“The trouble with the police force,” said Arthur Gerard, the private eye in Strangers on a Train, “is that it has a single-track mind. This case, like many others, took a double-track mind. Simply couldn’t have been solved without a double-track mind.” Writing, for Patricia Highsmith, also took a double-track mind, and she accordingly kept two journals. Two records for the two Pats: “It takes two mirrors for the correct image of oneself,” she wrote. In the first journal, which she called her notebook or cahier and began at the age of seventeen, she looked forward, mapping out her literary terrain and recording aphorisms, plots, and germs for her fiction such as: “Able to think creatively only in the unconcious [sic], losing the thread when I realize I am following a thread.” Highsmith’s cahiers might be described as the conscious brain preparing the unconscious brain for action, because creative freedom flows, she believed, from the id and not the ego. She also stored here her thoughts on sexuality and gender, referred to as NOEPS (“notes on an ever-present subject”).
The second journal, begun when she was twenty and continued, like the cahiers, all her life, was a confessional diary in which Highsmith looked backward, digging down to “the bottom of myself” as though performing her own open-heart surgery. Here the unconscious brain found its way into consciousness: “Shame on Eva,” Highsmith wrote of her analyst, “for taking away my fantasies about having a male penis.” While the cahiers were written in English, the diaries were composed, until 1952, in a combination of English and imperfect German, French, Spanish, and Italian.
After her death in February 1995, Highsmith’s two sets of journals were found in a neat row at the back of a linen closet in her house in Tegna, Switzerland, the country where she lived out her last thirteen years as a recluse. The thirty-eight cahiers were in identical spiral-bound Columbia University notebooks, while the eighteen diaries varied in thickness and provenance. All fifty-six volumes are now in the Patricia Highsmith Papers at the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern, serving as a guide for the biographers she refused to authorize in her lifetime.
Highsmith did not expressly state that she wanted her journals published; the decision was made by Daniel Keel, literary executor of the Highsmith estate. Sometimes she threatened to burn them, at other times she considered leaving them to the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, but there is strong evidence that her secret history was always intended to form part of the Highsmith canon. Witness the care with which she updated her entries, which were returned to, cross-referenced, backdated, and later commented on. She divided her first cahier into categories; she copied her 1935–1938 high school journals into her ninth cahier; a slip of paper in the nineteenth cahier instructs her former college friend Gloria Kate Kingsley Skattebol, enlisted as her future editor, to “have some taste, have at least the taste I have in 1950 in weeding out what is already written, and recently written.”
Like all journals, the cahiers and diaries have a performative element. Highsmith will break the fourth wall: “As the reader will see,” she says of a particular relationship, “she would not have broken it off, ever, I think,” or speak sotto voce as though recording her final words to a handheld camera: “I don’t know who will ever read these lines, or who should bother. But these are the shakiest days—or some of the shakiest—I’ve ever tried to live through.”
Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks, 1941–1995, the first appearance in print of her journals, represents “a mere fraction” of the original eight thousand pages. To foreground the twin themes of Highsmith’s life, which were love and writing, the “redundancies,” as the volume’s editor, Anna von Planta, describes the “chitchat, indiscretions, and gossip,” have been omitted, along with the worst of the misanthropy and xenophobia that set in during the 1970s, when Highsmith turned sour with disappointment. The fifty years of entries have been ordered chronologically and divided into five sections, based on where Highsmith, who never stayed anywhere for long, was living at the time. Between 1941 and 1950 she is principally in New York, after which she can be found moving through England, France, Italy, and Switzerland.
The boldest of von Planta’s editorial decisions has been to bring the diary and cahier entries together, “interwoven and interlocked,” so that they become a dialogue between what T.S. Eliot called “the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” This blending of her two selves seems startlingly at odds with Highsmith’s intentions, but it works well. We know which entries are which because Highsmith employed two different systems of dating, long-form for the diaries and numerical for the cahiers. So the diary entry for September 11, 1941, reads, “Mother won’t take coffee with me in the mornings, and won’t let me give her a birthday present. We are in a vicious circle, of which each of us forms one half.” A cahier entry from later that year, quoted immediately afterward, reads:
Perhaps I have said this before, but it should be in each notebook: a short story (or a novel-germ) must come from an inspiration which, on first acquaintance, seems better suited for a poem…. Inspiration comes many ways at many times, but I like best inspiration with a smile on one’s face and a relaxation in the body.
“When read in tandem,” von Planta suggests, the dual narratives will give the reader “a holistic understanding…of an author who concealed the personal sources of her material for her entire life, and whose novels are more likely to distract us from who she was, than lead us to her.”
Von Planta’s aim is “to let readers discover, in the author’s own words, how Patricia Highsmith became Patricia Highsmith.” But as a writer, Patricia Highsmith was always Patricia Highsmith: there was no evolutionary process involved. Her interest from the start was in psychosexual disturbance. “The morbid, the cruel, the abnormal fascinates me,” she noted of “Crime Begins,” her first published short story, written at the age of sixteen. “Should like to do a novel,” she mused at the age of twenty. “Something brilliant of course…. Anybody can be so with a bizarre idea and a capacity for smooth writing.”
A bizarre idea told in straightforward sentences is a good enough definition of Highsmith’s brand. “Style,” she liked to say, “does not interest me in the least,” but her absence of style is itself stylish. The flat anonymity of Highsmith’s authorial voice, whose every line moves to the same beat, was a brilliant conceit. “I meant to give a mood of emotional tension, of stubborn plodding also, of a bottling up of force that will one day explode,” she said of the opening line of This Sweet Sickness (1960). Highsmith grasped better than any of her contemporaries what could be done with a sentence. “Apply sentences like strokes of color,” she counseled herself. “The sentences of this book go down on the paper like nails,” she said of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), which she described as being written by Ripley himself.
Mary Patricia Plangman was born on January 19, 1921, in her grandmother’s boardinghouse in Fort Worth, Texas. Nine days earlier, her mother, Mary, had divorced her father, Jay Bernard Plangman, who then disappeared from the family scene. When Pat was three—by which age she was able to read—her mother married Stanley Highsmith, and the Oedipal drama began. “Could I possibly be in love with my own mother?” she wondered on September 14, 1941, later reflecting that “I learned to live with a grievous and murderous hatred very early on.” Her mother, said Highsmith’s biographer, Joan Schenkar, was “the great love of Pat Highsmith’s life.”
When Pat was six, she left for New York City with Mary and Stanley, who were both graphic artists; when she was eight the three of them returned to Fort Worth; when she was nine they all went back to New York. Every time Pat settled into one school, she was uprooted and placed in another one. At nine she knew she liked women, and she was enjoying Dostoevsky, whom she later described as “my master.” At ten she was told by her mother that Stanley was not her real father. At twelve she knew she was “a boy in a girl’s body.” That same year, Mary and Pat left Stanley in New York and went back to Fort Worth alone, with Mary promising to get a divorce. Pat lived in hope, but Mary returned to New York to give the marriage another try, leaving her daughter behind for “the saddest year of my life.”
This “abandonment” was one of Highsmith’s formative experiences: “I never got over it. Thus I seek out women who will hurt me in a similar manner,” she wrote to a friend. While her mother was betraying her in New York, Pat met, for the first time, Jay Bernard Plangman. (The second time she met her father, when she was seventeen, “there were some lingering kisses,” “not exactly paternal.”) Pat was thirteen when she rejoined Mary and Stanley in Manhattan, and the following year she was asked by her mother if she was “a les” because she was “beginning to make noises like one.” Mary laughed at the idea of having a queer daughter in the same way as she would find funny a “hunchback…on the street.” Highsmith, who used the male pronoun in referring to herself throughout her journals, never called herself a “lesbian” but rather a “homosexual.”
Shy as an ibex and ashamed of her desires, the young Highsmith believed she would “never become a part of life.” She pictured herself standing alone in the dark, watching through lighted windows the “undisturbed, untormented” happiness of heterosexual couples for whom “courtship is so easy, the attainment so easy, their bodies so fortunate.” The image would become a staple of her novels. From her early reading of Karl Menninger’s study of abnormal behavior, The Human Mind, she learned that the “abnormal” are the honest people, and they became Highsmith’s people. Patron saint of perversion, she put her outsiders in the center of Highsmith Country and moved the insiders to the periphery.
The isolation of her adolescence ended in 1938, when Highsmith enrolled for an English degree at Barnard College. A diligent student by day, living with her parents in a cramped Greenwich Village apartment, by night she ran with a crowd of queer artists and writers including the photographer Berenice Abbott, the painter Buffie Johnson, and the journalist Rosalind Constable. The gay subculture in the Village looked after Highsmith well; she would not have survived in Fort Worth.
The pattern of the future was now established: hard drinking, hard smoking, hard writing, serial loving. It is clear from the journals, in a way that it is not from the biographies, that Highsmith was a fully functioning addict by the age of twenty and, like all addicts, trapped in a cycle of repetition and return. Knowing everything about herself, she knew this too: “Thus, I go through life, subsisting on one drug or another.” Books were her first recognized painkiller (“I must remember to use books as books instead of a drug”), but she had long been addicted to not eating as a way, she said, “to get attention of parents, also to punish myself, for sex reasons, etc.” Excessive thinness prevented menstruation, and the return of her periods was always noted in her diaries. Alcohol featured largely from the age of eighteen, by which point Highsmith was also a graphomaniac. She compared the imaginative freedom of writing fiction to the lawlessness enjoyed by the criminal.
The theme of her diaries, until the 1970s, was obsessive love, which she described as “a state of madness.” Each of her lovers was idolized until that desire turned to distaste and she reached for a fresh fix. There was never a gestation period for Pat; she fell in love at first sight and she could fall in love several times in one night. (“My God, how many women do I want?” she wrote on January 13, 1950.) Her second novel, the Sapphic romance The Price of Salt (1952), written under the pseudonym Claire Morgan and reissued in 1990 as Carol, was inspired by a cool blond in a mink coat named Kathleen Senn, whom Highsmith served when she worked at Bloomingdale’s. The split-second encounter left her “near to fainting,” and she twice journeyed to Senn’s house in New Jersey (a “castle” in a “fairy tale”) in the hope of getting another glimpse. Stalking her prey felt “quite close to murder,” Highsmith noted in her diary, adding:
Murder is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing…. 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.
Highsmith sank her lips into a fresh mouth as a vampire sinks his teeth into a fresh neck. The oblivion of kissing, like the oblivion that came with drinking and writing, fed her “desire to be ‘someone else,’” to have “a whole new inside.” This desire reached its apex when, at twenty-seven, she confided in her notebook, “I want to change my sex. Is that possible?” It was not possible and so Highsmith went into therapy in the hope of at least turning heterosexual.
“For the first time, I told a stranger that ‘I am homosexual.’ And he listened to the story of my life. And said that my case will take about two years.” She tried sleeping with men, but it felt like “steel wool in the face, a sensation of being raped in the wrong place.” The present was bleak and the future looked bleaker. She could either assume the role of a wife and become one of the happy heteros she watched through windows, or be true to her “maimed” sexuality. “As an artist,” she concluded, “I can and should follow only my own nature.”
She therefore invented a genre that could carry the full burden of her complexity. Highsmith wrote twenty-two novels, five of them about Tom Ripley, and nine collections of short stories, the like of which had never been seen before. In terms of the “brows,” she aimed high and landed somewhere in the middle; by doing so she created the taste, as Wordsworth might put it, by which she was enjoyed. In her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), the product of a decade of mining her “schizophrenic personality,” Highsmith divided herself between Bruno, the psychopathic playboy, and Guy, the frustrated husband, each the other’s “cast-off self, what he thought he hated but perhaps in reality loved.” Having exchanged murders, the two men become bound in homoerotic fascination.
Highsmith’s interest lay, she said, in “the murderer’s psychology,” which in Guy’s case confused love and hate: “I like you, I don’t hate you, Guy thought. But Bruno wouldn’t say that, because he did hate him. Just as he would never say to Bruno, I like you, but instead, I hate you, because he did like him.” Bruno—whom Highsmith liked more than Guy (“Am so happy whenever Bruno appears in the novel! I love him!”)—is interested only in his own glory. At one point he imagines himself being interviewed about the art of murder:
“There’s nothing in the world like it!” (“Would you ever do it again, Mr. Bruno?”) “Well, I might,” reflectively, with caution, as an arctic explorer when asked if he will winter up north again next year might reply uncommittingly to a reporter.
Bruno, Ripley, and the rest of the Highsmith criminal fraternity glide along unburdened by conscience or backstory: “How boring it was really, Guy thought, crime. How motiveless often.” Not broken by experience, Highsmith’s heroes are born broken.
She called her books suspense fiction, but a Highsmith novel might also be called a paralysis that her protagonists work out. They are trapped by their houses, powerless in their marriages, imprisoned by their families, immobilized by their emotions and obsessions. “Hate had begun to paralyze his thinking,” Bruno realized; the act of murder, thought Guy, had been “like a nightmare when one is paralyzed.” Sometimes—as in her fourth novel, Deep Water (1957), in which an arsenal of observation serves the slowest of plots—the books themselves seem paralyzed. David Kelsey in This Sweet Sickness (1960), her seventh novel, calls his jealousy “the Situation,” and he compares his Situation to “a rock, say a five-pound rock, that he carried around in his chest day and night.”
In her analysis of memoir, The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick distinguishes between the circumstances of a life—the situation—and the emotional experience to be described in the “story.” The narrator, Gornick argues, must progress from situation to story; this progression is what Highsmith’s characters also need to achieve. Kelsey resolves his Situation by creating a weekend alter ego named William Neumeister. Ripley resolves his Situation by killing and becoming Dickie Greenleaf, and then, in the second book in the “Ripliad,” Ripley Under Ground (1970), by impersonating the dead artist Derwatt.
In Highsmith’s sixteenth novel, Edith’s Diary (1977), the title character’s Situation has stopped time itself. While her adult son Cliffie, having never left home, masturbates into socks in his downstairs bedroom, her former husband’s uncle marinates, year after year, in the bedroom upstairs. Her Situation becomes a Story when Edith describes in her diary an alternative life in which Cliffie has a successful career and happy family, and the uncle doesn’t exist. Highsmith’s own Situation became a Story when, in The Price of Salt, she gave her female lovers a happy ending. “Oh God,” she wrote in her diary as the novel poured out of her, “how this story emerges from my own bones!”
Her stories “leap[ed] to the surface from the subconscious as a sparkling, cavorting fish leaps an instant above the surface of the sea.” In this and other ways Highsmith’s instincts were Romantic. She believed in inspiration—“mad, unreasoned inspiration from the never never land.” She reworked the motifs of Sturm und Drang, and her criminal-heroes are the Romantic solitaries of early-nineteenth-century literature. Like Shelley and Byron, she admired Dante, and each of us, she observed at the age of twenty-one, “carries around in himself a terrible world of hell and the unknown.”
One precursor was Thomas De Quincey, opium-eater and murder aficionado, whom she seems not to have read but absorbed by osmosis through his disciples Dostoevsky and Poe. Tom Ripley, the aesthete-assassin who ranks a good murder alongside a good wine, could come from the pages of De Quincey’s “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” the mock lecture presented to the “Society of Connoisseurs in Murder.”
The murderer we most admire, De Quincey’s lecturer explains, is the dilettante who has, like Michelangelo in painting and Milton in poetry, “carried his art to a point of colossal sublimity.” De Quincey has as little interest as Highsmith in the suffering of the victims or the restitution of law and order. It is the murderer’s psychology that interests them. “There must be raging,” as he put it, “some great storm of passion—jealousy, ambition, vengeance, hatred—which will create a hell within him; and into this hell we are to look.” De Quincey’s splendid line might serve as a warning for all readers of Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks.
The best biographies, De Quincey suggested, are written “con odio” but also “con amore.” In other words, the biographer can hate their subject so long as their hatred is balanced by love: a biography based on hate alone makes for bad art. “Some of our own contemporaries,” De Quincey continued,
we hate particularly…. But for that very reason we will not write their lives…. For it is too odious a spectacle to imprison a fellow-creature in a book, like a stag in a cart, and turn him out to be hunted through all his doubles for a day’s amusement.
Biography as blood sport is one way to describe Richard Bradford’s Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires, the third life of Highsmith to appear in the last eighteen years. Andrew Wilson in Beautiful Shadow (2003) approached his subject con amore, Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith (2009) balanced admiration with horror, but Bradford’s life is based on hate alone. The grounds for his hate are laid out in the first three pages: Highsmith “enjoyed everything from beer to spirits,” she kept snails, she would sooner give food to a starving kitten than a starving child, she thought that domestic pets should be fed aborted human fetuses, she herself ate uncooked beef, she once went to a social event in a hotel and sat alone in the lobby looking weird, she was a career “nymphomaniac” with a taste for ménages à trois, and “twice she involved a fourth participant”; she liked married women best of all, “but breaking up lesbian couples came a close second. Had she lived in our era, one could imagine her taking great delight in adding breaking up lesbian marriages to her repertoire.”
Highsmith’s misanthropy can at least, Bradford says, be praised for its “diversity,” because she hated everyone equally, writing off entire religious and ethnic groups including Catholics, Jews, evangelicals, Mexicans, the Portuguese, and the French. She apparently called the Holocaust the “Semicaust” because the Nazis didn’t go far enough (Bradford does not provide footnotes so there is no reference for the source of this statement, which is not in the diaries or notebooks). He later concedes, however, that “Highsmith as the foul antisemite was in part an invention”—her own—which makes him dislike her even more.
Highsmith was what William Hazlitt called “a good hater,” and in this respect alone Bradford and his subject are well suited. Bradford hates Highsmith for not hating the same things he hates (psychopathic killers, snails, Freud, ménages à trois), and for not loving the same things he loves, like happy heterosexuals and Trieste. Her disappointment with Trieste, which she visited in winter, leaves Bradford seething:
It is, in terms of architectural charm, comparable with Venice, though Highsmith found it dull and depressing…. Some would say it surpasses any other European city in terms of the eclectic style of its buildings and its cultural legacies.
As for those other places such as Paris and the Mediterranean towns Highsmith sped through when she was “pulling a geographic,” as the addict’s need for constant relocation is described in recovery programs, “anyone with a hint of sense,” Bradford concludes, “would have been reluctant to leave” them.
On the other hand, Bradford likes Ellen Hill, Highsmith’s partner for four years, who was hated by Highsmith and all of her friends. Highsmith called her relationship with Ellen “a long and choking death.” The “atmosphere” between them, she said, was that of a “governess accompanying hopelessly moronic and filthy child,” and she stopped her diary entries for four years after she discovered that Ellen was reading them. But how, Bradford wonders, could Ellen be the “horrid, possessive bully” that Highsmith described when she did humanitarian work and proved herself “capable of meeting the rigid demands of an academic community”? The real reason that Highsmith hated Trieste, he suggests, was that the foundation for which Ellen worked was then “establishing an office there.”
Bradford’s project is to prove that Highsmith’s novels are “a lifelong autobiography” while her journals are works of fiction designed to throw biographers off the scent. She was, he argues, “playing games” with her future “scrutineers”:
As we will see, Patricia Highsmith had two careers as a fiction writer…. As well as writing books featuring invented characters she decided that her own life should become the equivalent of a novel, a legacy of lies, fantasies and authorial interventions.
The novelization of her life can be seen, Bradford argues, by examining the Highsmith Papers in the Swiss Literary Archives: “It is evident from the SLA archive that Highsmith in her later years gave almost as much attention to embedding as many insoluble mysteries in her autobiographical legacy as in her novels.”
It is an interesting proposition: Highsmith, who thought of writing as a “game,” based Edith’s Diary on precisely this premise. The evidence of willful obfuscation that Bradford claims to have found in the archive was not noted by Anna von Planta, but nonetheless these “lies, fantasies and authorial interventions” are there to be seen, he argues, if the reader looks closely enough.
The “sole purpose” of Highsmith’s later “emendations,” says Bradford (by which he means her cross-referencing of entries between her cahiers and journals), was “to create a fog of bewilderment” and it is this fog that he labors under; never has a biographer been more bewildered by their subject. Like one of Highsmith’s detectives, he hunts his prey through all her doubles and is confounded at every turn. But his bewilderment has less to do with Highsmith’s cross-references between diary and cahier than her sexuality and gender. Of her claim that “I am a man and I love women,” Bradford states, with the catastrophic literalism that defines his style, that “she wasn’t and she did.” Perhaps, he suggests, “a psychiatrist might be able to explain” what she meant by such a statement—but Highsmith knew exactly what she meant. When he asserts that “there is no evidence to suggest that Highsmith regarded her lesbianism as a deformity or a state from which she wished to free herself,” we wonder whether Bradford has even read the diaries and cahiers, because the evidence he can’t find is there on every page.
When I first read Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires, noting for an English journal the book’s publication in the UK, I had not yet read Highsmith’s journals and therefore trusted Bradford as a guide: Highsmith, I conceded, sounded like a terrible human being.* Now that I’ve absorbed von Planta’s selection, Highsmith seems vastly more courageous and complex than Bradford allows. An entirely different person, in fact. Her hatreds were born of self-hatred and her self-hatred was fueled by the persecution of queers. Highsmith gives us a personal history of twentieth-century sexual control, of lives lived not in the closet but in the cellar. She has a great deal to tell us about sexuality and gender and we should sit down and listen.
So how could Bradford, having visited the Highsmith archive and scanned eight thousand pages of lacerating self-analysis, not feel at least some sympathy for his subject, or have gained at least some understanding of how the popular and optimistic student became the rancid and pessimistic recluse? The answer is that Bradford did not consult the fifty-six diaries and cahiers at all during the writing of his biography. His book’s argument depends entirely on quotations, taken out of context, from the journals selected by Highsmith’s earlier biographers. Wilson, in Beautiful Shadow, broke the seal on the fifty-six notebooks, did battle with Highsmith’s handwriting and variety of languages, then tracked down just about everyone who ever knew her and extracted from them startling interviews. His conclusion on the veracity of the journals is that “it is clear that [they] were written without artifice.”
Bradford replaces analysis and research with opinion. “Leaving aside one’s personal opinions of her work,” he writes in his opening sentence, but he never leaves aside his opinions, either of Highsmith’s work or of anything else she thought or did. In Bradford’s opinion (it “seems to me”) Highsmith’s psychoanalyst hid behind “huckster psychology”—but all psychology is hucksterism for Bradford because he doesn’t believe in the unconscious. Highsmith’s suggestion that it was her abandonment at the age of twelve that drew her to women who would similarly reject her is described by Bradford as “simplistic,” on the grounds that no reasonable person would seek to repeat a painful experience: “If she was hurt so much by her mother’s apparent act of betrayal, why would she wish to continue to repeat the experience in her adult relationships?” A human being, for Bradford, engages entirely in rational thinking. But Highsmith Country is a looking-glass realm in which the irrational roams free. “Hate is akin to love, you know,” says Bruno, and a counterfeit painting, Ripley explains in Ripley Under Ground, is more real to him than the original.
It is because Bradford deals in literalisms that he misses Highsmith’s irony, is baffled by the doublethink of her two diaries, and confounded by her sexuality. It is also why he can make no sense of her figurative language. Take her diary entry for July 1, 1943 (misquoted by Bradford as January 7, 1943, and otherwise mistranscribed): “This morning, I thought of Allela so much I had to go to the bathroom to relieve myself of a large erection. Is that disgusting? Am I a psychopath? Sure—why not?”
Bewildered, Bradford consults the Oxford English Dictionary and reports back that “all cited uses of the word ‘erection’ in print, beginning with Sir Hugh Platt in 1594, refer to the male organ, implying in every instance that men are uniquely the proactive, dominant figures in sex.” When Highsmith writes in her notebook that “my mother is the type who fires a shotgun and then wonders why some of the birds are killed, others wounded and the rest scared,” Bradford informs us that “there is no record of Mary having ever used a shotgun.”
Bradford catches Highsmith lying in the unlikeliest of places; even the account she gives of her creative process in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1983) is based on what Bradford calls “blatant lies.” Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction should be seen, he says, not as a guide for the aspiring writer but as “a classic case of the criminal covering her tracks and creating what amounts to a convincing alibi.” His scoop is to suggest that Highsmith lied in her diaries about having a lover named Chloe with whom she went to Mexico in 1943. The evidence that Chloe is fictional is thin, based solely on Highsmith’s friends seeming never to have met her and no one by the name of Chloe, as far as Bradford is aware, ever having spoken publicly about knowing Highsmith.
But why would Highsmith, who had scores of lovers, need to make one up? Bradford offers no motivation for this ruse. According to him, Highsmith also lied about having a cocktail in Harry’s Bar with her friend Peggy Guggenheim (“there are no accounts of it from any of the others, in print or interviews”) and about seeing W.H. Auden on Ischia. The evidence for this particular lie, which appears in a letter Highsmith sent to a friend, is that had the visit really happened she would have recorded it in her diary—except that Highsmith did record it in her diary: “July 28, 1952. To Ischia by slow boat…where I called on W.H. Auden, barefoot, tended by Italian pansy, young. We talked.”
Bradford believes Highsmith’s entries until he doesn’t believe them, and those he believes to be true are as randomly selected as those he decides are false. For example, “Our knowledge of their sometimes apparently violent exchanges,” he says of Highsmith’s relationship with Ellen Hill, “is based on the descriptions of events and feelings and transcriptions of dialogue entered in the diaries and cahiers.”
It is hard to imagine Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires—a biography based on the doubtful notion that Bradford has examined the documents he claims are fictitious—having the same shelf life as Beautiful Shadow and The Talented Miss Highsmith. Patricia Highsmith’s lacerating diaries and notebooks, however, will be seen as one of the great twentieth-century artistic self-portraits. “I like people in whom the wrestlings are visible,” Highsmith said, “since they are the closest to truth.”
“Highsmith has done more than anyone to show how character traits that are repellent in the author herself become glamorous and appealing in her fictional counterparts,” I wrote in “Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires,” The Oldie, March 1, 2021. ↩