The Short Stories of Patricia Highsmith

Personal life

Highsmith endured cycles of depression, some of them deep, throughout her life. Despite literary success, she wrote in her diary of January 1970: "[I] am now cynical, fairly rich ... lonely, depressed, and totally pessimistic."[13] Over the years, Highsmith suffered from female hormone deficiency, anorexia nervosa,[14] chronic anemia, Buerger's disease, and lung cancer.[15]

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Patricia Highsmith, "My New Year's Toast", journal entry, 1947[16]

According to her biographer Andrew Wilson, Highsmith's personal life was a "troubled one." She was an alcoholic who, allegedly, never had an intimate relationship that lasted for more than a few years, and she was seen by some of her contemporaries and acquaintances as misanthropic and hostile.[17] Her chronic alcoholism intensified as she grew older.[18][19]

She famously preferred the company of animals to that of people and stated in a 1991 interview, "I choose to live alone because my imagination functions better when I don't have to speak with people."[20]

Otto Penzler, her U.S. publisher through his Penzler Books imprint,[21] had met Highsmith in 1983, and four years later witnessed some of her theatrics intended to create havoc at dinner tables and shipwreck an evening.[22] He said after her death that "[Highsmith] was a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being ... I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly. ... But her books? Brilliant."[23]

Other friends, publishers, and acquaintances held different views of Highsmith. Editor Gary Fisketjon, who published her later novels through Knopf, said that "She was very rough, very difficult ... But she was also plainspoken, dryly funny, and great fun to be around."[23] Composer David Diamond met Highsmith in 1943 and described her as being "quite a depressed person—and I think people explain her by pulling out traits like cold and reserved, when in fact it all came from depression."[24] J. G. Ballard said of Highsmith, "The author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley was every bit as deviant and quirky as her mischievous heroes, and didn't seem to mind if everyone knew it."[25] Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, who adapted The Price of Salt into the 2015 film Carol, met Highsmith in 1987 and the two remained friends for the rest of Highsmith's life.[26] Nagy said that Highsmith was "very sweet" and "encouraging" to her as a young writer, as well as "wonderfully funny."[27][28]

She was considered by some as "a lesbian with a misogynist streak."[29]

Highsmith loved cats, and she bred about three hundred snails in her garden at home in Suffolk, England.[30] Highsmith once attended a London cocktail party with a "gigantic handbag" that "contained a head of lettuce and a hundred snails" which she said were her "companions for the evening."[30]

She loved woodworking tools and made several pieces of furniture. Highsmith worked without stopping. In later life, she became stooped, with an osteoporotic hump.[6] Though the 22 novels and 8 books of short stories she wrote were highly acclaimed, especially outside of the United States, Highsmith preferred her personal life to remain private.[31]

A lifelong diarist, Highsmith left behind eight thousand pages of handwritten notebooks and diaries.[32]

Sexuality

As an adult, Patricia Highsmith's sexual relationships were predominantly with women.[33][34] She occasionally engaged in sex with men without physical desire for them, and wrote in her diary: "The male face doesn't attract me, isn't beautiful to me."[35][a] She told writer Marijane Meaker in the late 1950s that she had "tried to like men. I like most men better than I like women, but not in bed."[36] In a 1970 letter to her stepfather Stanley, Highsmith described sexual encounters with men as "steel wool in the face, a sensation of being raped in the wrong place—leading to a sensation of having to have, pretty soon, a boewl [sic] movement." Stressing, "If these words are unpleasant to read, I can assure you it is a little more unpleasant in bed."[33] Phyllis Nagy described Highsmith as "a lesbian who did not very much enjoy being around other women" and the few sexual dabbles she'd had with men occurred just to "see if she could be into men in that way because she so much more preferred their company."[26]

In 1943, Highsmith had an affair with artist Allela Cornell who, despondent over unrequited love from another woman, committed suicide in 1946 by drinking nitric acid.[11]

During her stay at Yaddo, Highsmith met writer Marc Brandel, son of author J. D. Beresford.[33] Even though she told him about her homosexuality,[33] they soon entered into a short-lived relationship.[37] He convinced her to visit him in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he introduced her to Ann Smith, a painter and designer with a previous métier as a Vogue fashion model, and the two became involved.[33] After Smith left Provincetown, Highsmith felt she was "in prison" with Brandel and told him she was leaving. "[B]ecause of that I have to sleep with him, and only the fact that it is the last night strengthens me to bear it." Highsmith, who had never been sexually exclusive with Brandel, resented having sex with him.[38] Highsmith temporarily broke off the relationship with Brandel and continued to be involved with several women, reuniting after the well-received publication of his new novel. Beginning November 30, 1948, and continuing for the next six months, Highsmith underwent psychoanalysis in an effort "to regularize herself sexually" so she could marry Brandel. The analysis was brought to a stop by Highsmith, after which she ended her relationship with him.[38]

After ending her engagement to Marc Brandel, she had an affair with psychoanalyst Kathryn Hamill Cohen, the wife of British publisher Dennis Cohen and founder of Cresset Press, which later published Strangers on a Train.[39][40]

To help pay for the twice-a-week therapy sessions, Highsmith had taken a sales job during Christmas rush season in the toy section of Bloomingdale's department store.[38] Ironically, it was during this attempt to "cure" her homosexuality that Highsmith was inspired to write her semi-autobiographical novel The Price of Salt, in which two women meet in a department store and begin a passionate affair.[41][42][b]

In early September 1951, she began an affair with sociologist Ellen Blumenthal Hill, traveling back and forth to Europe to meet with her.[6] When Highsmith and Hill came to New York in early May 1953, their affair ostensibly "in a fragile state," Highsmith began an "impossible" affair with the German homosexual photographer Rolf Tietgens, who had played a "sporadic, intense, and unconsummated role in her emotional life since 1943."[6] She was reportedly attracted to Tietgens on account of his homosexuality, confiding that she felt with him "as if he is another girl, or a singularly innocent man." Tietgens shot several nude photographs of Highsmith, but only one has survived, torn in half at the waist so that only her upper body is visible.[48][6] She dedicated The Two Faces of January (1964) to Tietgens.

Between 1959 and 1961, Highsmith was in love with author Marijane Meaker.[49][50] Meaker wrote lesbian stories under the pseudonym "Ann Aldrich" and mystery/suspense fiction as "Vin Packer," and later wrote young adult fiction as "M.E. Kerr."[50] In the late 1980s, after 27 years of separation, Highsmith began corresponding with Meaker again, and one day showed up on Meaker's doorstep, slightly drunk and ranting bitterly. Meaker later said she was horrified at how Highsmith's personality had changed.[c]

Highsmith was attracted to women of privilege who expected their lovers to treat them with veneration.[51] According to Phyllis Nagy, she belonged to a "very particular subset of lesbians" and described her conduct with many women she was interested in as being comparable to a movie "studio boss" who chased starlets. Many of these women, who to some extent belonged to the 'Carol Aird'-type[d] and her social set, remained friendly with Highsmith and confirmed the stories of seduction.[26]

An intensely private person, Highsmith was remarkably open and outspoken about her sexuality.[31][33] She told Meaker: "the only difference between us and heterosexuals is what we do in bed."[52]

Death

Patricia Highsmith, aged 74, died on February 4, 1995, from a combination of aplastic anemia and lung cancer at Carita hospital in Locarno, Switzerland, near the village where she had lived since 1982. She was cremated at the cemetery in Bellinzona; a memorial service was conducted in the Chiesa di Tegna in Tegna, Ticino, Switzerland; and her ashes were interred in its columbarium.[53][54][55][56]

She left her estate, worth an estimated $3 million, and the promise of any future royalties to the Yaddo colony, where she spent two months in 1948 writing the draft of Strangers on a Train.[33][e] Highsmith bequeathed her literary estate to the Swiss Literary Archives at the Swiss National Library in Bern, Switzerland.[58] Her Swiss publisher, Diogenes Verlag, was appointed literary executor of the estate.[59]


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