Since her marriage to singer James Taylor in 1972, Carly Simon has seemed the model of the fulfilled modern woman. She has maintained her own thriving music career, is mulling a movie offer, has raised two joyous children in two lovely homes and found a cause in the No Nukes movement. In a competitive, achievement-oriented family, she has held her own and distinguished a daunting name (her publisher father co-founded Simon & Schuster). Indeed, just as Carly grew up with a virtual Algonquin Round Table of notables convening in her living room, her own kids jostle against a latter-day version—if a Belushi can be compared with a Benchley, a Paul Simon with a Gershwin.
To her own generation, Carly, 35, is a pop laureate, an explorer and illuminator of the mysteries of man-woman bonds in classics like You're So Vain, Anticipation, That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be and her latest delight, Jesse. But while untold millions of fans have derived spiritual or, at least, romantic guidance from her songwriting, Carly Simon is not so secure as she seems on the surface. Her son, Benjamin, 3, has just gotten past a frightening time of ill health, and her marriage to James has become volatile. As she herself admits, "I am a complicated compound of paradoxes. My life is a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces have been scrambled and I've just started to piece together the outside edges. The inside pieces are still turned on the floor."
Carly, the inveterate seeker, has sampled an "entire smorgasbord of self-help remedies," including Freudian analysis, est and TM. Her conclusion: "It all comes back to your own willpower." And, worse still for Simon, to her husband's. James, 32, has his own struggles with drug dependence (he has been addicted to heroin) and depression. "I knew James' medical history when I married him and I would have been naive to think we wouldn't have problems," says Carly. But she adds, "He is an incomparable human being with a wild, dry sense of humor that makes living with him a very theatrical experience."
There are often clues to the drama in their lyrics. In James, another cut from her current LP, Come Upstairs, she sings: "Sit on the edge of my bed as when we first spent nights together/Your body wrapped around your guitar/Let the music speak for your heart/...And bring us together once again." As Carly points out, "We often write more out of pain and frustration than exuberance."
They have plenty to draw on. "James and I," she says, "have built a fairy tale house, but we don't live fairy tale lives." Observes singer Libby Titus, a close friend of the family: "For so long they were a perfect couple. She has been patient and very private, but it has been a tough, sad, painful year for Carly. Their ship," adds Titus (who's split from Band drummer Levon Helm), "has sprung some leaks, and now they're deciding whether to patch things up or abandon ship and take off in the lifeboats. The anger and frustration are just beginning to come out."
Simon has some insights of her own. "We were both programmed into very conventional male-female roles, and we are always struggling with those," she says. "James doesn't like the fact that I am so financially independent, and, as for me, I wish he would participate more in day-to-day household responsibilities." Certainly, child-rearing has been a continuing source of tension, as suggested by the bitter sentiments of her tune Fairweather Father. "I wouldn't take away from his time to create or hang out drinking beer with the guys," Simon comments sarcastically, "but I wish he would do as much fathering as I do mothering."
Such dissension is only accentuated by the rock business, which depends upon barnstorming to hype record sales. Carly has historically bucked the tour-behind-your-album system and done remarkably well with her career from the kitchen, earning four gold LPs and two platinums. But as Jacob Brackman, a screenwriter pal who collaborated on some of her lyrics, points out, there are some strains of rivalry in the marriage: "Regardless of their obsession with each other, there is still that race to the top of the charts." "Sometimes," agrees Simon, "we get our hair up about who's going to record first, or who will take what guitar on the road."
James does tour regularly and spends several months a year in L.A., where he records with producer Peter Asher. "He can go off for a month and maybe miss the kids a couple of days," says Carly. "I am so neurotically bound to them that I would have to call three times a day to find out if they went to their lessons and took their vitamins and to tell them I loved them. When he goes on tour the first few days I feel like I can't live without him. But," she adds, "by the time he comes back—while I'm glad to see him—my gut reaction is 'Hey, buster, you're in my house. Hang up your coat and show a little respect!' "
Poet Rose Styron, no stranger to the pressures of public life, having been married to William (Sophie's Choice) Styron for 27 years, observes of her friends: "James and Carly have an extraordinary affection for one another, but they are like magnets: Their traits are either very similar or very different. Because Carly is so glamorous and strong, people don't realize she is quite vulnerable and can be hurt."
The latest crisis began in mid-June. Doctors decided that little Ben, who had been plagued with unexplained fevers and illness, would have to undergo major surgery to remove a malfunctioning kidney. "We were both traumatized," recalls Carly. "I tend to get hysterical, while James is clinical and often tries to escape." During some of the time, Taylor was not around because of scheduled benefit performances for candidate John Anderson. One night after a fight Taylor showed up at the rock hangout Trax in Manhattan and announced to mutual pals: "Jezebel kicked me out, so I'm up for grabs."
Breakup rumors spread like wildfire from Martha's Vineyard (where Carly and James have a vacation home) to Hollywood and Vine after Carly turned to old confidant John Travolta for comfort. "John has an almost magical way of knowing when I am in need," she says. "When James couldn't be there, John came to me during that week before Ben was to go in the hospital. He is sensitive, loving and very immediately there."
Carly dismisses the gossip about Travolta or anyone else and—though she's lyricized about a ménage à trois in The Three of Us in the Dark—is opposed to open marriage. "They've had James and me on the rocks since the day we were married," she notes, "and it's true that we talked about divorce once, but that was under the most dire of circumstances. Now it's a forbidden word," she continues. "I am prone to very strong mood swings and James is prone to inaccessibility. That creates an atmosphere of tension. But," she insists, "we have a lot of blood coursing through our veins for each other, and I expect to stay mated to James as long as I live. I adore the man."
On the day of the operation at Babies Hospital in New York, Carly recounts, "I was so completely wiped out emotionally, I went to McDonald's. That's how bad I was." While the boy was recovering from the surgery, which required two six-inch incisions to remove the kidney and reconstruct the ureter, Carly visited the other sick children. "I sang them everything I knew from Three Blind Mice to The Farmer in the Dell," she recalls. "Ben had so many toys that I started playing Robin Hood and stealing the stuffed animals from him to give to others."
Whether on the Vineyard or in their nine-room apartment overlooking Central Park, Carly often starts the day cooking Julia Child crepes for the kids. "They notice the difference between granulated and confectioner's sugar," boasts the confessed indulgent mother. Carly often has a live-in sitter because she likes to run most of her own errands. She also does some of the housework, which, she concedes, is an excuse not to sit down and compose. But Simon does write daily in a massive journal—she's now on Volume 20—which she says "grounds" her, as does her network of drop-in friends. They include Brackman, the Styrons, Titus, the John Belushis, Dan Aykroyd and Mia Farrow.
Carly, the youngest of three sisters, claims that her recent domestic strains have raised her feminist consciousness, and she's been poring over works like Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, Joan Didion's A Book of Common Prayer and Margaret Atwood's Life Before Man. The two fictional characters she finds most compelling are Catherine, the impetuous and charming ingenue of Truffaut's film Jules and Jim, which she has seen 13 times, and the heroine of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, which she has read in three translations (she was a Russian lit major at Sarah Lawrence). Both characters are tragically overwhelmed—and finally destroyed—by their life circumstances. Rose Styron sees a quite different evolution for Simon. "She has grown so caring and curious about her women friends and their responses to life. Carly has really blossomed as a woman during the past year." Simon has even toyed with the idea of living for a while in a women's commune.
Currently, with daughter Sarah in first grade and Ben recovered enough to attend preschool, Carly is venturing out on a 10-city tour, her first major foray since 1972. It took courage, because she is still afflicted with almost paralyzing stage fright and anxiety attacks that strike without warning. "I get dizzy, fall into a fight-or-flight sort of adrenaline panic," she says. "My heart beats fast and my imagination runs wild."
A veteran of several years on the analytic couch, she stores remembered dreams as easily as if they were cassettes. One dream that she has been having quite often is set in a large house with many rooms and compartments. She is aware of wild Indians stalking her through the labyrinthine corridors. "I am never sure," reflects Carly, touching her gold wedding band and looking out the window with her searching, luminous blue eyes, "where the safe place really is."