In her intelligent, rich and occasionally too florid memoir, singer/songwriter Carly Simon writes movingly of the tumult and secrets that dogged her first 38 years. Boys in the Trees covers Simon’s childhood at the Greenwich Village and Connecticut homes where regular house guests included Jackie Robinson, Benny Goodman, Oscar Hammerstein and Sloan Wilson, through her marriage and divorce from fellow singer-songwriter James Taylor in 1983.
The revelation about who inspired her 1972 classic You’re So Vain — three different men, one of whom was Warren Beatty — is not the most surprising disclosure in the book. Simon writes that she was sexually abused for years by a 16-year-old family friend named Billy, starting when she was 7.
Such a troubled childhood left the young Simon too perceptive for her age, though this trait would pay off later in her craft. She writes of the devastating impact Billy’s actions had on her — “I was already doing things that grown-ups, who shouldn’t be doing what they were doing, were doing anyway in an overly sexual atmosphere.”
But another event proved equally upsetting. When she was 8, her mother Andrea, then 42, hired college student Ronny, a live-in “big brother” for her son Peter, whom she fretted might suffer from growing up in a house filled with women (Simon also had two older sisters). Then Andrea and Ronny, 19, became lovers. Husband Richard, who had been pushed out of Simon & Schuster, the publishing giant he co-founded, inexplicably tolerated this living arrangement.
“The first time I laid eyes on Ronny, I felt an immediate, electric dislike, followed by an inexplicable disgust,” Simon writes. “Already there was a wrongness about him, building connections inside me on a cellular level. Or maybe I was already responding to the invisible currents between him and my mother.”
Little surprise she once inscribed her Spy album with a line from erotic writer Anaïs Nin: “I am an international spy in the house of love.”
As an adult, Simon also enjoyed the sexual license of the 1960s and early ’70s. The dishy, compulsively page-turning Trees reads like a who’s-who of famous men: Beatty, Kris Kristofferson, Michael Crichton, Bob Rafelson, Terrence Malick, Cat Stevens and Jack Nicholson, who, once inside her apartment, asked, “Do you ever drink coffee in your bedroom?”
She’s uncharacteristically coy about You’re So Vain harmony partner Mick Jagger. Did they? Simon’s not saying, though readers might light up a cigarette after her description of their London recording session. “Electricity. That’s what it was. I wanted to touch his neck and he was looking at my lips. The electricity was raw and hardly disguising its power. Having sex would have actually cooled things off.”
But Taylor dominates the last third of her autobiography, and here her welcome frankness flirts with idolatry. This slightly overripe though riveting portion leads to some of Boys in the Trees’ eye-rolling passages: “James was my muse, my Orpheus, my sleeping darling, my ‘good night, sweet prince,’ my something-in-the-way-he-moves.”
She is nonetheless forthright about a not-so Sweet Baby James. In 1976, Simon, pregnant with their second child, son Ben, prepared to share the happy news with her husband but was derailed: “James announced to me yesterday that he had to get checked out for clap.”
Disappointingly, she gives her own recording career, more creatively daring than Taylor’s, comparatively scant attention. Whole albums are ignored or glossed over. She confesses You’re So Vain’s monster success over Taylor’s modest sales at the time troubled her. “I never wanted to overshadow the man I loved,” writes the contradictory woman labeled as a feminist icon.
Still, Boys in the Trees meets its lofty expectations. As one of pop music’s more literate songwriters — she was the first solo woman to win a Best Song Oscar for Let the River Run from Working Girl — Simon writes beautifully and affectingly. Her publisher father, for whom she clamored for attention and validation, would be proud.