In the early 1970s, Carly Simon’s songs were like letters from an impossibly cool older sister — confiding about the fault lines in our parents’ marriages, dishing the dirt on that famous jerk she’d dated, reassuring us that she’d had her heart broken, too, but had moved on to something, someone, much better.
In his new biography, “More Room in a Broken Heart,” Stephen Davis reveals the fault lines in the life of an artist who, despite her popular success, has never received the critical respect accorded other singer-songwriters of her generation. The author of numerous bios of pop music stalwarts, Davis is probably best known for “Hammer of the Gods,” about Led Zeppelin. Simon’s adventures are more restrained than that band’s debaucheries, if, at times, equally eyebrow-raising.
Simon’s maternal grandmother was rumored to be the illegitimate daughter of a Moroccan maid and a member of the Spanish royal family. At 15, Simon’s mother, Andrea, dropped out of school and for several years worked at posh department stores. In 1933, she got a job behind the switchboard at Manhattan publisher Simon & Schuster, where she caught co-founder Richard Simon’s eye. The two married, raising their four children in New York City while summering at a bucolic compound in Stamford, Conn. Pete Seeger taught music to Carly’s West Village kindergarten. George Gershwin and Benny Goodman were family friends, and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein performed after dinner.
But there were bizarre shadows behind the idyll; Simon described her childhood as “Chekhovian.” At 18, Dick Simon had become the lover of a woman twice his age, a family friend who had cared for his mother as she was dying. They remained lovers even after Dick’s marriage to Andrea, and he eventually arranged for elderly “Aunt Jo” to live in an Upper West Side apartment with his mother-in-law. In her mid-40, Andrea became involved with her son’s 20-year-old tutor. Carly’s sister discovered the affair when she found that a secret passage had been installed in the Stamford house while the children were away at camp.
Given this extravagant background material, it’s less surprising that the young Carly developed a stammer and suffered nightmares and lifelong anxiety attacks, than that she didn’t become a bestselling novelist. (She did go on to write several popular children’s books.)
As teenagers in the early 1960s, Carly and older sister Lucy appeared on the nationally televised folk music show “Hootenanny.” Despite Carly’s stage fright, the Simon Sisters scored a minor hit. They went on to perform at East Coast clubs, recording three albums before Lucy traded singing for marriage and Carly began a string of high-profile relationships with Milos Forman, Kris Kristofferson, Warren Beatty and Cat Stevens, among others.
In 1970 she signed with Elektra Records, and a year later released her first album, featuring her breakout hit, “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be.” This haunting glimpse inside a troubled marriage set the tone for the confessional songs that followed on a string of 1970s chartbuster albums, including the notorious “You’re So Vain,” from “No Secrets” (1973).
This early history is by far the most intriguing section of “More Room in a Broken Heart,” which doesn’t have much more depth than a very long Wikipedia entry, and a lot less in the way of supporting material. There are no footnotes, no endnotes, no bibliography, no index and not enough attribution for the myriad interviews and quotations. There’s not even a discography. We hear much about Simon’s long, unhappy marriage to James Taylor, as well as her struggles with chronic anxiety, and nowhere near enough about the nuts and bolts of her creative process, or her impact on a later generation of female singer-songwriters.
This is giving short shrift to a keenly intelligent, emotionally compelling artist who’s survived cancer, “the epochal era of the rock star” and decades of speculation as to whether she was involved with Mick Jagger. When it comes to honoring a singer of Simon’s stature and influence — well, this just isn’t the way I’ve always heard it should be.
Hand’s new thriller, “Available Dark,” will be published this month.
MORE ROOM IN
A BROKEN HEART
The True Adventures
of Carly Simon
By Stephen Davis
Gotham. 409 pp, $27.50