Legendary singer-songwriter Carly Simon reflects on her career, her children and her life on the island.
Text by Juliet Pennington | Photographs by Matt Cosby
Besides her imposing presence—tall and lean with her signature sexy smile that accentuates the gleam in her eyes as it widens—what first strikes me about legendary singer-songwriter Carly Simon is her strong command of the English language. It’s apparent from her use of verbs that pack a punch (“scurried,” “flit,” and “clutching,” for example) to her detailed descriptions that utilize just the right adjectives—those that don’t come easily to most and certainly don’t roll off the tips of their tongues.
“She is so smart,” offers her daughter, Sally Taylor, when asked about her mother’s impressive facility with words. “What’s interesting is that she had a stutter as a kid, so she really had to have—on the drop of a dime—five words at her disposal to [substitute for the word with which she was having difficulty]. It caused her to have an expansive vocabulary, and that’s what makes her such a great writer, too.”
As Simon wrote in her 2015 memoir, “Boys in the Trees,” her speech impediment was also largely responsible for her foray into singing as a young girl, as she found success with her mother’s suggestion that she try singing a phrase if she was having trouble saying it. That practice would eventually open a floodgate of talent that made Simon, now 72, one of the most popular female recording artists of all time, with such renowned songs as “You’re So Vain,” “Anticipation,” “The Right Thing to Do,” “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be,” “Nobody Does it Better” and the theme song to the 1977 James Bond movie, “The Spy Who Loved Me.”
Over the course of an afternoon at her large yet warm and inviting home on Martha’s Vineyard, Simon is refreshingly open and honest, unafraid to share her innermost thoughts about topics that other artists of her stature might not be comfortable discussing—or writing about, which she did in great detail in “Boys in the Trees.”
One such topic is her estrangement from her ex-husband, musician James Taylor, to whom she was married from 1972 to 1983 and with whom she has two children, Sally, 43, and Ben, 40. “It’s devastating to me,” she confesses. “But I don’t think I can do anything to make it change. I just sort of have to accept it the way it is—unless I go and impose myself upon him, which I certainly don’t want to do.”
She also talks freely about her issues with low self-esteem and anxiety. “You know, my constitution is my constitution and I don’t think it’s ever changed very much. I’m overly self-aware,” she says, holding onto that last thought as if it has come as a surprise to her and she is processing it for the first time. “I’m always on guard and it’s not good because I can’t leave myself behind as much as I’d like to.”
“It’s like when I meditate,” she continues. “I have a difficult time because it is about leaving yourself behind and concentrating on your breath. I always seem to come back to a little pain I have in my eyebrow, or my arm, or my elbow, or a feeling of abandonment and I have to remember: Go back to the breath. Go back to the breath.”
Barefoot and wearing loose-fitting denim overalls over a long-sleeved, fitted black crew neck shirt, Simon not only looks younger than she is, but exudes a youthful joie de vivre as she talks about her career, her children and her life on Martha’s Vineyard.
While the island, located off the southern coast of Cape Cod, is a summer go-to destination for many celebrities, few make it their year-round home. “I just love it here,” she says of her abode on 25 wooded acres in the town of Tisbury. “Part of it is because it’s where I came as a child and part of it is serendipity,” she explains. “When I met James, he had just bought this tract of land and started building on it, so I moved in with him.”
Taylor lived in the house after the couple divorced, but he later sold it back to Simon. And while she has considered downsizing over the years, she says that she just can’t bear to leave it and all of the memories it holds. “There’s something about it. It just won’t let me go.”
“I’m very, very possessive—no, not possessive, but attached—to my trees. I notice how many new sprouts there are every year and I treat them beautifully, organically and kindly,” she says.
In addition to the house that she shares with her boyfriend of more than a decade, Richard Koehler, 61, a surgeon on the island, Simon has other dwellings on her property (which also has a pool and a tennis court), including an office, a home in which her son and his fiancée live, and a magnificent tree house she had built for when her nine-year-old grandson, Bodhi, her daughter’s son with husband Dean Bragonier, visits (he calls Simon “Mama C”).
And like most proud grandmothers, she is quick to sing her only grandchild’s praises. “He is a particularly stellar child…and he looks like cupid with these incredible locks that get very blonde in the summer,” she gushes. “He has skin like a peach and is just magnificent.”
Of her children, Sally, 43, a musician and artistic director who lives in Cambridge, and Ben, 40, a musician, Simon could not be more proud. She calls Consensus, a multi-disciplinary arts initiative her daughter founded “extraordinary,” and says she’s “a wonderful singer.” She also lauds Sally and Dean’s parenting skills, saying they are “the most hands-on parents I have ever known.”
She said that Ben is the spitting image of his father. “He’s incredibly handsome, also a gifted musician, and he’s very much a thinker—like he knew everything when he was born,” she says. “There are some people who are just peculiar that way and James is the same way—so incredibly smart. Ben has the same sense of humor and the same wisdom. He’s a lot like his dad, but he has a lot of me in him, too.”
“I worship his talent,” she adds. “I worship Sally’s talent, too.”
Simon, the third of four children who grew up in New York City and Connecticut, says that raising her children on Martha’s Vineyard was “magical,” a sentiment echoed by her daughter. “We had a very alive childhood, with bonfires and swinging through the apple trees, and picnics in the living room, and writing songs in the bathtub,” she recalls with a laugh. “The way that my mom’s spirit is, it’s much bigger than her body and she needs to outfit it with a garment that fits her spirit, and that garment is Martha’s Vineyard.”
Sally says she considers herself “amazingly lucky to have hit the jackpot” by having Simon as her mother and as a role model. “I think what I admire most is her compassion and her empathy, because she’s able to feel the world more than most. We joke that her nervous system is on the outside, which allows her to be incredibly empathetic,” she says.
Simon’s second husband, writer Jim Hart, to whom she was married for nearly 20 years (they divorced in 2006), also feels fortunate to have had—and still have—her in his life. “We fell madly in love and I don’t think we ever fell out of love,” says Hart, 67, who writes about his relationship with Simon in his recently released memoir, “Lucky Jim.”
“With James, with me…once Carly loves you, she can’t decide not to love you,” Hart maintains during a recent phone call. “How to describe Carly? She’s exciting, romantic, loving, Bohemian, powerful and enormously creative.”
In his book, which Simon encouraged him to write, Hart is frank about the couple’s struggles, his addiction to cocaine and his homosexuality that he kept hidden from Simon for years. “When we were together, there was this feeling like he was keeping a secret,” Simon reflects. “I think he knew he was gay, but he was hoping that he wasn’t. I always thought he was going after the girls, and once I even hired a detective to follow him. I was always suspicious.”
But unlike Taylor, who Simon says has refused for decades to speak with her, Hart is still a close friend with whom she speaks frequently.
“Boys in the Trees” ends after Simon’s divorce from Taylor and before marrying Hart. In the book, she talks not only about her loving yet tumultuous relationship with Taylor, but about very painful memories from her childhood, from being sexually abused by a teenage family friend, to the lack of love she felt from her dad, publishing mogul Richard Simon (who died when she was just 15 and who she believes wanted a boy—a boy he and her mother were going to name Carl, she says), to her mother’s affair with a much younger man whom she moved into her family’s home.
Simon, who has written several children’s books, says writing her memoir, which includes stories about her high-profile love interests such as Warren Beatty, Cat Stevens, Jack Nicholson and Mick Jagger, was “very cathartic,” and that she is working on another book now.
The Oscar (1989, best original song for “Let the River Run” from “Working Girl”) and multiple Grammy (1972 for best new artist, 1990 for best song written for a film for “Let the River Run” and a Grammy Hall of Fame honor in 2004 for “You’re So Vain”) winner is also working on a new artistic endeavor (see sidebar), as she continues to write and record music often with her children and island friends.
She says she is humbled when fans tell her that her songs are the soundtracks of their lives, and how much of an impact her insightful and meaningful lyrics and memorable melodies have had on them. “It’s so great,” she says. “I’m really proud.”
When asked what she is most proud of music-wise, Simon says some of the songs from her 1993 opera for young people, “Romulus Hunt,” and “those that I didn’t think about…that just arrived, like `Like a River,’ which is about my mother and which I wrote a few days after she died [in 1994].”
And while Simon occasionally performs at small gatherings, she still has stage fright. “I was just asked to go on tour with a famous artist and even though it would be great for me to do, I just can’t do it because I know I’d fail,” she says matter-of-factly. “I know that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the stage. I don’t trust myself.”
These days, she is happy playing music in her small home studio, taking photographs, cooking, gardening, entertaining family and friends, and enjoying life with Koehler and her dog, Aja, a 5-year-old Cavapoo as well as the other animals (miniature ponies, goats, sheep, and donkeys) living on her property.
“She is the most creative person I have ever met,” Koehler says of Simon. “It’s not just her music, either. It’s her writing, her art…she is amazing.”
Simon seems equally impressed by Koehler, who stops in the cozy living room off the kitchen to kiss the top of her head and ask her what she wants for dinner. “I was thinking oatmeal,” he suggests, eliciting an enthusiastic “perfect, let’s have oatmeal” from Simon.
“Richard is great, but he is different from anybody I’ve ever lived with,” she says after he leaves the house to make a post office run. “He’s a very type-A personality, and I’m much more lethargic. I mean, I’m quick in my mind, but I’m not a little white rabbit the way he is.”
So does she think she’s finally got it right with her boyfriend of more than 10 years?
“No,” she quickly responds. “I always have finally got it right. I’ve never gotten it wrong—at least I don’t think so. I mean, there was a reason and something wonderful about each relationship.”
And each experience in her life, she believes: “If talking about what I’ve experienced can clarify something for another person in their own lives, then that’s what we hope to accomplish in communicating in songs, words and in all the arts.”