I usually dread the final 15 minutes of a celebrity interview: the awkward section during which the writer must steer the conversation away from the polite, mutually enjoyable discussion of whatever the star is currently promoting toward the juicy personal details that your readers really want to know and your subject really (and justifiably) wants to keep private. You sit in the consciously impersonal atmosphere of an upmarket hotel room with a total stranger, and broach topics you might spend decades dancing around with friends and family. I still have nightmares in which I blurt out lines worthy of Alan Partridge:
Yes, the bass line on that track is terrifically deep isn’t it! And talking of hitting rock bottom, would you mind running me quickly through the series of romantic humiliations, shocking paparazzi images and sudden bereavements that led to your recent stint in rehab?
On my way to interview the singer-songwriter Carly Simon in 2008, I hoped I’d have the nerve to ask about her string of famous lovers: Cat Stevens, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Kris Kristofferson and (possibly) Mick Jagger. I suspected it would be easier to draw her on these early dalliances than on her ten-year marriage to James Taylor, which crumbled in a mess of addiction and infidelity in 1980. He still won’t speak to her, although they have two grown-up children, giving her more reason to keep her famously lush lips sealed on the subject.
But within minutes of admission to Simon’s cosy New York apartment, we were perched together on the rim of her claw-footed bathtub, poring over old photograph albums, and she stroked the handsome, hollow cheeks of her ex-husband each time he appeared, still swooning over ‘those eyes, those eyes…. My boy Ben has them too.’Downstairs, Ben, then 31, quietly strummed ‘Coming Around Again’, delivering his mother’s 1981 divorce-recovery hit in his father’s voice. It could have been very uncomfortable, but their engaged and self-aware combination of easy wit, hippy spirit and total frankness about some incredibly difficult subjects was rather wonderful.
Her extraordinarily intimate new book — telling the story of her life until the end of her marriage to Taylor — will make readers feel just as welcome. Giving the skinny on all those celebrity liaisons, plus the hazards of drugs, groupies and STDs, her story runs much deeper than gossip. Though gushy at times, it’s the smart, questing work of a woman who’s learned that exposing her deep self-doubt and vulnerability makes her feel brave. Although it wasn’t always this way.
The daughter of the publisher Richard Simon (of Simon & Schuster) she spent a superficially charmed childhood in her parents’ luxury homes. Albert Einstein, President Eisenhower, James Thurber and Oscar Hammerstein came for dinner parties. Mommy was ‘tiny’ and ‘dazzling’. Daddy was tall, handsome and passionate. Everybody agreed that Dick Simon had ‘twirl: a kind of sexy flourish’. But Carly knew Daddy loved her older sisters, Joey and Lucy, best and had wanted her to be a boy. She was to have been christened Carl, the ‘Y’ added in disappointment, ‘like an accusing chromosome’. When her baby brother was born she was instantly eclipsed, and then her mum began an affair with the boy’s male nanny.
According to Sheila Weller’s 2008 biography, Girls Like Us, Carly’s own nanny was her father’s ex-lover, which must have been difficult for her mother. But Simon doesn’t mention this. Clearly on Daddy’s side (the book is dedicated to him) she laments the early death of a man who spent the first half of her childhood ignoring his anxious, stuttering daughter (despite her desperate attempts to get his attention by clowning) and the second half wandering the upper floors of their house as a ‘brittle, half-vanished man’ whose company and wife were ‘wrestled from him’. She continues to see things from the point of view of the men incapable of returning her (admittedly neurotic and needy) devotion throughout her life.
The most shocking revelation is that she was sexually abused from the age of seven by a teenaged family friend called ‘Billy’. The details are very upsetting. ‘From my perspective now it’s disturbing,’ she acknowledges, but at the time it felt ‘thrillingly clandestine, and full of naughty fun’. When they found out, her parents’ response was to ban him from the house for a summer, then act as though nothing had happened. There’s a comic coda when Simon sees a therapist and finds singing helps her overcome her stutter. ‘Zat’s it Carly! Music unblocks ze unconscious!’ exclaims Dr Frunzhoffa, encouraging a music-hall duet on the subject of her abuse: ‘Did he touch you in ze chair?’ ‘Yes, he touched me right down there.’
As she rises to international stardom with hits like ‘Anticipation’ and ‘You’re So Vain’ (there’s a great new album out linked to this book, including every song featured) Simon suffers huge guilt at eclipsing the sisters she perceives to be more beautiful, then more guilt during the moments her records outsell those of her husband.
Taylor doesn’t emerge well from her account of their marriage, although you’re intensely conscious of his dignified/defensive silence on the subject. The heroin addiction he battled from his teens made total honesty impossible, and eventually the mistrust became corrosive. Simon is uncharacteristically coy on the subject of her own infidelity (with Jagger?). There’s an awful scene after her separation from Taylor in which he returns to her apartment, drops ash on her carpet, fixes her with his ‘bloodshot baby blues’ and commands: ‘Strip, bitch.’ During the following encounter she ‘mostly noticed that he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring’. Yet, two long-term partners later, she still lives in the house they built together, with Taylor’s fishing rods on the wall.
In the acknowledgements she thanks her children for ‘assuring me that writing about your father was a reasonable and brave thing to do’. I imagine Taylor is horrified. But I’m sure it’s nothing the kids haven’t heard a million times before. Their mom is one of the most sexually blunt and funny female stars of her generation. Just before I left her home I had a chat with Ben and his English friend David in Simon’s kitchen. We were discussing David’s fear of flying and Ben was earnestly suggesting some meditation techniques when his mother breezed in for a cuppa. ‘You could try that,’ she grinned. ‘But I prefer to fuck the pilot.’
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16.50. Tel: 08430 600033