Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith

Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith

by Andrew Wilson

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The life of Patricia Highsmith was as secretive and unusual as that of many of the best-known characters who people her "peerlessly disturbing" thrillers and short stories. Yet even as her work has found new popularity in the last few years, the life of this famously elusive writer has remained a mystery.

For Beautiful Shadow, the first biography of


The life of Patricia Highsmith was as secretive and unusual as that of many of the best-known characters who people her "peerlessly disturbing" thrillers and short stories. Yet even as her work has found new popularity in the last few years, the life of this famously elusive writer has remained a mystery.

For Beautiful Shadow, the first biography of Highsmith, British journalist Andrew Wilson mined the vast archive of diaries, notebooks, and letters she left behind, astonishing in their candor and detail. He interviewed her closest friends and colleagues as well as some of her many lovers. But Wilson also traces Highsmiths literary roots in the work of Poe, noir, and existentialism, locating the influences that helped distinguish Highsmiths writing so startlingly from more ordinary thrillers. The result is both a serious critical biography and one that reveals much about a brilliant and contradictory woman, one who despite her acclaim and affairs always maintained her solitude.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
While British journalist Wilson's portrait of Highsmith (1921-1995) is neither graceful nor fluid, it is as haunting and as chilling as the stories and novels Highsmith crafted over more than 50 productive years. The author of Strangers on a Train and five novels featuring the amoral and murderous Tom Ripley, Highsmith achieved considerable critical acclaim in her native United States, but never sold well here. She was better received in Europe and that was where she made her home. The biographer's exhaustive attention to detail coupled with his access to Highsmith's journals (or "cahiers," as she called them) and letters, and extensive interviews with her friends, lovers and associates, allow him to reveal in excruciating detail this very private person. Highsmith emerges as a woman of great intelligence, candor and curiosity, but also as a racially prejudiced, anti-Semitic and insensitive boor. She was an acute observer capable of seizing a single incident and transforming it into a complex story. But she was unable to transform her own unhappy life. Instead she transmuted her troubles, her experiences, her observations into her work. One of her lovers observed, "If she hadn't had her work, she would have been sent to an insane asylum or an alcoholics' home.... She was her writing." Highsmith's work has had an important impact on both crime fiction and gay and lesbian fiction, and Wilson has impressively documented that as well as the tremendous cost Highsmith paid for her achievements. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (July 15) Forecast: Interest in Highsmith was revived when the film of The Talented Mr. Ripley was released in 1999, and a little Highsmith mini-industry is cropping up. Many of her works are being reissued by Norton; others are available from Vintage and Grove. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A closely drawn portrait of the writer who "celebrated irrationality, chaos and emotional anarchy, and regarded the criminal as the perfect example of the twentieth-century existentialist hero." British journalist Wilson uses Highsmith's diaries, notebooks, letters, and interviews to catch (in her own words) her "moods, fits, and daily activities." Perhaps best known for Strangers on a Train and her Ripley novels, Highsmith (1921-95) was never easy on her readers, says Wilson. Her work was often macabre and transgressive, noir and existential, drawing upon evil's banality and life's strange forces ("Each person carries around in himself a terrible other world of hell and the unknown," she wrote in her notebook). Highsmith herself comes across as a distinctive character: she was reserved ("This is the tragedy of the conscience-stricken young homosexual, that he not only conceals his sex objectives, but conceals his humanity and natural warmth of heart as well," she wrote, though she later became comfortable with her lesbianism); footloose; bereft of moral certainties ("I myself have a criminal bent. . . . I have a lurking liking for those who flout the law which I realise is despicable of me"); maybe even, as a friend noted, possessing "a form of high-functioning Asperger's Syndrome." Her relationships were many and urgent, and she had a quirky enough character to provide diverting stories, like the one of smuggling pet snails into France by hiding them under her breasts. But it's the dark side that most fascinates Wilson, the warped perspectives of Highsmith's central characters, their attractions and antagonisms, and her desire "to explore the diseases produced by sexual repression . . .like peculiar vermin in a stagnant well." Perhaps no one "can document a life in all its richness," but Wilson has come close, getting at Highsmith from a number of angles and showing the splinters of identity in his subject that she herself found so captivating. (Two 8-page b&w photo inserts, not seen) Agent: Clare Alexander/Gillon Aitken
From the Publisher

“A tour de force, an account so generous and prescient that Highsmith seems to step from its pages like a hologram.” —Los Angeles Times

“One of the best biographies I've come across in years. It's a work of exquisite scholarship and ... much more.” —Boston Globe

“Highsmith ... has been lucky in her first biographer. A thorough, extensively researched, dispassionate account of her complex life.” —Washington Post

“A stunningly researched and insightful account ... Sympathetic but unblinking ...” —Entertainment Weekly

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Copyright © 2003 Andrew Wilson All right reserved. ISBN: 1-58234-198-2

Chapter One

The forever seeking

1921 and before

In one of Highsmith's early notebooks there is a short vignette about a boy who wonders why he is happy at one moment and sad the next. As the boy grows older, he becomes increasingly fascinated by the nature of consciousness and people come from afar to ask him the question: 'What and why am I?' Like the boy in her story, Highsmith was a writer in search of identity. On every page of her cahiers and diaries the same self-searching questions are asked over and over again. Was she the sum of her consciousness? Or was her self merely made up of the perceptions of other people? 'There is an ever more acute difference ... between my inner self which I know is the real me, and various faces of the outside world,' she wrote in 1947. And could a writer, forever assuming the personalities of his or her characters, even have such a thing as a stable identity?

Towards the end of her life, Highsmith became fascinated by genealogy, building up a mass of papers which purport to trace her lineage, through the Stewarts, her maternal grandmother's line, back to James I. She wrote to distant relatives, genealogists, the College of Arms in London and local historians so as to piece together the fragments of her familyhistory. Running parallel to this desperate urge to find roots in the past, was the instinct to escape the present and a desire to chase the unobtainable. This manifested itself by her nomadic journeying around the world, from her birth place in Fort Worth, Texas, to New York, Mexico, Germany, Austria, Italy, England, France and Switzerland. In a poem she wrote when she was only twenty she imagined what her state of mind would be like in the future - after travelling around the world, she surmised, she would know hundreds of people in a clutch of different cities and yet she would still be lonely. 'I am the forever-seeking,' she said.

When Highsmith was thirteen years old she bought a pair of Confederate swords for $13. Later in life, each time she moved house, she would make sure these weapons from the American Civil War were displayed in a suitably prominent position. For all her European veneer - she had a working knowledge of French, German, Spanish and Italian - she was undeniably Texan. Her favourite food was the traditional cooking of the South - cornbread, collard greens, spare ribs, black-eyed peas and peanut butter - and towards the end of her life she felt most comfortable dressed in the basic uniform of the off-duty cowboy: 34-inch-waist Levis, sneakers and neckerchiefs.

'The fact that Pat was from Texas is incredibly important for an accurate appreciation of her character,' says her friend, the American playwright Phyllis Nagy, who knew Highsmith when she was in her sixties. 'When you say things like this to people who aren't American they think it's terribly facile but Southern conservatism was deeply ingrained in her. People forget that she was a very conservative
person - she wasn't bohemian like Jane Bowles and she did hold some very weird and contradictory views.'

Highsmith was born on 19 January 1921 in Fort Worth, thirty miles west of Dallas. In addition to Poe, she shared her birthday with Robert E. Lee, the US Confederate commander in the Civil War, whom she later named as her favourite historical figure. She would leave Texas for New York at the age of six, returning intermittently for short periods throughout her childhood, including an unhappy year when she was twelve, but the spirit of the Lone Star state, with its moltenhot, colourless sun, 'like something grown white with its own heat', ran deep in her veins. Later in life, when asked by a journalist whether she was aware of any typically Texan characteristics in her personality, the writer replied, 'Maybe a kind of independence.' As a young woman she also enjoyed horseriding - the one sport she indulged in - which
she said was 'perhaps the only respect in which I resemble a Texan'.

At school, Highsmith would have learned about the history of her home state before that of America: 'We chose this land; we took it; we made it bear fruit,' was a common mantra heard in many a Texan classroom. The phrase accurately articulated the 'territoriality of Texans - the feeling for place and tribe' and the passion its people felt for the land no matter whose flag - Spanish, French, Mexican, Texan, Confederate, American - could be seen blowing in the wind. 'The Texans in the 19th century did not create a "usable past", or one that buttressed 20th-century American mainstream thought,' writes historian T.R. Fehrenbach. 'The Texans emerged with a "blood memory," in the Texan writer Katherine Anne Porter's memorable phrase.'

The Lone Star flag flew over Texas, proclaiming its independence, for ten years, before it was annexed by the United States. Yet the struggle for the frontier continued, a savage confrontation between the so-called 'civilising' elements of America and the untamed world of the Indian; a war of identity which, when retold through the generations, transformed itself into a near-mythical story of epic proportions, a tale the young Highsmith found fascinating. The constant battle for land on what was called the 'raw scar of the frontier' - as late as 1870, the Kiowas, Comanches, Cheyennes, Kiowa-Apaches and Arapahoes prevented white men from stepping foot in nearly half of Texas - contributed to the Texan's belief in the rightness of his own law-making. In a land where opposing groups were battling for dominance, each man had to make his own rules, a structure of self-regulating morality which must have also interested the writer in later life. Texans were typically atomistic, empiricist of mind and independent, and, like Highsmith and many of her characters, they tended to shy away from groups in order to pursue their own physical and psychological journeys.

Running parallel to this rather creative approach to morality was the rich tradition of fire and brimstone inherited by detailed reading of the Bible. The Old Testament, with its graphic descriptions of good and evil, appealed to the Texan frame of mind. 'The young Texan read of evil that was ancient and ever-present, requiring eternal discipline of man ...' writes Fehrenbach. 'And although few could articulate or explain it, Texans gained a timeless portrait of man's world, of the rise and fall of peoples, of bondage and deliverance, of God's patience and wrath, and man's enduring inhumanity to man.'

Fort Worth - Highsmith's birthplace - was the site of many a brutal confrontation. Founded in 1849 by Major Ripley Arnold, the frontier town served as a military outpost to guard against Comanche Indian raids, protecting the white population to the east. The army left the town in 1853 but three years later, Fort Worth superseded neighbouroing Birdville as the Tarrant county seat. From the 1870s onwards, Fort Worth became a place associated with movement, transition and the free flow of people, products and livestock, acting as a stopover point for the longhorn cattle drives on the Chisholm Trail, the route which ran from south of San Antonio, Texas, across Oklahoma, towards Abilene, Kansas. Its position as a cattle-shipping boomtown was secured with the arrival of the Texas and Pacific Railway in 1876, by which time Fort Worth could boast thirteen saloons, with such names as 'Red Light', 'The Waco Tap', 'Cattle Exchange' and 'Our Comrades'. 'Fort Worth was less conscious of her morals than some of her neighbors,' one old timer is recorded as saying.

With the opening of the Fort Worth Stock Yards Company in 1893 and the development of the railway, Fort Worth transformed itself from a dusty cow town into a major trading centre. The railroads had revolutionised both its geography and its status and the city now proudly declared itself to be the 'Queen of the Prairies', attracting an influx of immigrants that only served to increase its prosperity. The population grew from 3,000 in 1876, to 23,076 in 1890, and 27,000 by the turn of the century. By 1910, 75,000 people lived within the city's limits and the discovery of oil in northwest Texas in 1917 fuelled the economic boom even further. By 1924 - three years after Highsmith's birth - the nine refineries in the area produced petroleum products valued at $52 million a year, making Fort Worth the 'oil capital of North Texas'.

From where Highsmith was born, two streets south of the Texas and Pacific tracks that slice the city in two along an east-west axis, she would have heard, as she describes in her first published novel, Strangers on a Train, the roar and 'angry, irregular rhythm' of the trains that tore through the 'vast, pink-tan blankets' of the prairies. In that novel, Guy on a visit back to his home, the fictional Texan town of Metcalf, hears a locomotive wailing in the distance, a sound which reminds him of his childhood, a noise which is 'beautiful, pure, lonely. Like a wild horse shaking a white mane.' And it was the railroad, with its distinctive tarantula-like network, and the ensuing employment boom, that attracted Highsmith's family to Fort Worth.

In 1904, Highsmith's maternal grandparents Daniel and Willie Mae Coates travelled from Alabama to Texas in a bid to capitalise on Fort Worth's economic buoyancy. Both husband and wife had come from solid, respectable, upwardly mobile backgrounds. Daniel was the son of plantation-owner Gideon Coats (the 'e' was added at some point at the end of the nineteenth century), while Willie Mae was the daughter of Dr Oscar Wilkinson Stewart, a surgeon. Highsmith was particularly proud of these two great-grandfathers, men who symbolised the spirit of American adventure and pioneering. She could not understand how her family could have fallen, as she saw it, so far down the social scale and she constantly turned to the past as a way of reassuring herself of her origins.

Gideon Coats, born in 1812, came from South Carolina and travelled to Alabama to resettle. After exploring the state, looking for a suitable place to build a plantation, the bearded, dark-eyed man found Coats Bend, then nothing more than a mass of dense forests and windswept sagebrush fields. In true pioneer style, he bought 5,000 acres from the Cherokee Indians for an undisclosed sum and in 1842 constructed what became known as the Coats mansion, a ten-room house with twenty-foot rooms and fourteen-foot-high ceilings. The whole house was built without the use of nails; instead it was fixed together using nothing but wooden pegs, an architectural detail that delighted Highsmith. In fact, she was so taken with the plantation house she kept a photograph of it in one of her albums. Later in life she would confess that one of her favourite books was Margaret Mitchell's Civil War classic, Gone with the Wind, 'because it is a true novel about the South', before adding, perhaps somewhat naively, that, 'My great-grandfather in Alabama had something like 110 slaves and they were not unhappy.'

Gideon Coats married Sarah Deckered in 1842 and together they had eight children, including Highsmith's grandfather, Daniel, born on, 13 October 1859. The Coats were famous for having large feet and hands, physical characteristics inherited by Highsmith. 'I think most of us were "bent too soon" in that we have large feet, also large hands,' wrote one relative to the author, unable to resist making a pun on the name of the family's birthplace.

Willie Mae's father, Dr Oscar Wilkinson Stewart, was born in 1829, one of the sixteen children of Elizabeth Dechard and William Stewart, a Scot so pious he wore holes in the carpet of his bedroom by his 'frequent and protracted kneeling in the act of prayer'. Oscar grew up to be a physician who served as a Confederate States surgeon in the Civil War, and with his wife, Mary Ann Pope, he raised eight children, including Willie Mae, who was born on 7 September 1866 in Auburn, Alabama. The girl was only seven when her 44-year-old father died of yellow fever, in Memphis, Tennessee, in September 1873.

The two families were united when, on 25 December 1883, Daniel Coates and Willie Mae Stewart married in Coats Bend, Alabama. Although Daniel was given a grist mill, store and sawmill by his father, during the early years of the new century the couple, with their five children - Edward, Dan, John, Claude, and Mary, all of whom were born between 1884 and 1895 - decided to travel 600 miles west in search of a better life. 'They packed up everything they had, their china, crystal and silver, and drove west,' says Don Coates, Willie Mae's greatgrandson. 'One of the reasons they decided to move was, I suppose, quite a selfish motive: they only wanted to look after their own family, not the extended family back in Alabama.

'My great-grandmother did not go to college but she was self-educated and was a voracious reader. Willie Mae was also amazingly strong-willed, like Pat. I recall once going over there for Sunday dinner and I was slightly taken aback because she was sitting very upright in her rocking chair, not at all in her usual relaxed state. When Daddy asked what was wrong, she finally admitted that she had fallen off the ladder while painting the ceilings. Even though she was that old she was painting the twelve-foot-high ceilings, but that was Grandma, she was going to do what she wanted to do and you weren't going to tell her otherwise. She was her own woman.'

Don's brother, Dan, also remembers the matriarchal Willie Mae, who died in 1955 at the age of eighty-eight. 'She was a very small woman - I guess she was five foot one - and kind of wiry, with little metal-flamed glasses,' he says. 'She used to work hard, had a head of stone and was rather outspoken and opinionated. She was extremely independent and was not afraid of the Devil himself. And she made the best milkshake in America. Pat really identified with her and respected her for her work ethic.' Highsmith remembered Willie Mae as an extremely moral woman who taught her the difference between right and wrong: 'She was a Scot, very practical, though with a great sense of humor, and very lenient with me.'

The Southside of Fort Worth, the part of the city in which Highsmith's family made their home, was already a residential area by the end of the nineteenth century, but during the first decade of the twentieth century the neighbourhood witnessed a massive influx of new residents. Transport links were improved and the area boasted a street railway system, running in a square south down Main Street to Magnolia Avenue, west to Henderson Street, north to Daggett Avenue and east to Jennings.

Willie Mae and Daniel first settled in Fort Worth at 523 West Daggett Avenue but by 1910 they had moved further along the street, to 603, into a traditional wooden-frame structure that looked like a miniature version of the Coats mansion, where they opened a boarding house.


Copyright © 2003 by Andrew Wilson
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Andrew Wilson remembers secretly reading Harold Robbins as a teenager, and has spoken to many friends, lovers and enemies of this most provocative of writers. Wilsons other books are the award-winning Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, and the novel The Lying Tongue.

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