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The Worst of Times and Best of Times for Carly Simon

One month after the devastating loss of her two older sisters (in two days), Carly Simon will be inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.

On November 19th, all of America will see on HBO a jubilant but ridiculously overdue act: Carly Simon inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. She had been declared eligible a full 25 years ago; so when young singer Olivia Rodrigo belts out “You’re So Vain” the inclusion of the singer-songwriter who gave us that iconic, feminist, good-natured chiding of a conceited guy (self-proclaimed to be Warren Beatty) will cause many to think, “What? Hasn’t she been in the Hall of Fame for years already?”

But, however over-ripe, the honor is an honor. She’ll share it with two other midlife-plus singers: Pat Benatar and Dolly Parton, both of whom will be performing, while Carly will not be.

What? Hasn’t she been in the Hall of Fame for years already?

One reason she’ll be absent—aside from her long-held stage fright and aversion to flying—is the tragedy that befell her precisely a month before the televised induction. On October 19th, her oldest sister, opera singer Joanna Simon, 85, (above left) died after a battle with thyroid cancer. One day later, on October 20th, her closer in age sister, composer and singer Lucy Simon, 82, (above center) also died—after a rigorous fight with metastatic breast cancer.

Joanna’s death was not anticipated; Lucy’s was. She knew she was dying and was about to enter a hospice. It was a devastating moment for Carly. Add to that the fact that the sisters’ younger brother, Peter, had died in 2018 of lung cancer. Carly is the last one left! And she herself had had her own bout of cancer—like Lucy, breast cancer: a double mastectomy—25 years ago in 1997.

Read More: A Half Century After She Became a Star, A Candid Talk With Carly Simon and Her Daughter

The Sensational Simon Sisters

Carly released a statement to the media about the loss of her sisters: “I am filled with sorrow to speak about the passing of Joanna and Lucy Simon. Their loss will be long and haunting. As sad as this day is, it’s impossible to mourn them without celebrating their incredible lives that they lived.” Indeed, they were both very accomplished. Lucy was prolific as a theater composer and Joanna as an opera singer who also won an Emmy as a PBS arts correspondent. “We were three sisters who not only took turns blazing trails and marking courses for one another, we were each others’ secret sharers,” Carly said. “The co-keepers of each other’s memories.”

We were three sisters who not only took turns blazing trails and marking courses for one another, we were each others’ secret sharers.

Carly was very close with them, growing up. But next to glamorous, dramatic Joanna and gentle, captivating Lucy, she was the stuttering, gawky, look-at-me! little sister—the one, a close friend told me, no one would have picked to become the superstar.

When they were teenagers, they spent many weekends at the family’s second home, in Connecticut (their father, Richard Simon, was the cofounder of Simon & Schuster publishing company). Lucy’s and Carly’s harmonizing on a folk song led a relative to say, “You two should form a group!” The thought registered more strongly with Lucy than Carly. It would soon be Lucy, the secure older sister, who would drag Carly, the frenetically proving-herself younger one, into the modest beginning of her career.

As The Simon Sisters, they scored a contract with Kapp Records, and Lucy talked Carly into dropping out of Sarah Lawrence before her junior year so they could tour together. On one of their first touring trips—on November 22, 1963—being together when it was announced that President Kennedy had been killed gave the sisters the additional intimacy of sharing a very public tragedy. Four years later, when they took a ship home from an English tour, Carly and Lucy both had a shipboard flirtation with Sean Connery—but Lucy was the one the debonair Scottish actor seemed most taken by.

Simon Royalty

That same year, when Carly was pulling herself together after her breakup with a dashing British writer named Willie Donaldson (Carly always fell in love hard), Lucy married (she remained married to Dr. David Levine—for 55 years—until her death). So Carly roomed with Joanna (then called Joey), whose mezzo-soprano voice was now in the employ of the New York City Opera Company. Joanna had an apartment in midtown Manhattan and deigned to let her recently dumped younger sister move in with her.

Carly was the one, a close friend told me, no one would have picked to become the superstar.

Carly took the smaller bedroom, paid Joey rent, and obeyed Joey’s exacting rules. For example, she had to stay inside her bedroom with her door closed whenever Joey entertained men in the living room. And what men Joey entertained! She’d had a long relationship with the urbane, much-older comedian and broadcaster Henry Morgan and had embarked on romances with dashing symphonic conductor Zubin Mehta and equally dashing ballet star Edward Villela. (Joanna Simon’s penchant for illustrious men would continue over the decades; for the three years before his death in 2006, she would become engaged to Walter Cronkite.) “Joey was the royalty and Carly was the court,” is how one of Carly’s close friends had put it to me.

No wonder her jaunty song, “Older Sister” vibrates with awe at her sibling’s hauteur and sophistication: (“She knows her power over me….She throws French phrases ’round the room / She has ice skates and legs that fit right in / She’s wicked to all the beaming dreamers / Who’ll later boast of an evening /By her fiery side.”)

But it is her other songs about sisterhood that radiate the closeness the three all felt. In “Boys In The Trees” (which Carly also used as the title of her memoir), she makes one think of bedtime talk about love and sex, with a “silent understanding passing down / from daughter to daughter.” And in “Two Little Sisters” she poignantly wrote: “But, what will you do when the nights get cold?/ When the stars grow dim and your dreams seem old….I’ll come home to you, you’ll come home to me / My love will be your remedy.”

Read More: Growing to Middle Age Without A Sister: A 9/11 Love Story

Cancer and Warren Beatty

It was Lucy who— long ago—helped Carly when Carly received her own diagnosis of cancer. In October 1997, Carly felt a lump in her breast and went for a mammogram. A subsequent biopsy revealed a malignant tumor. Once the shock wore off, “I just gathered my forces,” Carly told me, when I was writing Girls Like Us, about her, Joni Mitchell and Carole King. “It felt like little people coming out inside me— a phalanx, a Roman army saying, `We’re going to do what we need to do to make you well!’”

Having cancer was a “good opportunity to prune people you don’t need in your life any longer.”

With Lucy’s and Lucy’s doctor husband’s help, Carly secured the noted oncologist Larry Norton and a top-flight surgeon. She had the mastectomy on November 12, 1997 and received wisdom from a new friend—a Bay Area venture capitalist—whom she came to talk to daily during that period. One of the many things the new friend said was that having cancer was a “good opportunity to prune people you don’t need in your life any longer.”

Carly entered a deep depression after her chemotherapy; one day after it had lifted and she felt buoyant and hopeful, following an appointment with her doctor, she went with a close friend for a drink at the elegant Hotel Carlyle bar and there ran into Warren Beatty, “Mr. You’re So Vain,” himself, according to his own account and many interpretations. The charming Lothario asked, “Why are you here?—meaning in New York, rather than at her home in Martha’s Vineyard. Carly told him it was to see her oncologist, and the minute she said those words, “the warmth in his voice disappeared,” Carly’s friend noticed. It was true: Cancer involved pruning people from your life on the basis of character.

Love Like a River

In late 2000, Carly was record-label-less, hit-less, past 55 years old, and living alone. Her grown children were off on their own; her second husband James Hart was living apart from her; they would soon very amicably divorce. She was at a point in her life when, she has said, “I had to fight being discarded like an old dog.” Fight she did. She moved her drum machine into her daughter Sally’s old bedroom and taught herself how to lay out and mix eight tracks. Working from 9 p.m. until dawn, she self-recorded an album of songs that came from the heart—The Bedroom Tapes. She sang about her deep depression and fear that she was a has-been.

In The Bedroom Tapes, she sang about her deep depression and fear that she was a has-been.

The centerpiece of the album was the song “Scar,” about the lessons that breast cancer had taught her. Though she didn’t name him, Warren Beatty’s recoiling at the news of her cancer was a “gift in disguise,” she sang: implicitly revealing how much more usefully brambled her journey was than his emotionally cossetted one. (“That poor little puppy, so scared of misfortune and always on guard.”)

When Olivia Rodrigo belts out “I bet you think this song is about you, don’t you, don’t you?” I’ll be watching HBO and wishing Carly congratulations through the screen. And I’ll remember that this most famous song of hers, gently chiding a spoiled man for his less than sterling character, is proof that women of her generation had the more challenging journey—and that it paid off in wisdom. And in poignance.

One of my favorite of Carly’s songs is ”Like A River,” about the death of her—and Lucy’s and Joanna’s—dynamic mother, Andrea, 28 years ago.  “I’ll wait for you no longer like a daughter / That part of our life together is over / But I will wait for you forever / Like a river.”

“I will wait for you forever, like a river.” Somehow I feel she is also now singing those words to her sisters.

Read More: There’s Nothing Like The Sister Bond, Especially Now

By Sheila Weller


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