It’s eight o’clock on a wintry Manhattan morning outside ABC Television Studios. A crowd of middle-aged women has gathered on the pavement, waiting for filming to start on the daytime magazine show The View. Wrapped up in thick winter coats and boots, some are from upstate New York or New Jersey, others have flown in from as far afield as Indiana and Kansas, and have been here since dawn.
All are in town to see the three-time Grammy winner Carly Simon, who has been invited on to the show to discuss her new memoir, Boys in the Trees.
The book, which was published in Britain on Friday but came out in America two weeks ago, is one of the most compelling celebrity autobiographies of the year. An unflinching examination of her career and star-packed love life, it is crammed full of anecdotes about her relationships with some of the Seventies’ biggest names, including Mick Jagger (“I was smitten”), Jack Nicholson (“outrageous”), Warren Beatty (“a glorious specimen of man”) and Cat Stevens (“cerebral”).
It also chronicles her rise to fame and her tempestuous marriage to the singer James Taylor, the father of her two children, who was serially unfaithful and addicted to heroin.
After introducing myself at reception I’m ushered into Simon’s dressing room. The singer is draped across a velvet sofa. Tall and thin, wearing dark glasses, she still emanates a rock-chick persona and, at 70, retains her striking good looks. But it becomes apparent that, despite half-a-century as a professional musician, she is nervous.
She is singing with her 38-year-old son Ben, who has followed his parents into the music business, on the show and is worried about her performance.
“I’m starting to lose my voice,” she says, as I sit down next to her on the sofa. “I can’t make those high notes anymore.” She hums a tune. “You sound great to me,” I say, trying to reassure her. She puts a hand on my shoulder. “Thank you,” she beams, visibly relaxing.
Despite her huge success – her most famous single, You’re so Vain, has been ranked by Billboard as one of the 100 greatest songs of all time – it is clear from her memoir that Simon is a sensitive soul.
She suffers from depression, and has been going to therapists for most of her adult life. There is a vulnerability about her. Writing the book was “healing”, she says – “a great release”. “I realised the story was more about boys than girls, it’s about patterns that develop from our relationships with our fathers.”
Her own low self esteem, she believes, stems from her privileged but troubled upbringing in New York and Connecticut, with her three siblings; her father Richard, the co-founder of the giant publishing house Simon & Schuster; and her mother Andrea, the daughter of a woman who, as she writes in the book, “may or may not have been the illegitimate child of King Alphonso XIII of Spain and a Moorish slave”.
Richard was “remote” and “brittle”, and harboured dreams of becoming a concert pianist. “I’ve always thought if he’d pursued a career as a pianist he would have been happier,” she says. “The effect of being without a father’s love was huge. Also, I didn’t look the way he wanted me to look. I looked Jewish and he didn’t want to be Jewish.”
She says her father, “like a lot of Jews in post Second World War New York who wanted to assimilate, was kind of anti-Semitic”. Her mother, meanwhile, conducted an affair with a much younger man: a 19-year-old called Ronny who was employed by her as a male nanny for Simon’s younger brother Peter. Andrea and Ronny ended up living together in the third floor of the family’s house
So self-absorbed were her parents, they didn’t notice when their daughter, aged just seven, embarked on an abusive relationship with a 16-year-old boy, which was to continue for six years. Looking back, Simon talks about the “extreme loss of innocence. I developed the sense that it was OK, that was the awful thing. I was stimulated by it but didn’t know why.”
- Carly Simon admits ‘You’re So Vain’ is about Warren Beatty
Aged 10, she told her sisters, who “didn’t believe me. A year later they told my mother.” Andrea Simon banned the boy from the family home for a year, but took no further action.
“She had a lover living in the house with us and probably it would have seemed hypocritical to her to draw a line,” says Simon.
Her solace in these years was music. Attending speech therapy sessions for a stutter she had developed, she was encouraged, King’s Speech style, to sing and uncovered a natural talent. She formed a duo with her sister Lucy, the Simon Sisters, and they eventually had a hit with the 1964 folk album Wynken, Blynken and Nod.
Still in her teens, Simon was also attending university, but dropped out to launch a solo career. Carly Simon, her debut album, was a well-reviewed hit, and before she knew it she was being compared to singers such as Joni Mitchell and mixing with film and music legends. Simon found the blend of talent and charisma in the men she met irrisistible and, in addition to Jagger, Nicholson, Beatty and Cat Stevens, had an affair with Kris Kristofferson.
Simon’s funniest story relates to a visit to her shrink, “Dr L”, the day after a romantic night with Beatty. Breaking confidentiality, the psychiatrist informed her that she wasn’t “the first patient of the day” who had spent the night with the Bonnie and Clyde star.
“That was typical of Warren. I wouldn’t expect anything less of him,” she says.
She also tells an eyebrow-raising anecdote about Sean Connery, who was a fellow passenger when she and Lucy sailed to New York from England in 1965. Simon sent the 007 star a cheeky note, asking him if he fancied coming to their cabin for a “cup of tea or pre-prandial cocktail” and within 15 minutes he had rung them from the ship’s presidential suite, inviting them for champagne and dinner. They ended up dancing together in his quarters and Connery, she says, suggested a threesome, or what the singer calls a “Simon sandwich.’ The pair declined the offer, but the following night Lucy went to see Connery in his room and did not return until quarter-past five the next morning.
Does Simon think famous men still behave in the same way?
“I think it’s shifted. Drugs had a lot to do with that behaviour. But if you’re as attractive as Warren was… he could pretty much do anything he wanted to!
“What all these men have in common is incredible charisma. They have something that you can’t take your eyes off. But I never had any fantasies that any of these men were going to love me or that I would really fall in love with them.”
Simon is good company; funny and unapologetic about her past. As we talk, Ben Taylor, who looks uncannily like his father, drifts in and out of the room.
Was she concerned about her children reading the book? “They had already heard my story. I have never withheld things from them because, in my life, withholding of the truth gave me such a lack of self-esteem.”
A third of Simon’s book is devoted to her decade-long marriage to James Taylor, which she says was complicated by his drug addiction and infidelities.
She would cope with “pain by turning myself into the third person in a story, visualising myself as a character in a movie and psychologically detaching myself from what was happening”.
Her “autobiographical songs” like You’re so Vain (which, she admits in the book, is partly about Beatty) have been therapeutic, too.
“They are fictionalised, to a degree, I don’t have to swear that everything is true,” she says, laughing.
The couple finally split in 1983 – where the book ends. To this day Taylor refuses to speak to her and sees their children only three or four times a year.
What has she learnt about relationships?
“That men have a very difficult time being faithful – particularly in the presence of drugs and alcohol. Looking back I wouldn’t have taken James’s infidelity as seriously as I did. I don’t think sexual infidelity means the end of a marriage. What’s more damaging is lying about it.”
The singer and her son still live on the Martha’s Vineyard estate, which was her home during the decade-long marriage. She looks across the room at Ben. “So much about Ben reminds me of James, and I like living in the house that we built together, with his kids.”
After her divorce, the singer was married to a writer, James Hart, for 20 years. They split up in 2007 when it emerged that Hart was gay. Now she lives with a surgeon, Richard Koehler.
“The relationship “is fantastic, very salty”, she smiles, eyebrows raised. What does that mean? “He’s bossy, a know-it-all and a [type]A personality. I adore him. We’re in a groove.”
Ageing says Simon, “is not without its difficulties. I wish I was 40 or 50.”
She still suffers from “bouts of depression, but even when I’m at my most depressed, I experience joy: I love my land, my animals, I’ve got sheep and a donkey. I love snuggling in bed, watching a movie with Richard.”
She breaks into a final tune.
“Accentuate the positive…” Simon sings. She is ready to face the cameras.
Boys in the Trees by Carly Simon is published by Little, Brown priced £20. Order your copy from the Telegraph bookshop for £16.99. A new album, Songs From the Trees, is out now on Rhino (£11.99) and available on Amazon