Richard Bradford’s oddly disapproving, compelling new biography of the novelist Patricia Highsmith, born a hundred years ago in Texas, sets out to uncover the truth behind the image. Other biographers have admired her as the inventor of memorable characters such as the conspirators in Strangers on a Train or her amoral anti-hero Tom Ripley. Bradford gives us Patricia Highsmith the predator, arch-manipulator and sadist, whose characters’ worst attributes belong to their creator.
As a subject for a biography, Highsmith comes with a comet’s tail of paperwork, often generated by herself – diaries, letters, notebooks, manuscripts – and Bradford has made full use of this material. But alarm bells ring from the first line: “Leaving aside one’s personal opinions on her work, it has to be accepted that Patricia Mary Highsmith was an incomparable individual.”
What Bradford goes on to explain is that she was incomparably unpleasant, incomparably drunk and incomparably depraved, and his opinion on her work doesn’t seem to be entirely positive either. Her novels are mentioned in passing as “a lifelong autobiography”, and this is how they appear in the book – backing up Bradford’s claim that Highsmith was a liar.
According to him, “she decided that her own life should become the equivalent of a novel, a legacy of lies, fantasies and authorial interventions”, despite knowing that her notebooks “would be pored over by biographers”. Highsmith was engaged in an elaborate long con aimed at fooling gullible writers. Her novels are fact, her notes fiction, he suggests. Biographer beware.
Even if he is suspicious about Highsmith’s every word, Bradford seems happy to accept the opinions of nameless strangers, such as the psychiatrist who decided Highsmith was a psychopath because of the expression on her face. At the time she was sitting in the hall outside a party, alone and humiliated, after a disastrous attempt to socialise with English bohemians in the 1960s. Sympathy for her, here and elsewhere, is lacking from this biography.
Lies or yarns?
The other thing missing is Highsmith’s own voice. Brief synopses of the books convey only the basic plots, which seem flat and unconvincing. Bradford is sceptical about, among other things, Highsmith’s claim to have been inspired to create Tom Ripley by seeing a young man going for a swim in Positano in 1952. She didn’t mention this in print until 1989, but writers often shy away from talking about where they get their ideas.
The creative impulse is a mystery separate from talent, hard work and luck, all of which Highsmith had in abundance. Her inspiration for The Price of Salt (filmed in 2015 as Carol) came from a chance sighting of a woman in a department store. She had, in short, form for this.
Equally, some of her “lies” feel more like deliberate choices to tell a lively and interesting story – Highsmith was good at giving her audience what they wanted. Bradford views her actions as deliberate and consistent, as if she, like him, was working towards a known ending all along rather than making her way haphazardly from obscurity to acclaim.
Highsmith spent most of her adult life in Europe, a voluntary outcast from the US. She engaged in sexual liaisons with a bewildering number of women, many of them married. Happiness made it impossible for her to write, so she sought out misery with ruthless efficiency.
What you don’t get here is any sense of the charm she must have possessed to seduce so many women (and an occasional man). She could behave appallingly, not least to her lover Ellen Hill, who attempted suicide in front of an unmoved Highsmith. And yet Hill was aggressive, violent and controlling. The two women seemed trapped in mutual dependency and loathing. After a long parting, Highsmith ended her life living near Hill in Switzerland, in a house Hill had decorated for her.
If Highsmith’s life truly was a work of fiction, this relationship would be the central plot, but Bradford doesn’t dwell on it except as evidence of Highsmith’s conflation of sexual desire with murderous intent.
And what to make of Highsmith’s mother, a commercial artist who laughed at having tried to abort Highsmith with turpentine and who once gave interviews as Highsmith in the lobby of a hotel, to her famous daughter’s horror? On hearing of her unexpected arrival in London in 1964, Highsmith fainted. Bradford suggests this was fear of being uncovered as a liar, sadist and pervert, as her mother had threatened her in a letter that seems very unmaternal, to say the least.
Bradford complains about Highsmith’s attempts to recover childhood memories of abuse, and of course the stories are shaped by the novelist’s eye for a neat narrative. Yet the provable facts are dark enough.
The trouble with defending Highsmith is that she was, as Bradford proves, dreadful. Alcohol gave her courage, as did props such as the garden snails she carried around in her handbag at one time. Bradford has unearthed compellingly awful stories, such as the dinner party where Highsmith scrawled numbers on her forearm to mock concentration camp survivors. She loathed Jewish people (despite affairs with several Jewish women) and was vilely racist.
Bradford rightly points out that many of those who admire her as a lesbian icon would be horrified by the real woman. This book is a valuable corrective to more unquestioning portrayals of her.
What’s lacking is any sense of empathy, as if the sins of Highsmith’s later life cancel out her earlier achievements. She was a woman with no privilege or background striving for recognition in the cut-throat literary world of the 20th century, a lesbian writer at a time when lesbian fiction tended to mean soft-porn fantasies or morality tales, and a desperately unhappy person.
It’s hard to see why Bradford’s Highsmith deserves a biography, sceptical as he is about her literary merit and her personal morals. You have to guess at her talent and charm from the shadows they cast across this book, a work as dark as anything Highsmith herself ever wrote.