Patti Smith: fragile wild child

Patti Smith

Punk legend, free spirit, artist’s muse… but also a romantic, a mother and a wife. Patti Smith has always been hard to define.

In Just kids, her moving memoir about her relationship with Robert and life in the 1970’s, Patti describes how it all started: ‘I was born on a Monday, in the North Side of Chicago during the Great Blizzard of 1946. I came along a day too soon, as babies born on New Year’s Eve left the hospital with a new refrigerator.’ She was the eldest of four children in a not very prosperous family; mother Beverly was a waitress, father Grant worked in a factory. They moved from Chicago to Philadelphia, and later settled permanently in a small town in New Jersey.

The Smiths were a somewhat eccentric family. Grant would study books about UFO’s for hours, while Beverly raised the children as Jehovah’s Witnesses and sent them to knock on doors. It all had a considerable effect on Patti’s already overactive imagination. She was a dreamy, sickly child who didn’t feel like a girl, made up stories and was besotted with 19th-century books and authors.

After completing high school, Patti went to college to study to become an art teacher. She worked in a factory to pay for her studies, but that ended when she became pregnant at the age of nineteen. After a difficult labor, she gave birth to a girl, who she immediately gave up for adoption. ‘My child was born on the anniversary of the bombing of Guernica,’ she writes in Just Kids. ‘I remember thinking of the painting, a weeping mother holding her dead child. Although my arms would be empty and I wept, my child would live, was healthy and would be well cared for. I trusted and believed that with all my heart.’

This experience fed Patti’s determination. She was not going back to school or to the factory. From now on she was going to dedicate her life to art. She had just enough money to afford a bus ticket to New York, where she tried to find a job and slept in parking garages and subway stations. It was 1967, the Summer of Love; ‘Everything awaited me,’ she writes.

  • The full story about the life of Patti Smith can be found in issue 31.

Text Liddie Austin  Photography Getty Images