Patricia Highsmith’s New York Years

Before she wrote nearly two dozen suspense novels about psychopaths, sad sacks, and untimely death, when she was a twentysomething party girl in Manhattan, Patricia Highsmith wanted to write a bildungsroman about making it in the city. In her notebooks and diaries from that time, she imagines “a novel about the twenty-year-olds. . . . The bewilderment, the discouragement, the groping, the doubt, the hopes, the uncertainty of any permanence whatever.” She muses soberly, youthfully, “This could have great significance with respect to the times—economic, politic, the war and the knowledge—latent and unconscious, that we ourselves do not govern ourselves, and therefore are at other people’s mercy, if any.” At other times, she wonders if perhaps sex will be her great literary theme.

The novel she actually published that comes closest to these fledgling ambitions (it’s also one in which, uncharacteristically, nobody is killed, and the only one that Highsmith drafted sections of in the first person) is her lesbian romance, “The Price of Salt.” In its opening pages, the nineteen-year-old Therese Belivet, seeking distraction at her job on the sales floor of the Frankenberg’s toy department, reads from the employee handbook about vacation benefits: “ ‘Twenty-five Yearers’ got four weeks’ vacation, the booklet said.” Therese considers how “the store was organized so much like a prison, it frightened her now and then to realize she was a part of it.” The terror of this realization, and her reflexive disgust for institutional life in general, originates in her upbringing at a boarding school, where her mother, from whom she’s become estranged, left her when she was eight years old. Later, Therese tells her captivating love interest, Carol—who is in her early thirties, closer to Highsmith’s age at the time she wrote the novel—that she accepted two hundred dollars from her mother to help with the move to New York City. Therese feels considerable shame about this, and a strong desire to pay it back, to not be in her mother’s debt. But Carol’s having none of it: “Nonsense,” she says. “You were still a child. When you forget about paying her back, then you’ll be an adult.”

Disdain for conformity and a complicated hunger for money are insistent motifs across Highsmith’s early diaries, now collected in an edition covering “The New York Years.” A condensed version of the “Diaries and Notebooks” published in 2021, these span roughly ten years. The entries begin in 1941, with Highsmith’s junior year at Barnard, when she’s twenty, and conclude with her finishing “The Price of Salt,” her second novel, which she agrees to publish under a pseudonym. (Her agent suggested that a lesbian-romance novel with an unabashedly happy ending could harm her budding reputation as a brilliant writer of crime fiction.) This was one of only a few concessions to homophobia that Highsmith made in her early writing years, which by her own account were steeped in hookups, revelry, barhopping, and the pleasures of that second lunchtime Martini, much of it in the company of other queer artists like herself.

Yet where Highsmith truly wished to set herself apart was on the page. “Compared to the artists, all the rest of us lead very ugly lives,” she writes, in her first year on the job market. “It is only merciful that the overwhelming majority can never be aware of this appalling and depressing discrepancy between the ideal and the merely adequate.” Marriage, pregnancy, and the pleasant doldrums of the tragically legible career woman are invoked with a mix of horror and fascination. As are the prices of absolutely everything in Manhattan, and the contents of her bank account. “Bought T. S. Eliot,” Highsmith writes. “4 Quartets. $2.00 for 37 pages!” She also dutifully records the small amounts of money that her family members are able to send her, and that publishers pay for her first short stories.

By her twenties, Highsmith already feels that time is running out to prove herself a writer of genius like Thomas Mann; she fears that instead she’ll wind up like Kafka, who, by her lights, wasn’t quite wonderful enough. She loves Dostoyevsky, and it’s in his detailed psychological portraits of criminal and heretic minds that she picks up her habit of overusing exclamation points in her personal writing. (“I will be good, good, good!!! I will be feared!”) Highsmith wears many faces, and taken together they’re a tough crowd to impress. Upon graduating that year, she writes, “I feel my grave about my shoulders.” Uncertainty and insolvency stalk her as she strikes out at every magazine-assistant job she applies for and eventually lands gigs in the comic-book industry instead. She feels suffocated by the work. “One simply cannot concern oneself eight or even five hours a day with nonsense-taken-seriously and not be corrupted by it,” she writes. “The corruption lies in the very habits of thought.” Another kind of life taunts her: “What a genius I should be with leisure!”

Highsmith believes that money will grant her the freedom to be more dedicated to her fiction, and she’s right. When, in 1948, she is at last awarded a two-month reprieve from the rat race, at Yaddo, she gets a huge amount of work done. One of Highsmith’s biographers, the great Joan Schenkar, writes that, between bouts of furious work on her colossally successful first novel, “Strangers on a Train,” Highsmith was transgressing residency protocol and alarming Yaddo’s administrators by sneaking around with her lover Jeanne, both on and off premises. None of this appeared to rattle Highsmith in the slightest. Even her instant dislike of a fellow-resident, Flannery O’Connor, allegedly for insisting she saw Jesus’ face in a piece of porch wood, didn’t distract her. “Happiness overwhelms me,” Highsmith writes in her diaries, adding that the residency has enabled her “to complete what I have never completed.”

At the same time, her preoccupation with money points to more spiritual concerns in her personal life as well as in her writing. There’s often a productive distance between what she needs and what she can get, what she knows herself to be capable of and what more she might be capable of in the moment of creation: a thrilling psychic chase. It’s not so much financial security she’s after as her romantic conception of the writer’s life, which, however well supported, comes with its own uncertainties and risks. She writes that she has little respect for “so-called logical thinking”; instead, she wants “to live by unconscious thinking,” to accumulate “inspirations, thoughts, desires, that have come from I know not where.” Parallel with the events of her life is a running commentary on what kinds of circumstances will elicit a creative response from her unconscious. She tries one thing; it seems to be going well. When it fails, she turns on it. In May of 1945, Highsmith seems attuned to the patent absurdity of her position, squirming among these self-imposed strictures of work and play. “Thank God for animals!” she writes. “They never think themselves into jams. They are always right. They are an inspiration.” And in June she writes, “I want to be an artist but not become too serious, too mad about my art”—only to declare, a few months later, her intention to force a harsh divide between romance and writing, to “hold emotional life apart from my writing, therefore from my life itself.”

Like her most famous creation, the violent faker and class interloper Tom Ripley, Highsmith put herself in dramatic and dangerous circumstances in which her mesmerizing talent for making things up could find an audience. In “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” murder is the red velvet curtain rising on Tom’s next act, and money keeps the lights on. Highsmith’s own melodrama in New York City is fuelled not just by the pressure to pay rent and make art but by sex and love as well. Here, Highsmith’s precocious volatility and ambivalences are on full display. In a typical entry, Highsmith writes, “I phoned Chloe at 10:00 with the message that ‘I’m crazy in love with you.’ Which was true at 10 o’clock, nonetheless.” Certain questions resurface often. Does she work better in a relationship or alone? Can she possibly sustain any of her combustive romances long term, and does she even want to? Is she more attracted to her lover’s body or her sparkling conversation? And, if the subject of the entry is a man, can she rid herself of him fast enough? (She writes, “Oh, how wonderful to be straight.—Yes? No!”) As always, Highsmith tends toward the extremes, finding fault in the one she loved yesterday, dreaming of the one she left last summer. At twenty-three, she writes, of her love life:

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