess who had gazed too long into the icy waters of the North, causing a permanent squint to form. Lucy wore a rose-colored velvet dress with a white lace collar and, like Joey, patent leather Mary Janes. "Sweet" was written all over her, as she half hid behind her regal and slightly aloof older sister.
At almost three, I was the baby girl, a waif, blond sprouting in competing directions from my scalp. My nose was wider at the bridge than both my sisters', a source of embarrassment for my father, who, I would later find out, favored the Nordic look in the women he loved. My nose wasn't the only way I disappointed him. After two daughters, he'd been counting on a son, a male successor to be named Carl. When I was born, he and Mommy simply added a y to the word, like an accusing chromosome: Carly.
My mother made introductions, oldest to youngest. "This is Joey ..." Making perfect eye contact, Joey took three steps forward to shake Helen's hand. "And this is our darling Lucy," my mother went on. Lucy approached shyly, before hurrying back to her starting position and Joey's protective hand. At last it was my turn.
"Carly, sweetheart, this is Helen. Can you say hello?"
I still remember that moment, that night, when I tapped into a new, unfamiliar part of my personality: I wanted to be noticed.
My uncle Peter had recently taken me to see the old 1927 film The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson. At that second, the only image that came to my mind was of a man in blackface, folded down on one knee, arms outstretched. Barely thinking, I jumped onto the nearby coffee table. With all eyes on me as I bent down onto one knee, my toes curled under to position my weight and steady my balance, I extended both arms, waving my hands and calling out, with as much volume as possible, a single cheery, brassy:
* * *
The town house at 133 West Eleventh Street, between Sixth Avenue and Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village, was my first home, the building where I, during the winter season, spent my first six years. There were six floors in all, with two apartments on each, and my parents had combined the two highest units to create a rambling penthouse. The style, if any, was eclectic, the rooms furnished in Simon-family Victoriana, books mashed and sprawling from cases and shelves barely able to contain them. Everything crowded together; nothing fit or matched. The children's rooms were divided by plywood partitions that didn't quite reach the ceiling, with single beds, off a hallway lined on both sides with little slots housing our shoes, sneakers, and boots. Dresses and coats drooped from little hangers off a pole. It wasn't a matter of money, although my parents did like to think of themselves as being thrifty.
As the owner of 133 West Eleventh, Daddy populated our building with family members, extended relatives, friends of friends, people who worked for us, and even his colleagues, creating a close-knit boardinghouse of sorts. Among the residents was my mother's mother, Chibie, who lived in a third-floor apartment with our Irish-born cook and nanny, Allie, and one floor below were my father's sister Aunty Betty and Uncle Arthur and their two daughters, Jeanie and Mary (Jeanie was my best friend). Below them lived my father's younger brother Uncle Henry and his wife, Roz, and close by, too, was Daddy's lawyer and friend, René Wormser, who would later play a part in my father's professional unraveling. Old friends of Chibie, assorted nurses and caretakers, as well as the building's superintendent, Mr. Porter, filled out the other apartments. Some paid rent; Daddy took care of the rest. The residents of 133 moved up and down, from floor to floor, thanks to Jimmy, our elevator man, who opened and closed the iron doors with an accordion flourish. When I was little, Jimmy would always ask me, "Which floor, little lady?" That exchange never got tired.
It was Chibie, above all, who fascinated me. Who was Chibie? Where had she come from? No one knew for sure, and Chibie's origins were complicated. One story went that she was the illegitimate daughter of King Alphonso XIII of Spain and a Moorish slave he had gotten pregnant. When Chibie's mother visited the king, infant in hand, he promptly dismissed them. Eventually, Chibie was handed off to another slave girl planning passage from Valencia to Cuba, who concealed the infant under her clothes. Arriving in Havana, Chibie was handed over to the Del Rio family, Asuncione and Raymond, who, after rechristening her Alma, dispatched her to a convent in England where she was raised by nuns until the age of sixteen.
While her dramatic origins were never fully verified, I was able to confirm that until her mid-teens, Chibie lived in England, and that when she left the convent, she could read in eight languages. She was brainy, brilliant, and an utter original. She had dark olive skin and spent the rest of her life bleaching it in order to "pass" in a Caucasian world. Chibie entered into an arranged marriage with a German-speaking Swiss man named Frederick Heinemann. Three children, two boys and a girl, followed — Dutch, Peter, and my mother, Andrea. Mr. Heinemann's alcoholism and physical abuse led to brutal fights and his eventual abandonment of the family.
There was another story, too: that when my own mother was sixteen and dating an older man named Steve, who played football for the New York Giants, Steve was enchanted by the then-thirty-four-year-old Chibie. For the next four years, Steve lived with Chibie, my mother, Uncle Peter, and Uncle Dutch in their hot, cramped, downtown apartment beneath the El train until my mother finally left home. True? Not true? It's hard to know. Certainly a lot of it is verified by my mother's diary.
Chibie herself was adept at covering her tracks and her heritage, repeatedly telling my sisters in a theatrical English accent, "When I die you shall find nothing! But nothing!"
I spent my early childhood in the company of Chibie and Allie, our nanny and cook, who always made time for me. I'd show up at their apartment on the third floor with a satchel filled with shiny jewels raided from my mother's jewelry box — her tourmaline engagement ring, her pearls, and her Jensen necklaces — and gave them with a flourish to Allie, who had many fewer bracelets, necklaces, and earrings than my mother did. I knew instinctively that there was a socioeconomic gap between Allie and our family. Still, as my friend, why shouldn't Allie have the same jewelry as Mommy? My Robin Hood–like jewelry-filching became so habitual that a routine of sorts developed: I would pirate the jewelry to Allie, who would then drag it all back upstairs to my parents' apartment, and by dinnertime, my mother would be back wearing her pearls and rings, no fingers pointed, no harm done.
But my two favorite adults, the ones who made me laugh the most, were Uncle Peter and Uncle Dutch, who lived in the basement apartment. Uncle Peter was my first crush. During the summers in Stamford, Connecticut, I was his Robin Hood, too, sneaking across the lawn at night and dropping off desserts from my parents' elegant dinner table at the doorstep of his little coffee-drip cabin. Uncle Peter loved me as much as I loved him. He told me jokes. He spoke in funny voices. He made scrunchy faces behind everyone's backs. He did a dance I can only liken to an eggbeater churning, his torso twirling, rubber-boned, as he made strange, ecstatic, spasming hand, leg, and facial movements. He also taught me how to play the ukulele, on which I learned the precursors to my first guitar chords.
Growing up, I assumed every family in the world sang, harmonized, and played the piano together. Half of the residents of 133 West Eleventh Street were musical, including Mr. Porter, the super who sang "Silent Night" all year round. My mother had a light, gentle soprano familiar to me from the Brahms lullabies she almost whispered as she was putting us to sleep.
It was Uncle Henry, my father's younger brother, who came up with the idea to start an orchestra and chorus, holding rehearsals every Wednesday night in his neat, overly beige apartment. Like the rest of the refined, upper-middle-class, Upper West Simons — Daddy and his five siblings were all named after British monarchs — Uncle Henry had developed his highbrow taste in prep school, in his case, the Ethical Culture School in Manhattan. Our orchestra, at least as Uncle Henry imagined it, would devote itself exclusively to church hymns and liturgical pieces. At first, everybody was excited to play together, though Uncle Peter and Uncle Dutch would have been much happier playing show tunes, blues, and jazz. Dutch played a mean mouth bass, and Peter could play anything that Louis Armstrong played, the difference being that instead of a cornet or trumpet, all the sounds came razzing, tooting, and spilling directly from Uncle Peter's mouth.
I soon grew to dread those Wednesday night chorus rehearsals — I hated classical music, hated hymns, hated the seriousness of it all — and was relieved when Joey, Lucy, and I were kicked out of the chorus for mugging too much. (In fact, we deliberately sang out of tune in hopes of being expelled.) Uncle Henry often complained about the uneven tonality of the three Simon sisters, our seeming inability to hold a tune due to our "kidding around" and the bad habit we had of laughing "like predatory goons" behind our hands.
To me, the best part of those rehearsals was when they ended and I migrated downstairs to the basement apartment, where Uncle Peter picked up the ukulele and together we sang "Yes Sir, That's My Baby," with Peter harmonizing and me singing melody. Over time I would collect different sounds in my head, ways of hearing notes together — a fourth here, a dominant seventh there, though back then certainly nothing had a name! — and harmonizing would come almost as easily to me as singing melody.
Daddy's family was well-roundedly musical. His youngest brother, George, was a drummer who helped found Downbeat magazine. Another brother, Alfie, was the program director for a music radio station, WQXR. Henry was a classical music lover and conductor, as well as a Shakespearean scholar. Daddy, though, was the most talented of them all, a nonprofessional pianist who played as well as the professionals.
Whether Daddy ever dreamed of being recognized for his musicianship is something I'd guess yes to. He began studying the piano seriously at age six, and every night spent three or four hours playing Liszt, Brahms, Chopin, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven. Mommy used to say that though Daddy's playing didn't have the technical perfection of Rubinstein or Horowitz, he played with more emotion and originality, subtlety and abandon. He seemed to relish the position of his hands on the keys, and to this day I can still picture the dramatic curve and sweep of his wrists and fingers. Before Daddy founded his publishing company, his first job out of college was working as a salesman for Steinway & Sons. In time, the piano would become his only refuge from the hurt and damage of his life, but in those days, Mommy told us only that Daddy could have been a concert pianist if he'd wanted, and that his playing was so nuanced and moving that George Gershwin and Vladimir Horowitz had told him they would rather sit it out than follow his playing. Although his playing was sensitive, there was no question he could be imposing. Mommy was proud. It reflected well on her.
As the youngest of the three Simon girls, I remember how many times Daddy made me leave the dinner table as punishment. I also remember kissing him hello and good night, but never getting much affection in return. "Darling, remember to kiss Carly, too," I heard my mother say more than once at bedtime, as if without her reminder and gentle diplomacy, he might have forgotten all about me. During the day, with Daddy at work, I turned to my two slapstick-loving uncles, Peter and Dutch. They were my private version of of the Marx Brothers, making up songs the three of us sang together, teaching me risqué language, and taking me on double-decker bus jaunts up Fifth Avenue, at an age when my childhood, and my family, seemed as though they would last forever.
Excerpted from Boys in the Trees by Carly Simon. Copyright © 2015 Carly Simon. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. 133 West Eleventh Street,
2. Summer in the Trees,
4. Carly, Meet Ronny,
5. Splinter-Happy Steps,
6. The Dinner Party,
8. The Twenty-Ninth Floor,
9. The Hardships of the Mistral,
10. Frog Footman,
12. Jake Was the Hub,
13. Record Numero Uno,
14. Soft Summer Gardens,
15. The Potemkin Hotel,
16. Carnegie Hall,
17. Choppin' Wood,
18. Moonlight Mile,
19. We'll Marry,
21. Heat's Up, Tea's Brewed,
23. Sheets the Color of Fire,
24. Strip, Bitch,
About the Author,