In the summer of 1956, Patricia Highsmith was living in upstate New York with Doris Sanders, an advertising copywriter with whom she professed to be in love. The novelist was, at 35, worried about a mid-career slump, although this was more routine anxiety than reality. For the previous seven years, Highsmith had enjoyed a stretch of extraordinary creativity, resulting in the novels that would make her reputation – Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt (published in 1952 under a pseudonym and later republished, under her own name, as Carol), and The Talented Mr Ripley. And, after years of turbulence in her private life, she seemed, finally, to have achieved a measure of tranquillity. She and Doris bought a car. Highsmith started a vegetable garden. Improbably, she joined a church choir.
A few months after moving upstate, however, she noted ominously in her diary: “The danger of living with somebody, for me, is the danger of living without one’s normal diet of passion. Things are so readily equalized, soothed, forgotten with a laugh, with perspective.”
This might sound pleasant, to some. To Highsmith, it was hell. Two years later, she was living in a different town, with a different woman, from whom she was already plotting her escape. As she noted at the end of that diary entry in 1956: “I don’t really want perspective, except my own.”
It is more than 25 years since Patricia Highsmith died of lung cancer, in Switzerland, at the age of 74. While her reputation as a writer has never been higher, her personal image remains a mixed bag. Before reading her diaries and notebooks, published for the first time this month after a Stakhanovite editing job by Anna von Planta, my view of Highsmith was in line with the common perception that she was savagely impolite, racist, alcoholic and impossible. (Also scowling; in photos from her later years, the person she most resembles is Richard Nixon.) Her own publisher, Otto Penzler, described Highsmith to Joan Schenkar, her biographer, as “a horrible human being”. And while she tore through countless love affairs and infidelities (prior to moving in with Doris Sanders, Highsmith had been in love with Lynn Roth, Doris’s girlfriend – although this may say more about incestuous lesbian New York than Highsmith’s rapaciousness) with a swagger that, in a male writer of the period, wouldn’t have been considered remarkable, Highsmith’s eccentricities went deeper.
“I am becoming a little odd, personally,” she wrote in 1954, a fact that grew more pronounced as the years went by. It’s a startling effect of reading the diaries that one begins to understand not only why this occurred, but the impact it had on Highsmith’s fiction.
As related by von Planta in the book’s foreword, the job of decoding Highsmith’s private papers was almost comically fiendish. As well as publishing 22 novels and scores of short stories, Highsmith produced, in terrible handwriting, 8,000 pages of private writing across 18 diaries, 38 notebooks and five languages, of which English was the only one she spoke proficiently. The notebooks are where Highsmith worked out her stories and ideas; the diaries, written in a French, German, Spanish or Italian so terrible as to constitute encryption, are where the juicy stuff lies. In Von Planta’s 1,024-page volume, the two sources are combined to offer a portrait of Highsmith from the jolly solipsism of her 20s in New York – when, to read her diaries, you’d have had no idea the second world war was ongoing – to her sombre 50s and 60s, when she became increasingly bitter about the world and her life. In between are years of turmoil and heartbreak consistent with a truism about diaries: that you never write down the happy stuff. And yet alongside Highsmith’s rage and despair there is a great deal of joy, courage and unvanquishable still‑in-the-game spirit.
Here she is in 1942, still a student at Barnard in New York: “I looked very good today, even though my teeth are tormenting me. It’s only in my head: they aren’t in bad shape, but I keep getting more and more brown stains. Don’t know what to do.” One of the delights of the early diary entries is the unlikely spectacle of Highsmith as steward of a lot of glancing – Bridget Jones-type material (8 November 1943: “Nice day. Wore moccasins to work with great success.”)
Born in Fort Worth, Texas, she had, at the age of six, been transplanted by her mother and stepfather to Manhattan and, by her early 20s, was already an ambitious artist and writer. Highsmith is by turns cocky (“don’t need anyone. I have my art, and my art alone is true”), self-romanticising (“man, and Patricia Highsmith, were born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward”) and sardonic. “One of those days when I made dinner,” she notes in the summer of 1945. “And I will say here and now: it’s not worth the trouble.” Given the proprieties of the era, however, the most striking thing about the novelist in her early 20s is – there’s no polite way to put this – what an extraordinarily unapologetic shagger she is.
23 December 1942: “Buffie’s skin is like exquisite liquid, sliding over mine like a piece of satin … Buffie would happily have me as her only lover instead of her husband. Perhaps we’ll keep our Wednesdays.” Buffie needn’t get too comfortable. There is competition from, in short succession, Rosalind, Allela, Chloe and Virginia, a handful of the names that will populate the grid Highsmith keeps during these years ranking her lovers. (These women are as hard on Highsmith as she is on them; “Comb your hair,” snaps Rosalind in 1943. “You look like Byron with a hangover.”) When she writes, dreamily, of “the day we say goodbye forever to each other”, it triggers a note from the editor: “It is unclear what woman inspired this and the following entry.” Well, quite.
If Highsmith’s nights are fuelled by martinis often chased with a bout of self-loathing (“Damn it, why do I drink so much?”), in daylight hours she is clear-eyed. “What to do with homosexuality?” she writes in an entry from December 1942, a question that will occupy her for the next 50 years and that, obliquely or otherwise, many of her novels will confront. It is the central pathos of the diaries: the journey taken by Highsmith from these carefree days of her 20s, when after dinner one night she writes “a woman at the restaurant read our palms and gave me the best reading, that I won’t get married”, to a place of much guiltier and more ambivalent feelings. By the early 1950s, Highsmith’s flippancy is starting to erode, as the permissiveness of the war years gives way to the more socially conservative America of the day. Uneasily, she watches as friends – many of whom she has slept with – marry off and have children. In spite of the fact that she considers men, at best, a “dead weight” in bed, she wonders if she should be doing the same. “I’m making the greatest effort with Marc,” she writes in 1948, before fairly howling: “He was drunk, ugly, not at all appealing. I lay there thinking how beautiful and lovely and pure girls are! And I was terribly sad.” By 1955, the first note of bitterness creeps in when, with an eye on her hastily marrying peers, she writes: “Maturity descends like a slowly collapsing cake … maturity destroys the self, and makes you like everybody else.”
Highsmith does not marry Marc. Instead, she becomes a famous novelist and her success buys her not only time and money, but a portion of the social capital that as a single woman – never mind a lesbian – she would have otherwise been denied. It’s a piece of escape art that shows up in her novels, which at the most basic level are about people getting away with things – murder, most obviously, but also, in The Price of Salt, which tells the story of an affair between two women, romantic love. As Highsmith wrote in the afterword in 1989, when she finally came out as the author: “Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves, switching to heterosexuality, or by collapsing – alone and miserable and shunned – into a depression equal to hell.”
The Price of Salt sold a million copies in paperback. Strangers on a Train, Highsmith’s first novel, written two years earlier, was snapped up by Alfred Hitchcock and turned into a film. Her fourth novel, The Talented Mr Ripley, would become the basis for a five-novel series and an extraordinary success. In spite of these triumphs, Highsmith spends her life relitigating her choices. She finds herself simultaneously heroic, tragic, thwarted, constrained and doomed to repeat her worst pathologies, caught between a desire to be happy and the conviction that “happy days lead to stagnation of the mind”.
At her happiest, in the diaries, one is reminded of that line from Loitering with Intent, the novel by Muriel Spark – who was knocking around Rome in the 1960s while Highsmith was in France and ended up, deliciously, in a complicated cat-sitting arrangement with her – in which Fleur Talbot considers “how wonderful it feels to be an artist and a woman in the 20th century”. But Highsmith was also plagued by the image of what life “should” have been, and from a dozen comments in the diaries, it’s clear she couldn’t bear this: the fact that, for all her accomplishments, in the eyes of large swathes of society she would still have ranked lower in the hierarchy than the average country club wife. In 1960, shortly before leaving America for good, she writes: “Without liquor I would have married a dull clod, Roger, and had what is called a normal life. A normal life is also often boredom or violence, divorce, unhappiness, unhappiness for the children I never had.” And yet the shadow of that life tormented her.
It shows up in the novels as an almost pathological dislike of women chasing marriage, from poor, pathetic Miriam in Strangers on a Train to Marge in the first Ripley, to Therese’s horror, in Carol, of the “55-year-old faces of women who worked at Frankenberg’s, stricken with an everlasting exhaustion and terror”. Highsmith hates a lot of other people, too, of course. Her novels reserve a particular scorn for the male dilettante, hiding his mediocrity behind his father’s money. There is Dickie Greenleaf in Ripley, Richard in Carol and, as one understands from the diaries, Marc Brandel, the British novelist she almost married, in real life. When she confesses to Marc she is attracted to women, he is, at first, “amazingly tolerant”, an opinion he revises when Highsmith turns him down. Marc writes her a letter that she reproduces almost verbatim in Carol, in which he calls her sexuality “rootless and infantile”, and concludes that he feels nothing towards her but “disgust”. In Highsmith’s novels, men like Marc inevitably wind up with an oar to the side of the head.
By contrast, Highsmith is quite fond of her antiheroes. It is often remarked that the author identifies as much with the aggressor as the victim, but this isn’t quite right; one of the appeals of her writing is that in many of the novels, she has no time for the victim at all. “People dancing around the fringes of the law, living purely by skulduggery, are my delight!” she writes in an entry in 1960. Her male antiheroes, while shady and desperate, are not the straightforwardly charming psychopaths of lesser writers. They are impressionable, socially awkward outsiders, willing to do anything to avoid being nobodies. Highsmith, while exposing their weakness, understands their pain. They are also, inevitably, in love with the person they set out to destroy. In the diaries, Highsmith records a remark made by her friend, Lil Picard, in 1954, who suggests: “No one murders who has a satisfactory sexual outlet.”
In 1963, Highsmith leaves America for Europe in pursuit of a woman – “Caroline” – with whom years of tortuous involvement await. And yet, from affair to doomed affair, something unjaded remains. If her addiction to drama – “I prefer to be romantic. I want the strand of hair … the telephone call that means life or death” – is a kind of evasion, it is one that generates the energy that Highsmith clearly finds artistically useful. In middle age, Highsmith can still be quite jolly. In July 1967, she writes, “my oldest snail died today, or maybe yesterday as Camus would say”. (Famously, Highsmith bred snails, smuggling them across the Channel in her cleavage. This one was three years old and produced 500 eggs.) She has a few startling stabs at self-help: “Just decide you’re going to feel happy. Forget your bank account. Possibly make a martini. But only one … Smile – inside!” She will, she decides for the umpteenth time, give up women. But within days, she has fallen off the wagon. “Race, fire! Catch my love! Brand me with her. This is for always.” For future reference, she advises herself: “Avoid sadists.”
There are omissions. For an account of the sheer violence of her relationship with her mother, you need the biographies. And there are long, slow stretches. The European travelogues of the 1960s and 70s drag. Highsmith is financially secure and her reputation, at least in Europe, is assured. But her love life is, as usual, unhappy and even as the successful novels keep coming – her acclaimed The Cry of the Owl; four more volumes of Ripley – she grows increasingly sour.
She goes on great tirades about Israel, and is justifiably accused of antisemitism. (“I am sick of the Jews,” she had recorded in her diary, years earlier, and now refers to the “Holocaust, inc”). She gets angry with the women’s movement, attacking women with husbands and children who complain of being denied careers. “Women are, alas, showing themselves more infantile and incapable than ever in whining about their lot,” she writes, and it’s easy to see where this comes from. For years, Highsmith kept in her head “the vision of a house in the country with the blond wife whom I adore, with the children whom I adore, on the land and with the trees I adore”, before concluding, sadly: “I know this will never be.” Now, women who had all these things wanted the one thing Highsmith held over them – professional success. It wasn’t fair.
It was also bigger than Highsmith’s individual pathologies. In 1961, she wrote: “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 met have survived. Those not present have killed themselves, or have managed, or decided, or were able to conform.” Many of Highsmith’s former girlfriends had, indeed, killed themselves. Others, including Caroline, had gone back to their husbands and children. “The strongest of all emotions is the sense of injustice. A baby can feel it,” writes Highsmith, and if her work ethic, and the tenor of her prose, were partly driven by energies ignited by a sense of indignation and rage, she became fiercely – and perversely – protective of the conditions creating it.
When she died, in 1995, Highsmith was living alone, the bravado of her early years curdled into hostility. A modern therapist would probably say her serial choice of women who were either unavailable or treated her horribly was an expression of internalised homophobia. As it is, the therapist she visited in the late 1940s, in a last ditch attempt to “cure” herself, as recorded in her diary, told her she was actually heterosexual and only attracted to women because of her unhealthy hatred for her mother. Highsmith gave this diagnosis serious consideration. And then, a few days later, she binned it, concluding with a mixture of regret and defiance: “Alas, I know the truth – I do not wish to change.”