Patricia Highsmith is the great novelist of psychological suspense. She was also racist, anti-Semitic, reclusive and an alcoholic. She preferred her cats to people — and even snails, which she carried around and mourned when they died. Unsurprisingly, she was unforthcoming about her private life and refused to authorize a biography in her lifetime.
After her death, though, in the fortress house she had constructed for herself in Switzerland, an enormous archive of personal testimony was discovered: 18 diaries and 38 notebooks (entries from which are marked here by an asterisk), amounting to 8,000 pages.
A selection of these texts is soon to be published as Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks 1941-1995. It reveals for the first time how extraordinary her life was, including how much hard work she put when young into making herself the writer she became, and how socially and sexually active she was in furthering her career.
It was in 1962, on a visit to London, at the age of 41, that Highsmith met the woman who she hoped would be the salvational love of her life. The identity of the pseudonymous “Caroline Besterman”, married to a wealthy businessman and the mother of a child, remains shrouded in secrecy. Their passionate affair lasted four years and its failure had a profound effect on the rest of Patricia Highsmith’s life.
Patricia Highsmith was racist, anti-Semitic, reclusive and an alcoholic.
In later years she became a renowned curmudgeon. Although attracted to women, she did not actually like them. But then she was not merely misogynistic but broadly misanthropic, “an equal opportunities offender”, as her closest friend put it. Her one-time US publisher testified: “She was one of the most odious people I’ve ever met … a totally horrible woman … mean, unkind, unfriendly and cold.”
Yet her reputation as a novelist has only grown since her death in 1995. Graham Greene called her “the poet of apprehension” and she specialized in tales in which innocence and guilt are almost indistinguishable. Her best-known works remain Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley, but she is equally celebrated for The Price of Salt, the first lesbian novel with a happy ending, which she published under a pseudonym in 1952.
July 20, 1962: London
The Bestermans came after dinner for a drink. Caroline Besterman is quite charming, animated—pink in her face after her drink in the manner of the English, but she is French Canadian. Very friendly to me indeed, and we’ll probably go to Lord’s to see a cricket match Monday.
In August, Highsmith writes a poem about Besterman: “I loved you the moment,/ The moment I saw you.”
Caroline is a sparrow I once saw and thought I once knew. The color comes and goes in her cheeks. Her brown eyes look at me directly. I remember her laughter. And on the boat from Greenwich, finally, “I’m cold.” And of course, nothing could properly be done about it, and we were both very proper.
Highsmith returns to America.
Caroline’s letter made me happy all day. She wrote—after three casual pages, “Please write soon as I feel rather as if the oxygen system had been cut off” — since she hadn’t heard from me in a week. I do love her and I often think of the first moment I ever saw her, walking in white—and I was immediately smitten and smashed.
I am absolutely sick for her, and I must summon up every bit of courage and determination that I possess in order to carry on alone. And I must try to remember, by way of giving myself courage, that out of these terrible dark valleys and abysses sometimes come things of great beauty. I have been here before, yes, but never has the valley been this long, this dark, and so deep.
C is going to Paris in November for a week and could be staying with friends. She seemed pleased with the idea I would come over. Talked perhaps 15 minutes. I told her I’d have a letter at the Haymarket for her by Thursday. She keeps my letters. [Her husband] reads most of them. Alas.
November 12: Paris
Caroline’s train was exactly on time, 5:50 PM—Voie 19. She was among the last, walking very slowly, and saw me before I saw her. She took my hand and fairly collapsed against me. I felt rather stiff. Trouble getting a taxi—and then she took my hand, and it was a bit better. She is absolutely divine in every way! Dinner at Raffatin [et Honorine]’s, a mistake, as it was too expensive, but a lovely walk home along St. Germain—“can I kiss you in some doorway?” “Never mind the doorway.” We were holding hands, and—I lost an earring. Fine [brandy] at Deux Magots—or was it the Flore?—and a wonderful night in which we hardly slept at all.
Again late starting, as C likes to take a 45-minute bath, at least. We bought tickets for Victor after a wonderful lunch at L’Escargot Doré, which C knew. Bottle of Pouilly Fumé—then a fire—and we are talking a bit better. As C said, for people who’re so voluble on paper, we’re awfully quiet when we’re together. We did not even go out to dinner, but slept and made love all night—more or less. I adore her. And this morning she said: “I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you. I shouldn’t say a thing like that, but I will anyway.”
She is quite aware of her charms and melts into my arms as if she were smelted by Vulcan expressly for that purpose. I can make love happily to her all night long, as I am never satisfied myself. When we wake up early, I make love to her again, twice. She was—and is—divine all night.
Highsmith returns to America.
We did not even go out to dinner, but slept and made love all night.
Two letters from C. She was sick Thursday. So she excused her despondency & her thoughts of telling [her husband] (which however still nag), her difficulties with leading a “double life” on the grounds that she was physically sick. Of course true, but the situation remains the same: I know she wants to tell him.
Beauty, perfection, completion—all achieved and seen. Death is the next territory, one step to the left. I don’t want to see any more, to feel or experience any more. Pleasure has already killed me, transformed and translated me. And in fact belonging to you, I have no right and no power to take my own life.
I am the drunken bee wandering into your household. You may with courage eject me through the window: or by accident step on me. Be assured, I’ll feel no pain. I have felt your fine red brown hair across my eyes, over my face as I lay half asleep, and I have felt your warm breath on my lips. In those moments I lived and died, was born and knew in anticipation death, and knew there was nothing more I need fear on this earth or anywhere else.
There is no use my making any further efforts to live without her. I cannot. And in all my 41 years, I have never said or written this about anyone else before.
3 letters from C. She is happy, tired (from Xmas) & tells of being trailed about London by the two bloodhounds—and reassures me that she would put her foot down “very firmly” if [her husband] ever objected to her seeing me frequently. Wants me to come to London in July for the Bolshoi Ballet at Covent Garden.
January 19, 1963*
I am in love with a most wonderful woman. I am saved. Look me up in ten or twenty years, and see.
I am absolutely sick for her, and I must summon up every bit of courage and determination that I possess in order to carry on alone.
In March Caroline suffers a nervous breakdown, torn between her family and her affair with Highsmith, which her husband is now aware of.
Letters from [C’s husband] and from C—very reassuring on [her husband’s] part, not any better on C’s. The upshot is I go Sunday to London. She has had a psychiatrist since Tuesday. Consensus is I can cheer her up, therefore I shall go.
C had a great change for the better. I learned yesterday through C’s real efforts to tell me, that her crise, her “nervous breakdown,” is due to her first “real marriage, real emotional attachment,” which is to me. She had somehow to be reassured by my coming here, so it was indeed important that I did. Today she said, “Why don’t we go to bed. I think it might be good for you.” So we did and no housework got done, but housework never made history.
She is wonderful in bed and only astounds me by her appetite—I fear something may be wrong, that it may go as easily as it is so quickly formed again. I have never known a woman like her. She is quite to my taste. I do think this will last. This fact also I have not assimilated yet. C has to square it with her marriage, I with my solitude & my work. As I said to C we must accept the facts as they are, that we shall continue to love each other, but that we cannot see each other, probably, more than three months out of the year.
A truly horrible and frightening depression came over me, produced by many things: I think even of killing myself, if anything goes wrong between me and Caroline (what could probably hold me back is the knowledge of how upsetting it would be for her). My book is not yet going under its own steam, the repair of these 104 pages is like all repair work tedious & uninspiring. And of course middle age is now quite upon me, and at night my eyes show signs of deterioration. All this—plus the utter hopelessness of ever living with C for more than the briefest stretches.
That summer, the pair spent a month in Suffolk, where Highsmith later rented a house.
No sleep. Quite wonderful to come to London—on schedule—and C in her dressing gown to open the door! I had a gin & she coffee at the dining room table then a nap—then a lunch of lamb chops. We took a car with all the cats to Aldeburgh. Quite like a dream come true.
Aldeburgh. Full of the atmosphere and domestic decor which I call 1910 or Edwardian, for want of a more precise period name. Actually, I do not know what it is—non-U furnishings of pseudo-Jacobean, bad oriental rugs, and too much clutter in the rooms. After Italy what strikes one is the lack of greenery and flowers.
A bad, hectic November just over. These anxious days have exposed to her & me the tremendous differences in our characters. I have said to her, they can either be a strength for us, or we can let them tear us apart. At least my lease here [in Aldeburgh] goes only till Easter, with an escape clause Jan 7.
In April 1964, Highsmith bought a cottage in Earl Soham, Suffolk.
September 3, 1964
Some tumultuous weeks, during which I discovered I have to be alone in the house to work. I do not think the difficulty is due to anything in C, just in me. Today, alone since six days (before C was here for 10) I had the first decent day’s work, and feel I am master of the book and not vice versa.
The relationship deteriorates as it becomes clear Caroline will not leave her family.
August 5, 1965*
The affair with the married woman. One may say or think for a while that one is satisfied with the small amount of time together—and maybe that’s true. But one is not satisfied with taking second place emotionally or even sharing equally, or even being preferred emotionally to the other person of whom she says: “My services to him I discharge like a duty.” The fact remains that duty creates habit, and habit becomes emotionally charged.
Prostitutes at least admit what they are, and don’t go through with the farce of wedlock, as do so many women who are no more in love with their husbands than they are with their chars—and perhaps less so sometimes.
After Highsmith broke off their relationship in October 1966, she could bring herself to write about the separation only three months later in her notebook in January 1967.
January 15, 1967*
In essence—C would prolong forever her sadistic relationship with me. It is not a relationship—it has no flow, no joy. As the reader will see—she would not have broken it off, ever, I think. But I did in October 1966. I came up to bed five or ten minutes after her, she left the bed, I assumed in her usual silent huff, and I handed her bag into the next room. She did not return, and slept—I saw later—with one pink blanket in the twin bedroom. I told her in the morning I had had enough huffs, and was finished, and she left at 4 PM.
Highsmith on sex
August 7, 1941
Sex, to me, should be a religion. I have no other. I feel no other urge, to devotion, to something, and we all need a devotion to something besides ourselves, besides even our noblest ambitions. I could be content without fulfillment. Perhaps I should be better off in such an arrangement.
August 30, 1941
Sex and alcohol I refute thus: alcohol is not worth its price—as a habitual source of pleasure and inspiration. And sex is a hoax. As big a hoax as a Coney Island sideshow. And as overrated as a trip to Pike’s Peak [a Colorado mountain popular with hikers]. Marriage is like going back to the same sideshow twice, a moronic thing to do certainly. For women, it is even worse, because they come out on the short end.
July 6, 1944
Sexual intercourse, while the most perfect thing, is not ever quite perfect. There is always some one-sided amusement about your or the other person’s limitations, and a terrible sadness like defeat in the last ditch. (This note taken in drunkenness, Ft. Worth, Texas, mid-afternoon.)
July 7, 1980
The curious thing about sex is that it is of great importance, and also of no importance at all.
on her own sexuality
November 6, 1944
Homosexuals—what is the specific virus that results in the eternal impermanence? Some say it is the ego of the active partner, who after six months must make one more new conquest. This implies, doubtless, that she has tired of the other. Why? Because homosexuals are not often enough romantic.
As for myself, I prefer to be romantic. I want the strand of hair, the desperately opened, desperately guarded letter, the scuff on my shoes I will not shine off, the telephone call that means life or death, the sweet pain that comes when the one you love has done you the simplest kind of favor. I want the summit to be so high in the clouds my nose bleeds, my ears crackle, my lungs cry for oxygen. I want the end to be a fall deeper than from Mount Everest so that it will terrify me, as I watch the whole world fall with me, that will land me, a heap of rubble, on some lifeless desert, on some unnamed, uncharted planet.
May 14, 1961
Homosexuals prefer one another’s company not so much because of a common sexual deviance from what is socially accepted, but because they know that they have all been through the same hell, the same trials, the same depressions—and those who meet have survived. Those not present have killed themselves, or have managed, or decided, or were able to conform. Homosexuals’ friendships or acquaintanceships may appear to be superficial, may be superficial in fact, but that underlying bond remains: and they are blood brothers and sisters, because of what they have suffered.
December 3, 1952
It really is difficult to be the person one should like to be—civilized, always self-possessed, ever receptive to stimuli and receptive at our most sensitive and intellectual and romantic and classic peak, if one has not the money to take a taxi when it is raining or when one is tired, or to go to America, an essential, crying need of the spirit, too. It really is hard.
January 30, 1970
To Franz Kafka today I lift my hat in respect. I fall on my knees. I cry briefly on my bed. I have spent the day fighting bureaucracy and have failed. Furthermore, they have billed me as usual. Money is the least of it. It is the time wasted, and the depressing sight of 30- and 40-year-old men delighted with their paper-pushing jobs, their dishonest profession, their power over honest people. It is the power of paper, of someone always above them to whom they say they are answerable. God f*** them when they die. Their God is ready to pay for a lay, anyway, so they can make a bit more money.
on women and work
August 8, 1963
Women have not evolved in the same sense as men have. They really (first things first) want a husband and children. They act upon this wish very early, and acquire them. Why all this complaining afterward? It is for women themselves to make jobs for themselves, to see where they fit into the economic world, or if they fit in at all. There would be jobs for women, if women would give, and if they could be depended upon to give, the major part of their time and energy to them that is what jobs today demand.
If a woman asks time off in summer (a long time) to spend with her children on vacation, then she will be given a respectively unimportant job. She has no right to ask for better. Women have not yet come to terms with the fact that they cannot fully combine a home and family with a really demanding job or career outside the home—unless they are able to have servants, as few women are. Women are, alas, showing themselves more infantile and incapable than ever in whining about their lot in 1963.
November 8, 1964
England. The disciplinary aspects still impress me most, after a year here. America is lax, a child’s paradise by comparison. The liquor and cigarette prices, quite out of ratio to the average wage, proclaim that they are disciplinary measures also. Do you really need this liquor and that pack of cigarettes? No, you are a depraved, self-indulgent, unhealthy slob, and the exorbitant price is your just punishment for being addicted.
April 23, 1965
The coal fire suits the English character, as one must pay for this bit of warmth and comfort by enduring a vaguely sooty room, and by the task of cleaning the grate each day, which means getting on one’s knees, soiling the hands, and a trip to the dustbin with the clinkers. Nothing lavish here, keep it miserly. It’s no more than you deserve.
November 1, 1967
Why don’t the Americans drop some bombs on the Vatican? Look at all the human misery and poverty they are causing by their dilly-dallying over birth control. I propose a toast to the Pope. “I wish you eternal pregnancy! Breach deliveries every time, preferably sextuplets! May your vagina be torn to pieces! May your teeth fall out! May you be bed-ridden with anemia! But may you continue to bear, into eternity! Do you not think these birth pangs wonderful? They will go on forever and ever. God is Eternal Life!”
September 9, 1970
Religion is an illusion, a very sustaining one for some people. But everyone needs an illusion of some kind to endure life with the necessary fortitude. It is strange that the human animal is like this—to depend utterly upon an illusion and at the same time to be able to realize that it is an illusion.
December 2, 1980
Income Tax; French fisc: “Where were you physically when you wrote the book?” Reply: “I take the Catholic Church’s attitude toward creation. And surely you do too? Life begins at the instant of conception, and as for this book, I was on the Mozart Express between Paris and Vienna when the entire plot came to me. I wrote it in France and Germany, even America. But surely you cannot deny that its conception is its life. To deny that is a sin, an abortion.”
and … highsmith predicts Sally Rooney
July 2, 1941
A novel about the twenty-year-olds. Just out of high school, just in college or just out of it. The bewilderment, the discouragement, the groping, the doubt, the hopes, the uncertainty of any permanence whatever. This could have great significance with respect to the times—economic, politic, the war and the knowledge—latent and unconscious, that we ourselves do not govern ourselves, and therefore are at other people’s mercy, if any.
Excerpted from Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks, 1941–1995, edited by Anna von Planta, available on November 16 from Liveright