Giving it the full exposure

Patti Smith hates it. Contributors have disowned it. And this was the authorised biography of Robert Mapplethorpe. Roger Clarke on a good old-fashioned New York feud
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The Independent Culture
A new biography of the controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of Aids in 1989, has ignited a good old-fashioned New York feud. The reclusive punk singer Patti Smith, once described as Mapplethorpe's "twin", has come out of hiding and roundly condemned Patricia Morrisroe's unflattering portrait of her former soul-mate and lover.

Meanwhile, the wealthy Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation has banned the book's publisher, Random House, from further use of Mapplethorpe photographs. A biography which began life as an authorised project had been effectively de-authorised by its subject's legal heirs well before its completion. And the feud continues to widen. The fight between Smith and Morrisroe has now developed into a full-scale fracas between various grudge-bearing parties. While the morally inclined weigh up the soul of the erstwhile leatherette satanist, others are simply asking: was he actually any good as a photographer?

Mapplethorpe's friends all hate the biography, which they claim shows him to be a cold-blooded opportunist who just happened to pick up a camera. Gay journalists have likewise trashed the book, apparently detecting in it a "subliminal disapproval" of Mapplethorpe's gay lifestyle (without, however, admitting a long-standing ambivalence by some gay people towards the photographer). The novelist Michael Cunningham recently likened the Mapplethorpe oeuvre to "jeans adverts". Some commentators are even blaming the photographer for the likely cancellation of all NEA arts funding by the US government. Mapplethorpe, who once audited disparate causes against censorship, has been stripped more naked than any of his naked self-portraits. The refulgent myth is disintegrating.

Morrisroe has been taken aback by the criticism. "I did not feel I was painting a monster," says Morrisroe. "I'm a little surprised at the strong reactions. But of the 300 interviews I did in the course of my research, nearly all of them were negative."

Morrisroe is not entirely happy with the New Yorker's role in stirring up the feud. A few months ago it ran a six-page "review" by Peter Conrad of the book ("it was an essay on Mapplethorpe and said nothing about my book," objects Morrisroe) which was utterly damning of both man and artist. Weeks later, Patti Smith told the magazine, "I don't recognise [Mapplethope] from what Patricia had to say... it seems Patricia's position is that of someone who didn't even like Robert."

Morrisroe depicts Smith and Mapplethorpe as two penniless young drop- outs in the dynamic New York environment of the late 1960s. They shared the same hunger for fame and art. Mapplethorpe did not then identify himself as gay; Smith was shocked later to find out about this side of him. Still, it was the stuff of rock 'n' roll legend. They were Sid and Nancy, John and Yoko. In one famous incident Patti Smith dragged Mapplethorpe to the bohemian oasis of the Chelsea Hotel. She blagged her way into a free room with the immortal line, "Hi, my name is Patti Smith and I've got Robert Mapplethorpe outside. You don't know us, but we're going to be big stars one day."

Patti Smith has particularly objected to their depiction in the book as hustlers who spent more time networking than actually creating anything. "We were humble and innocent," protests Smith. Morrisroe doesn't see it that way. "They certainly weren't humble," she says earnestly. "Patti Smith is re-embroidering the past."

It's impossible not to read an element of jealousy into Patti Smith's behaviour. Mapplethorpe chose Morrisroe as his biographer, it turns out, partly because of her resemblance to Smith. It seems entirely probable that Smith got wind of this. Since Mapplethorpe's death, Smith has displayed an almost uncharacteristically lofty disdain towards her. She concluded her attack on Morrisroe in the New Yorker with the witheringly comment, "When I spoke to Patricia I gave her what I thought was a good sense of what it was like to be an artist."

The truth is that, though Mapplethorpe instructed Smith "almost with his dying gasp" to co-operate with Morrisroe, Smith did everything in her power to delay the book. Morrisroe describes her experience of dealing with Smith as a "nightmare"; "it took her a year to pick up the phone and answer my calls and until she did that I really wasn't certain I could go ahead. Even then she would only call collect for short periods and at odd hours. It would be Christmas Day and suddenly it would be, 'Oh my God, it's Patti Smith on the phone, take the turkey out of the oven.' "

Smith's behaviour especially grieved Morrisroe because it had been the Mapplethorpe/ Smith relationship which had initially "humanised" Mapplethorpe for her. "If there hadn't been a Patti Smith-like character I think the book would have been very difficult to write. He really would have appeared to be a total monster."

Morrisroe insists that she found Mapplethorpe "charming and likeable" from their first encounter when she first ventured into his apartment, with Mapplethorpe greeting her from his oak Mission chair "looking like a character from Interview with a Vampire". He refused to discuss his photography but instead regaled her with graphic accounts of his sexual foraging.

Patti Smith, who abandoned both Mapplethorpe and her career in the late Seventies, returned in the final months of his life. "He was very wounded when she upped and left for Detroit," says Morrisroe. And in Patti Smith's anguished protests about Morrisroe's treatment of her former lover, one can't help feeling there's more than a little guilt. "She's still trying to boost him up, even now," says Morrisroe. "Like she always did."

But the truth was that Mapplethorpe had changed since those innocent days in the Chelsea Hotel. Yet Patti Smith couldn't see it - or didn't want to. For her, at least, Mapplethorpe will always be the young, sexy boy full of energy and hope, with that slight Queens accent he was always trying to hide from his new acquaintances.

n 'Mapplethorpe' by Patricia Morrisroe is published by Random House (pounds 20.00)