The title of Grace Jones’s memoir, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs (Gallery Books), is lifted from the first line of her song “The Art Groupie,” off side two of her fifth album, Nightclubbing. You can’t go through life without breaking promises, Jones explains in the book, quite sensibly, before promising an account told with an intimacy comparable to sex. Yet her memoir makes no attempt to dispel the myth of Grace Jones, offering repetitively cosmic descriptions and campy crescendos of syntax along with a bold, and frequently gracious, account of her childhood, her career, her lovers, and her family, as well as slightly non-sequitur topics, such as her opinion of plastic surgery. (“No, I fucking haven’t [had work done]!”) She only shies away a little from discussing her infamous interview with British television personality Russell Harty during which she repeatedly hit him in the face, believing he was ignoring her. Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Accepting oneself does not preclude an attempt to become better.” In a similar vein, Jones writes, “These are my memories. My moods. My moments. My mistakes. It’s a book, and it has a cover. So I can do what I want.”
She did not always have such freedom, however, and in fact started out with even less than most. Before she was an all-around cultural tour de force, grinning with a razor-sharp rabidity Miley Cyrus could only dream of mastering, she was a Pentecostal preacher’s daughter in Spanish Town, Jamaica. Despite an unhappy childhood, Jones was lively and tomboyish and vain, with a zeal for crocheting. “I wasn’t supposed to play with my brothers,” she writes. “I was meant to stay put and crochet. I loved to crochet; I used to crochet until the skin came off my fingers and then I would put on a bandage and keep going.” Her parents immigrated to Syracuse, New York, and left her and her siblings with their grandmother and step-grandfather, whom they called Mas P. A combination of the family’s religious rigor and Mas P’s extreme and persistent physical abuse (“It was all about the Bible and beatings”) left Jones with a lifelong taste for rebellion and a nonclinical case of split personalities.
She has been, by turns, a singer, supermodel, actress, music producer, acid-loving hippie, vamp, diva, go-go dancer, close friend of Andy Warhol and Keith Haring’s, artist, Bond girl, fashion plate, nightlife icon across four time zones, devil, and alien. She is American, Jamaican, French, and a touch Scandinavian. She was a muse to Kenzo, Issey Miyake, and Alaïa; a performer tempering a minimalist aesthetic with maximal appetites; a woman; a man. “I am disco but I am also dada,” Jones writes. She sums up an entire era’s hedonism in one tidy reminiscence:
I would have the very best coke, and let it breathe like a fine wine, pile it up and put it under a gold dome on a silver platter, with a gold spoon. Then I would have the Quaalude room, the marijuana room, the Marianne Cocoa Puff room [cocaine-laced marijuana, named for Marianne Faithfull], with music in each room to match the high or the low…. I would let people do what they wanted as long as they didn’t die. That was the number one rule.
Yet, Jones has never felt a sense of belonging to a specific time or physical age. “[The way I would] manipulate age and time was through imagery,” she writes. “I was stretched, fractured, crushed, expanded, liquefied. I am a sensualist but I am also a surrealist.” Epitomizing this is one of the most endearing passages in the book, in which she describes her first orgasm: “I remember there was a before orgasm, and an after orgasm, but the other details remain fuzzy…. It’s like…hold your breath, close your eyes…AAAAGHGAAASGGHHFHAAAGHGGH…”
It’s not hard to see why Warhol was so enamored with her. One might describe Jones’s account of her life as Warholian, in that it glaringly lacks any self-doubt or hindsight, though perhaps that’s not a deliberate omission. Her genius rests instead in her unambiguous exteriority, in her awareness of her movement through time and space, in her charisma and understanding of her own spectacle—an uncommon gift in the age of the selfie. Introspection is, seemingly for Jones, inferior to the wisdom of gut instinct. She’s not a funny person—icons can’t afford to be self-deprecating—though moments of self-awareness peek through, such as when she confesses that she’s always wanted to try stand-up comedy. “I’ll bring my whip in case no one laughs,” she adds.
Jones may not be self-critical, but she has plenty of despairing advice for a new generation of singers and copycats including Rihanna, Jessie Ware, FKA twigs, Rita Ora, Miley Cyrus, the late Sasha Fierce, and Lady Gaga. “Everybody wants to be somebody,” she writes openly to “Doris,” a thinly veiled pseudonym for Lady Gaga. “Fame doesn’t make you somebody. You are already somebody. Fame is the worst part of this.” This would perhaps have been easier to take literally several decades ago, though it reads in the present as a recommended philosophy. Another of Jones’s self-imposed rules: never marry, a mantra complicated by the fact that she had a thing for her bodyguards, a proclivity that notably resulted in Dolph Lundgren’s acting career. She eventually married another of her bodyguards, Atila Altaunbay, but after he put a knife to her throat one night in a fit of jealousy, that relationship was over, as she states frankly, simply because it had to be. They’re still technically married. It’s not that Jones doesn’t believe in marriage; she simply doesn’t believe in divorce.
Nor does she believe in being on time, apparently. She is, like Marilyn Monroe, famous for serial lateness, and has taken anywhere from six hours to several extra days to appear at an engagement; as with Monroe’s, her performances are worth the wait. In fact, Jones embraces her tardiness, even regards it as a business matter—crowds like to be kept waiting, it builds up anticipation. But her lateness is also an aspect of her sense of brash, unapologetic entitlement. “I don’t think the flowers should [cost] more than me,” she writes. “I should be the big, unusual flower.” Her self-empowerment throughout her memoir has an irrefutable logic. “I want to fuck every man [that I sleep with] in the ass at least once,” she writes. “Every guy needs to be penetrated at least once.” (At one point Jones recounts, dubiously, that Orson Welles once told her on a talk show, “Grace, you rape an audience,” and that he “meant it in a good way.”) Unsurprisingly, she hates when people call her a diva: “Where’s the exclusivity? Every singer given a few weeks on a talent show is called a diva these days!… and of course the word is usually [used to describe] an apparently erratic female whose temperamental qualities, survival instincts, and dedication to perfection are seen as [self-indulgent] weaknesses.”
One of Jones’s fears, shared by many celebrity entertainers, is the idea of becoming a cartoon, a has-been selling out in denial. Rather than submitting to one of Lady Gaga’s numerous invitations to collaborate, she prefers to exist as a fantastic memory in the public mind. Anyway, she assures the reader, she’ll be reincarnated after her death. “You can find images of me from centuries ago. Faces that look like mine carved in wood from Ancient Egypt, Roman times, the Igbo tribe of southern Nigeria, and sixteenth-century Jamaica, fierce enough to turn people pale.” I don’t doubt she’s right.
Hannah Ghorashi is on the editorial staff of ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 18 under the title “A Nightclub Goddess Dishes on Her Life.”