Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith (Bloomsbury Lives of Women)
by Andrew Wilson
Andrew Wilson's Beautiful Shadow  is a biography of the U.S. novelist Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995).
Wilson bases his work on extensive interviews with Highsmith's friends and relatives, her letters, and dozens of her "cahiers." With these resources, he is able to present a portrait of the novelist as complete as any I have read.
Beautiful Shadow is a hard read from the beginning, and I was tempted to give it up nearly every day of the week I spent on it. In summer 2004 I read all the Ripley novels, and enjoyed them very much. I'm not sure I could re-read them, or take up any of Highsmith's other books, with the same carefree relish now.A
Each book Highsmith wrote was the product of a concatenation of extreme personal emotional misery and misanthropy. For her entire life, the author suffered from a self-inflicted fantasies about true love, craved connection, yet detested the company of all but a few friends. Each romantic partner seems to have been chosen precisely because they were capable of making Highsmith more unhappy than the previous one. For Highsmith, "love" was not everyday satisfaction and happiness, but a source of emotional misery.
I can think of few writers, with the exception of Poe, who lead a more unhappy life.
Wilson makes abundantly clear that it was the writing of novels and short stories that allowed Highsmith to escape this prison of her personality.
Below are some excerpts from Wilson's book which pertain to Highsmith's political views.
....‘My personal maladies and malaises are only those of my own generation and of my time, heightened,’ Highsmith wrote in her notebook in September 1950.1 Highsmith’s absence from America had sharpened her powers of perception and on her return in 1953, she viewed the country from an outsider’s perspective, shocked at the mood of paranoia which was sweeping the USA. The Korean War, which rumbled on between 1950 and 1953, a battle between the communist North, backed by China, and the non-communist South, supported by America, symbolised the ideological battle which was raging in the United States. By the time a settlement had been reached – in July 1953 – over five million people had died, but to the vast majority of Americans who were convinced that sending troops to a far-flung land actually helped guard their security and protected themselves from communist aggression, it was a worthwhile sacrifice. President Eisenhower, inaugurated in 1953, even discussed the use of atomic weapons in order to try and settle the conflict.
Highsmith was dismayed by the news of the imminent execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Jewish couple accused of stealing the secrets of the atomic bomb, and she worried about America’s global reputation, one which was looking increasingly soiled. McCarthy’s continuing communist witchhunt was reaching near-hysteric levels – a phenomenon exposed in Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible – and in the same year librarians were ordered to remove books by ‘Communists, fellow travelers, and the like’. ‘The whole nation is protesting, some for humanitarian reasons, some because it would endanger our international prestige,’ Highsmith noted in her diary about the Rosenberg electrocution at Sing-Sing prison, New York. ‘Though how it could sink much lower with the present book burning of the Amerika Hauser I don’t see. D Hammett’s Thin Man, Howard Fast, Langston Hughes, were among those which were removed from libraries.’2
The Eisenhower years, post-Korean War, have been mythologised as an era of peace and prosperity, the ‘bountiful new world’3 of I Love Lucy, bobby sox, cashmere-cardiganed preppies, drive-in movies, barbecues and convenience living. Between 1950 and 1958 the economy expanded with an annual growth rate of 4.7 per cent and living standards increased. It was the age of the baby boom – in 1940 the population of America was 130 million, by the mid-1950s the figure had risen to 165 million. The suburbs, which to many crystallised the essence of the fifties, expanded and consumers embarked on a frenzied spending spree. Yet the new uniformity of living was also symptomatic of the hollowness of the American dream. Columnist William Shannon observed that, ‘The Eisenhower years have been years of flabbiness and self-satisfaction and gross materialism’, while Norman Mailer dismissed the fifties as ‘one of the worst decades in the history of man.’4
In 1950, the social scientist and lawyer David Riesman published The Lonely Crowd, a controversial book that triggered a national debate into the changing nature of the American psyche, and a work which Highsmith read. Riesman, whose books analysed the place of the individual in a modern, increasingly media-driven society, believed that there were three types of man: the ‘tradition-directed’, those in pre-industrial communities, who inherited their values from their predecessors; the ‘inner-directed’, formed in the nineteenth-century capitalist boom, who relied on their consciences to shape their behaviour; and the ‘other-directed’, people living in a mass society like modern America, men and women whose beliefs were shaped by their peers or from the media. As Riesman saw it, man had moved from the inner to the other-directed and, as a result, had made a transition from industry and achievement to conformity and adjustment. What is common to all other-directed people, wrote Riesman, is that ‘their contemporaries are the source of direction for the individual – either those known to him or those with whom he is indirectly acquainted, through friends and through the mass media.’5
The problem was Americans were suffering from oversocialisation. ‘For centuries moralists had warned that people become unhappy when they get what they want – or think they want,’ writes historian John Patrick Diggins of the fifties. ‘Suburbia offered Americans the cleanliness and safety of a planned community, but nothing is more hopeless than planned happiness.’6
....The Tremor of Forgery is also one of Highsmith’s most political novels, set as it is during the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War of June 1967. In chapter two, news of the start of the hostilities is relayed by an unnamed Western man who had just heard on television that the Israelis had started to blast several Arab airports. By chapter three, the war is over – the Israelis had secured a victory – but the conflict continues to resonate throughout the novel. Highsmith was decidedly anti-Israeli later in life – she boycotted the country from 1977 and despised Ariel Sharon. ‘I think the Jewish lobby, on the Middle East, is pulling Congress around by the nose,’ she told Ian Hamilton in 1977. ‘These little Congressmen are afraid of losing their jobs, frankly, if they don’t send money and arms to Israel . . . I don’t know why America should support a country that is behaving like that.’20
Yet the portrait of the conflict which emerges from the novel is an uncertain one. Several of the characters, living in an Arab country, express strong anti-Arab feelings, including the Danish-born homosexual Jensen, who is not averse to a spot of sexual exploitation and whom a reader might expect to hold more liberal opinions. After the disappearance of his dog, Hasso, which he presumes to have been killed, he says to Ingham, ‘But I’ll tell you one thing, I hate the thought of Hasso’s bones being in this goddamn sand! Am I glad the Jews beat the shit out of them!’21 Similarly, Francis Adams – also known as OWL, an acronym for ‘Our Way of Life’ – whom one might think would proffer more pro-Israeli sentiments, criticises the Jewish state for its arrogant nationalism, ‘ “which was the hallmark of Nazi Germany, and for which Nazi Germany at last went to her doom”’.22 Ingham’s reaction is interesting because, against all expectations, he agrees, at least in part, with Adams’ beliefs, but he chooses to keep his opinions to himself. It just wasn’t worth it, he reasons, as the problem was not his – a lethargy suggestive of Ingham’s gradual collapse of his self. His lack of action after attacking the Arab with his typewriter could, in the same way, be seen as a symbol of the moral apathy at work in the world at large.
....Her vision of the New York of the future is an apocalyptic one, a view shaped by what can only be interpreted as racial prejudice. She imagined life in New York in fifty years time when she would see, ‘coons hanging from 50th story windows, plugging their neighbours (other coons) before taking the lift down to fleece their pockets,’ she wrote to Barbara Ker-Seymer. ‘It has already happened to Newark, New Jersey – which is now almost cleared of whites; they have a black mayor, even, and the highest crime and dope and welfare rate in all the USA.’65 Highsmith had long nurtured an irrational hatred of Jews and now this too started to find expression in her notebooks. She observed how Jewish men said a prayer every morning thanking God that they were born male and not female. ‘The rest of us give thanks that we were not born Jews,’ she said. ‘If the Jews are God’s chosen people – that is all one needs to know about God.’66
....On 22 May, Highsmith read a piece in the International Herald Tribune, reprinted from the New York Times, in which the commentator William Safire launched an assault on Vidal for opinions he had expressed in an essay for The Nation. ‘To make sure that nearly a third of the federal budget goes to the Pentagon and Israel it is necessary for the pro-Israel lobbyists to make common cause with the lunatic right,’ Vidal had written.51 Vidal, whose article also attacked Norman Podhoretz, the pro-Israeli editor of the neo-conservative magazine Commentary, went on to charge American citizens who supported Israel with dual loyalty, concluding, ‘I’ve got to tell you I don’t much like your country, which is Israel.’52 Highsmith agreed wholeheartedly and that night sat down to compose a letter to the Tribune outlining her support for Vidal. On 9 June, Highsmith wrote to Vidal to tell him that the letter published in that day’s International Herald Tribune under the name of Edgar S. Sallich of Brione, Switzerland, was, in fact, written by her. She took issue with Safire for calling Israel a democracy when, in her view, she thought it more of a theocracy, as it defined its borders by Old Testament names. ‘Therefore, the loyalty of U.S. citizens who are Jewish will be forever argued, to little avail,’ she wrote. ‘An American can be loyal to any religion, but CANNOT be loyal to a country other than America if he or she expects to continue being an American.’53 As to why she used a pseudonym, she wrote to Vidal, ‘I don’t care to use my own name too often, so I invent names. I could’ve said that many Jews in USA seem to like America as a safe berth and as a source of money for Israel. But would such a letter get printed?’54
....Should writers have political and social commitments outside their literary work? ‘If a writer (or painter) starts preaching, consciously, in his work, it is no longer a piece of art,’ Highsmith said. Yet, nevertheless, she had a range of political opinions and was willing to ‘boycott, and to be boycotted in return’. Was the dedication in the European editions of People who Knock on the Door, which reads, ‘To the courage of the Palestinian people and their leaders in the struggle to regain a part of their homeland. This book has nothing to do with their problem,’28 aimed at the PLO? ‘Yes, it is addressed to the leaders, singular or plural, of the Palestinian people, who must choose their own leaders,’ she replied. ‘If they choose the PLO, as 96 per cent seem to do at the time that I write this, then my dedication is to the PLO. It could be to another organisation next week – if the Palestinian people choose another leader.’29
The dedication, however, further alienated her American market and brought about the collapse of her relationship with yet another US publisher. When Otto Penzler saw the line he called Highsmith’s agent and asked if he could replace the dedication or drop it altogether. ‘I said this is really not going to go down very well in America – the publishing and the reviewing worlds are very heavily populated with Jews and that is just part of New York culture,’ says Penzler. ‘But I didn’t hear back, it got closer and closer to publication date and finally I called the agent again and I said, “Listen we have to have an answer – yes or no,” and she said, “OK just drop it,” which I did. Years later Pat was being interviewed by a journalist and she told the writer that she wasn’t speaking to me because I had dropped the dedication from one of her books. She thought I had done it without her agent’s permission, something I would never have done even though I thought it was suicidal for her literary career. At the time, I didn’t even know I had had a fall out with Pat as she was always so unfriendly and openly hostile.’30
....Highsmith felt passionate about the complex issues surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict and genuinely traumatised by the uprising in the Gaza Strip and West Bank which broke out in December 1987 and which continued to dominate the news in 1988. ‘I spent a lot of time composing letters I think may be useful to peace and stopping the deaths,’ she wrote in her diary on 28 February, ‘72 Palestinians so far dead, no Jews.’24 She felt motivated by a genuine sense of injustice and, as a member of Amnesty International, she felt compelled to ‘speak up and speak out’. She viewed the conflict as a David and Goliath battle, with her sympathies firmly on the side of the underdog. Yet the methods she chose to articulate her particular point of view were far from subtle. For instance, in February 1989, while on a publicity trip to Milan, she insisted on wearing her, ‘ “Palestine PLO check” sweater’ for the photo-shoots. ‘I was able in perhaps 4 out of 12 interviews, to express genuine USA opinion on Israeli atrocities in Gaza & West Bank,’ she wrote in her notebook,25 while the dedication in Ripley Under Water reads, ‘To the dead and the dying among the Intefada and the Kurds, to those who fight oppression in whatever land, and stand up not only to be counted but to be shot.’26 In addition she sent money to the Jewish Committee on the Middle East, an organisation which represented American Jews who supported Palestinian self-determination.
In an unpublished essay Highsmith wrote about the Middle East conflict in August 1992, she outlined the historical background that had formulated her position. When Israel was created – in May 1948, while Highsmith was at Yaddo, writing Strangers on the Train – following the withdrawal of the British, she remembers feeling optimistic about its future. ‘How happy and cheerful we all were then, gentiles and Jews alike!’ she wrote. ‘A new state had been born, and was therefore to be welcomed into the community of democracies.’27 Yet soon after the state was formed – initially an area comprising of Jewish and Arab land, together with an internationally administered zone around Jerusalem – it was invaded by Arab forces, a move which in turn prompted Israeli troops to seize and gain control of three-quarters of Palestine. Highsmith was appalled at what she saw as Israeli brutality and insensitivity, remembering how some of her Palestinian friends were forced to flee their homeland. Since then, of course, the area has been the site of a series of complex, and increasingly violent, power struggles, yet from the beginning Highsmith aligned herself with other writers such as Gore Vidal, Alexander Cockburn, Noam Chomsky and Edward W. Said, who believed in Palestinian self-determination. In December 1994, Highsmith nominated a collection of Said’s essays and talks, The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination 1969–1994, as her book of the year for the Times Literary Supplement, commenting that she thought him ‘both famous and ignored. His eloquence on the real issues makes America’s silence seem all the louder.’28 Highsmith agreed with Said’s opinion that the alliance between Zionism and the United States had resulted in the continued displacement of Palestinians. As a result, she felt forced to take a stand, no matter how small. After the election of Menachem Begin as Prime Minister in 1977, Highsmith would not allow her books to be published in Israel. ‘I’m sure the world couldn’t care less, but it shows that not every American refuses to see what’s happening,’ she said.29 In interviews she told journalists that she loathed Ariel Sharon and the Likud party, and that she found America’s support of the Israeli regime to be despicable.
‘Americans and the world know that America gives so lavishly to Israel,’ she wrote, ‘because the United States wanted Israel as a strong military bulwark against Soviet Russia during the Cold War. Now that the Cold War is over, America has cut none of its aid . . . What is an American tax-payer to make of the fact that the USA gives thirteen million dollars a day, still, to Israel without any request for repayment? . . . I blame my own country for the majority of injustices now being inflicted by the Israelis in what they consider Greater Israel . . . I blame [the] American government for the bad press permitted about the Arabs in the United States.’30
Although the piece is an attempt by Highsmith to argue rationally about the Middle East conflict, in conversation her views were far from logical and coherent. ‘I agreed with her that the Palestinians should have a state of their own, but felt that her disparagement of Israel was sometimes unduly harsh,’ says Kingsley.31 Friends remember how Highsmith would recommend certain books on the subject. One of these was Douglas Reed’s The Controversy of Zion, which she first read in 1988. The book, published in 1978, is the work of a former London Times correspondent in central Europe, who died in South Africa in 1976 at the age of eighty-two. After leaving full-time employment in 1938 he turned to writing books, including a number of non-fiction bestsellers such as Insanity Fair and Disgrace Abounding. Yet there was one issue he wanted to address – the subject of Zionist nationalism – which he suspected would never be properly analysed in the British or American press, a media which, for the most part, censored any unfavourable comment. In his 1951 book, Far and Wide, Reed questioned the number of Jews who had perished in the Holocaust, believing the generally accepted figure of six million to be too high, but after its publication he was effectively silenced by the mainstream publishing industry and the manuscript of The Controversy of Zion was discovered sitting on the top of his wardrobe after his death. In it, Reed attempted to trace the links between fundamentalist Zionism and the modern political landscape, illustrating how the Jewish massacre at the Arab village of Deir Yasin on 9 April 1948 was motivated by a literal reading of ‘ “the Law” laid down in Deuteronomy . . . This was the most significant day in the history of Zionism.’32 Reed believed that a fundamentalist interpretation of the ancient texts of the Talmud and the Torah, a movement he described as ‘Talmudic chauvinism’, would result in catastrophe. ‘In our time, I judge, a barbaric superstition born in antiquity and nurtured through the ages by a semi-secret priesthood, has returned to plague us in the form of a political movement supported by great wealth in all capitals of the world.’33
Highsmith wrote to Gore Vidal about Reed’s book in December 1989, telling him how she had recently bought three copies to send to friends. The Israelis did not ever want peace because, she believed, they were yearning for the next Holocaust and that they ‘love to be hated’.34 Yet, in her essay on the Middle East, she said that she still harboured a hope for peace. Although some of her views on the subject were, quite frankly, objectionable, ultimately all Highsmith was striving for was a more honest and balanced analysis of the situation. It was the responsibility of each individual, she said, to make his or her mind up on such a subject, a process which involved wrestling with a complex matrix of historical and cultural questions. ‘The important thing is to express one’s view, not to be a sheep, not to feel like a sheep,’ she had once said, ‘and not to allow one’s government (presumably elected) to believe that the people it is governing are a herd of sheep.’35
....Highsmith was appalled to learn of the Los Angeles riots, in which more than fifty people died and 2,000 were injured, following the acquittal of the police officers accused of the Rodney King beating. In the forthcoming presidential election she said she intended to vote for Ross Perot, the Texan-born billionaire and founder of the Reform Party, as opposed to the mainstream candidates George Bush and Bill Clinton; such a move was, she said, a protest. In the last election, she had voted for Bush; even though she loathed him – all he cared about was, she said, ‘the rich, plus his golf games’26 – she hoped he ‘would take a more realistic stand about the situation in Palestine’.27 She had been proved wrong. ‘Instead of that they keep issuing more money to those people there, the Israelis.’28 Even though Perot was defeated in the election – he received 19 per cent of the votes – she admitted to feeling pleased when Clinton became President later that year.