Sally Mann’s Examination of Life, Death and Decay

Mann’s book and exhibition, “The Flesh and the Spirit,” at a Richmond, Va., museum, ranges from crisp early work to later chaotic meditations on death.

By Steve Appleford, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Lexington, Va.

The meandering path to the cabin where Sally Mann once photographed her young children is through a forest of towering oak, maple and hickory. It’s on the Maury River, a mile and a half from the house and studio she designed for herself, and as she walks loudly through a thick layer of leaves and branches, she mentions something about bears.

She saw a couple of black bears here just the other day while on horseback. “They’re perfectly harmless,” she insists, still crunching through the leaves, her dogs barking around her in the fading afternoon light, “but they shake you up a little bit.”

The cabin is empty now and her three kids grown, each the subject of ongoing curiosity whenever spotted at one of their mother’s openings, art stars by birth. The period when she made those photographs was just the briefest of moments, a time of bloody noses and feral nudity at home and by the water, documented to great acclaim and discomfort in the 1992 book “Immediate Family.”

Her interests have since expanded from that youthful, naked idyll to images of mortality and inevitable decay, of ancient Civil War battlefields and cadavers rotting in the wild. She’s turned the camera unflinchingly on herself and photographed the progression of late-onset muscular dystrophy in her husband. At 59, that makes Mann the ultimate nature photographer, facing the raw and unthinkable of life experience with an 8x10 view camera. “The body is fraught,” she says. “It’s dangerous territory.”

This is the theme of “Sally Mann: The Flesh and the Spirit,” a book and exhibition that examine the through-line from her crisp early work to her murkier, almost chaotic later meditations on death. Hosted by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, with a vivid catalog published by Aperture Books, it is not a true retrospective, but a gathering of images that cohere on the business of life and its end.

“She takes what’s close to home and makes that stand for universal themes,” says John R. Ravenal, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia museum. “If it’s not her children, then it's herself or her husband or the landscape around her. They’re nurtured by the land and their connection to the culture and community.”

“Every time a death occurs in my life, I’m just stunned by the emotional impact it has on me and the void that is left behind by that person,” Mann says. “There is a great line from Laurie Anderson: 'When my father died, it was like a whole library had burned down.' The power of death just knocked me flat. I thought it was something I better look into.”

Early this decade, that exploration took her from the 425-acre farm of rolling hills and forest she shares with her husband to the Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center (a.k.a. “the Body Farm”), where donated bodies are left to the elements so scientists can better understand human decomposition in criminal cases. On one of her three visits, there were 40 cadavers on the grounds. “And they were gorgeous. Beautiful,” she recalls. “Nature is really efficient, and she doesn't spare on the aesthetics.”

In some pictures she made there, she operated from a respectful distance, but in others she forces the viewer to take in the full ravages of nature on the human form. There are close-ups of torn flesh and faces drawn back into ghastly smiles.


On the anniversary of her father’s death — he died in 1988 — she sits in her kitchen, dining on a casual meal of venison and fried apples harvested from her property. He was a country doctor and local eccentric, a noted gardener of trees and shrubs and the maker of playfully lewd abstract sculptures. He also passed on his 4x5 view camera to Mann.

She rarely leaves the premises, Mann admits happily, and she's clearly relaxed here, chatting seriously but unpretentiously about her work. She’s dressed in jeans and a black sweater, her long, brown hair streaked with gray and tied loosely behind her. In the next room is her library, crowded with books on Walker Evans, Nan Goldin and other photographers, below the mummified carcasses of rats and cats nailed artfully to the wall.

She was further awakened to an interest in mortality after a horse-riding accident in 2006. While riding on a nearby trail, her Arabian suffered an aneurism, threw Mann to the ground and then stomped on her before collapsing, breaking Mann's back. The horse died and the photographer was immobilized for months. “I felt completely smashed,” she says. “When you can’t move properly and everything hurts, you feel like you're 100 years old. And I thought, oh man, this is what’s right around the corner.” Her response was a series of shadowy self-portraits, shot up-close and mercilessly. For this and much of her later work, she turned to the archaic collodion wet-plate process, and the results were characterized by smudges, scratches, accidental chemical reactions and frayed edges, all suggesting the passage of time.

It's also how she has photographed her adult children and her husband, Larry, as he weakens from muscular dystrophy. In one portrait, titled “Was Ever Love,” he's bearded and on his back, still strong but as still as a battlefield casualty. In others, his muscles are wasting away. “We’ve been married for 40 years,” she says of the pictures, “so I think he knew it was coming. It really is about trust.”

She never relocated to New York to become part of the art and photography establishment, meeting curators and buyers, but chose to remain in rural Appalachia, where she found her greatest subjects and purpose.

Until Mann was 7, she refused to wear clothes and ran naked through the isolation of her parents' 30 acres with a pack of dogs. It's largely how she raised and photographed her own kids. “The Flesh and the Spirit” includes lesser-known color images of her family, shot with a medium-format range-finder camera (in contrast to the 8x10 black-and-white vision of “Immediate Family”).

“They were made in such a unique set of circumstances,” Mann says now. “America being a fairly suburban country at this point, people can't imagine a situation where children can live as freely with nature as those kids did. It seems jarring and forced and strange. But it would have been jarring and forced and strange to tell my kids to put on a bathing suit to swim in a river when there's not a living soul for five miles in any direction.”

The realization that her own children could be an important photographic subject came as the result of an accident in 1985, when her daughter Jessie came home with an eye swollen nearly shut from a bee sting. The picture Mann made that day was “Damaged Child,” still one of her best-known images.

“When you’re a parent, you don’t think it’s so remarkable, and you think you’re going to see that stuff all the rest of your life and you're stuck with diapers and you’re stuck with wet beds and you’re stuck with bloody noses,” Mann says. “I look back on those pictures and even I have a little involuntary gasp when I see them. They were the most ordinary things in the world then.”

Major galleries were initially uninterested in showing the work, but when Aperture published “Immediate Family,” it arrived during a season of outrage over museum showings of Robert Mapplethorpe’s most explicit pictures and Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” The San Francisco home of Jock Sturges was raided by the FBI for his photographs of young nudists. And Mann found some of her own family pictures condemned by critics.

The atmosphere had an effect. “I was resolute and I wanted to put forward this face of complete commitment and belief in the work,” she says. “But looking back on it, I second-guessed myself all the time. I didn't take pictures that I might have taken.”

She took the photographs off the market six years ago, determined to focus on new work, but the family work remains popular. “I bet we could reignite the culture wars with one little, tiny match. It’s right under the surface of conservative America.”

Odd workplace

“Oh, Jesus, there’s a bird in here!”

Mann steps into her barn workroom just as a sparrow rushes past. The walls are already spattered with the black marks of light-sensitive silver nitrate from the last bird that got in, and the room smells of ether. Her big cameras stand high on tripods and jugs of chemicals are collected everywhere.

Hanging from a hook is the pelt of her beloved greyhound, Eva. The dog’s death led to an early exploration of mortality and the body. Her husband skinned the animal and Mann photographed the decay process. It’s a subject she's still looking at.

Mann turns 60 in May, and is already contemplating how much longer she can work. She has much more to do. “I try not to examine the muse too closely. I do tend to go off on tangents and head off into strange territory with no concern that this doesn’t ‘look like a Sally Mann,’” she says. “I just really want to grow and change and evolve, and not take the same thing over and over again.”

Los Angeles Times, December 5, 2010

Photographs by Sally Mann/Aperture Books

Master of the House of Playboy

Hef, still doing it his way (does he really have a choice?)

By Steve Appleford

The young women assembled on the lawn have come from around the country for this moment, delivered to the Playboy Mansion by mothers and boyfriends, each girl prepared for the day in extravagant states of undress. Standing on stiletto heels, they wear G-strings and micro-bikinis, lingeries of lace and silk, while showing off golden tans or blindingly pale skin beneath a warm, cloudless sky. They are here for a Playboy casting call, 225 of them ready to be chosen for a new generation of naked girls next door, to land on the glossy pages of an intimate magazine pictorial. By tomorrow another 300 will have arrived, flying in from Boston, New York, Florida, Australia. But today's search has come to a halt as the young women anxiously await the imminent appearance of the man of the house, the esteemed publisher and chief lothario, Hugh M. Hefner, or, simply, "Hef."

The front door opens to a round of girlish cheers when Hefner steps from his castle with a wave, a video crew documenting the boss in his red-satin robe and white captain's hat. He is 84 now and walks with the stiffness of age, but he moves quickly past the stone cherubs in the fountain, past the wishing well where he married his second wife (now divorced), and through this crowd of young admirers. He does not linger.

"Hi, Hef! We love you!" shouts a petite woman with auburn skin and bleached-blond hair, nearly bursting out of her frilly bikini top and panties. Hefner smiles again but keeps leaning forward, walking with an entourage that includes several security men and his new No. 1 girlfriend, Crystal Harris, the magazine's Miss December for 2009, an athletic blonde a fraction of his age, strolling beside him in a little black dress.

In a moment, Hefner is at the tennis court, where temporary photo studios are erected inside white tents, as models wait their turn to disrobe for a quick test in front of a Playboy camera. (One asks photographer Arny Freytag if she can fill out an application to be Hef's girlfriend.) Hefner poses for a quick snapshot with a crowd of would-be Playmates, and sits for a brief interview for Playboy Radio. It's there that he is presented with a large, jovial portrait of himself, created by an artist who paints exclusively with his penis.

Hefner has hosted scenes like this for more than five decades: all the parties and political events, the nude sunbathing by the pool and roller disco on the tennis court, mingling with actors, athletes, presidential candidates and an endless rotation of young women. It is a life and image he invented for himself, and it continues to define the Playboy dream. The man and the brand remain inseparable.

It has been a long run of high style and decadence, a nonstop pajama party at the Mansion, his personal Shangri-la. Hefner rarely leaves the premises, and he will tell you with a satisfied cackle, "Life is tough here, as you can see."

There are the expected "aches and pains," the occasional trouble with the ex-wife and girlfriends, and his hearing is going. He also hosts fewer of the famous house parties now, citing the cost of all that hedonistic fun. More ominous is the health of Playboy Enterprises Inc., which he took public during boom times nearly four decades ago, and which now faces the same declining fortunes and circulation numbers as all print media. Playboy magazine's current 1.5 million circulation represents a staggering drop from its 1971 peak of 7 million.

The stock price has been in a steady fall for years. Rumored attempts by the board to sell the company or find new partnerships have stalled, with Hefner's ongoing role the ultimate complication. He remains majority owner with 70 percent of the stock, and he is not about to sell, or to abandon his role as the living symbol of the empire. That would kill him. This month, Hefner surprised the board and financial analysts with an offer to buy back the company stock he doesn't already own, reasserting himself as the master of the house of Playboy, with no intention of leaving the mansion or the life.

The dream that sustains him, as it does his most committed readers, is a small one. It is not movie star Hef. It is not Hef in the White House. Hef on the moon. It is a dream that can fit comfortably inside the mind of any American male: big house, naked girls. This is a dream that can carry you for many years, from adolescence and apparently well into your 80s. But is the dream still a dream after half a century of uninterrupted wish fulfillment? Does Hef still look at his bedside bottle of baby oil with the same level of enthusiasm?

On the walk back from the tennis court, Hefner and Miss Crystal chat happily about the day's big turnout of would-be Playmates, as a brown-and-white spaniel named after Charlie Chaplin runs beside them. Once inside, the couple pauses at the bottom of the stairs. Hefner turns to his lady and says quietly, "See you later tonight?" It's a simple, ordinary question, but he says it with such vulnerability, a fragile whisper from an older man still craving romance and affection. It's almost breathtaking to witness.

Of course she will be there, Harris tells him. Then she has to repeat it, shouting loud enough for him to hear.


He enters the mansion library abruptly, a vague sense of impatience about him. Despite the permanent leisure wear, the satin and slippers, Hef keeps to a tight schedule. It's an afternoon in early April, and his 84th birthday is only days away. The signs of time passing are inescapable.

His good friend actor Robert Culp had just died suddenly from a heart attack, another longtime pal and mansion regular to pass away in the last year. "This is a time of reflection. I have some very dear friends in the last handful of years who are gone," Hefner says. "You get to a place where you reflect on the life and look back over the good times. That, in a very real way, makes this as good a time in my life as I've ever had."

What goes on behind that impish grin is unknown to most of us. While he is a dependably charming and intelligent interview, Hefner's not about to bare his soul to another visitor sitting across from his backgammon table. But he is always ready to reexamine the events of his life and career. There is a new documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, directed by his friend Brigitte Berman, who won an Oscar in 1986 for Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got. And Taschen has released a five-volume, encyclopedic history of the man and the magazine, from his baby pictures and earliest cartoons to Playboy's 25th anniversary, at the end of the '70s.

He looks and sounds exceptionally fit for a man of 84, but Hefner is quick to acknowledge that he no longer cuts quite the same image he did during Playboy's rise. "Of course not. The image now is the image as it really is," he says. "But I think one of the messages of my life is that age is just a number, and you can define your life in a lot of different ways. What my life has been all about is that there is more than one way to do it, more than one moral way, and a lot of the traditional ways are suspect.

"Retirement is the first step to the grave if you're doing what you enjoy. My work is a pleasure."

Arrayed behind him are framed pictures of his children, his mother, the second wife, and a new one of Hef with Crystal. There is a model of his Big Bunny jet, his stretch DC-9 painted tuxedo black, which he sold back in 1976, and a life-size porcelain bust of Barbi Benton, his girlfriend from the good times of the late '60s and early '70s.

The 30-room Playboy Mansion is a home as Hollywood-famous as Pickfair or Neverland, and Hefner's brother Keith predicts that after Hef is gone, the property will become something like Graceland, a shrine. Hefner bought the 6-acre property in 1971 for $1.1 million, with another $14 million in capital improvements in the years since, but none of the recent renovations has altered the flavor and mood of the residence. It looks essentially as it has for decades.

The house is lived in, and an unlikely candidate as a showplace for modern living in Architectural Digest. Nothing here can be found in Dwell. Hef will receive an iPad for his birthday, but a lot of the fixtures and d├ęcor date back to the Nixon administration. Hefner is a man who hates change.

Even the paintings by Picasso, Pollock and Dali — long since sold at auction — have been replaced by reproductions and hang exactly where the originals once did. (The original Matisse drawing with a cigarette burn left by John Lennon remains.) His leather footrest in the screening room is well-worn, and the drapes by the dining room fireplace are stained from ash.

It is the same with his life. Nothing changes except the names of his women, and Hefner keeps to a rigid schedule.

"Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays — they all have to be the same as last week's and the weeks before," says Kendra Wilkinson, his former girlfriend and an original cast member from the hit reality series The Girls Next Door. "He has to have the exact drink at the exact time. He has to have his chicken noodle soup at the exact time, and he has to have his movie at a certain time. You can't be late. He's always on a schedule. Always — except for girls."

He also remains deeply involved with the creative and entrepreneurial side of Playboy, on the phone with his editorial director in the magazine's Chicago headquarters. Hefner has his reasons for remaining in Los Angeles, in his big house on Charing Cross Road, atop a hill with his zoo and swimming pool and tennis courts. He spends almost no time in any office other than the one he keeps in the upstairs living quarters. He hates meetings.

Back in the '50s and '60s, there were speedy, all-night Benzedrine binges, enough to keep him going nonstop two or three days at a time. All those hours weren't spent humping bunnies. He was working, bent over text and cartoons and photographs, the makings of Playboy scattered on the floor around him, actually editing, a pencil in one hand, a pipe in the other, sometimes spending his nights alone in his infamous round, rotating, vibrating bed. Which doesn't sound very leisurely at all.

"I still pick the covers, still pick the centerfolds, still pick the cartoons, the party jokes, edit overall pacing of the book and what goes into it," Hefner says. "I'm probably the oldest working editor of a major magazine in history, I imagine.

"About six months ago I started Twittering," he adds, about to repeat his favorite new joke. "I used to be a jitterbug, now I'm a Twitter-bug."

Last year his estranged wife, Kimberly Conrad, threatened to sue over his selling of her house; Hefner later settled "by giving her more money." His three original live-in girlfriends from The Girls Next Door are long gone, and two of their replacements, the Shannon twins, were invited to move elsewhere. With Harris, he is down to a single female companion for the first time since the breakup of his second marriage, in 1998.

Those changes are less traumatic than the existential threats to print media in an era of free online content. Even though Playboy was the first magazine to establish an Internet presence, the publication has suffered from an industrywide fall in circulation. "I thought it was the future," Hefner says of the company's early steps online, but blames "the business end of our business" for ignoring the potential and falling behind. He fully expects to survive.

Leading the magazine for him in Chicago is editorial director Jimmy Jellinek, who came to Playboy after a decade of gigs as editor of the exploding Maxim, FHM, Stuff and Complex, the kinds of next-gen young men's magazines once expected to eclipse Playboy. Jellinek now dismisses each of the surviving lad mags as "really just a pamphlet serving as a marketing vehicle to get Pepsi products advertising."

Jellinek grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, and remembers seeing the original Playboy tower above the city as he rolled along Lakeshore Drive. "It was the Playboy building, man. You're talking about one of the world's most resonant brands, you see the name, you see the bunny — it's imbued with a certain sense of values, and you immediately know what it stands for. When you saw the building, you'd get excited. We'd take our pictures out in front of the building. It was something very much part of the fabric of the city."

The editor is now an aggressive, almost defensive advocate for the historic publication, and has no patience for critics who have questioned the viability of a lifestyle magazine for virile men on the prowl when its symbol is a wrinkled man in his 80s.

"I don't see any prevailing wisdom from anybody else in the magazine world," Jellinek says. "All these analysts have never worked on a magazine. ... These guys just sit and throw rocks without any basis for conversation whatsoever."

He meets with Hef on occasional trips to Los Angeles, but "the bulk of our relationship is on the phone and is through memos." They agree on the ongoing direction of the magazine, changing little from its heyday, still drawing attention for the monthly Playboy Interview. (Rocker John Mayer got in as much trouble this year for his racial/sexual wisecracks as Jimmy Carter did while a presidential candidate, with his 1976 admission to "lust" in his heart.) There is high-end fiction, pop culture and investigative journalism in the classic mode, beneath the notable bylines of Martin Amis, Bill Zehme, Stephen King, Paul Theroux, John Waters and Roger Ebert, even if the general magazine audience has forgotten it's still there amid the nude women.

"Success and popularity by their nature are like a bell-shaped curve. You have the high point and then there's an aging process, etc. The remarkable thing in terms of Playboy — certainly in terms of my own personal life — is how this thing has gone on and on," Hef says. "We sell fewer magazines in the old-fashioned way than we did in the '70s and '80s, but we reach a larger audience now on a global level than any other time in history. ... I must be doing something right."

Hefner does not deny the economic problems facing his magazine. "That's real. We live in the real world. But it's more interesting and newsworthy when it's related to Playboy. We're doing better than some, and not as well as others."

It is the running theme of recent news coverage of the Playboy empire, with serious implications for Hefner's future. After two decades as CEO, his daughter, Christie Hefner, stepped down, and new corporate leadership began to make changes, cutting costs through layoffs and consolidation. "It wasn't just business as usual," Hefner says now of the move. "We had to do some dramatic things."

More alarming was discussion of a sale, and the possibility of real changes in Hef's rigid schedule, with outsiders suggesting the Playboy Mansion be sold, his legacy dismantled, as if the central figure throughout Playboy's history were as interchangeable as the CEO of General Mills.

Then came Hefner's surprise July 12 announcement of his interest in taking Playboy Enterprises private, offering to buy out minority shareholders for $5.50 a share (for a total of $123 million), which represents a 30 percent leap over the stock's most recent closing price. Within days, a lawsuit was filed in Delaware State Court against Hefner and members of Playboy's board of directors by a group of irritated investors, who had watched with horror as stock value plummeted. The share price was at $15 as recently as 2006.

In the current climate of fading media giants, Hef's offer might seem like a way out of further losses for long-suffering investors, but the suit calls the plan "the product of a flawed process designed to sell ... on terms detrimental" to stockholders. And when a much-rumored sale to clothing corporation Iconix was derailed last year over unresolved questions about Hef's continued role, stockholder David Brown filed another suit in Los Angeles, accusing the founder of maneuvering to preserve his lifestyle at all costs.

"He controls 70 percent of the vote of the company, so the fate of the company is really in Hef's hands and nobody else's," says David Bank, global media and research analyst at RBC Capital Markets.

The most brutal assessment came from analyst David Miller of the investment bank Caris & Company, whose most recent report on Playboy Enterprises Inc. predicted good times for stockholders once the old man is gone. "We believe Mr. Hefner's death could result in a material stock-price uptick on the notion the mansion could eventually be sold, which would leave the company net-debt-free," Miller wrote.

There goes Graceland.

Hef is of the old school, more Mad Men than Mad Money, comparable to George Steinbrenner and other outsize corporate owners whose cults of personality are not incidental to the high profile of their companies. So says Todd Harrison, CEO of Minyanville Media and a former investment banker. "There comes a point where you have to hand the baton to the next generation, but there's a bit of a dichotomy. He's built this franchise and it's his life's work and he should be able to live out the rest of his years in his home."

Hef may also be on to something, ignoring the media gloom and hand-wringing, maybe sensing untapped value in Playboy, the brand. The bunny remains one of the most recognizable logos on the planet. It is on women's underwear and energy drinks, on pillowcases and shot glasses, on T-shirts, handbags, cigars and lingerie. There is a Playboy maid's costume for your little terrier ($22), a bobble head of young Hef circa 1953 ($18) and bunny-logo hardware for your tongue and navel piercings (at Sears for $18). You can run to a local 7-Eleven for a bottled shot of Playboy Passion Enhancer to get your lady friend back in the mood — for a mere $2.99. All exist for good reason, earning Playboy Enterprises $37 million in licensing revenue alone last year.

Even if all print media, including the centerfolds of Playboy, were to disappear, there is reason to believe the bunny brand would survive, with or without Hefner's iconic presence. "He's important to the brand," says Bank, "but I think it outlives him."

Since announcing his intentions to the board, Hefner has stepped back from his usual heavy interview schedule. On the phone just days ahead of his offer this month, Hefner revealed nothing of his plans but sounded upbeat about the company that began at his kitchen table in 1953: "Things are looking up significantly."


A young woman steps discreetly from a backroom, leaving behind the throw pillows and mirrored walls, the convenient box of tissues and the vintage dimmer switch on the wall. She walks unsteadily in a yellow dress, rust-colored dreadlocks bunched on her head. She makes it past the pool table and across the games room to a man in plaid shorts trying his luck at a Playboy pinball machine. "How are you doing?" he asks her.

"Great," she replies, with a flushed, crooked grin. "I just got laid!"

They arrive by the busload and stretch limo, rolling up the driveway past the "Playmates at Play" traffic sign, the men in black suits or resort casual, the women in bras or pasties, stepping out onto the hilltop Shangri-la right beneath Hefner's bedroom window. Girls pose for quick snapshots by the front door and the fountain they've seen on TV before they're sent around to the party in the mansion backyard, with the tents and buffet, the go-go dancers and DJs. It's like a nightclub back there.

Hef is in a cabana with Crystal and some girls, as a huge crowd of guests gathers in front of him, raising cameras and cell phones and just staring at the great man, the center of attention. But this isn't one of his parties. He throws fewer events than he used to but allows outsiders to take over the property for a night, bringing their own guest list and female eye candy, tonight charging $1,000 a ticket or $10,000 a cabana, with a portion going to charity.

This night is the annual Kandyland event, another party hosted by the Karma Foundation, an upscale networking and nightlife business. Close to $50,000 will be raised here for Star Education, an environmental program for children, according to Karma President Marvin Epstein. Parties at the mansion are a hot ticket, fueled by stories of painted ladies and wet, naked encounters in the grotto. Young women are invited to submit photos and apply for free admission, described on the Karma casting site as an "opportunity for beautiful and classy people to attend the most sensational and breathtaking" of events. And the event, not hero worship, is the point for many.

"We don't come for Hefner, we come to party," says Dayna DeVorre, 24, wearing a bikini made from strings of hard candy.

Guests enter through a glowing portal, greeted by tiny actors dressed up as green-haired Oompa Loompas from Willy Wonky and the Chocolate Factory. Seven guests dressed as cowboys in matching black twirl a woman in bunny ears on the driveway, and she falls partly out of her bikini top.

Back in the games room, Kally Wyatt, 18, sits at the upright piano playing "Moonlight Sonata" and some "retarded" Justin Bieber, along with her own music. Her cheeks are pierced and she is wearing black fishnets. Next to her is friend Laci Kay Somers, an aspiring model in a pink bikini top who is considering trying out for Playboy. "I want to," says Somers, "but I can't tell if I really want to."

Both Somers and Wyatt have been running into people having sex all night, out on the grounds and in one of the mirrored cubbies of the games room. "Five minutes ago, I saw them!" says Somers, 18. "They were very loud. I've seen, like, 5 million people having sex so far tonight."

The proximity to Hef and his sexual playground has some of the guests crossing boundaries they might not elsewhere. "This guy, like, grabbed my butt hole! I've never been touched like that at a club," says Wyatt. "He stuck his hand in me and I pushed him. They think they can do whatever they want, just cuz they're here. They're crazy."

Hef's own sex life has been the subject of great interest since the debut of Playboy, his healthy complexion owing much to the baby oil he's slathered over himself and a thousand girlfriends over the decades. That interest only grew after he reemerged as a single man at the end of the '90s, making the rounds with seven blond live-in girlfriends.

"Complicated, yes," he recalls of the arrangement, "though not as complicated sometimes as one wife."

It is a lifestyle perfected decades ago, back at the old Playboy Mansion in Chicago, with the fireman's pole, the indoor swimming pool. Age does factor into this. After a decade or more of testing in his second-floor boudoir with a long line of volunteers, Viagra remains Hefner's rocket fuel of choice, a brand he can trust.

When Kendra Wilkinson first arrived for a party at the mansion, she was 18, and Hefner immediately asked her to move in as one of his girlfriends, as she recounts in her just-released book, Sliding Into Home. She went back home to San Diego instead. Hef kept calling.

This is how it's done: "I called her, and said: 'This may be a little presumptuous. This summer, unless you're otherwise involved in a serious relationship, I thought you might like to spend the summer here as my girlfriend,' " Hefner says today. "I only learned more recently, when she received the call, she was sitting there in bed with her then-current boyfriend. Obviously, it wasn't a very serious relationship because she was here in short order."

By the time she was 20, The Girls Next Door had made cable-TV stars of Wilkinson as well as co-stars Bridget Marquardt and Hef's No. 1, Holly Madison. The questions they got from journalists and the curious were often the same, focused on age and sex, and Wilkinson includes in her book moderately graphic scenes of weekly group-sex sessions with Hef. She participated but recalls those nights as a crowd of girls taking turns for a joyless 60-second hop on pop, not romance. She now calls him her "mentor," and one of her closest friends, and was worried about his reaction to the book. Wilkinson says she got an e-mail from Hefner after the book came out, thanking her: "You wrote a really great book."

Wilkinson is unimpressed with young men who openly crave his life, who want to emulate the man. "If they really knew the gentleman, if they really knew the type of man Hugh Hefner really is — the gentleman and the great guy — do they really want to be Hugh Hefner? Really? Come on."


Another side of Hugh M. Hefner is the focus of Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, which documents the publisher's role during the turbulent postwar period. (For a review, see Film openings.) In it, director Berman makes that case for Hef as crucial figure and spokesman for not only the sexual revolution but civil rights and human rights. That was not the prevailing wisdom of the time.

During a vintage television interview, future 60 Minutes icon Mike Wallace drilled into Hefner and Playboy: "I think you'll agree that it's a sniggering kind of sex. It's a lascivious kind of sex. It's certainly not a healthy approach to sex, but you suggest that it is."

Gloria Steinem has ridiculed Playboy's revolution as being about "Making more women sexually available to men," and refused three times to be interviewed for the documentary, but feminist Susan Brownmiller appears in the film, in footage from her withering 1970 debate with Hef on Dick Cavett's show and in a new interview. Brownmiller's views on the man are unchanged.

"She still thinks he's the devil," says Berman. "I don't agree with her, but I respect her opinion. She fought for that. Indirectly, I was also helped and affected by that whole feminist movement. ... It still is a man's world. Getting less so."

Playboy began during a time of social and cultural upheaval, and Hefner chose to embrace change. He hired Dalton Trumbo to write for the magazine during the blacklist era, defended the confrontational work of comic Lenny Bruce and allowed African-American Dick Gregory onstage in front of a visiting white, Southern audience at his Chicago Playboy Club. The publisher debated loosening sexual values with William F. Buckley on public television, hosted Martin Luther King Jr. at the mansion in Chicago and published the last essay King wrote before his death.

There were consequences. Hefner was arrested in Chicago after printing a 1963 pictorial on Jayne Mansfield. "The real reason behind the arrest," Hefner says now, "was because I had spoken out in an editorial in the magazine protesting Chicago's too-friendly connection to the Catholic Church, and the fact that they had arrested Lenny Bruce. When I objected to that, they came and arrested me."

Berman first met Hefner years ago as a result of her films on jazz greats, including his favorite, Bix Beiderbecke. For the new film, she spent many nights working deep into the early morning in the mansion's third-floor scrapbooking room, reading the history Hefner has kept since adolescence, filled with drawings, snapshots and every article written about him, good or bad. Many times, Hefner was up there too, working on another scrapbook of memories, adding another page to his recorded history.

Berman's most recent visit included a screening of Chinatown, accompanied by an introduction read by Hefner and a lengthy discussion afterward. He is a movie fanatic, hosting screenings at the Mansion three times a week. He produced some feature films in the 1970s but is now more fan than player, donating millions to the USC and UCLA film departments, and he's twice written checks to preserve the Hollywood sign.

There have been discussions of a feature film based on his life going back to the '50s. A movie is in the works, with Robert Downey Jr. expressing interest, and a screenplay to be written by Diablo Cody. "It looks like it's going to happen," Hefner says hopefully. "Brian Grazer has the project, and I said to him not too long ago, 'I don't want this to he a posthumous tribute here.' "

Hefner has his plans for eternity already mapped out, entombed right beside Marilyn Monroe. He owes much to Norma Jean. Her prefame nudes in the first issue of Playboy turned the magazine into an immediate sensation, sending the young, untested publisher on his momentous journey toward becoming Hef. They were born within months of each other in 1926, but he never met Monroe, and only spoke with her once, on the phone in the weeks before her death. He wanted her to appear again on the cover. When Hefner discovered the slot to her left was available at Pierce Brothers Westwood Memorial Park, he reserved the crypt. "It seemed to be a natural," Hefner says.

He has other friends buried on the grounds there: among them, Mel Torme, Buddy Rich and Dorothy Stratten, the 1980 Playmate of the Year, murdered by her husband. Hefner's mother lived to 101, but his father died of a stroke at 80, so the future remains uncertain, and the end is inevitable, though he likes to quote the key lyric to Sinatra's "Young at Heart": "If you should survive to 105/Look at all you'll derive from being alive."

Some things at Playboy are eternal. At the magazine's West Coast offices in Santa Monica, another naked lady is having her picture taken. She is Rachel Summer, a regular over at the Mansion, and her Playmate test is being photographed in Studio A by Arny Freytag, a 34-year veteran at the magazine, with more centerfolds shot than anyone. He will shoot at least 500 pictures of Summer today.

Freytag is working with three assistants, including a female intern, on a simple set of soft pinks and white. Summer stands in a bathrobe, but her nude image from earlier is still on the digital monitor. In it she is kneeling on a white-leather chair, facing the lens with a warm, inviting expression, wearing nothing but a pair of pink socks.

"Most girls don't walk in with a body like that," Freytag says, looking at the screen. "That's pretty rare. That's a pretty awesome body." This is a man who loves his work.

The pinups of Freytag and photographer Stephen Wayda have been at the magazine's visual core these last few decades, hardly shifting with contemporary trends seen in the evolving starlet images in Esquire and GQ — just as Hef likes it.

"I can make any girl look really good," Freytag says. "I believe there is one angle on every face that will look fantastic, and I will go until I find it."

The old man doesn't micromanage the making of these pictures, but once the day's test is done, Summer's session will go directly to Hef. The publisher rarely makes an appearance at Playboy Studios West, but his presence is felt, with stylish framed photographs of the young Playboy founder in the '50s and '60s lining the hallways. And his surprising move to retake full ownership of Playboy is fresh news.

"I hope he gets it," says Freytag. "It's impressive that he's still interested in keeping it going his way at this stage of his life."

If Hefner prevails, the bunny brand may spread into new venues, but content at the magazine will still unfold the old-fashioned way — Hef's way, just as it always has.

L.A. Weekly, July 29, 2010.

Photograph by Steve Appleford

3rd Degree: Harvey Pekar

On the plague of superhero comics, fighting, and the let-down of being a film character
Harvey Pekar is a comic hero, the hard-luck central character of his ongoing autobiographical American Splendor, an illustrated chronicle of his life so far. He doesn’t draw, but he delivers his words and stick-figure storyboards to a wide range of comic artists – from R. Crumb to Tony Millionaire – who help make sense of the ordinary struggles of an ordinary guy in Cleveland, Ohio. Crumb himself once described the result as “so staggeringly mundane, it verges on the exotic!” But it has touched a nerve for three decades. And it has brought Pekar fame and no fortune.

Not much changed even after his life story was turned into 2003’s acclaimed film version of American Splendor. But, now that he’s retired from his job as a civil-service file clerk, he keeps even busier as a writer. He has a wife and kid to support, he keeps saying. Pekar has just released The Quitter, which recounts the internal struggles of his young adulthood – his first book for the Vertigo wing of DC Comics (which will also publish the next volume of Splendor). He recently contributed a story to author Michael Chabon’s comic book The Escapist, and he continues to write about music and politics for his hometown weekly, The Free Times. The personal stories keep rolling on, feeding his comics pages and bad attitude.

“You gotta go through shit, man,” Pekar says. “You gotta go through it all your life. There’s no end to it.”

–Steve Appleford

CityBeat: I noticed you blogged for a while in 2003.
Harvey Pekar: You want to know why I’m not blogging anymore? Because they were paying me to blog. And I hate computers and stuff like that. They drive me nuts. My kid would get me on the thing, and then I would type out some type of a blog, then she would send it in for me. But when the money stopped coming in, I didn’t keep it up.

Do you think anyone’s life can be made interesting to a reader?
Yeah, virtually anyone’s life. If they live long enough.

How did The Quitter come about?
The guy who illustrated it, Dean Haspiel, hooked me up with the people who made the American Splendor movie. I asked him what I could do in return, and he said he would like to illustrate a long work of mine. He had connections at DC Comics, and they were interested, and they wanted me to do a graphic novel. I’ve been covering my life pretty closely since I started doing autobiographical comic books in 1972. But I hadn’t been doing a lot of stuff about my life prior to that. I decided I would do a narrative about my life, mainly from when I was a little kid to when I was in my 20s. Obviously, for everybody those are pretty important years.

It surprised me how tough a guy you were as a kid.
I was brought up in neighborhoods where the toughest guy was the guy who got the most respect. And I was having to wade through armies of guys to get back home from school every day. It turns out that, as I grew up, I found that I wasn’t a bad athlete and I was real strong for my size. When I had to fight, I just got into it, because I got prestige from it. I’m not into hurting people; I’m not a sadist or anything. But I just like to win; I wanted to get praise for something. Anything.

Did you imagine a time when you and Crumb and the alternative side to comics would become so well known?
I thought it would be better known. I’m not exactly a household word yet. It took that movie to get some people to know me. I thought that alternative comics – once they got going back in the ’60s, there was going to be a big change in comics. Now that people saw you could do anything in comics, I thought comics were going to be transformed. I saw Crumb’s work, and it occurred to me that there’s no limit in what you can do in comics.

It took a while, as it turns out.
It’s happening way too slow. I’m pretty disappointed that at this point superheroes are still the most popular form of comic books. Regardless of my opinion of superhero comics, no subgenre should dominate a medium, like they dominate comics. That’s just ridiculous.

It got caught in a rut that it couldn’t get out of.
I thought everybody would realize that you could do this stuff with comics, and there would be all these good writers and illustrators that would just gravitate to comics. They’d say, “Wow, here’s a new area for us to work in,” you know. I was tickled pink when I realized, “My God, here I have a chance to be an innovator.” Like I discovered a field of gold or something.

When did you realize that it wasn’t the field of gold?
Well, it was and it wasn’t. I took a great deal of satisfaction from just writing the things that I did. And that made me feel really good. The thing that bothers me now is that it’s still not very lucrative, at least the kind of stuff that I do. And now I depend on the income that I get from comics.

How did you feel about being known as a movie character?
I’d rather they knew about my books. A lot of people have a lot of notions about me because of that movie that aren’t really true. That lovable-curmudgeon stuff is really starting to choke me. For a while, you couldn’t read my name without “curmudgeon” preceding it. They’re sort of laying off that a little bit now -- they’re switching over to “dyspeptic.”

Is that a step up?
I don’t know.

But were you generally happy with the movie?
Yeah, sure, I thought it was an excellent movie.

And you went to the Oscars?
I went to the Oscars. I went along, and tried to help promote the thing. It’s not my favorite thing to do. The Oscars were just a big drag. Who could possibly enjoy that? I mean, God!

When you were doing David Letterman’s show in the ’80s, you once came out to criticize General Electric on camera. That was a political act.
I’m real interested in politics, but I’m not an activist usually. That came about as a result of my realizing that I had nothing to lose by doing anything I wanted to do on the Letterman show. I wasn’t getting much money, my books weren’t selling. It was fine with me to try and make jokes with Letterman, try and create some humor on the show, but I didn’t particularly like being stereotyped as the parody of the rust-belt worker.

What are your feelings about politics right now?
I’m very disturbed that so many people are supporting George Bush that are being hurt by him. Like they’re masochists or something. They don’t benefit. They give rich people tax breaks, and poor people still love him. He’s just done everything wrong, and still he benefits. He obviously lied about Iraq, about the rationale for going in there, and they don’t care.

People are starting to care now.
I hope they do. And then the big thing to me is, we’ve got all this global warming – we’ve got all these serious problems. Even if we start with the best of intentions and spend a whole lot of money, we’re probably going to be in for a whole hell of a lot of trouble as a result of all that shit in the atmosphere. But it’s like Bush doesn’t even recognize it exists. I mean, how fucking stupid can you get?

Los Angeles CityBeat, November 24, 2005.

Illustration by Jordan Crane.

Dreams of Life and Death
Looking Back With Patti Smith

Patti Smith steps onstage with a shy, joyous grin, as if still surprised by the applause. At the Hammer Museum's Billy Wilder Theater to perform a tribute to her friend, the late folk archivist, filmmaker and painter Harry Smith, she rests her coffee cup on a stool and reads passages from Just Kids, her newly released memoir of her years as friend, lover and confidante to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989 of complications from AIDS. The three of them had once lived in New York's Chelsea Hotel — "a doll's house in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe" — and when Harry first met young Patti and Robert, he'd asked them, "Who are you? Are you twins?"

Harry was of a tradition to which Patti and Robert aspired, scraping by in the days before the mass distribution of credit cards, making art with few resources and no rewards. "If we didn't have money, we just didn't eat. That's when men were men," Smith says, playfully making a fist. Bohemia wasn't a romantic notion but stark reality, even for the likes of Harry Smith, a beloved resource of Americana, whose 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music album was a crucial influence on Dylan's generation. He died at the Chelsea in 1991. "I don't know if Harry died in obscurity," Smith says, "but he certainly lived it."

She skips through the book, reading of a lobster dinner at Max's Kansas City with Sam Shepard, already a recognized playwright, though then known to Patti only as a hillbilly drummer named Slim Shadow. (After Smith discovered the truth, Shepard drawled, "Eat your ice cream, Patti Lee.")

Smith recounts her first meeting with poet Allen Ginsberg, who immediately expressed great interest, taking her out for a sandwich but then suddenly asking in alarm: "Are you a girl?"

The theater is packed, with an overflow crowd watching from the courtyard on video screens. Smith picks up an acoustic guitar and begins strumming the simple, disarming chords of "Grateful," shifting from one foot to the other as she sings in a voice of gentle force. "Harry and Robert were the first people who had me sing to them," she says with a smile, patches of gray in her long, auburn hair. "Harry would say something that would embarrass me then, but now I like it: 'You are quite the chanteuse.' "

Smith dedicates a song to the late J.D. Salinger, another to Howard Zinn, more losses to mark and signify. And she performs one last song for Harry Smith, "My Blakean Year," (from her 2004 LP, Trampin'). It erupts from her as a howl, raging and wise: "So throw off your stupid cloak, embrace all that you fear/For joy shall conquer all despair, in my Blakean year."


Smith and Mapplethorpe were barely 20 when they met, a couple of androgynous hippies newly arrived in New York City to live among the bohos and Beats, the Factory divas and "extravagant bums" swirling around the boroughs, the Bowery and the Chelsea. He introduced himself as Bob, but she preferred to call him Robert. They spent their first night together paging hungrily through books of art. Smith was a South Jersey girl turned on by Rimbaud and rock & roll, driven to write and sketch each day, laying a foundation for her future as a poet and rocker. Mapplethorpe had been a Long Island altar boy and was naturally gifted with a pen and brush, a classicist who would become the most notorious photographer of his generation. They inherited a lineage of art and confrontation, with Smith discovering her voice and confidence under the influence of Beat poets Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso. For Mapplethorpe, the model initially was Warhol, and he was determined to be noticed.

"I always expected to be a starving, suffering artist who would die young and hopefully leave good things behind. But Robert didn't share that romantic notion," says Smith, now 63. "He really wanted us to do well in our lifetime. The irony of Robert only living until he was 42 is that I was the sickly one. I had gone through tuberculosis, I had gone through various childhood diseases. I was considered the fragile one of the two of us. I wound up the survivor."

Just Kids isn't written in the electrified lingo of Smith's early, prefame poetry or her essays for the likes of Creem and Rolling Stone. It's a gentler tale, direct and unguarded, thoughtful and deeply emotional, with subtler turns of language. It arrives years behind schedule, delayed simply because she took the project so seriously as a work of art, not a memoir of celebrity nostalgia. Just Kids reveals the process of becoming an artist, and bearing witness to the flowering and internal conflicts of her beloved Robert.

"I was a bad girl trying to be good and ... he was a good boy trying to be bad," Smith writes of their relationship. But already, she recalls, "He was an artist and he knew it."

As young, starving artists in Brooklyn, they often chose between buying food and art supplies, sometimes buying the food and shoplifting the ink and brushes (inspired by tales of Lee Krasner doing the same for Jackson Pollock). She worked in bookstores, he sometimes hustled on 42nd Street. They lived and created together, and by 1969 had moved into a tiny room at the Chelsea. He was so nervous about meeting Smith's parents the first time in South Jersey, he dropped acid. They "noticed nothing unusual except his continuous smile," she remembered later. He told his strict Catholic parents they had eloped to Aruba and got married.

The couple disagreed about Warhol: Mapplethorpe idolized him; Smith did not. "His work reflected a culture I wanted to avoid," she writes. But they understood and encouraged one another. It was Smith who first suggested that Mapplethorpe pick up a camera. He was given a Polaroid instant camera, and he responded to the immediacy of the process, progressing to the square formality of a Hasselblad. It was an unexpected turn.

"I actually thought it was a phase," Smith says now. "I thought he would pass through that phase and get back to installations and collages and drawings, but he became completely devoted to it. He was smitten with the elasticity of photography, how in a photograph he could say so much."

He photographed Smith constantly, and many of the pictures from that era remain some of his most lasting, striking images: Patti as a boho Mary Magdalene, or cool and coiled by a radiator in a rare nude. Mapplethorpe's cover photograph for her 1975 debut album, Horses, was a landmark for both of them, drawing as much attention as the revolutionary rock music inside. The photo session unfolded in the apartment of Sam Wagstaff, by then Mapplethorpe's patron and lover, but the cosmic connection that day remained between photographer and subject, an intimacy reflected in the startling part-poet, part-Sinatra figure in the frame. He was done shooting after a dozen pictures.

"Then in the mid-'70s he was given entrance to the sadomasochist community, which I knew nothing about," Smith says. "They trusted him in this community, and he had it in mind to do something that no one had ever done. Which was to raise certain areas of human consent into art. That was his mission, to take the very difficult pictures with the same classic view as he would taking flowers or a portrait."

Just Kids is also Smith's antidote to the thousands of pages written on the photographer since his death, in many cases depicting him in ways Smith says she does not recognize. She publicly condemned the portrait painted by 1995's authorized Mapplethorpe: A Biography, written by Patricia Morrisroe, named his official biographer in the weeks before his death. That book cast Mapplethorpe as a dark and perverse figure, more a cruel hustler and self-promoter than any kind of artistic visionary. "... if he had demonstrated any talent as a painter," Morrisroe wrote in one typical aside, "he probably never would have picked up a camera."

Smith remembers things differently.

"Robert and I were not avant-garde–type people," she says. "Both of us studied art in a classical, even self-taught way. We looked at art books for hours on end: William Blake, Michelangelo, surrealism ... I've always studied classical literature, classical music. We were modern kids, thrown into a modern era, but I was quite a romantic and Robert had a real sense of the importance of history. To be a great artist, I believe, is to understand the importance of history and to assimilate it but then do something new."

One night, Smith went to see the Doors perform at Fillmore East, where Mapplethorpe worked briefly as an usher. She found herself observing the singer analytically, recognizing something in the Lizard King prowling the stage. "I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that," she writes. "I felt both kinship and contempt for him."


The opening and closing chapters of Just Kids recall the impact and heartbreak of Mapplethorpe's death, in New York, years after Smith moved to Detroit for marriage and family with Fred "Sonic" Smith, onetime protopunk guitarist for MC5. Near the end, Mapplethorpe regretted that he and Smith never had children. She promised to one day tell their story, clinging to her memories and a lock of his hair, still fueled by the self-confidence he helped her discover.

In the 1970s, Smith became the "punk priestess" who helped to reinvent rock as a setting for bold, literary revolt. And death was a recurring theme. Horses acknowledged and celebrated the passing of Morrison, Hendrix and the radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. In the album's opening moments, she famously declares, "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine," words she wrote at age 20. She embraces life and death in equal measure. On the epic title song, she roars with intensity and release: "Life is full of pain, I'm cruisin' through my brain/And I fill my nose with snow and go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud/And go Johnny go, and do the watusi!"

Even the album she called Dream of Life, recorded at a time of contentment in Smith's life, includes "Where Duty Calls," a chilling meditation on the killing of 220 U.S. Marines in Lebanon by a suicide bomber in 1983.

Smith reemerged in 1996 with the jaggedly mournful Gone Again, in the aftermath of her husband's fatal heart attack and the deaths of her brother, Todd, her keyboardist, Richard Sohl, and Mapplethorpe. There was also sadness at the suicide of Kurt Cobain, whom she'd never met but recognized as a kindred, troubled soul. The music and delivery on Gone Again were weighted with experience and implication that even her best '70s work didn't carry. She now calls the album "the most painful record I ever did.

“The pain of singing those songs," she says, "I wouldn't want to have to go through that again."

Yet the tributes to fallen friends and heroes have only continued, as Ginsberg, Burroughs and other comrades fell in the '90s. Mapplethorpe was rarely far from her mind. In 1996, Smith published The Coral Sea, a collection of poetry inspired by his life and passing, mingled with his photographs. A decade later, that work was translated into a live improvisational reading set to brooding, shimmering waves of sound from Kevin Shields, leader and guitarist of My Bloody Valentine. The effect was something like her first recital with Lenny Kaye at St. Mark's Church in 1971. On the new recording, Smith performs this memento mori to the scraping reverberations of guitar strings and organ: "He was destined to be ill, quite ill ... art, art, not nature moved him ... His delicate eyes saw with clarity what others did not."


At KCET studios in Hollywood, Smith sits at the very edge of a plaid couch in a room left over from the silent era, her round, wire-rim glasses sitting next to a bowl of fruit. Her jeans are tucked into purple socks and boots as she awaits her moment with Tavis Smiley.

"I write every day," Smith says. "I wrote this morning. I've written four or five books that aren't published. But I also had a lot of little diaries at the Chelsea Hotel, which would chart everything we did every day. Simple things, like, 'Cut Robert's hair like a rockabilly star,' 'Met Janis Joplin,' 'Went to the Museum of Modern Art and saw the de Kooning.' These notations were like stepping stones."

Wyclef Jean is talking with Smiley on a TV mounted on the wall. Smith reluctantly submits to a brief session with the makeup artist and soon enters the studio, where Smiley awaits, muscles bulging beneath his suit and tie. "You chose me," she tells him with a smile, noting the few interviews she has granted, "but I chose you." The makeup lady takes another look, and Smith jokes, "Maybe I'll find a husband." And as the countdown to taping begins, she smiles at the host. "Nice shoes."

Behind Smith and Smiley is a huge blowup of the downtown L.A. skyline, and a large boom camera sways across the floor in front of them as she tells of her awakening as an artist, how she coped when Mapplethorpe told her he was gay, and the love she still feels for him: "We sat and we cried with each other many, many, many times. ... But the fact is, we had much to save, much more than a physical relationship."

When the TV interview ends 30 minutes later, Smith gives the host a hug. "She speaks in prose," Smiley tells his producers, nodding his head with an amazed laugh.

Smith has been a poet and an essayist for decades, publishing small chapbooks early on. Her magazine work celebrated the Stones and Dylan, or the bop jazz men and the great singers she heard while growing up. In that, she was an early-'70s contemporary of literary rock crits Nick Tosches, Richard Meltzer and Lester Bangs. (She was familiar enough in that circle that when Tosches was assigned an interview for Creem years later, she suggested that he already knew her well enough to just make it up. And he did.)

"Criticism is kind of a funny word, because I never wrote anything bad," she says now. "I only wrote about things that I liked. I thought that a critic was there to open people's eyes, not criticize. I only wrote about things I wanted to share with people. It could be Clifton Chenier or Lotte Lenya or Albert Ayler. I truthfully wrote on the side to make money to eat. You'd make $10. I had a really nice piece in Rolling Stone, I got $20 for that. Twenty dollars back in 1971 was real money." Rent at the Chelsea was $65 a week.


Barely a year after his death, Mapplethorpe became a rallying point for opposite ends of the culture war, a dividing line between free expression and the conservative campaign to abolish federal funding for the arts. His most controversial pictures were already years old by then but were quickly caught up in the same moment of moral outrage that surrounded Andres Serrano's Piss Christ and the family pictures of Sally Mann, and led to the FBI raid on Jock Sturges in 1990.

Throughout his short career, Mapplethorpe explored a small but diverse variety of subjects, with graceful, sensuous images of flowers, sculpture and nudes, with evocative portraits of himself and others. In 1990, all that was eclipsed by his most difficult work, the pictures of rough sex, and of abused and bloodied genitalia. Not all of it was unprecedented. His Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter, from 1979, had a leather-clad male couple in a relaxed living room setting, one of them in chains, not unlike a classic Diane Arbus portrait of the unseen. There were also pictures of very young children au naturel, which critics interpreted as grimly as possible. A scheduled exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., was abruptly canceled, which didn't stop U.S. Senator Jesse Helms from tearing up the show catalog on the Senate floor. The same exhibit was shut down by police in Cincinnati.

"I think the controversy would have deeply disturbed Robert on one end, especially the idea that he was taking forbidden pictures of children," Smith says. "I remember when he took those pictures. He said, 'Look at this picture. Isn't it so cute?' And I said, 'Oh, Robert, that's so sweet.' We just looked at them as really cute pictures of kids. And having looked at so many pictures of the Victorian photographers and their pictures of children, to me they expressed Robert's love of children. That kind of sensibility never occurred to either one of us. It's the only thing that I'm happy he was spared."

Her own relationship with photography continued. Smith became a compelling subject and muse to Annie Leibovitz and others. Magazine photographer Steven Sebring spent 11 years shooting documentary footage of Smith for his film Dream of Life, released to acclaim in 2008. Smith has also devoted creative energy to her series of ghostly Polaroids, which she began soon after her husband's death.

"I couldn't do anything else. I really couldn't write. I used whatever energy I had to take care of my kids," she says. "So these photographs are really to give me a sense of self-worth. Then, like Robert, I got hooked on it. And I started taking Polaroids seriously at the end of the '90s, and devoted time to them, and then developing them as silver prints and then platinum. It's become an important part of what I do."

She asked the monumentally influential photographer and Beat comrade Robert Frank to create the music video for her "Summer Cannibals." At the shoot, Smith dared to show him the Polaroids she had been making. "I see what you're doing," he told her. She liked that.

Smith is now well into the recording of a new album with her band, with guest appearances by Tom Verlaine, Flea and her two grown children, pianist Jesse Smith and guitarist Jackson Smith. But the wide attention Just Kids has already received has been encouraging. Other books are likely, exploring other facets and periods of her life and work.

"I was hoping for Robert's sake that people would like it," Smith says. "I thought I could probably count on a certain hard-core audience, but it seems like it has spread. Robert would like that. He always wanted me to be successful. If the book does really well, it will be in Robert's name. So it's perfect that it's probably the biggest response I've had for something in some years. It figures Robert would be behind it."

L.A. Weekly, Feb. 18, 2010

Patti and Robert on the Coney Island boardwalk, circa 1969