Joan Maxey Mapplethorpe was born into an Irish Catholic family. She had brown wavy hair, fair skin, light eyes and a slight build. She married Harry Mapplethorpe on June 20, 1942 and had four children between 1943 and 1949. In 1957, at the age of 36, she had a fifth child.
Dedicated to motherhood and homemaking she was known as a warm and outgoing woman who liked playing cards and bowling. Friends considered her the creative member of the family. Robert, born in 1946, was her favorite, although he may not have realized this until much later in life.
But there was a darker side to Joan Mapplethorpe. Known as fastidious, she appears to have been rather anal-compulsive. Constantly cleaning her house she is described as a "fanatical housekeeper." Indeed she suffered through several bouts of depression and was eventually diagnosed as manic-depressive for which she was treated with the drug lithium.
For the most part Joan was unaware of the more intense side of her son's life and artistic endeavors. When confronted with the news that Robert had contracted AIDS and that he was gay, she denied the truth. Robert died of complications associated with AIDS in March 1989. By this time Joan herself was quite sick with emphysema, brought on no doubt by years of heavy cigarette smoking. She required the use of an oxygen mask and a wheel-chair. Despite her condition, she was able to attend the May 22nd memorial service for her son at the Whitney Museum of Art in Manhattan.
However three days later she also succumbed and died. Her son Robert had been cremated and his remains were placed next to Joan in her coffin. Mother and son are buried together in St. Johns Cemetery in Queens, New York.