Widow Basquiat

A Love Story
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The beautifully written, deeply affecting story of Jean-Michel Basquiat's partner, her past, and their life together

New York City in the 1980s was a mesmerizing, wild place. A hotbed for hip hop, underground culture, and unmatched creative energy, it spawned some of the most significant art of the 20th century. It was where Jean-Michel Basquiat became an avant-garde street artist and painter, swiftly achieving worldwide fame. During the years before his death at the age of 27, he shared his life with his lover and muse, Suzanne Mallouk.

A runaway from an unhappy home in Canada, Suzanne first met Jean-Michel in a bar on the Lower East Side in 1980. Thus began a tumultuous and passionate relationship that deeply influenced one of the most exceptional artists of our time.

In emotionally resonant prose, award-winning author Jennifer Clement tells the story of the passion that swept Suzanne and Jean-Michel into a short-lived, unforgettable affair. A poetic interpretation like no other, Widow Basquiat is an expression of the unrelenting power of addiction, obsession and love.


An NPR Best Book of the Year Selection

“Stunningly lyrical . . . Original, insightful, and engrossing. . . . While filled with pop culture anecdotes art fans might seek—Andy Warhol and Rene Ricard both make appearances, for instance—Clement’s account is an honest love story above all else.”—Publishers Weekly

“Sublime, poetic…[Clement] chronicles her close friend Suzanne Mallouk’s love affair with Basquiat in elegant, spare, riveting prose…A powerful female coming of age story…A harrowing, beautifully told love story about two seekers colliding in a pivotal moment in history, and setting everything, including themselves, on fire.”—Rebecca Walker for NPR

"Magical…. Widow Basquiat conjures real characters, a real time and real place.  It’s not theory – it’s representation. … The life of Basquiat … is a joyous lightning bolt when it is described in true detail, as it is in Clement’s extraordinary as-told-to poem."—Glenn O’Brien, Artforum

"Provocative...With short, episodic chapters, Clement (Prayers for the Stolen, 2014, etc.) delivers real insight into the life of the brilliant artist as well as the glittering—but ultimately chaotic—world that consumed him...Disturbing and poetic."—Kirkus

"A beautifully evocative, poetic memoir ... Basquiat was aware of the criteria with which posterity would judge him. Widow Basquiat should be part of those criteria." -The Herald 
"An engrossing narrative... Clement offers far more clues to the cryptic symbols which litter his [Basquiat’s] paintings than any art critic could." -The Times
"A brilliant account of the relationship between Basquiat and his muse and lover ... a compelling book that leaves a giant sized lump in the throat ... Clement hypnotises us with a vivid portrait of Basquiat, powerfully evoking his inventiveness as an artist." -Independent on Sunday


She Is This Girl

She always keeps her heroin inside her beehive hairdo. The white powder hidden in the tease and spit. The cops can’t find it. The drug addicts can’t find it. Suzanne holds her head high. She’s carrying a world without corners. She’s holding up the sky. Slight enough to go down chimneys, Suzanne looks like a little girl dressed up in her mother’s clothes. She wears Love That Red lipstick by Revlon and has blue-black hair and white skin. She closes up all the buttons on her shirt.

Suzanne can knit, ice-skate, sing, read palms and smoke dozens of cigarettes to keep warm inside. Little girls love her because she tells them, “Hey, little missy, I can hear your heart.” They think she’s a music box.

When Suzanne was ten years old her mother said, “Let’s have a tea party.” They sat together at the kitchen table. It was the first time Suzanne ever drank tea. She put four teaspoons of sugar in it. She said, “It’s too cold.”

Her mother said, “I’ll only tell you this once so mark my words.”

“I broke the rocking horse,” Suzanne said.

“You of all my children were made like an angel. But you want to look over the edge to hell. Always know where that line is and never cross it. And here are nine kisses,” her mother continued, “for every year of your life.”

While she kissed her again and again on the forehead, Suzanne wished her mother wore lipstick so that the kisses would be painted on her and everyone would know.

She wanted to say, “But I’m ten really.”

Worn With Sounds

Suzanne’s mother claims to be a witch. She puts her head down, claps her hands and concentrates. She calls this “cursing people.” Once a man who owned a television store in town asked her, “Who winds you up in the morning?” That night his store burned down. But she can’t stop Suzanne’s father from beating up the kids.

“He’s an Arab,” she says, “What can I do? Curses don’t get into those black eyes.”

Suzanne has a scar on her forehead from when he threw her down the stairs. It is shaped like the number 5.

Her childhood is worn with sounds: chairs against walls; “You good-for-nothing punk!”; the snake-belly slide of a belt, the soft drum sound of a three-year-old’s head against a wall; “You good-for-nothing punk”; tears that mix with Cap’n Crunch cereal; “You good-for-nothing punk”; a hand the size of a maple leaf slapping; the twist and crack of arms and wrists; “Walk on tiptoe, shhh,” whisper. “He’s home.”

“Don’t worry, honey,” Suzanne’s mother says to Suzanne. “One day you’ll set the world on fire.”

Paper Dresses

Four draft dodgers and Suzanne sit at the kitchen table. Suzanne’s mother is known in the underground of draft dodgers so men come to Orangeville, Ontario, Canada, to sit at this table dressed in love beads and leather bracelets to ask Suzanne where they can get some pot. Suzanne giggles and pulls some plastic bags filled with marijuana out of her white knee-high boots.

Suzanne wears paper dresses and maxi-coats. One draft dodger likes to tease her by burning cigarette holes in her dresses. Another one tells her if the war ever ends he’s going to come back and marry her.

“I’ll never marry anyone,” Suzanne says. “No man is big enough for my arms.”

I had very hardworking parents. My father had a painting/ construction business that at its height employed forty men. My mother had a nursery school in our house. She took all children. She did not close the door to any child. There were normal, autistic, blind and crippled children. There was nowhere for these disabled children to go. My mother was a real radical. During the Vietnam War she took in American draft dodgers. I was too young to know what this meant. These hippies with long hair and beards would just appear at the dinner table. During those Vietnam years my mother must have taken care of forty of these young men. My father was against this and I heard them fighting over it. My father thought they were cowards. My mother thought they were pacifists and she thought that they were too young. My mother became known in the underground of draft dodgers, and boys from all over America came, knowing they would get food and a roof over their heads. They would sleep on the living-room floor.

My father was intelligent and hardworking. He taught himself everything. He drove a big Cadillac so that we would be like the children of the doctors and lawyers. However, he was domineering and violent. He believed that we would respect him if we feared him. We feared him.

Only One Chromosome Is Missing

Suzanne walks down the steps from her bedroom. In the hall her mother is feeding a child who is tied with a rope to a chair. The little boy is tied up so he will not mutilate himself. He scratches his face until it bleeds. The doorbell rings and two more children with Down syndrome arrive. This is Suzanne’s mother’s latest business venture. There are no facilities for abnormal children in Orangeville.

Suzanne thinks, “These are the children that need to go to the doll hospital.”

For three years the house shelters three or four of these children a day. Their hands get washed, their backs get rubbed, they break things they find. But this house doesn’t shelter black-and-blue children.

The black-and-blue children are thinking about running away. They think, “We don’t fit in this house.”

Suzanne loves one of the kids called Sammy. Sammy is a six-year-old black girl. Suzanne knows only one chromosome is missing in her beautiful little face. Suzanne braids Sammy’s hair and buys her candy.

Suzanne makes her dresses that she copies out of Vogue magazine and she teaches Sammy to count to five.

One day Suzanne and Sammy are sitting in the garden when Suzanne’s mother comes outside. “Now, you girls be careful, you’re going to turn your skin too dark,” she says.

Once she gave Suzanne a whole case of bleaching skin cream. “If you think about it hard enough,” Suzanne’s mother says, “you can change the way you look.”

“If you think about it hard enough,” Suzanne tells Sammy, “you can make that chromosome grow in you.” Sammy looks straight at the sun. She can do that and not even squint or blink.

The Magic Horsetail

Suzanne’s mother has a magic horsetail. Out of a short, carved ivory stick hangs a white horse’s tail. It was given to her by her great-aunt for luck when she was little, growing up in England. She took it with her to Beirut, where she was a British naval officer. It was here that she met Suzanne’s father. Together they moved to Canada as Palestinian refugees. The horsetail has always been with her.

Suzanne braids the horsetail, shakes it around. “Make lots of wishes with it, Suzy,” Suzanne’s mother says.

“Did you make wishes with it?” Suzanne asks.

“Oh, millions and millions. But I don’t believe in making wishes.”

Suzanne’s mother always tells lies. She says she saw a woman in Beirut who had transparent skin. She says there are forty-two ways to cut an apple. She says she’s seen the vaults with the gold reserves of England. She says the Earth has two moons. She says she has eaten sheep eyes, ant larvae and raw eggs because she was working as a spy.

She tells Suzanne, “You have your father’s barbaric blood. You are genetically more Arab than your brothers and sisters. You will always have problems with hysteria, rage and jealousy.”

Every time Suzanne thinks about her mother’s sulfur-blue eyes it rains.


Suzanne has always made a wish to herself. But it is not really a wish because it is going to happen no matter what. She’s going to leave. She’s known this ever since she could look in the mirror at her face.

When she was six, she walked alone around the block for the first time and it felt good. After that, she did it every day, always walking a little bit farther. In the winter, she’d walk and walk around the house looking for cobwebs, which she would eat to make her strong.

Suzanne knows her skeleton. She knows where every bone is and which one hurts most. She knows the bruise from falling on ice is different from a bruise from a belt. She has studied the length of her tibia and the width of her femur. The pull of hair from the nape of the neck is different from the pull of hair from the forehead. She has learned the swivel and turn from a hand that can cover her whole face.

At night Suzanne lies in her bed listening to her father play trictrac with his friends who have also come to Canada as Palestinian refugees. Sometimes, she sneaks down, watches them, and her father pulls her out of the shadows.

He strokes her hair and gives her a taste of beer with his finger.

Sometimes I would jump on his back to stop him and I would get thrown across the room. Once when I was five he threw me down the stairs and I hit my head on a heater. I still have the scar on my forehead. He often threw us across the room and we would hit furniture or walls. He would also pick up furniture and throw it at us or break it.

What Furniture Feels Like

A chair feels like a slap.

A table feels like a kick.

A lamp feels like a punch.

A door feels like a shove, but it can be opened.

And a List of Good Excuses

“I fell down the stairs.”

“My brother punched me.”

“I crashed into a tree on my bike.”

“The door slammed in my face.”

“I slipped on the ice.”

“I don’t remember.”

“My doll’s hand scratched me.”

“The rain fell hard.”

You Can Always Come Back

“I know you’re going to leave. One day you’ll figure it out and leave,” Suzanne’s mother says.

“Yes, I know, Mum,” Suzanne answers.

“Well, what have I taught you? What did I fill you up with? You know, Suzy, there’s a big, bad wolf out there just waiting to eat you up. You can leave but you can always come back. You can live here again. Life can be a circle, not just a line. And don’t chew gum ever, Suzy. No lady ever chews gum.”

The Rainbow Is Here

Suzanne’s father isn’t going to hit her anymore because she’s menstruating. She told him, “I’m a woman now. I’m bleeding now. You can’t touch me anymore.”

The house is full of the smell of paint and paint thinners that Suzanne’s father mixes up in the basement for his house-painting company. The smells fill up the house. Suzanne can tell by now if he’s mixing blue or red or yellow. The smell sticks to everybody’s skin. It stings Suzanne’s mother’s eyes. It burns her brothers’ and sisters’ skin. It makes some of the children faint. Sammy learns to cross her eyes. Suzanne giggles.

Sometimes, Suzanne goes down to the basement while her father is mixing the paint and they giggle together. The fumes are so strong they feel as if they are on a merry-go-round. Suzanne looks into the vat of cobalt blue and thinks she could swim in there. But she just dips her fingers in and they feel so cool.

The grass around the house turns yellow and two cats die from the fumes. Children stop coming to play. The mailman tells people he saw red vapor coming out of the windows. At school the teachers complain that these children are always coming to school with their clothes on inside out.

Suzanne’s mother says, “Children, you don’t need to be going and leaving and looking for a rainbow. The rainbow is here.”

Feel Gray, Must Exit

It’s easy. You sell everything you own and buy a ticket. Even if you have no place to go, some words have to sing inside. Suzanne has the magic words; they are going to turn her into a bright flag, they are going to make her measure the length of her arms. The words are: Seville Hotel, New York City. It’s easy. You sell everything you own.

“Don’t cry over anything that can’t cry over you,” Suzanne’s mother says.

Suzanne has a garage sale. She makes a big sign: FEEL GRAY, MUST EXIT. She sells everything and only keeps two pairs of pants and two T-shirts that she dyes gray in the bathtub.

Her mother buys her toothbrush for one dollar. Her sister buys her birth control pills and Iggy Pop records. Her father says, “You’ll be back.”

Suzanne says, “Maybe,” and thinks, “If you’d never hit me, I wouldn’t know my skeleton.”

Thoughts on a Bus Trip

There are no footsteps, but you’re moving. What is the distance between? Outside the trees move, the houses move. Inside everything is still. The woman in the back is weeping. She wipes her face with her sleeve. The smell of diesel is the smell of movement. Suzanne is sitting with her feet together, her knees together, her hands together, very prim as if waiting for a concert to begin.

Her mother kissed her forehead at the station, “Be careful, Suzy,” she said. “Everybody is hungry.” Her brothers and sisters gave her a card. It says, “Suzy Q, we love you.” Her father gave her twenty dollars. “Call us,” he said.

Suzanne sits still, so skinny, knowing the size of her bones. Knowing how to cover bruises with makeup. Knowing how to disappear. She thinks about Sammy, who came and left so quickly, who sucked the salt out of her fingers. She remembers the day Sammy learned to say “Ouch.” And that was all she would say forever after, “Ouch, ouch, ouch,” like a little song.

Suzanne came home from school one day and Sammy wasn’t there anymore. “You know how these kids are, Suzy,” Suzanne’s mother said. “They just kind of come and go. She was sweet, though.”

You can’t get your arms to stop making circles in the air if you never say good-bye.

But the reason I decided to go to New York was because I had seen Iggy Pop and I thought I had seen God. And because I had sent to Interview magazine for Rene Ricard’s first book of poetry, The Blue Book. I had never sent for anything before but something told me to do this. I had read that book over and over again like a Bible. I realized that a book can reach out and embrace you like an arm and make you walk away from everything you thought you understood.

The Seville Hotel

It is Valentine’s Day, 1980. The shop windows are filled with red hearts and paper lace. “I’m going to New York City,” Suzanne told the draft dodgers when they asked, “Little lady, what are you going to be when you grow up?”

“And,” Suzanne continued, “I’m going to be famous and eat artichokes.”

“Go to the Seville Hotel,” they said.

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