Photographed by Jack Robinson, Vogue, September 1971.
Ever since the 70-year-old singer-songwriter Carly Simon began promoting her new memoir Boys in the Trees, the buzz around the book has focused on the lyrics to Simon’s biggest hit, the 1972 feminist anthem “You’re so Vain.” In the song, Simon pokes fun at a narcissistic pretty-boy who, in the first verse, rocks an apricot scarf, checks himself out in the mirror at a party, is all-too-aware of the debonair cock of his hat, and, naturally, is vain enough to assume that the lyrics are all about him.
We’re still waiting on which guy had such a flair for accessorizing, but in her book, Simon does confirm what many fans have assumed for a long time: that the song’s second verse refers to Warren Beatty, with whom she had a brief affair (“You had me several years ago, when I was still quite naive,” the verse begins). Of course Beatty, as Simon told the Washington Post back in 1983, played right into her hands: “He called me and said, ‘Thanks for the song.’ ”
“You’re So Vain” toggles back and forth between canny social commentary and aching vulnerability—listen to it again and pay close attention to the way Simon’s voice falters the first time she sings “I had some dreams, they were clouds in my coffee”; it’s actually quite heartbreaking. And in that sense, the song is a perfect entrée into her memoir.
As the title suggests, Boys in the Trees is about Simon’s relationships with men. (In fact, her relationships with women, aside from her mother and older sister Lucy, get very little play). But it’s also a story of how she found and began to use her own voice. Simon is remarkably eager to dish about her sex life, and the many rock stars with whom she had entanglements. But it’s in the more self-searching passages that she gets truly intimate, and reveals herself to be an equally sharp whisperer of her own heart as she is a chronicler of the strange and often reprehensible behavior of men.
From an early age, Simon was alarmingly aware of how she was seen by members of the opposite sex. “My nose was wider at the bridge than both my sisters’, a source of embarrassment for my father, who I would later find out, favored the Nordic look in the women he loved,” she writes about her early days with her dad, the publishing magnate Dick Simon. He once cruelly wrote his third and least-favorite daughter a poem that read: “Roses are red/ Violets are pink/ I love you with your darling fat nose / I’ve just had a drink.”
The psychological wounds of childhood—her father’s rejection; a disturbing recurring experience with an older family friend who molested her; her mother’s disappearance into an affair with a much younger man—conspired to stifle Simon’s voice. She literally developed a crippling stammer. “It was as if a snake, which had been coiled and asleep around my esophagus, had suddenly reared up, strangling the words.”
Her speech impediment tanked her academic life and her self-confidence. But ironically, it brought her to singing: first at home when her mother encouraged her to sing “pass the butter” when she couldn’t get the words out otherwise, then in public while an undergrad at Sarah Lawrence, when she performed a poem for her Italian class to wild applause. “My speech barriers—its doors, windows, bars—lifted away. . . . I was coming out of my “singer’s closet” by remembering that the melody and rhythm were always there when I needed them.” Eventually Simon joined forces with her older sister Lucy, and they began performing folk songs together as the Simon Sisters.
Songwriting, too, became a way to externalize and examine her own emotions. “Writing lyrics became an emotional outlet, turning my own experiences and history into another person’s,” she writes about a period of her life when she went to France to live with a boyfriend, only to see their relationship crumble under the stress of her persistent gynecological ailments. “By switching from me and I to her and she, I was able to free up the words and emotion inside me.”
Photo: Courtesy of Flatiron Books