Books

Book review

‘Boys in the Trees’ by Carly Simon

"Boys in the Trees" by Carly Simon.

It wasn’t until gangly, gawky Carly Simon started school in the mid-1960s at Sarah Lawrence College that she allowed herself to think she might be special in some way. A friend told the budding singer that the two of them were the only ones on campus who had “shvank.”

“It was a close cousin of twirl,” Simon explains in her new memoir, “the word people had once used to describe my father’s style.”

Though she was one of the true “it” girls of the 1970s — the music industry’s Best New Artist for 1972, with multiple Grammy Awards two years later lavished on “You’re So Vain,” a song that still inspires reams of gossipy speculation (which we’ll get to shortly) — she has been grappling with self-esteem for much of her life, as readers of this florid, seductively candid autobiography will learn.

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The third daughter of four children born to Richard Simon, cofounder of the publishing house Simon & Schuster, Carly grew up in New York City, Connecticut, and on Martha’s Vineyard, feeling inferior to her gifted older sisters. (She started her musical career while still in college, recording fussy versions of traditional folk songs with her sister Lucy as the Simon Sisters.) Her father suffered from debilitating depression; throughout the book Simon refers to her own recurring demons, which she personifies as “the Beast.”

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Her childhood and adolescence were marked by concern about outward appearances and hidden turmoil — from her mother’s infidelity to Simon’s own early sexual encounters. Her father’s circle of friends, from Benny Goodman to Jackie Robinson, provided a glamorous façade — one that she would cling to long after she’d achieved fame of her own.

It’s the name-dropping associations of Simon’s maturing singing career that has kept her in the limelight so many years after she stopped grasping for pop stardom. Most notably, as reported widely in recent days, after more than 40 years of fans’ giddy guesswork, Simon acknowledges here that at least part of “You’re So Vain” is about the actor Warren Beatty, one of several bold-face names with whom she dallied as her career was launching.

Others included Mick Jagger, Kris Kristofferson, and the singer then known as Cat Stevens, about whom she says she wrote “Anticipation.” She had a fling with Jack Nicholson; when she served him coffee in her apartment, he asked, “Do you ever drink coffee in your bedroom?”

Perhaps most amusingly, she recalls an early Atlantic crossing with Lucy. On board the ship was the era’s own James Bond, the virile Scotsman Sean Connery, with whom the two young ladies spent a few days in heavy flirtation. More than a decade later, Simon would finally get her secret agent, when she had one of her biggest hits with the movie theme “Nobody Does It Better.”

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By then she’d been in a seemingly storybook marriage with fellow singer James Taylor long enough to have two children together. Upon seeing Taylor’s picture on the cover of Time magazine, she’d told her sister she was going to marry him. Within months, they’d met (for the second time — they’d crossed paths once years before, as kids, on the Vineyard), and fallen in love.

Their relationship, played out in public through frequent appearances onstage together and a Top 5 duet (“Mockingbird”), undoubtedly had its serendipities. Before they were married Taylor once told her they’d have a daughter named Sarah, then a boy named Ben. Just as it happened.

“I felt we were a perfect fourth,” writes Simon, an unabashed romantic who refers more than once to Jane Austen. “I came to feel that I was the F-sharp and he was the C-sharp. . . . Our voices were so perfectly complementary and harmonized so well.”

But the book’s overriding theme is one of longing. “Boys in the Trees” recounts Simon’s singing career only in fits and starts, as if it were more a hobby than a vocation. It ends with the painful dissolution of her marriage to Taylor — who, despite his largely clean-cut public image, features in a few grim, drug-addled moments — more than 30 years ago.

She stays on the Vineyard, she writes, in spite of the bittersweet memories of her first marriage. The island is “famously lovely,” with plots of land “casually separated by stone walls, like a sentence that doesn’t take the turn you think it will take.”

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In this dear-diary recollection of a private life once lived very much in public, there are plenty of those.

BOYS IN THE TREES

By Carly Simon. Flatiron, 384 pp., $28.99

More coverage:

Carly Simon set to release her memoir

Carly Simon book due out Nov. 24

Mystery man behind ‘You’re So Vain’? Well, part of it is about Warren Beatty

James Sullivan, the author of four books, can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.