FANS OF CARLY SIMON are probably over the moon that the quintessential ‘70s singer/songwriter has finally gotten around to penning her long-awaited autobiography, about a third of which lays bare her marriage to another rock legend, James Taylor, in vivid detail. Along the way in this intensely self-searching, if sometimes overwrought, memoir are plenty of scintillating tidbits about other celebrated male figures who intersected with her life — Mick Jagger, Warren Beatty, Cat Stevens, and Sean Connery among them.
It’s Beatty who’s at last identified as the mysterious subject of her biggest hit, “You’re So Vain,” though Simon claims the actor only figures in the second verse, which memorably begins, “You had me several years ago, when I was still quite naïve…” Why she continues the hide-and-seek game about the identities of the other two men who inspired the song is baffling at this point. After more than 40 years, does anyone still care?
Born to privilege and wealth as one of three daughters of the publishing magnate Richard Simon (co-founder of Simon & Schuster), Simon – who turned 70 this year – writes that “the biggest secret and vanity of the Simon family was to insist that nothing was wrong when, in fact, so much was wrong, and neither one of my parents ever owned up to it.” Expected as a boy, to be named “Carl,” Simon says that “When I was born, he and Mommy simply added a y to the word, like an accusing chromosome: Carly.”
The chapters about her childhood are by far the most intriguing in the book, a psychodrama played out amidst a mother who was carrying on an affair with a boy 20 years her junior within the very confines of the Simon home, and the elegant and enigmatic father whose attention Simon longed for in the thick of the dysfunctionality. The emotional turmoil resulted in a psychosomatic stammer that would evolve into the paralyzing stage fright that plagued her in later years.
Simon’s first success as a single, the emblematic ‘70s ballad, “That’s the Way I Always Heard it Should Be,” was a bit of a feminist anthem at the time, capturing the ambivalence of women dealing with societal mores that dictated marriage as the ultimate accomplishment. The song’s last line, “We’ll marry,” is rendered, not with joyous exultation, but with a weary resignation.
Yet marriage it was for Simon, and the sweet baby “Jamie” whom she first met when they were kids on Martha’s Vineyard. When she saw James Taylor on the cover of Time magazine, she told her sister “I’m going to marry him,” which she did, on November 3, 1972. It was the beginning of a decade-long union both personal and professional, with the duo’s remake of the 1963 classic “Mockingbird” reaching number five on the Billboard charts in 1974. (Interestingly, “You’re So Vain” remains Simon’s only number-one single. Some may remember that a couple of her other songs went on to front commercials: “Anticipation” – for Heinz Ketchup — and “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain,” for, you guessed it, a pain reliever.)
To say that Taylor was the love of Simon’s life is well beyond understatement. “James was my muse, my Orpheus, my sleeping darling, my ‘good night, sweet prince’, my something-in-the-way-he-moves,” she writes about him at the beginning of the relationship. Addiction, touring, and the inevitable temptations of the road eventually took their toll on the marriage, though Simon writes about the troubadour in (mostly) hagiographic terms, and to this day lives in the same “shack” on a 40-acre expanse on Martha’s Vineyard that she helped build with him the ‘70s. Eleven years and two children – Sally and Ben – later, she and Taylor finally divorced in 1983.
Which is just around where the book ends, as well. And which is puzzling, considering the mileposts that still lay in store for Simon well beyond the mid-‘80s. Another marriage for one: there’s no mention of James Hart, a writer and businessman who not only shared a first name with Taylor, but also an uncanny physical resemblance, and to whom Simon was later married to for 20 years. In 1988, she won the Academy Award for “Let the River Run,” from the film Working Girl, which was followed by a Grammy in 1990. Several more successful albums, children’s books, an opera (Romulus Hunt), and a bout with cancer in 1998 remain topics for another time.
In the epilogue to Boys in the Trees (the title is from an album released in 1978), Simon writes that she “doesn’t wait for Orpheus to come anymore,” and it should be noted that she and Taylor have maintained a chilly distance for decades. Clearly, though, it’s a relationship that still haunts and seems to define her all the way to the present, rather unnecessarily to those looking from the outside, especially in light of her own unique persona in the annals of pop music apart from Taylor.
Then again — as she sang on another one of her hits, “Jesse” — the heart has a will of its own.