BOOK OF THE WEEK
DEVILS, LUSTS AND STRANGE DESIRES
by Richard Bradford (Bloomsbury £20, 272pp)
By the end of the introduction — let alone the end of the book — I loathed Patricia Highsmith.
In this centenary year of her birth, her satisfyingly ruthless biographer Richard Bradford sets out the essence of her character and lifestyle in four-and-a-half withering introductory pages, to whet (or perhaps stifle) our appetites.
Far from being a hagiography, this reads like a hag-ography.
Biographer Richard Bradford has penned a book about author Patricia Highsmith (pictured) who created the chilling psychopath Mr Ripley
For a start, he lists Highsmith’s pet hates. She loathed Latinos, black people, French people, Koreans, Indians, ‘Red Indians’, Portuguese, Catholics, evangelicals, fundamentalists, Mexicans and, above all, Jews.
She regretted that the Nazis had only succeeded in exterminating half of the global Jewish population in what she called ‘the semicaust’.
Next, her character is briefly summed up in this section.
A sexually voracious marriage-wrecker who fantasised about murdering her lovers, she ‘particularly enjoyed affairs with married women, but breaking up lesbian couples came a close second’.
As Bradford writes: ‘Compared to her, the likes of Casanova, Errol Flynn and Lord Byron might be considered lethargic, even demure.’
Richard said Patricia (pictured) loathed Jews, was a stalker and was drunk from breakfast to bedtime
And for a final introductory flourish, he gives us a taster of some of her habits. Not only was she drunk from breakfast to bedtime through most of her adulthood.
She also so preferred animals to humans (well, at least the liking animals was good) that she thought dogs should be fed with aborted or miscarried human foetuses, and she liked to eat uncooked beef in a bloody lump, as she thought eating dead cattle unadorned accorded them respect.
She became obsessed with snails when she watched two mating — and she kept a snail colony, regularly carrying the creatures around in her handbag and once smuggling a handful of French ones across the Channel in her bra.
I suppose you can’t have a squeaky-clean existence and create fictional psychopaths as brilliantly creepy and amoral as Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr Ripley, or Bruno in Strangers On A Train.
DEVILS, LUSTS AND STRANGE DESIRES by Richard Bradford (Bloomsbury £20, 272pp)
Highsmith seemed to need to create misery and chaos in her own and others’ lives in order to find the energy to give life to her murderous stalkers. Bradford reminds us that Hitchcock actually toned down Strangers On A Train, removing the homoerotic elements and making Guy a non-murdering goody, in order to make the film palatable to a 1950s audience.
The film is ‘Hitchcock’s candy to Highsmith’s arsenic’.
Highsmith herself was a stalker, like Bruno. One day, while she was working behind the counter in Bloomingdale’s in New York in 1948, a pretty millionaire’s daughter called Kathleen Senn came into the shop. Highsmith became obsessed with her.
She rummaged through Bloomingdale’s files and found her address in New Jersey. She took a bus to her house and stood across the road, staring at it.
We know this because she wrote about it in the 8,000 pages of journals she kept from the age of 15 onwards. She described her love for Kathleen and her desire to murder her.
The two never met, but Bradford lets us know that Kathleen later took her own life by shutting herself in the garage with a car engine running.
Highsmith only desired women who came from the upper classes. She latched on to them, seduced them and made them go on exhausting car journeys round Europe or Mexico with her, never settling anywhere and ideally having howling, screaming rows all the way. That really got her creative juices flowing.
It was in Positano, Italy, on one of these journeys with her (as it happens Jewish) lover Ellen Hill, that she looked out of the hotel window, saw a handsome young man with a towel round his shoulders, and decided to turn him into Tom Ripley.
Bradford warns us not to take every word of her journals as gospel truth. She sometimes invented women to fantasise about, such as ‘Virginia’ and ‘Chloe’, who seem to have no foundation in fact. ‘She spun her diaries out of her projections and imaginings,’ positively wanting to confuse posterity, jeering at idiots like us who would try to make head or tail of her life.
Are there any explanations for her darkness, sado-masochism and weirdness? There are some. Highsmith, born in Texas in 1921, was an unwanted baby, the survivor of a botched abortion. Her mother divorced soon after the birth and married Stanley Highsmith, who Patricia believed was her natural father. Was she abused by two men while staying with her grandmother at the age of four or five? She first confided this to a friend in the final decade of her life, explaining: ‘I learned to live with a grievous and murderous hatred.’
Fictional psychopaths: Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow in The Talented Mr Ripley pictured
In her journals and later interviews she built up her childhood as ‘a blend of fear, self-loathing and hatred for her close family’. Her mother abandoned her with her grandmother for a year when she was 12. ‘Thus,’ wrote Highsmith, ‘I seek out women who will hurt me in a similar manner.’
From Bradford’s close examination of her life, it becomes clear that no women hurt Highsmith as much as she hurt them. She was an inveterate deceiver and two-timer. She drove Ellen Hill to attempt suicide by overdose, after their exhausting drive through Mexico in 1954 during which Highsmith had drawn creative energy from a partnership which she knew would end in disaster.
Instead of nursing her dying lover, Highsmith left her in the apartment and went out to dinner. Only at 4am, finding her in a coma, did she telephone a doctor.
Of another of her many lovers, wealthy Doris who worked for a Madison Avenue ad agency, Highsmith wrote in her diary: ‘One day I shall take you by the throat and tear the windpipe and arteries out, though I go to hell for it.’
Most intriguing was her long sexual relationship in the early 1960s with a high-born English married woman 12 years her senior, whose true name is still a mystery.
Bradford calls her Caroline. Their affair was slightly marred for Highsmith by the fact that Caroline’s gentlemanly husband was so gracious and accommodating about it. Caroline commuted from her marital home in Kensington to their lesbian love nest in Suffolk. Please come forward if you know who you are, or if ‘Caroline’ was your mother.
While admiring her best novels, Bradford is hilariously damning about her less good ones, describing her Ripley sequels as ‘some of the most dreadful pieces of suspense fiction ever to go into print’.
It didn’t help that Highsmith was a serious drunk by the time she wrote them in the late 1970s. At one smart London dinner party she fell forward into the candles and her hair caught fire. At another, she opened her handbag and released 30 snails which proceeded to make their way across the tablecloth.
Her fictional protagonists became (as she did) more and more extreme: one plot summary begins, ‘Ralph is a perverted, reclusive, anti-Semitic racist.’
Is there anything to like about Highsmith, apart from her empathy with dogs and kindness to snails? Really, not much. As her mother said to her, ‘It’s good you never had children. You can think of no one but yourself.’
It seems fitting that Highsmith spent the last years of her life, until her death in 1995, in a hideous architect-designed modernist box in Switzerland, ‘a masterpiece of architectural inhumanity’.