The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith
©2009 Joan Schenkar
An Ordinary Day
On 16 November, 1973, a damp, coldish, breaking day in the tiny French village of Moncourt, France, Patricia Highsmith, a fifty-two year old American writer living an apparently quiet life beside a branch of the Loing Canal, lit up another Gauloise jaune, tightened her grip on her favorite Parker fountain pen, hunched her shoulders over her roll-top desk -- her oddly-jointed arms and enormous hands were long enough to reach the back of the roll while she was still seated –- and jotted down in her writer's notebook a short list of helpful activites "which small children" might do "around the house."
It's a casual little list, the kind of list Pat liked to make when she was emptying out the back pockets of her mind, and it has the tossed-off quality of an afterthought. But as any careful reader of Highsmith knows, the time to pay special attention to her is when she seems to be lounging, negligent, or (God forbid) mildly relaxed. There is a beast crouched in every "unconcerned" corner of her writing mind and, sure enough, it springs out at us in her list's discomfiting title. "Little Crimes for Little Tots," she called it. And then for good measure she added a subtitle: "Things Around the House Which Small Children Can do..."
Pat had recently filled in another little list –- it was for the comics historian Jerry Bails back in the U.S. –- with some diversionary information about her work on the crime-busting comic book adventures of Black Terror and Sgt. Bill King, so perhaps she was still counting up the ways in which small children could be slyly associated with crime. In her last writer's journal, penned from the same perch in semi-suburban France, she had also spared a few thoughts for children. One of them was a simple calculation. She reckoned that "one blow in anger [would] kill, probably, a child from aged two to eight. . ." and that "Those over eight would take two blows to kill." The murderer she imagined completing this deed was none other than herself; the circumstance driving her to it was a simple one:
"One situation – maybe one alone – could drive me to murder: family life, togetherness."
So, difficult as it might be to imagine Pat Highsmith dipping her pen into child's play, her private writings tell us that she sometimes liked to run her mind over the more outré problems of dealing with the young. And not only because her feelings for them wavered between a clinical interest in their upbringing (she made constant inquiries about the children of friends) and a violent rejection of their actual presence (she couldn't bear the sounds children made when they were enjoying themselves).
Like her feisty, maternal grandmother Willie Mae Stewart Coates, who used to send suggestions for improving the United States to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (and got handwritten answers back from the White House), Pat kept a drawerful of unconventional ideas for social engineering just itching to be implemented. Her notebooks are enlivened by large plans for small people, most of them modelleled on some harsh outcropping of her own rocky past. Each one adds a new terror to the study of child development.
One of her plans for youth –- just a sample -- seems to be a barely-suppressed rehearsal of the wrench in 1927 in her own childhood when she was taken from her grandmother's care in the family-owned boarding house in Fort Worth, Texas all the way across the United States to her mother's new marriage in a cramped apartment in the upper reaches of the West Side of Manhattan. Pat's idea for child-improvement (it migrated from a serious entry in her 1966 notebook to the mind of the mentally unstable protagonist in her 1977 novel, Edith's Diary) was to send very young children to live in places far across the world --"Orphanages could be exploited for willing recruits!" she enthused, alight with her own special brand of practicality -- so that they could serve their country as "junior members of the Peace Corps."
Like a tissue-culture excised from the skin of her thoughts, her odd, off-hand little list of 16 November, 1973 (written in her house in a village so small that a visit to the Post Office lumbered her with unwanted attention) turns out to be a useful entrée into the mind, the matter, and the mise-en-scène of the talented Miss Highsmith. Among its other revelations, the list makes recommendations for people (small ones) whose lives parallel her own: people who are fragile enough to be confined to their homes, free enough to be without apparent parental supervision, and angry enough to be preoccupied with murder.
Here is her list.
"16/11/73 Little Crimes for Little Tots. Things around the house – which small children can do, such as:
1) Tying string across top of stairs so adults will trip.
2) Replacing roller skate on stairs, once mother has removed it.
3) Setting careful fires, so that someone else will get the blame if possible.
4) Rearranging pills in medicine cabinets; sleeping pills into aspirin bottle. Pink laxative pills into antibiotic bottle which is kept in fridge.
5) Rat powder or flea powder into flour jar in kitchen.
6) Saw through supports of attic trap door, so that anyone walking on closed trap will fall through to stairs.
7) In summer: fix magnifying glass to focus on dry leaves, or preferably oily rags somewhere. Fire may be attributed to spontaneous combustion.
8) Investigate anti-mildew products in gardening shed. Colorless poison added to gin bottle."
A small thing but very much her own, this piece of ephemera, like almost everything Pat turned her hand to, has murder on its mind, centers itself around a house and its close environs, mentions a mother in a cameo role, and is highly practical in a thoroughly subversive way.
Written in the flat, dragging, uninflected style of her middle years, it leaves no particular sense that she meant it as a joke, but she must have.. . mustn't she? The real beast in Highsmith's writing has always been the double-headed dragon of ambiguity. And the dragon often appears with its second head tucked under its foreclaw and its cue-cards –- the ones it should be flashing at us to help us with our responses – - concealed somewhere beneath its scales. Is Pat serious? Or is she something else?
She is serious and she is also something else.
All her life, Pat Highsmith was drawn to list-making. She loved lists and she loved them all the more because nothing could be less representative of her chaotic, raging interior than a nice, organizing little list. Like much of what she wrote, this particular list makes use of the materials at hand: no need, children, to look further than Mother's's medecine cabinet or Father's garden shed for the means to murder your parents. Many children in Highsmith fictions, if they are physically able, murder a family member. In 1975 she would devote an entire collection of short stories, The Animal Lovers Book of Beastly Murder, to pets who dispatch their abusive human "parents" straight to Hell.
Nor did Pat herself usually look further than her immediate environment for props to implement her artistic motives. (And when she did, she got into artistic trouble.) Everything around her was there to be used –- and methodically so –- even in murder. She fed the odd bits of her gardens, her love life, the carpenter ants in her attic, her old manuscripts, her understanding of the street-plan of New York and the transvestite bars of Berlin into the furnace of her imagination –- and then let the fires do their work.
Perhaps suggestion #3 in "Little Crimes for Little Tots," "the setting of careful fires, so that someone else will get the blame if possible" is the most disturbing; implying, as it does, both the double vision which produced her most interesting fiction (a single crime, but the culpability floats between two characters, as in her novel The Blunderer) and the kind of premeditation that might get those "Little Tots" sent straight up the river to the "Big House."
"Deadpan" was Pat's most available mode of expression, and her deadpan style here ("Style does not interest me in the least," she feinted in 1944) blows smoke rings of doubt around her intentions. And because her own childhood was the only childhood which ever truly interested her, there is one final smoke ring that rises mockingly above the rest: which child murdering whose parents was this list really made for?
Could her list's imagined victims have something to do with the complicated parentage of little Patsy Plangman (who had one more parent than she wanted, one less parent than she needed), born on the birthdays of both Edgar Allen Poe and his devilish character-with-a-doppelgänger, William Wilson? That's the little Patsy Plangman who grew up to be no one's "patsy" and who, as Patricia Highsmith, presented herself and her best characters as orphans-with-parents and adults-with-double-lives. Like her life, Pat's work –- even to its smallest element –- is full of interesting suggestions.
What was it, for instance, that brought Pat Highsmith, a writer with considerable successes behind and before her –- but, now, midway on her life's journey, in dark woods, with the right road lost (Pat was reading Dante in Italian just now) -- to set up her Fortress of Solitude in an obscure suburban village in France?
There is a good Highsmith story coiled behind this question, as well as a crucial Highsmith history. To find them, we shall have to go back to her desk in Moncourt. Questions concerning Highsmith's life are usually best answered in the vicinity of one of her desks.
As a child, Pat lay seething with resentment on couch-beds in living rooms of too-small apartments in Manhattan and Queens listening to the raised voices of her mother and step-father. As an adult, she demanded and secured a series of fiercely- defended private spaces which allowed her imagination to intensify its own interests. It was in houses (they were never quite the homes she'd hoped for) where she finally arranged the privacy she needed more than she needed anything else. And the most important physical feature of that privacy was always, always a room with a desk.
Here in the village of Moncourt, Pat and her desk are tucked up under the eaves in the second-floor bedroom of her house (first-floor in France), an hour's train ride from Paris. Although she sits in front of the scrolled roll-top like a snail in front of its shell, her posture is deceptive; she is not unshelled. The house itself is in a hameau, a tiny hamlet within the village of Moncourt, entirely encircled by a protective stone wall. It is two months and three days before her fifty-third birthday.
Eleven months ago, she began a poem: "I live on thin air/ And thin ice". Still, here in this house, as in every other place she has ever lived, she has made sure that there are at least two layers of solid material (house walls and a stone wall, in this case) between her and the rest of the world. When she is alone and writing –- that is, when she is at her most dangerous -- Patricia Highsmith likes to play it safe.
The desk she is sitting at provides a kind of catalogue of her working habits. Sheaves of printed stationery, filched during her literary sojourns at Europe's better hotels (her publishers pay for these trips), are stacked in its cubbyholes. Matchbooks, acquired by the same means, are secreted in its drawers. There are scraps of paper left over from the 2 1/2 manuscript drafts she types of each of her works (for neatness, she says, not because she needs to revise); she often reuses them for her vast correspondence, cutting them carefully in half if a half-sheet is all she needs. Even the rinsed-out receptacle holding her pencils once had another life as a jam jar. Nothing is wasted in her household.
A Gauloise jaune smoulders away in a half-filled ashtray beside her. A glass of cheap scotch is within easy reach. Somewhere in the room there is a forgotten tumbler of milk and a cup of cooling coffee. Two bottles of Valstar beer, both empty, are on the floor under the desk.
At twenty, when she was a junior at Barnard College living at home in New York City -- and just as liable to falling through the crust of the world as she is now -- Pat first wrote about thin ice:
"We live on the thin ice of unexplained phenomena. Suppose our food suddenly did not digest in our stomachs. Suppose it lay like a lump of dough inside us and poisoned us."
Food has disturbed her on and off since she was an adolescent. She wrote to her professor-friend Alex Szogyi (he was also a food writer) that food was her "bête noire" -- and she has come to attach many confusions to the act of eating. France, the culinary center of the Western World, means nothing to her: "I don’t even like the food," she writes from Fontainebleau. She thinks America's "Nixon" problem is gastric: ". . .the USA [is] suffering a prolonged attack of acid stomach, an irrepressible urge to throw up." She herself often has the urge to throw up. Her idea of an attractive name for a cookbook is "Desperate Measures." For a long time now, liquids have been her most important nourishment.
At this moment, she has put down her pen and begun to type on the coffee-colored Olympia Portable Deluxe typewriter that has accompanied her on all her restless travels since 1956. Its hardshell carrying case is pasted over with shipping labels from European countries. The Olympia –- a ripple of Leni Riefenstahl runs through its brand name -- occupies a major portion of the desktop.
Her typing style is distinctive: brutal, dogged, and unhurried. She uses only four or five fingers to strike the keys, she strikes them hard, and she strikes from above, like someone attacking the keyboard of a musical instrument. Her fingers appear to limp a little and their rhythm is syncopated. She could be playing a harpsichord. She has always wanted to play the harpsichord. Instead, she will give a harpsichord and the lessons for playing it to her favorite character, the talented Mr. Ripley. And, as an afterthought, to Ripley's wife, the belle, blank Heloise.
The single bed with the striped bedspread, the one she sleeps in when she sleeps alone (which she mostly does these days), is in this small room as well, at a right angle to her desk. A chocolate- point Siamese cat is curled up on it. A radio, a box of tissues, and a bottle of Vicks Vapo-Rub are on a simple stand beside the bed. An old, bluish Persian carpet, frayed here and there, is on the floor. There is a roof window just above her eye-level -- an old-fashioned tabatière – which opens onto the courtyard.
As usual, her desk faces a wall.
It is 5:22 in the morning.
As she bends her head over her typewriter, the exposed nape of her neck, usually concealed with a scarf or a turtleneck sweater – "I have no neck," she remarked flatly to an interviewer -- shows signs of a dowager's bulge. Her shoulder-length hair, still coiffed in the classic pageboy she went to Barnard with in 1938, falls forward over her face. Coiffed is not quite the word for it; Highsmith harbours a life-long " dislike of being groomed" by professionals, calling it "a curious way to regain morale – having other people administer" to you. She pushes her pageboy back with her thumbs –- first one side, then the other -- and tosses her head slightly in the characteristic gesture that settles her hair. In grooming, as in everything else, Patricia Highsmith prefers to do it herself.
The marmoreal beauty of her youth, abundantly attested to by friends, lovers, family, employers, photographers, and, in a pinch, by the writer herself, is almost gone. Years of drinking, depression and inadequately extinguished internal fires have ravaged it. The difference between the youthful, coruscatingly seductive Pat Highsmith of her early photographs and the almost-fifty-three year old writer who sits typing in front of us now, is striking; she looks like another person.
Still, she is capable of radiating the kind of magnetism that draws attention in a room, with her bowed-down head and her piercing dark-eyed glance darting up and out from under the fringe of hair; assessing you, says one young friend, "with the shrewdness of a homicide cop for evidence of wrongdoing." Her eyes are pouched like an owl's, (a contant comparison among journalists; they know she likes owls), the oval of her face is disturbed by dewlaps, the skin is shirred and ruched. She looks dissipated, but alert. The fires are banked, but they could break out at any moment.
Like a description she gives of Mr. Ripley, she is " on the edge of [her] chair, if [she] is sitting at all." Except when she's at her desk.
Her arms (they appear to be turned-out a little at the elbows even in her long-sleeved shirt) are busy with the peculiar, piston-like motion of her typing. Home movies reveal that they are genetic copies of the capable arms of her grandmother Willie Mae Coates. Her hands –- many of the Coates side of the family have these hands -- are enormous: square, powerful, and as large as her head. They are gnarled and nicked from her wood-working and her gardening. "Worker's hands," says one friend. "Butcher's hands, strangler's hands," ventures a neighbor. Her thumbs are extraordinary: huge curved digits, bent out naturally at what appear to be unnatural angles to the rest of her fingers.
As she types, her bottom lip relaxes out over her chin in what her friend, the acidulous memoirist Barbara Skelton, will later call a "rather louche" overhang. Pat is not conscious of this lapse in controlling her lip, something she has felt compelled to do ever since a prospective lover described her mouth as "passionate." Her writing at this hour is the result of an extended bout of insomnia –- she suffers from it more and more -- and she is just now finishing up the six or seven or eight pages which are her usual day's work.
Outside, just beyond the door in the stone wall at the end of her garden, the Loing Canal, a commercial waterway connected in some mysterious way with the River Seine, flows steadily on. The Loing, broad enough for barges but narrow enough for neighborliness, flows through her imagination as well. It is in this body of water where she will have Tom Ripley deposit some of his most incriminating bodies of evidence. Again, nothing that she can make use of is overlooked.
A practical woman when it comes to necessary transactions, Pat has been unusually adept at getting a handsome return on her social investments. At every move and remove, and with a minimum expenditure of effort, she manages to gather around her a little society of helpful, admiring, understanding people, recruited for the purpose of providing that increasingly well-known writer Patricia Highsmith with just enough human contact (and enough help with the shopping, the sewing, the moving, the gardening, the house painting, etc.) to continue her work in relative comfort.
And as she moves and then moves again (Moncourt is her fourth house in France in two and a half years, all of them near Fontainebleau and friends in the Île-de–France), she goes on making more friends and more acquaintances, telling each of them less about her inner life and less about her past. And she continues to keep in touch with many of these friends, past and present, by a steady stream of letters and postcards filled with the most mundane details of her daily life and with invitations to come and stay; invitations, her correspondents quickly learn, best honored in the breach. Pat likes to invite people to visit, but is not often pleased to see them arrive. Her correspondence –- always the preferred method of contact -- is enormous.
If Pat is a recluse, she is the most social recluse in literary history.
Pat's to-ing and fro-ing –- her moves and removes have been quite as extreme and various as her moods -- has been going on for some thirty years now. In her life-long quest for perfect silence and eternal peace (conditions which are always overturned by her unquiet self and its need for " madness and irregularity... which," she writes, "is also necessary to me and necessary to my creation") , Pat has been a restless self-exile from New York, from Pennsylvania, from America, from Italy, from England -- from everywhere, really.
Through it all, she has remained an extraordinarily productive creator. The hard-working " Little Engine That Could" is what she most resembles. And that is how she thinks of herself: as someone who gets the job done against the odds.
"Address to younger writers, who think older writers like me are so famous and so different. We are no different at all, we are just the same as other writers, only we work harder."
Her little train of daily accomplishments, freighted with book themes, articles, short story beginnings, observations, descriptions -- an idea a minute, in fact -- chugs steadily between the twin terminals of her self-regard and her depressions, and keeps her very busy filling up its cars. And still she is afraid of not doing enough. Punctuating every interview she gives to the press with complaints about how her valuable time is slipping away, she usually manages to suggest that the most horrible waste of time is the interview she is giving right now. Even when she was in college, in the year she wished she could see Shakespeare "in his study", Pat was terrified of "losing" time: "Six months to fill this notebook? Good heavens, can I be burning out!? Have I shot my bolt!?"
How the Texas-born, New York-reared Mary Patricia Highsmith ended up in a hameau in suburban France (a country whose language she generally refuses to speak), calculating the number of blows it would take to kill small children and -- her version of fairmindedness -- counting the ways in which tiny tots could murder adults, has as much to do with the rupture of a cross-Channel love affair as it does with the ordinary propensities of her imagination. So let us move periods (we'll go back eight years) and change venues (to England), to visit Pat at a time when her hope, if not her mood, was higher, and when she was still full of feelings for the central figure in her life. Which, as it happens, is not the woman with whom she says she is in love.