Patricia Highsmith Lived Extravagantly, and Took Copious Notes
By Dwight Garner
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Youth is wasted on the young, it’s said. It wasn’t wasted on Patricia Highsmith.
Born in Texas in 1921, she grew up, for the most part, in Manhattan. By the time she was a senior at Barnard College, she was so intelligent and fine-featured and obviously destined for greatness that both men and women threw themselves at her.
At Barnard and in Greenwich Village, where a bohemian crowd adopted her, Highsmith was aloof and desired. This was the early 1940s. She was to these milieus what Donna Tartt must have been to Bennington.
A new book, “Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks, 1941-1995,” captures how she felt about it all.
The whole book is excellent. Highsmith is pointed and dry about herself and everything else. But the early chapters are special. They comprise one of the most observant and ecstatic accounts I’ve read — and it’s a crowded field! — about being young and alive in New York City.
The future author of “Strangers on a Train,” the Ripley series and many other novels was learning to mediate between her intense appetite for work — few writers, these diaries make clear, had a stronger sense of vocation — and her need to lose herself in art, gin, music and warm bodies, most of them belonging to women.
There are a lot of late-night taxi rides in these journals. And necking in restaurant bathrooms (a bonus for same-sex couples). And stealing kisses from married women. And running down to Chinatown to get tattoos. Highsmith’s first was her own initials in Greek lettering on her wrist, small, in green ink.
She was always half-broke. When you date women, she joked, there’s no man to grab the check. She liked to be out. If you are made nostalgic by the mention of defunct Manhattan bars and restaurants, this book will be like reading the liner notes to a Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra album at midnight through a glass of bourbon.
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Highsmith and her crowd are found at Castille and Tilson’s and Le Moal’s and Eddie’s Aurora and Café Society Uptown and Romany Marie’s and La Salle du Bois and the Golden Horn and Crespi’s, where Highsmith liked the shrimp. I could list two dozen more spots.
She wanted to be alone, except when she didn’t. “Sex, to me, should be a religion,” Highsmith wrote. “I have no other.” She asked, “As long as beautiful women exist, who can be really depressed?”
She liked to go out in the morning and buy brioche and croissants for lovers still in bed. She wrote, “Life has no pleasure equal to that of the moment under the shower, singing, with a wonderful girl waiting in her bed in the next room.”
She kept her diaries — she knew they’d be published one day — in French, German and other languages, in part to master those languages and in part to repel prying eyes.
By day Highsmith pegged away at her writing. By night she pegged away at her gin.
She was a powerful and systematic drinker. She started young. “The world and its martinis are mine!” she wrote in an ebullient 1945 entry. She reports having five before dinner with Jane Bowles and being sick. Twice she mentions having seven martinis at a single sitting — once before, during and after a lunch, and once at dinner.
“I wonder if any moment surpasses that of the second martini at lunch, when the waiters are attentive, when all life, the future, the world seems good and gilded (it matters not at all whom one is with, male or female, yes or no),” she wrote.
She thought hard about alcohol and its role in the creative process. Writers drink because “they must change their identities a million times in their writing,” she said. “This is tiring, but drinking does it automatically for them. One moment they are a king, the next a murderer, a jaded dilettante, a passionate and forsaken lover; other people actually prefer to stay the same person, stay on the same plane, all the time.”
Despite hangovers, occasional blackouts and a few embarrassing scenes, she took more from gin, she reckons, than it took from her. “Without liquor I would have married a dull clod, Roger, and had what is called a normal life.”
Highsmith was drawn to worst-case scenarios and blacker-than-black themes. Graham Greene called her “the poet of apprehension.” Her characters seem, like those in Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” ready to pick up a rock.
In these diaries she can appear to have popped, fully formed, from a Charles Addams cartoon. Misanthropes will find a lot to please them.
She imagines a bird is chirping “Per-pe-trate, per-pe-trate, per-pe-trate!” (Another seems to say, “Queer-pee pul! Queer pee-pul! Queer pee-pul!”) She writes, “One reason to admire the automobile: It demolishes more people than wars do.” And, “I often think my only friend is my little pack of cigarettes.”
It was the smokes that did her in. She died in 1995, at 74, of lung cancer and anemia.
I’ve left many things out of this review. Her intense bouts of reading. Her day job in the comics industry. (She knew Stan Lee.) Her many lovers, two of whom attempted to commit suicide after the relationships ended. Her ceaseless work and the publication of her many books. The making of Hitchcock’s film of “Strangers on a Train,” which appeared in 1951 and helped put her on the map.
Her love of boy’s clothes. Her friendships with Truman Capote and Carson McCullers, as well as James Merrill, Dylan Thomas, Wim Wenders and Jeanne Moreau.
Highsmith and Arthur Koestler tried to have sex one October night in 1950 and it went badly. About it, she wrote: “He did not know homosexuality was so deeply ingrained, he said.”
There was her relentless travel. Her serial residences in good hotels. Her flashes of antisemitism. The houses she bought in England and then France and then Switzerland. She kept snails as pets, and would smuggle them through customs in her bra.
There was her solitude. Increasingly, as she aged, she was like Lindbergh going it alone across the ocean. Her friends become acquaintances and her acquaintances strangers.
“Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks, 1941-1995” has been condensed from some 8,000 pages of material. It is still, at nearly 1,000 pages, a whacking book. But it’s not logy.
It’s been sharply edited by Anna von Planta, Highsmith’s longtime editor. The introductory material for each section is useful and concise. There’s no desire to hit “skip intro.”
I probably could have pointed this review in a different direction, focusing on Highsmith’s depressions, her self-doubt, her almost killing drive to work. That’s all here, too.
The Highsmith I can’t shake is the one who wrote in her mid-20s, well after midnight on what had been Dec. 31, 1947:
“My New Year’s Toast: to all the devils, lusts, passions, greeds, envys, loves, hates, strange desires, enemies ghostly and real, the army of memories, with which I do battle — may they never give me peace.”
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