Orpheus and the Beast: The life of Carly Simon

From left: David Saw, John Forte, Carly Simon, Ben Taylor, and Sally Taylor play for an intimate group of fans at a Consensus event on Saturday, prior to a book signing for Carly Simon's new book, "Boys in the Trees." — Photo by Megan Adams

Updated 2:45pm, Dec. 16: A previous version of this article reported Ms. Simon will sign “Boys in the Trees” on Sunday, Dec. 19. The signing will be Dec. 20.

Island resident Carly Simon, an international music star for more than four decades, has written a memoir of the first half of her life, including an epilogue about her life today.

“Boys in the Trees” is a riveting book, a product of 3½ years of research and writing. Ms. Simon fact-checked her recollections with her siblings and her lifelong diaries. It is very well-written, straightforward, and not an apologia — a lamentable but common fate in memoirs of public figures.

The book describes a precocious kid immersed in a gloried life of wealth, fame, attendant perks, and a dysfunctional family. It records the attending emotional fallout that dogged the public Carly Simon for decades.

“Boys in the Trees” is concerned primarily with the interior life of this woman rather than with her public stardom. As a result, we get insight into this gifted, complex personality. Sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll? You betcha, but be warned that close reading of Ms. Simon’s self-examination may expose the reader to the same self-study.

Ms. Simon will sign “Boys in the Trees” on Sunday, Dec. 20, at 4 pm at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven. In addition to the hardcover book, Ms. Simon narrates an audiobook “illustrated” with arrangements of her music. The hardcover and the audiobook are currently bestsellers No. 1 and No. 2 in their genre on Amazon, and have sparked sales of “More Room in a Broken Heart,” a 2012 biography of Carly Simon’s life by Stephen Davis.

Ms. Simon is the third daughter of Simon & Schuster publishing company co-founder and American cultural icon Richard Simon and Andrea (Heinemann) Simon. Her older sisters Joey (Joanna) and Lucy were competitors in young Carly’s eyes for the affections of her father, an Olympian figure to the world and to his children, including Island resident and noted photographer and author Peter Simon, the youngest of the clan.

Young Carly believed, and continues to hold, that her beautiful sisters were Daddy’s favorites, despite her own best efforts to be noticed and loved. Mr. Simon, a depressive, drank heavily and smoked four packs of cigarettes daily, many while spending hours at his piano playing Chopin and Brahms at a professional level, even as his place in the empire he built was being undermined by so-called friends and colleagues.

Andrea Simon was beautiful, a hostess nonpareil and an involved civil rights activist a decade before the cause dominated public consciousness. Their home in New York and a summer house in Stamford, Conn., were filled with writers, A listers of all stripes, and public figures including Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, and Albert Einstein.

The six-story brownstone on West 11th Street in lower Manhattan was inhabited by friends, employees, and family, including Uncle Peter, who loved young Carly without condition.

So far so good, but Carly the child was feeling the otherness, seeing herself as less than her sisters and insufficient in the eyes of her father, whom she dubbed “Orpheus” after the Greek mythological figure who braved the Underworld to reclaim Eurydice, his love. The original Orpheus’ plan came a cropper, but the Orpheus ideal of love took root and informed Carly’s own love relationships for decades.

During Ms. Simon’s preadolescence, her mother took a lover and ensconced him in the Simon home, which, while roomy, did not hide the relationship from the kids, who saw their parents’ relationship withering and felt the loss.

Ms. Simon’s low self-esteem produced paralyzing childhood speech impediments: stammering, stuttering, and contorting her face with the effort to speak until she often lapsed into a paralysis of near-silence.

Mom, God love her, suggested young Carly sing the words to her lines during childhood plays and to pat a syncopation on her thigh when she spoke. Both techniques worked, and “Please pass the butter” has likely never sounded so good at a dinner table. But “the Beast,” the dark fearful side of her life, had been born. Young Carly had to invent other ways, such as substituting third-person references for first-person, to keep the Beast in check, a lifelong endeavor.

We learn that young Carly, together with beloved sister Lucy, as the Simon Sisters, had a taste of fame with “Wynken, Blynkyn, and Nod” in the mid-1960s. By 1970 it was full on: stardom, record deals, chart-topping albums, and singles for a self-described songwriter who feared public performance. Ms. Simon never planned to perform, but to make her living writing songs that the stars would want to perform. Performing them herself was simply the marketing tool to that end.

Ms. Simon’s storytelling skills here are important. Description of her early life creates a rooting interest in her 20something foray into the real world. We become a Greek chorus of sorts, dispensing advice and warning. When she showed interest in Warren Beatty, for example, I found myself exhorting “No! Not Warren Beatty. Don’t do it, Carly.” But do kids listen? They do not. However, she was tough and intuitive enough to survive dalliances with Mr. Beatty, Cat Stevens, Kris Kristofferson, et al. She knew they were not Orpheus. Then James Taylor happened. Orpheus. A kid she had known from the steps of Seward’s general store in Menemsha.

Ms. Simon writes in several rhythms. Her style is reportorial about childhood, lighthearted and lyrical about her early adult life, poetically cadenced in the description of Carly and James in love. Her description of the end of them is simpler, direct, often painful to the reader. She seems to be gutting it out, just telling it. We learn a lot about love, how it works, and how to handle the pain of love lost.

To be honest, I’ve always enjoyed the Simon music, and knew there was more than what I was getting from it. I’ve never really thought about the person making the songs. Last Friday, I listened to some cuts from “Songs in the Trees” after reading her memoir. Knowing about her life produced a completely new experience. I also thought, listening to her lyrics, that Carly Simon has been singing versions of “Please pass the butter” her entire life. It’s how she learned to get through and to succeed.

We of her audience have learned that at the end of the day, money, fame, and looks don’t get it done. Perseverance gets it done. This book tells us that we can put our Beasts to rest and that we can create a good and warm place in our heart for Orpheus.

Q and A

Carly Simon spoke with The Times last week about her life and her new memoir.

What finally convinced you to write this memoir?

I’d been thinking about it for awhile, and I had to make some money. I didn’t want to go on tour. I hate going on tour. I’d had a couple of financial losses at that time. And I had produced a record for promotion and distribution by Starbucks’ music label. They folded the label four days before release of the album. People get screwed in life; this just happened all at the same time.

I spent 3½ years writing the memoir. My first publisher insisted on an autobiography, and I wanted to write a memoir. There is a difference. So I had to give the advance back, and found MacMillan to publish the memoir.

Why, as a child, did you substitute seeing yourself in the third person rather than in first person?

Third person was a way to get through ridiculous situations, a way to see them, making them a game. The life she was living was not me.

Was it difficult to write in the first person for the memoir?

No, but I realized that third person was what I’d done to avoid being clobbered by the unsensibleness of my life. I took a risk in this book, but when someone reveals themself, it’s got to be a life lesson for someone with the same experience.

You seem to have a micro-recall of detail: the color of the carpet at a meeting 40 years ago, for example. How does that work?

I had my diaries, which had a great deal of description. The publisher wanted me to do more with them, to extrapolate sections.

What value has writing “Boys in the Trees” brought to you? How has your personal perspective changed?

The process of self-examination. The most important relationship in book is with my father. The comparison with my older sisters as favorites and not me. Loving someone doesn’t require them loving you back.

Is Orpheus different today? Has the Beast been tamed? Are you confident of your place in the world today?

I find Orpheus is inside me today. I’ve had to know him to become him, to satisfy that hunger in myself. Self-love is the only way to peel away the things that keep you from true self. I feel more mentally healthy after writing the book.

The Beast has his moments, but I don’t define him as good or bad. He’s part of your army, and has a useful side, defining a level you won’t let yourself go below, despite fear and negative feelings of self-worth. That wouldn’t happen if you didn’t let the Beast do its work. And it has a Victorian twist [laughs]. Keeps you on the up and up. I won’t do anything in private, like, say, picking lettuce out of my teeth, that I wouldn’t want on the front page of the newspaper.

You write that Uncle Peter’s love was important in your childhood. What’s your take on unconditional love?

Uncle Peter was unconditional love. When you love someone unconditionally, it’s a spiritual way, the highest form of love. Something inviolate, because it belongs to you. Mutual love is wonderful, but there are problems as well. I felt closer to Uncle Peter than to anyone else.

Your family participated in the production of the CD which accompanies the book. How was that?

My kids, Sally and Ben, are unbelievable. The best people I’ve ever known. It felt very natural. And they read the book along the way. I was most concerned about them. I wanted an honest book, and asked them how they would feel if I wrote about their father in a less positive light, and they told me, “It’s your story and you have to tell it your own way.”

Will there be a second volume?

I don’t know. Not for a while, certainly. But if there is, I will ask for help from an editor. I didn’t this time.

“Boys in the Trees: A Memoir,” by Carly Simon. $28.99. Available at Bunch of Grapes.