Before his death aged 42 Robert Mapplethorpe worked with writer Patricia Morrisroe on her definitive biography of the artist, originally published in 1995. The long-awaited Kindle version of Mapplethorpe: A Biography by Patricia Morrisroe is now available (get your copy here).
Mapplethorpe was completely candid with her. He told her everything… even if what he revealed wasn’t necessarily always flattering. Ultimately Mapplethorpe was a documentary artist. He lived to take photographs of his life, and he lived to have others write about it. Of the many writers he befriended Patricia was the one in whom he arguably confided the most in many hours of taped interviews, excerpts from which are featured in our film.
“He, he said at the time he thought I reminded him of Patti Smith. but I think it was more the coloring… not the Jersey accent.”
He was by this stage seriously ill. Listening to the tapes you can hear the frailty in his fading voice. It’s very haunting.
Following his death Patricia interviewed over 300 people and completing the monumental task took over six years.
“When it was first published in 1995, the biography was very polarizing. Some critics loved it, others hated it. Patti Smith hated the book… I think I only had one phone conversation and this was not a happy person and you don’t want an angry Patti Smith on the other end of the line.”
We interviewed Patricia for our documentary Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures (airing on HBO April 4th). It was a long and fascinating conversation and here are some highlights:
“I interviewed him 16 times from that August ’88 ’til probably a month or two before he died in ’89… and you absolutely saw week by week or every other week a real deterioration. He would always be sitting down in his chair because he did not want to see me—to have me see him shuffling in.
He knew the book was gonna come out after his death. At that point it didn’t really matter to him
He wanted to know if I was Catholic. Being Catholic was very important to him. And I remember at the time he said, ‘Then we understand one another.‘”… I think he really meant, ‘You understand the concept of going to confession, of, of confessing your sins.‘
I think he recognized that time was running out, you know, and he wanted to start talking.
At one point he looked at me and said, you know, ‘I’m dying,’ you know. You know, what do you say to that? It was just Robert being very straightforward… as if he was reminding himself that he was dying because he knew that I knew very well. I think I said, ‘I know.‘ I don’t think I said I’m sorry because it was a statement and Robert did not want your sympathy… I think it would have gone badly if you had said to him,
‘Oh, Robert, that’s so terrible.‘
In the interviews he was always very polite and very nice to me. You know, he’d compliment shoes. He liked my shoes. That said I remember coming in wearing, and I was very proud of this, Romeo Gigli jacket, but the collar came up too high and my hair was down. He said,
‘That looks really confused. I mean you’ve really gotta wear your hair up or, you know, get rid of the collar.’
And I remember going to the tailor because, I mean Mapplethorpe had such an extraordinary eye.
Mapplethorpe was most verbal about his sex life…. Robert lived for sex. Now when he first told me that I thought, “Okay. You know, that’s fine.” But I mean little did I realize how much the man did live for sex. And, as he said to me, sex was more important than the pictures. But that should come as no surprise given the pictures. I mean… was he gonna talk about the flower photographs? I mean I don’t think he knew really a tulip from an orchid. I mean the man wasn’t a botanist.
And I just listened. And I thought, ‘you know I’m writing your biography. You really wanna be telling me all of this stuff?’
He liked me to come on Sundays because many of his friends had country homes and they wouldn’t be around on Sundays, and he wanted company.
I remember going on a trip to Coney Island with him because he remembered Coney Island, going with Patti. And he just wanted to be able to eat a hot dog and he couldn’t ’cause his system wouldn’t be able to digest it. And it was a Sunday and it was a gray Sunday. Often I would come back from these meetings, these Sunday meetings with him just… you know, boy. It was rough.
When Robert was in the hospital he received a beautiful bouquet of flowers and someone had opened the card and, you know, it said, ‘Love, from Mom and Dad.‘ And, you know, Robert was so happy that they had remembered. Well it turned out it was for the patient across the hallway, so I think even at the end he didn’t get exactly what he wanted…
Robert was not a reader. Robert liked to read Page Six of The New York Post, but if he were alive and my book came out he might’ve said,
‘Hm, it’s a little long.’”