The Haunts of Miss Highsmith

December 11, 2009

The Haunts of Miss Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith wrote 22 novels, many of them set in Greenwich Village, where she lived. But the landscape of Highsmith Country consists not only of the physical Village neighborhood, but also the dark and desperate territory of Highsmith's psyche.

"She is our most Freudian novelist," said Joan Schenkar, whose biography of Highsmith was released this week by St. Martin's Press. Having spent nearly eight years on the book, "The Talented Miss Highsmith," Ms. Schenkar is the perfect tour guide for this novelist's world. Standing in front of the red-brick building at 35 Morton Street where the 19-year-old Highsmith took a summer sublet in 1940 to escape her mother and stepfather, Ms. Schenkar continued: "To her, love and death are closely related. She tends to murder people in her novels where she made love in real life."

Morton Street was where Highsmith "started her lifelong career of aggressive seduction," Ms. Schenkar explained. It is also where Kenneth Rowajinski, the psychopathic dog killer, is murdered in her 1972 novel "A Dog's Ransom." (The unlucky poodle, Tina, bears the name of a dog owned by one of her amours.) "She kills so many dogs," Ms. Schenkar said of Highsmith. "She hated dogs. She couldn't bear sharing attention."

On this steel gray, rainy day — "perfect Highsmith weather" — Ms. Schenkar was dressed in black. Her corkscrew-curled hair formed a circular bonnet around her face and matched the shape of her wire-rimmed glasses.

Highsmith is best known for "Strangers on a Train," which Alfred Hitchcock made into a movie in 1951, and "The Talented Mr. Ripley," made into a film with Matt Damon and Jude Law in 1999. Both novels feature sociopaths and murder. (Perhaps you are beginning to see a pattern.)
Ms. Schenkar is convinced that if Highsmith had not become a writer, she would have been a murderer. "From age 8 she wanted to kill her stepfather," she said, strolling north toward Grove Street, "She was born to murder. She had the mind of a criminal genius."

In her 1969 novel, "The Tremor of Forgery," Highsmith aptly turned her coffee-colored Olympia portable typewriter on which she banged out her fiction into a murder weapon in the hands of a writer named Howard Ingham. (He hurls it at a thieving intruder, smashing him in the head.)

Whatever innate characteristics she might have been born with, the circumstances that tortured Highsmith through her life included: a self-loathing of her lesbianism; resentment that she didn't gain entry to New York's highest social stratum; and a destructive love-hate relationship with her mother, Mary, who, when Patricia was 12, left the heartbroken child to live in Fort Worth with her grandmother for a year.

"It's never a good idea to fall in love with your mother," Ms. Schenkar commented dryly. Despite their volatile and venomous relationship, she could never be very far from her. Even that first sublet was only a couple of blocks away from her parents' one-bedroom apartment at 48 Grove Street, where she slept on a pull-out couch in the living room. Sidney Hook, the radical leftist philosopher, lived downstairs.

Ms. Schenkar stopped in front of the building, took a small thin cigar out of a metal case and lighted it.                  
We were engaging in ambulomancy or "divination by walking," Ms. Schenkar explained, stepping through Highsmith country in order to understand the writer herself. "Every physical location is also an emotional location," Ms. Schenkar noted.
She pointed across the street to a Federal mansion: "John Wilkes Booth supposedly plotted the assassination of Lincoln there."
Throughout Highsmith's more than four-decade career, her fictional world was often inspired by the curving, crooked streets of Greenwich Village, where she lived in the late 1930s and '40s. "It was her creative store," Ms. Schenkar said, "her little museum of America" that she took with her to Europe when she moved there in the 1960s. Her novel "Found in the Street" takes place in the late 1980s, yet the details are from an earlier era; "the canapés are from the 1950s," Ms. Schenkar said with a laugh.
That novel's wealthy, sexually obsessed couple, the Sutherlands, live on Grove Street; the object of their attention and their murder victim, Elsie Tyler, is killed a few blocks away, in her apartment at 102 Greene Street, where Highsmith's ex-lover, the painter Buffie Johnson, owned a loft.
Grove Street is also home to Edith Howland, the mentally disintegrating housewife at the center of the Highsmith novel "Edith's Diary" and the place where Cliffie, Edith's son, unsuccessfully attempts to murder the family cat Mildew. (Highsmith was much fonder of cats than dogs.)
Highsmith was all too aware of the demons that fueled her writing. At 26, on New Year's Eve 1947, she wrote a 2:30 a.m. entry in her journal: "My New Year's Eve Toast: to all the devils, lusts, passions, greeds, envies, loves, hates, strange desires, enemies ghostly and real, the army of memories, with which I do battle — may they never give me peace."
s Ms. Schenkar noted, they never did.
Farther down Grove is Marie's Crisis Café, one of the oldest piano bars and clubs in New York and a regular stop for Highsmith when she was at Barnard College and after. The door is painted fire-engine red; out front a picture of Sweet Georgia Brown hangs in a glass box. A few feet away is a plaque noting that this was the spot where the Revolutionary War activist Tom Paine died.
"She loved piano bars," Ms. Schenkar said. Nearby is the Village Vanguard, at Seventh Avenue South just below 11th Street, where Highsmith frequently went to watch her best friend from high school, the future film star Judy Holliday, perform with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and occasionally Leonard Bernstein, in the musical comedy sketch group the Revuers.
A few blocks east is Macdougal Street, the home of some of Highsmith's other favorite, now extinct, hang-outs like the Jumble Shop, a Prohibition-era tearoom she and Holliday (then Judy Tuvim) went to in high school and L's, a lesbian bar where she would later troll for lovers. Macdougal is also where the cop Clarence Duhamel in "A Dog's Ransom" stays with his girlfriend.
Where Macdougal meets Waverly Place stands the refurbished Washington Square Hotel, formerly the Hotel Earle, a seedy spot that both Highsmith and her mother often checked into when visiting New York later in life. It was the scene of many of Highsmith's seductions and the inspiration for her short story "Notes From a Respectable Cockroach."
The Village is as much Ms. Schenkar's home turf as it was Highsmith's. Escaping from the cold into the Cornelia Street Café, Ms. Schenkar ran quickly upstairs to the 170-square-foot studio she lives in when not in Paris. (The oven and broiler serve as book shelves.)
I live near many of her haunts in Paris," she said of Highsmith, after returning with a cushion for her aching back, "and I live around the corner from her here, in the Village."
s. Schenkar, who is also a playwright, confessed that for two years she was "rigid with hatred" for her subject. Aside from her dark misanthropy, Highsmith held some ugly views. She disdained African-Americans and Jews (despite her many Jewish lovers). But in the end, Ms. Schenkar said, she was won over by Highsmith's extraordinary talent. In her mind "Ripley" could be nominated to fill the slot of Great American Novel.
"I completely appreciate her work. She kept at it, even when she was dying, and in pain writing five to eight pages a day," Ms. Schenkar said, adding, "She wrote five or six of the most unusual novels of the last century."


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