A revealing interview with Carly Simon at her home in Martha’s Vineyard about her new book, ‘Boys in the Trees’
His fishing rod lay on the beam above the bookshelf for decades, long after he was gone. In his wake, she filled the room with velvet pillows, crystals, gauzy curtains, orchids. But Carly Simon remembers how it looked when she first moved here in 1971, into what James Taylor called his “shack.”
Then, it was just a small cabin, hidden beneath lady’s slippers and scrub oak on his 175-acre plot of land. Tools hung from the wall. The bathroom had no door. A pyramid of fan mail piled up in the corner; she responded to the letters, he signed them.
“I think of that time a lot,” she said, sitting on a couch that was in the spot where her bed with Taylor used to be. “It’s part of my blood, my bones, all the liquid in my body. I’ve just taken him in so he’s in my core.”
After they divorced in 1983, Simon stayed here, on what she now calls Hidden Star Hill. It’s where she spent the last four years writing her memoir, “Boys in the Trees” (Flatiron: 384 pp., $28.99). The book has all of the juicy details longtime fans will salivate over: tales about her flirtations with Jack Nicholson and Mick Jagger, her passionate and rocky 10-year marriage to Taylor and, yes, the story behind the lyrics of “You’re So Vain.” The memoir even has a musical companion, “Songs in the Trees,” a two-disc compilation of Simon’s music with songs that correlate to different chapters in the book.
More than that, “Boys in the Trees” is about a woman’s lifelong quest for self-acceptance. Growing up, Simon writes, she constantly felt inadequate. Her father, the co-founder of publishing house Simon & Schuster, paid little attention to her. Her mother was distracted, in the midst of an affair with a man less than half her age. Her older sisters knew about the affair but hid it from her.
“I grew up with lots of mystery in my house,” explained Simon, now 70 and still as statuesque as she was on the cover of her “Anticipation” album. “I was always feeling on shaky ground when I was growing up. I didn’t know what was what, and that led me to feel very insecure.”
That’s part of what drove her to write her memoir. She never wanted her own children, Sally, 41, and Ben, 38 — both of whom she had with Taylor — to live with uncertainty.
“I wanted them to know the truth, as awful as it might look sometimes,” she said. “I’m sure that James Taylor, if he reads this book, is going to say, ‘This isn’t how I remember it.’ This is the truth as I see it. ... It’s important to me that the kids know we were very close and sincerely in love. I don’t want them to see me through James’ eyes, the way James’ eyes are looking at me now.”
As if on cue, Sally suddenly appeared, tip-toeing through the living room on her way to the kitchen. She was staying at her mother’s house for the weekend because she had an art exhibit on display down the road.
“I don’t think there were any big surprises, were there, Sal?” Simon asked.
“It wasn’t surprising, it was just shocking,” her daughter replied. “Your mind does all the equations around your parents’ life before you actually find out the exactitude of it. I already had the outline. I painted it my own way.”
A couple of hours later, away from the house at her art show, Sally said she would frequently ask questions about her mom’s past and was granted access to the 50 diaries that Simon drew from to write “Boys in the Trees.” And like many children of divorce, Sally’s view of her youth is divided into before — surrounded by light and friends and parties — and after, when her parents got sucked into a tug-of-war over who would own the house in Lambert’s Cove.
“What that house really represents is ownership of the experience of being married to each other,” Sally said. “It could have been sold and become part of our history, just like their relationship is. It lives. It’s like the third child, in a way.”
‘Soul in danger’
When Simon first moved back into Hidden Star Hill, she was so upset that she hoisted the king-sized mattress Taylor and his new girlfriend, Kathryn Walker, had been sleeping on over the balcony. She tried to set fire to it in the woods, but it wouldn’t ignite because it was made of foam.
“You know how they say if your child is in danger, you can lift a car?” Simon asked. “Well, my soul was in danger and I lifted a king-size foam mattress over the balcony.”
Taylor and Simon haven’t spoken since they separated, and his representative did not return a request to be interviewed for this story. Her kids, she said, aren’t allowed to give her his telephone number. “It’s a complete shut out,” she said. “I don’t exist.”
But if Simon is angry at Taylor, she doesn’t show it in “Boys in the Trees.” As she describes it, the love she had for him was profound. Before she even met him, she saw his face on the cover of Time magazine and decided that they would someday marry. In the book, she recalls that the first night they spent together, after he played a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1971, he said he’d prefer simply to lie next to her rather than have sex. “The connecting of our skin went more than inches,” she writes. “He was four inches taller and his torso was much longer than mine, but it felt as though a manufacturer of bodies had copied our limbs and made them a perfect double.”
Today, Simon still seems protective of Taylor. Though he had a long, much-publicized struggle with substance abuse, in the book Simon only describes seeing him do heroin once. They were in a room at the Chateau Marmont when he pulled out a piece of rubber, a syringe and a powdery substance. She recalls him asking her to watch him shoot up because “I can’t have you and the habit at the same time.”
Simon was afraid of drugs and said she tried heroin only once — at a New Year’s Eve party in the ‘80s. She rubbed it on her gums, and it was the most awful experience of her life, like a “cotton ball had infused [her] soul,” she said with a shudder.
‘70s folk goddess
A child of the free-love generation, Simon certainly looked the part of a ‘70s folk goddess with her long hair, knee-high boots, floppy hats. Often, critics paid more attention to her looks than her music, branding her a sex symbol.
But in fact, Simon has never felt at ease in her body. She reveals in her book that at 7 she was molested by an older boy, which she believes had a large part to do with her low opinion of herself. When she started keeping a diary as a girl, she was so uncomfortable seeing words like “sex” and “bra” in print that she invented code names for them. (Bra was “runk.”)
“Even this: ‘seductress?’” she said, picking up her book and flipping to the inside jacket, where she is described using various bold adjectives. “I told them they couldn’t use that. That’s not how I see myself!”
She’s also somewhat bothered by the public’s fascination with figuring out who “You’re So Vain” is about.
“It’s not exactly like ‘Deep Throat’ where it affected the politics of more than a generation,” she said with a scoff. (For the record, Simon writes that the second verse of the song is about Warren Beatty. She is keeping the subjects of the other two verses to herself.)
Simon never planned to write a book; over the last few years, she’s been focused on instrumental music because she is “slightly” losing her voice. She hasn’t gone on an extensive tour in years because of paralyzing stage fright — a topic that she would not even broach because she was so anxious about an upcoming appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
“The fact that I’ve never toured has limited my career considerably. I could have been rich,” she said. “I’m content, but I don’t own this house. The bank does.”
Yet she’s content in this home, which she shares with her boyfriend of a decade, surgeon Richard Koehler. He was out performing an appendectomy, so she walked up the spiral staircase to their bedroom. Her dog, a cavapoo named after the Steely Dan song “Aja,” rested on a chair cushion.
Simon walked over to her closet and started pulling out long coats and metal belts to try on for a photo shoot. Somewhere, buried in a pile of shoes, was the Academy Award she won for her 1988 song “Let the River Run.”
“That’s like an example of self-esteem gone awry,” she said with a smile.
But then she suddenly pulled off her shirt without hesitation, revealing her taut stomach. “I eat lots of yogurt,” she explained, sensing the eyes on her. “I eat like a yogi.”
She settled on a belt from 20 years ago that still fit and picked up a floppy hat. When she picked up a guitar and headed outside, it was almost as if no time had passed at all here on Hidden Star Hill. Though Taylor’s fishing rod? It’s gone now. It was one of the last remaining physical remnants of their relationship, and she finally got rid of it after she finished her book.
“I decided it was best to take it down,” she said. “If I really wanted to have another life, I had to move that.”
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