Patricia Highsmith did not have an ideal start in life. Her parents were young artists adrift in New York and they reckoned a child would be an encumbrance. So her mother drank turpentine to procure an abortion. But Highsmith was always obstinately intent on thwarting other people’s plans, and she duly entered the world on January 19, 1921.
Understandably she grew to hate the woman who had tried to terminate her existence, and her mother made things worse by asking her, as a teenager: “Are you a les? You are beginning to make noises like one.”
As the target of Patricia’s hatred, though, her mother was by no means alone. Highsmith also hated her father, her Texan grandmother, with whom she spent her earliest years, and her stepfather, whom she regularly contemplated murdering. According to a close friend, her hatred also encompassed Latinos, Black people, Koreans, Indians, Catholics, evangelicals and Mexicans, among others.
Most pronounced was her rancid and unrepentant antisemitism. She proposed that the Holocaust should be renamed the “semicaust”, because the Nazis had disappointingly exterminated only half the Jews on Earth.
According to a close friend, Highsmith’s hatred also encompassed Latinos, Black people, Koreans, Indians, Catholics, evangelicals and Mexicans, among others.
She preferred animals to human beings. If she came across a starving infant and a starving kitten, she said, she would unhesitatingly save the kitten. Most people were “morons” and, to stop them breeding, their babies should be “killed early like puppies”.
Her favorite animals (chosen, perhaps, to arouse disgust in normal people) were snails. She was attracted to them initially when she saw two of them copulating. When she moved from England to France she secreted a number of them in her bra, hoping they would breed abroad. Given her strange behavior, it is only fair to say that, as many acquaintances testify, she was, from her college days on, drunk most of the time, starting with a large gin for breakfast. Being anorexic, she often felt unable to face food.
Richard Bradford clearly does not admire Highsmith as a person. “Foul” and “execrable” are among the adjectives he applies to her. But she had no difficulty attracting lovers. On her own estimate her libido peaked in February 1950, when she was having sex ten times a day, mostly with women she met in bars. She was also occasionally capable of sex with men. She had a brief affair with Arthur Koestler, and Ronald Blythe, the author of Akenfield, told her biographer, Andrew Wilson, that he slept with her once or twice and “she wasn’t at all repelled by the male body, she was intrigued by it”.
Bradford has heroically slogged through the 8,000 pages of her diaries and notebooks (which she called “cahiers”) and he is concerned that they distort and alter the truth. Highsmith claims, for example, to have met WH Auden and Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, when the facts suggest otherwise. This seems a strange complaint. Writers can be found inventing imaginary versions of reality as early as Shakespeare’s sonnets, if not earlier.
More convincing is Bradford’s appraisal of Highsmith’s genius as a writer. He claims, justifiably, that in Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley she did more than anyone to erode the boundaries between crime writing and literature as a high art. In The Price of Salt she dared to offer an unapologetic, richly sensuous portrait of intimacy between two women.
She wrote the novel in two versions, one with a happy ending, one with a sad, and asked her agent, Margot Johnson, to choose. She chose the happy ending, but warned Highsmith to use a pseudonym, otherwise it would disappoint thrill-seeking readers of Strangers on a Train. It was good advice. The Price of Salt sold more than a million copies in paperback, and her publisher received many letters from female readers expressing gratitude to the unknown author who had created a universe where they could freely live their undercover existence. Not until 1990, five years before her death, was it republished under Highsmith’s name and retitled Carol.
Highsmith believed that “murder is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing”, and this is illustrated in her 1955 novel, The Talented Mr Ripley, where Tom loves Dickie and murders and impersonates him.
Although Tom is modeled on Highsmith, she never actually killed one of her lovers. However, Bradford points out, she came close to it with her long-term partner Ellen Hill. In 1953, after one of their savage rows, Highsmith threatened to leave. Whereupon Hill, sitting naked on the bed, swallowed eight Veronal tablets washed down with several large martinis. Highsmith nevertheless walked out, and phoned a friend of Hill’s, who was due to meet her that evening, to say Hill would not be able to keep their date. When she got back Hill was unconscious and, swept into hospital, was given only a 50-50 chance of surviving, but pulled through.
Highsmith dared to offer an unapologetic, richly sensuous portrait of intimacy between two women.
The episode illustrates Bradford’s theory that Highsmith suffered from a kind of sadomasochism. What she could not stand was ordinary humdrum existence.
After her break with Hill her next lover was the wife of a wealthy businessman living in Kensington. He proved a paragon of tolerance and accepted without demur his wife’s long absences abroad with Highsmith.
Highsmith believed that “murder is a kind of making love.”
Back in England they constituted a dignified ménage à trois, visiting book launches and art galleries. Highsmith could not stand it, and dreamt of cleaving her lover’s head open with an axe. She needed subterfuge, deception and acrimony, because that is what she built her fiction out of.
Bradford makes his case convincingly, and notes that Highsmith chose lovers who were either socially or intellectually her superior. For all her flamboyance, she was driven by self-doubt and a sense of inferiority, like Tom in The Talented Mr Ripley. Others will seek to untangle her tormented psyche, but Bradford’s has the edge over the two previous biographies by Wilson and Joan Schenkar, if only because it is less than half the length of either.