David Croland opens up for first time on former boyfriend Robert Mapplethorpe: 'Tell them everything,' he said…

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Shocking and excessive, certainly. But arch provocateur  Robert Mapplethorpe was also very sweet and very shy, according to his first boyfriend, who shares his memories and their personal photos here  for the very first time

‘Sweet’ is not a word used often to describe Robert Mapplethorpe, a man renowned for depicting New York’s underworld of erotica and sadomasochism, and for being one of the most notorious photographers of his generation.

“Controversial” is more common; “excessive”, almost mandatory. His life is usually summed up with the help of a few well-known touchstones: Patti Smith, his soulmate. The Chelsea Hotel, their digs. Sam Wagstaff, art curator and his long-term partner. Andy Warhol, whom he admired. Drugs, which he took. His art, which he “refined”. And finally his death, in 1989 from complications arising from Aids. But beneath this oft-told narrative, lies an all-but-untold tale: that of a serious – and yes, “sweet” – young artist who fell in love with his first male model, David Croland, in his early twenties.

The pair, who had both identified predominantly as straight until then, went on to date  for three years. Croland was Mapplethorpe’s first “official” boyfriend and the pair met when the photographer was still with Patti Smith.  The well-connected model, who had dated Warhol acolyte Susan Bottomly, introduced Mapplethorpe to a whole new crowd. They socialised with New York’s top designers,  models and art curators. And it was Croland who introduced Mapplethorpe to Wagstaff.

Croland has never shared the details of his story, until now. “Robert discussed this with me before he died and he said: ‘Tell them everything,’” Croland says. “I said [then], ‘I’m not telling them everything. I’m not telling myself everything. I’m not telling anyone everything. What would be left to tell if you told everything?’”

But now he has changed his mind. “What  I believe he meant was: keep me alive; keep my memory alive,” Croland says.

In a few weeks’ time, he will do just this. He has co-curated Fashion Show, a new exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s work at the Alison Jacques Gallery in central London. It will showcase his portraits of some of the most iconic figures in the fashion world, from Karl Lagerfield to Grace Jones, as well as his hand-crafted jewellery and intimate pictures of Croland. Many of the works have never been seen before.

It is more than 40 years since Croland first met Mapplethorpe in his room in the Chelsea Hotel, but his memory hardly falters: “We had that thing from the minute we saw each other, that’s for sure,” Croland drawls, in his relaxed East Coast accent. “I remember that the room was about as big as your foot. You could barely turn around in it, so we were pretty close on first sight. He and Patti were very much dressed alike. It was very hot, and I think they were wearing white shirts, jeans, and sandals.

“Both of them were very sweet, very shy and observant. They both had these extraordinary eyes you looked at while they were looking at you. They were beautiful – both of them.”

It was only a matter of days before things turned romantic. “We were out one day, visiting a friend uptown. We were kind of sitting together on a coach, then all of a sudden, like in a movie, our hands touched; there was a bit of spark. And then we did it again, outside. Our hands touched again and then, well, that was that. So it was confirmed. It was very sweet.”

From then on, the pair were boyfriends (although not exclusive). Croland insists that Mapplethorpe “wasn’t the jealous type at all” and adds that if he ever felt any possessive pangs himself, he could “certainly turn the table”. Describing himself as probably the “more old-fashioned” of the two, he tells me that the duo “never laid down any rules in our relationship; no way. It was a different time. Bisexuality in those days was very in fashion.

“We were alone in my apartment a lot. In the daytime, both Robert and I slept in. What we talked about mostly were the people we spent time with. I knew them and he wanted to connect the dots a little,” says Croland. “And then Robert worked a lot and I was there being the first male subject that he photographed.”

Smith, who lived with Mapplethorpe throughout, describes in her memoir Just Kids how she discovered the two had become a couple – a friend called and told her they were having an affair. While she says she was “stunned”, she also writes that she liked David and “was involved in so many things that the concern of Robert’s sexual preference was not [her] immediate concern”.

As for Croland, he says that he and Smith never talked about his and Mapplethorpe’s relationship, nor did they hang out. When asked if Mapplethorpe and Smith were also sexually involved at the time, he says only that they had a “strong relationship. They always loved each other. She’s definitely the female love of his life, there’s no doubt about it.” He also believes that Smith “kind of enjoyed the fact that Robert was starting to flourish, and that his art was getting more and more accessible to people”.

This was largely because the pair were socialising with the elite of New York’s art and fashion world. Whether it be the fashionistas Marisa  and Berry Berenson, or curators John McKendry and Henry Geldzahler, it was a world Croland remembers as a “lot of fun”. Sometimes, however, he felt protective of Mapplethorpe: “I was used to that crowd, but he wasn’t, so he was dazzled by that group of glamour girls, art and fashion people and I found it terribly sweet.”

While he holds his former friends in high regard, looking back on parties hosted by the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, he also says that their world was “without a doubt an admiration society”. He worried about Mapplethorpe when he went on his European tour because “people were wildly attracted to him”. Not because Croland was jealous, he says, but because Mapplethorpe was “trying to make a name for himself while at the same time being objectified; trying to get people to take him seriously while they were just trying to have sex with him”.

While he believes that he and Mapplethorpe helped enhance the visibility of the queer community, he adds that it also caused difficulties. “One thing about being young and looking that way was that people had a tendency to want to pull you apart,” he says. “They’re not sitting there applauding that you’re together. They’re like: ‘I want you, or I want you, or I want you both.’ That was something I didn’t enjoy.”

Croland introduced Mapplethorpe to Sam Wagstaff around the time that they were breaking up. The curator had originally been introduced to the model, but after Croland gently rebuffed him and showed him a picture of Mapplethorpe in a French beret, he was struck. Croland refused Mapplethorpe’s request to join the pair on their first dates. “I don’t like threes; it’s not one’s favourite number,” he says.

It was then that their lives started “running in other directions”, but Croland never stopped appreciating Mapplethorpe’s work. “No matter what he was photographing, it was always elegant. Whatever was put in front of him, he formalised. The subject always became iconic.”

Some of the more sexual portraits of Croland will appear in this month’s exhibition – one showcases him in see-through underwear; another displays him gagged. Despite refusing Mapplethorpe’s request to take any more explicit shots, Croland says he always enjoyed being photographed by him. “I was a model;  I knew how to move and Robert knew how to move me,” he says.

Croland thinks now is the “time to piece [Mapplethorpe’s] career together and not just think of him as one type of artist”. He might have been the photographer who took raw portraits of naked men, but he also loved high-end fashion, he says. “Robert loved glamour, and he loved elegance,” he adds. “These pictures [on show in the exhibition] have to do with putting on display the best of the best.”

The former model has since become an illustrator, working for magazines including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. I ask him whether he always knew Mapplethorpe would make  it. “I knew from the beginning that he didn’t need to try to make it; that his work was already made,” he says. “I knew it from the second  I saw the work; it was authentic. Everything was authentic with Robert; he was very sincere and honest and pure about it. Most things are fake; there’s real fakes, and there’s fake fake. Robert was real real.”

‘Robert Mapplethorpe: Fashion Show’ is at Alison Jacques Gallery (alisonjacquesgallery.com), London W1, from Wednesday

Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital