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8 December 2021updated 15 Dec 2021 6:12pm

Patricia Highsmith’s many vices

The thriller writer’s journals record her vast appetite for sex, drink, violence and – above all – work.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Midway through Patricia Highsmith’s newly published Diaries and Notebooks, the writer commits the kind of criminal act you’d read about in one of her thrillers: stalking. In December 1948, 27-year-old Highsmith began seeing a psychoanalyst in an attempt to “cure” her homosexuality. To pay for it, she took on seasonal work at Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan, in the toy department, where she sold “ugly and expensive” dolls.

One day, a beautiful blonde woman in mink enters the store: Mrs ER Senn. They speak for no more than three minutes, but Highsmith is smitten, and rushes home to write about the encounter (beginning The Price of Salt, her pseudonymously published “lesbian novel”, which became the film Carol). Later, she rifles through the store’s files to find Mrs Senn’s address, and sends her a Christmas card. Then, more than a year and a half later, Highsmith takes a train to Ridgewood, New Jersey, and stands on her street “like a murderer in a novel”. Behind the wheel of a pale blue car, she sees a blonde woman in a pale blue dress. Could it be her?

Compiled by Highsmith’s long-time editor Anna von Planta, this volume of life-writing is comprised of both Highsmith’s diaries – which contain details of her love life, social calendar and career milestones, and are often written in French or German – and her notebooks, in which she recorded reflections on her state of mind and writing life. Recounting her trip to Mrs Senn’s house in her diary, Highsmith is animated, anxious, alert. “It shook me physically,” she writes. She describes her “dismay and horror” when others ask about her destination. “O Christ,” she writes. “Pray, God, that she never troubled to look up my name.” But in her notebook the next day, her tone is different. She insists that she was “very calm and composed”. Here, the trip seems more thought experiment than act of passion. “I am interested in the murderer’s psychology,” she writes. “Yesterday I felt quite close to murder… Murder is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing.” She imagines what it would be like to “arrest her suddenly, my hands up on her throat (which I should really like to kiss) as if I took a photograph, to make her in an instant cool and rigid as a statue”.

Perhaps this is the kind of figure readers expect – or hope – to find lurking behind Highsmith’s novels: a calculating, Ripley-esque character with a perversely bloodless interest in bloody murder. “The morbid, the cruel, the abnormal fascinates me,” Highsmith wrote aged 21. At 28: “There must be violence, to satisfy me, and therefore drama & suspense. These are my principles.” At 50, she wrote that motherhood could drive her to murder: “I’d strike a blow in anger, and kill, probably, a child aged from two to eight. Those over eight would take two blows to kill.” 

There is undoubtedly a thrill in reading Highsmith shamelessly entertain such violent visions. But this thousand-page volume – tirelessly edited down from over 8,000 handwritten pages found posthumously in a linen cupboard – shows this is by no means her only side. Containing short entries written over the entirety of her adult life, it is a partial but vivid portrait of a driven, impassioned, brutal and remarkably singular person, with a vast appetite for women, alcohol and – above all – her work.

By the time she was 20 years old, Highsmith considered herself past it. She was born in Texas in 1921, but partially raised in Manhattan from the age of six by her mother and stepfather, and her surviving diaries begin in her 20th year, when she is studying at Barnard College. “So much time has gone by, and I’ve done so little,” she writes, a few weeks after her birthday. “I should be more creative, more original at this age.” She often frets about her age and failures, particularly in her early years, where she is at her most anxious about her career, but also seems at her most joyful and free. 

The first decade of her adult life takes up half of this book: during her twenties, Highsmith kept copious notes on her life, often writing at least an entry a day – and there is so much life to transcribe. Though she is living with her mother (sleeping on a pull-out sofa in the living room of their one-bed apartment in Greenwich Village), Highsmith already has a very cosmopolitan social life. Introduced by bookshop owner Mary Sullivan to a vibrant, elite circle of artistic lesbians, Highsmith spends her evenings with photographers, painters and writers – and sleeps with many of them, too. Slotted between diary entries worrying about grades are lively parties, detailed descriptions of sex, and endless martinis (which she then chastises herself for in the more monastic tone of her notebook). Her mother is suspicious. “Mother said some curious things… that New York social life breeds Lesbians, that I’m always happy when I go out with girls & bored stiff with men. That my girlfriends all live with each other & don’t take interest in men, etc. There’s the pieces, Bacon, put them together!”

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Highsmith is involved with a great number of women through her twenties, often declaring herself in love within a matter of days, but becoming repulsed if the attraction is returned too strongly. Of the painter Allela Cornell, who would loom large in Highsmith’s imagination after her suicide in 1946, she writes: “I lathered her back in the bath, and we sailed the little ship I gave her. It was lovely. Then – in bed together, naked, the light sheets on our two bodies – our soft skin rubbing together over and over again.” But her hunger for love is always in competition with her hunger for work. As Highsmith observes, “it takes a hell of a lot of time to be in love”, and to her, any time not spent writing is wasted. Read side by side, the diary and notebook entries show the age-old conflict between the writer’s life and work playing out in real time. “I have seen and lived in the real world for the first time in my stupid life,” Highsmith writes. “An unbookish life can be very useless.” She writes comics to pay the bills, but fears it comes at the cost of her fiction.

In New York and on trips to Europe in the 1940s, Highsmith seems blithely uninterested in the war and its aftermath. The politics of the era only really intrude in entries on the criminalisation of homosexuality, or in jarring passages of anti-Semitism. She says she is “proud” to have so many Jewish friends, then writes an entry casually beginning “Jews – why do I consistently find some fault in them?” Misogyny, too, invades her entries (and worsens with age: “Women are, alas, showing themselves more infantile and incapable than ever in whining about their lot in 1963.”) She often writes about women at a remove, as if she was not one herself. In one entry, she muses: “I want to change my sex. Is that possible?” In another, she recalls telling her mother, aged 12, that she was “a boy in a girl’s body”.

Highsmith became an overnight success in 1950, when Strangers on a Train was published and snapped up for $6,000 by Alfred Hitchcock for a film adaptation. Parties are thrown, but her workaholic tendencies prevent her from feeling celebratory. Of this exceptional period, she writes “Where have these five miserable months gone? Down the drain with martinis, late coffees, naps in the daytime, a few comics, and tears.”

In the early 1950s, Highsmith begins a tumultuous relationship with Ellen Blumenthal Hill, who she seems to hate as much as she loves. The most murderous she seems in all her entries is towards Hill’s wire-haired dachshund, Henry, who “spoils our nights, mornings, dinners, makes travelling uncomfortable & constantly offends me aesthetically”. After he rips open Hill’s Christmas present, Highsmith writes, “I should have throttled the dog if he had torn up my manuscript.” (When, years later, Highsmith vaguely writes, “I have this evening been accused of hopeless, incorrigible jealousy. Manifesting itself in the destruction of a dog,” I did begin to wonder…) Convinced Hill is reading her diaries, she stops writing them, focusing solely on the notebook: her last entry for many years concerns the book that would become The Talented Mr Ripley: “The sentences of this book go down on the paper like nails. It is a wonderful feeling.”

Despite continued professional success in the 1950s and 1960s, the mood of the journals grows darker. Collected in one volume, the diaries and notebooks are most compelling as a portrait of the artist as she ages. “I live my life backwards,” she observes in 1962. “In childhood I was lugubrious and very grown-up, in adolescence middle-aged, now in middle-age adolescent, and even my hair has changed from black to brown and is becoming lighter.”

[See also: What Dostoevsky knew about evil]

Highsmith moved to England in 1963. Settling in the Suffolk countryside, she is depressed by Ipswich: “There simply has to be a supermarket everywhere, a Co-op this and that, a Sainsbury, Woolworth, Boots, because there simply has to be too many people”. The entries become comically grumpy in later life. “The profound indignity of being interviewed… Why should life be so ghastly? So wretched? Such a torture?” There is cruelty, as when Highsmith’s mother nears the end of her life and begins to lose her mind: “I hesitate even to write the word brain in regard to my mother, as I believe she has only a ganglion (of nerves) there.” Highsmith spent her final decade in a fortress-like home in a Swiss village: her last “coherent” entry is dated October 1993, just over a year before her death.

Throughout, she returns often to her past observations. “Read another year of my journal (which I found very boring)” she writes in 1942. In 1950: “Rereading all my notebooks – rather glancing through all of them, for who could possibly read them?” A note to her intended literary executor (“Kingsley, have some taste”) suggests that the notebooks, at least, were written with a view to publication. In recent years, Highsmith has only become more celebrated, and this volume will doubtless find a wide readership as a dynamic portrait of a writer’s mind.

One entry seems to catch Highsmith at her most alive. It comes in January 1945, days before her 24th birthday. “Biographical note – 11.50am. I have done hardly any work since breakfast at 10.50am. Why? Because it is snowing in big slow flakes outside my windows, and it has made a white bearded magic of a discarded but upright Christmas tree that sits in a corner of the little lawn in my court.” The tree “stands and seems to think by itself, awaiting something, but also being complete in itself”. She is listening to a sonata on the radio, and contemplating the candle on her table (beautiful in “the snow’s gray glare”) and the Henry James novel before her.

[See also: How our lives depend on dirty work]

“The potential pleasure of this morning…  is more intoxicating than any substance or any physical sight,” she writes. “Merely to exist is an ecstatic pleasure. How inadequate are all these words, when the physical sensation now makes me taut, wanting to shout, laugh, leap around my room, and at the same time be quiet and learn and feel all I can!”

Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941-1995 Patricia Highsmith (Ed. by Anna von Planta)
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1,024pp, £30

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This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special