Patricia Highsmith, Hiding in Plain Sight

Patricia Highsmith said of herself, “I am always in love. . . .” Yet at her memorial service in Tegna, Switzerland, in 1995, there were no lovers from the past, and there was no lover to mourn her in the present. The service was filmed, which Highsmith would have liked, because although reclusive, she was interested in posterity. Such display also allowed Highsmith to hide in plain sight (as her hero Edgar Allan Poe put it in “The Purloined Letter”) the fact that all her relationships had failed. Highsmith had died in a hospital alone, and the last person to see her was her accountant. Highsmith was obsessed with taxes.

There had been so many lovers, usually women, but men, too, including Arthur Koestler, who had the good sense to give up. Highsmith was attractive to men and to women, until her diet of alcohol and cigarettes (she hated food) raddled her beauty.

Men never fired her imagination, except in her fiction, where her males, especially Tom Ripley, are versions of herself. It was women she wanted, and she found them in bars, on boats, at parties and, best of all, in settled relationships with other people.

Highsmith loved a triangle, and she liked to destroy it, axing the part of the couple she didn’t want, but usually sleeping with her first. Hers was a life jammed with encounters, and it is not by chance that her novels obsessively use the unexpected life-changing/life-threatening encounter as the drive into the narrative — think “Strangers on a Train” or any of the Ripley series.

Highsmith’s one explicitly homosexual novel, “The Price of Salt,” uses the spring of a particular encounter that the writer never forgot. As a young woman in New York City, Highsmith was working in the toy department of Bloomingdale’s earning Christmas cash when a wealthy Venus in furs — older, handsome — came in to order a doll. Simultaneously falling in love and falling ill with a fever, Highsmith went home in a daze and plotted the whole scenario for her novel — and even dared to give it something like a happy ending. What she didn’t dare to do was publish it under her own name.

But this was the 1950s, and homosexuality was classified as a disease and a disorder. Highsmith’s Freudian therapy had been aimed exclusively at “curing” her, though, bizarrely, she was offered a support group with other women, mostly married, who had homosexual tendencies. Highsmith thought she might seduce a couple, and as her lover at the time observed, “better latent than never.”

Patricia Highsmith was as secretive as an oyster. She enjoyed the closeted hidden underground world of the gay scene in ’40s and ’50s New York and ’60s and ’70s Paris. She traveled in search of fresh encounters, and to rid herself of too much that could be known by others.

Highsmith left 8,000 pages of diaries and ­“cahiers,” but as Joan Schenkar notes in “The Talented Miss Highsmith,” she forged, fabricated and altered where necessary, just like her antihero Ripley. ­She lied all the time — to her lovers, to her friends, to the tax authorities, to publishers, agents, journalists, and to posterity. Lying about the facts was her way of telling the truth — as she understood it.

She was born in Fort Worth in 1921, in her grandmother’s boardinghouse. The family came from Alabama, where Highsmith’s great-grandfather had owned an antebellum plantation and 110 “body-slaves.” (Highsmith loved that ­image.)

Highsmith was never comfortable with blacks, and she was outspokenly anti-Semitic — so much so that when she was living in Switzerland in the 1980s, she invented nearly 40 aliases, identities she used in writing to various government bodies and newspapers, deploring the state of Israel and the “influence” of the Jews. Yet Highsmith had Jewish friends, and her first boss was a Jew who did nothing but support her work. She wrote him out of her history, as she did her stint at writing comic strips in New York in the 1940s.

Highsmith had a kind of archive-­attachment disorder; she adored lists. She chronicled, mapped, numbered and cross-referenced everything in her life, and even rated her lovers, but she wiped out what didn’t suit her and only vaguely acknowledged, when pressed by the more ferrety kind of interviewer, having conjured up a few story lines for Superman and Batman.

In fact her job was much less glamorous than plotting for those superheroes, but the comic strip formula of threat/pursuit/fantasy life/alter ego/secret identity was the formula she used in all her work. The four-color, six-panel comic strip shaped Patricia Highsmith the crime writer like nothing else — however much she cared to cite Dostoyevsky and Henry James.

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