Highsmith:  Her Secret Life


directed by

Hugh Thomson


A BBC Production (2004)




notes on the film by Hugh Thomson:



During her lifetime, Patricia Highsmith revealed very little about the turbulent personal impulses that shaped novels such as The Talented Mr Ripley.  She would occasionally consent to be interviewed for newspapers and film, but then refuse to say anything of consequence, to the frustration of admirers like the British journalist Craig Brown:  ‘She was the least forthcoming of authors, and hated talking about her work.’ 


To the novelist Sarah Dunant, who once travelled out to Switzerland to interview her, she stone-walled:  ‘‘I don’t answer personal questions about myself or other people that I know, anymore than I give out people’s telephone numbers.’  She maintained that the ideas and characters for her novels came to her like birds that she saw out of the corner of her eye, and that they bore little relation to the events of her own life.


But just before her death in 1995, she had a change of heart, according to her friend and confidante Vivien de Bernardi, one of many who appears in this new film about her.  She decided not to destroy the very explicit journals she had kept throughout her adult life, but to leave them for a posthumous revelation of quite what had motivated some of the bleakest and most obsessive literature of the 20th century.


Using those journals, and the research done by Andrew Wilson for his recent fine biography (Beautiful Shadow - A Life of Patricia Highsmith), this documentary is the first to reveal the demons that drove her, helped by those friends whose telephone numbers she had once withheld, but who now feel they have Highsmith’s own posthumous consent to come forward and talk.


I have rarely made a film where the contributors had such a polarised view of their subject.  To some loyal friends, she was a tragic figure, pursued by those demons to the every end, whose talent excused her bad behaviour:   while the loyalty of her oldest friend, Kate Kingsley Skattebol, was tested to the full when she discovered that while she had preserved all Highsmith’s letters, Highsmith herself had not bothered to keep a single line of their lifetime’s correspondence; Kingsley Skattebol still asserted that ‘once she had Pat as a friend, she needed no other’.


Others were more forthright.  Otto Penzler, one of her last American publishers, declared her to be one of the most odious women he had ever met, a misanthropic, racist alcoholic.


But then he only knew her at the end of her life.  The most poignant impression for me on making the film was of the transformation Highsmith underwent from the ardent young writer of the 50s who embraced life, love and literature, to what one friend described as the ‘Wicked Old Witch of the West’ that she became.


What turned her into such a curmudgeon?  One surprising revelation was that such an austere observer of the human condition (‘she is to men what the spider is to the fly’ ran the book blurbs) should have been such a hopeless romantic.  It was her endless failed love affairs which soured her and turned her to the bottle.


Many writers chase women and drink too much: few of them tend to be women themselves.  Highsmith was ambivalent about her homosexuality, alternating between aggressive promiscuity, leaving a ‘trail of unmade beds behind her’. and guilt – at one point she sought psychoanalytic treatment for it, with a view to getting married, but was left only with a large and much resented bill.


According to one of her many gay male friends, Alex Szogyi, she had ‘the boldness of the very shy’.  The woman who could spend an entire party looking at the floor would also jump the previously heterosexual painter Ann Smith within minutes of meeting her.  She later gave Smith an egg timer with a note saying: ‘Dear Ann - the best things in life last at least three minutes - Love, Pat.’


During her lifetime it was always presumed that Carol, her early lesbian novel, was autobiographical, even if she side-stepped the question when asked – what was not known was the way in which Highsmith obsessively stalked the original ‘Carol’ of the story, a New Jersey housewife called Kathleen Senn, who eventually committed suicide.


Other revelations were equally extraordinary.  It was said of Hitchcock, who adapted Highsmith’s first novel Strangers on a Train, that he filmed his love scenes as murder scenes, and his murder scenes as love scenes.  Highsmith followed the same precept in her relationships.  She had constant fantasies of revenge and possession which manifested themselves in her dreams and books.


One of her lovers, Marijane Meaker, told us that ‘Pat always used her books to portray and murder the woman she had last been out with.  After we broke up, she murdered me very brutally, in The Cry of the Owl, with a knife, several times.’  This Sweet Sickness, one of Highsmith’s finest and most neglected novels, was likewise based on Highsmith’s obsession for the beautiful and unobtainable Mary Ronin.


There was a curious and winning awkwardness about Highsmith that I found appealing.  She did not for instance capitalise on Hitchcock’s interest in her work, refusing to visit him on the set of Strangers on a Train.  She antagonised publishers – and friends – by her occasional brutal honesty with herself and others.  She fell in love with married women who were never going to leave their husbands.  And she drank.


Quite how much she drank by the end was frightening.  In her journals Highsmith wrote ‘I am attracted to the destructive for the same reason as I am attracted to alcohol.  It has the power in a person of seeming to change the vision of the world. 


Marijane Meaker saw her towards the end of her life. It was thirty years since she had left Highsmith and being murdered by her in a novel.  Meaker was horrified by what had happened to the woman she had once loved, who had now become bitter and paranoid, an alcoholic, barely able to get through the day without her bottle of Dewars.


The work suffered as well.  Her first novel, Strangers On A Train, was based on an idea of startling and brilliant simplicity – that two strangers swap murders, so that each appears motiveless.  The Talented Mr Ripley took the idea a stage further – the murderer swapping identities with his victim.  The Blunderer and This Sweet Sickness were further chilling essays in obsession and guilt.


But as she became older, the quality of her writing declined, not least because few literary editors dared stand up to her any more (‘she wasn’t just tough,’ said one, Larry Ashmead, ‘she was Texas tough’).  The many Ripley sequels became a repetitive franchise.  She had always been more popular in Europe than her native States:  now Americans abandoned her.  At the time of her death she had no publisher in the States at all.  Even now, the recent film of Ripley’s Game with John Malkovitch has yet to find a theatrical release in America, despite a bankable star.


Little Tales of Misogyny, a book of short stories published at the height of the feminist movement in 1969, was controversial.   Greatly admired by the generation of British writers like Martin Amis and Ian MacEwan who grew up sniffing their fingers, it attacked every shibboleth of the sixties:  the women portrayed in it were venal, possessive and often stupid;  most died brutally.  As we discuss in the film, it was written in the aftermath of one of Highsmith’s unhappiest affairs, with a married woman who live in Suffolk.  Yet Highsmith took no pleasure in the depiction of violent death.  At their best, her books are concerned with the guilt the murderer feels before rather than after the crime, in its anticipation rather than execution.


At the Swiss Literary Archive, where we filmed her journals, we had access to a list Highsmith made as a young woman analysing the failure of her relationships in a touchingly adolescent way:  she lists the many women in her past by different categories:  attainable;  attained; length of relationship; cause of failure.


What prevents the film from following a remorseless arc of decline with its subject is the sheer pleasure Highsmith took from the act of writing itself.  At first I was daunted by the volume of writing she left behind:  the Swiss Literary Archive has over 120 boxes of manuscripts and journals.  She suffered almost from hypergraphia, writing with a discipline and escape from herself that saved her.  Many of her friends concurred that if she had not been able to write, she would undoubtedly have committed either murder or suicide.  The lines from her journal that end the film – and wherever possible we have told the story in her own words – say it all:  ‘Writing, of course, is a substitute for the life I cannot live, am unable to live.’


Highsmith’s work matters because she is so steadfastly honest about the possessive capacity of guilt and romantic obsession in human relationships, whether gay or straight.  This film of her life shows that it came from the heart.



© Hugh Thomson 2004