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Patricia Highsmith and the Women Who Inspired Ripley


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Patricia Highsmith first met Kathryn Hamill Cohen at a party hosted by Rosalind Constable in New York. Kathryn, an ex-Ziegfeld girl, was twenty-four, beautiful and from a moneyed family. Her husband, Dennis, founded the Cresset Press (later an imprint of Bantam Books) which would eventually publish UK editions of Strangers on a Train, The Blunderer and The Talented Mr. Ripley, but Kathryn had an impressive professional life of her own. Following her early years as an actress, she read medicine at Newnham College, Cambridge, and, before being employed as a hospital physician, she worked as a personal assistant to Aneurin Bevan, the British Minister of Health who was instrumental in the formation of the National Health Service. She was more than Nye Bevan’s secretary; her self-evident intelligence and experience in medicine brought her to the attention of members of the egalitarian, if not quite feminist, Labour government. By the time Highsmith arrived in London, Kathryn was working as a doctor in St George’s Hospital, and lived with Dennis in an elegant Georgian house in Old Church Street, Chelsea, one of the most prestigious districts of the city. Highsmith stayed there with them after arriving by train from Southampton where the Queen Mary docked. The Cohens picked her up from Waterloo Station in their Rolls Royce saloon, and thereafter Kathryn made use of her contacts in the theatre and the arts to create a daydream for Highsmith. They took lunch with Peggy Ashcroft, one of the most respected classical actresses of the era, and went by train, first class, to Stratford-upon-Avon to see another friend of Kathryn’s, Diana Wynyard, play Desdemona. Afterwards the three of them went for dinner, and back in London Kathryn escorted her guest around the National Gallery and the Tate, where she introduced her to the then director, Sir John Rothenstein.

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Kathryn knew from her husband that Highsmith’s debut novel was in press with Harper but she was certainly not, as yet, even a noviciate literary celebrity. They had only met once before, briefly, and in this respect Kathryn’s generosity as a host, which included taking days off work as a full-time clinician, is curious. What occurred soon afterwards indicates that their first encounter in NewYork involved something more than exchanges on mutual interests in the arts.

At the end of June Highsmith took the ferry for France and spent around ten days in Paris, visiting the openly lesbian club Le Monocle, drinking too much and attempting to fit in with the debauched culture of the Latin Quarter. On 1 July she entered in her diary that ‘I want Kathryn, or Ann [Clark],’ adding that she had an equal longing for a Chloe, who might well have been the mysterious, ghostly presence from her diaries of several years before. On this one occasion she is awarded a surname, ‘Sprague’, but this brings us no closer to the proof of her existence given that there are no external records of a person called Chloe Sprague. Ann and Kathryn were certainly real but by recruiting them into the same universe as Chloe, Highsmith felt that they too were becoming her possessions.

After Paris Highsmith took the train to Marseille, where she stayed with her mother’s cartoonist friend, Jean David, who attempted (unsuccessfully) to seduce her. From Marseille she telegraphed Brandel informing him that their engagement was, on his part, a fantasy and, on hers, repulsive.

Via Venice, Bologna, Genoa and Florence she arrived in Rome in August and telegraphed Kathryn asking her to join her in Italy. She agreed to do so and arrived around two weeks later, in September. One has to assume that the two women had talked of a romantic, probably sexual liaison long before this. A professional physician does not leave her job, and her husband, to take a journey to Italy just for the sake of it. The two women spent three weeks together, first in Rome, then in the beautiful coastal village of Positano, followed by boat trips to Palermo and Capri. Highsmith’s diaries indicate that following nervous prevarication for both, they became lovers within a week. After Highsmith’s departure for America from Genoa, they communicated by letter only once, and spoke to no one of their affair. It happened—records show that Kathryn had abandoned her life in London for an encounter with Highsmith in Italy—but her marriage was seemingly unaffected by it.

Its impact on Highsmith is most evident when we read The Talented Mr. Ripley. Kathryn is to Highsmith as Dickie Greenleaf is to Ripley, a relationship involving love, envy and fantasy. Positano, the village they visited on the Amalfi coast, would become the primary setting for the novel (reimagined as the fictitious Mongibello), to which Ripley follows Greenleaf and eventually murders him. Once more, Highsmith’s preoccupation with killing and love as intertwined resurfaces. Nothing like this happened between Highsmith and Kathryn, but the book and the real-life events are linked: Highsmith and Ripley are sexual predators, each manipulates the people in their lives and Highsmith transfers this to the relationships between her fictional creations.

In April 1950, shortly after the publication of Strangers on a Train, Highsmith received a letter from Kathryn regretting and ending their involvement. Two days earlier Highsmith had sent a letter to Brandel, affirming finally that their relationship was over—despite having already ended it by telegraph from Italy.

***

In Munich, Highsmith was taking afternoon drinks with Jo one day in an outdoor café-bar. It was August, still a warm summer, and across the bar she noticed that ‘a woman was staring at me … I stared because she was the only attractive woman I’d seen in days, and the staring is inevitable in this town’ (Diary, 29 August 1951).

Ellen Hill had acquired her surname in 1941 by marrying a kind British gentleman in California and shortly afterwards arranging an amicable divorce. As Ellen Blumenthal, a first-generation German-Jewish immigrant, she feared for her status and the marriage of convenience enabled her to acquire a British passport. At Stanford University, when the US entered the war, she taught ‘Area Studies’—a euphemism for an aggregate of courses on European politics and more significantly languages, designed mainly as an apprenticeship for graduate entrants to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS; the forerunner to the CIA) and army intelligence. Soon after the war ended, she was employed by the University of Zurich, looking after students who sought to improve their competence in French and English; her own fluency as a speaker of German was extraordinary in that few, if any, would not regard her as a native of Germany or Austria. When Highsmith met her, she held a senior post in the International Refugees Organisation (IRO), ostensibly charged with dealing with the masses of people, mostly from Eastern Europe, who had lost their homes and were continually crossing borders in an attempt to secure something like stability in a continent that seemed intent on dividing itself into two mutually hostile camps. The IRO was nominally a charity overseen by the United Nations, but 40 per cent of its funding came from America and it functioned as a weather eye for several Western intelligence agencies.

Ellen’s earlier and ongoing association with the world of subterfuge was not something that Highsmith learned of for several weeks but it increased her allure intensely. Unlike Virginia Catherwood and Kathryn Cohen, she did not come from money and the gentry, but she outclassed her predecessors as a woman who was able to distance herself from the mundane and the ordinary. Highsmith wrote that Ellen ‘blotted out anyone who’s been between Ginnie and her’ (Diary, 12 September 1951). As yet she had not quite become a figure who would cause Highsmith the kind of masochistic delight that predominated in her affairs—but this was only three weeks after they met.

At their first meeting Jo left the two of them alone and they made small talk. Highsmith remembers being asked if she preferred Baroque to Rococo castles, which she took as Ellen caricaturing people who overvalue their aesthetic discrimination and have little talent for conversation. Rococo and Baroque are variations on the same architectural technique, but the former is thought, by some, to reflect a taste for exuberance, even excess. Ellen wanted to see if Highsmith could decode the question as a prompt to treat art as an index to personal idiosyncrasies rather than a store house for erudition. Highsmith failed to pick up Ellen’s clue and this moment of mutual misapprehension would continue for the duration of their relationship: four years, Highsmith’s longest. Kate Kingsley Skattebol, who met Ellen only twice, later claimed that she ‘was like a governess they had a love–hate relationship’ (Wilson’s interview with Skattebol, 1999). All accounts of the affair present Ellen, variously, as an intellectual snob, a bully, and selfishly intolerant of Highsmith’s personal traits and habits, and all come from friends and associates of Highsmith. It is difficult to be impartial on what happened between them because Ellen left no record of their relationship, but a combination of circumstantial detail and supposition causes us to question the consensus that Ellen was the primary cause for its demise.

Their first proper date was at Lake Tegernsee, a little outside the city, where Highsmith learned that Ellen was just over ten years older than her, forty-one, despite looking like a ‘small, quite chic, good-looking’ woman in her early to mid-thirties. Thereafter her notebook entries echo the hyperbole of her earlier obsessive commitments: ‘Oh the benevolence! Oh the beautiful world! Oh the generosity of the heart as I go walking down the street …’ (Cahier, 9 August 1951). ‘Darling, come to me in a silver dress with dragonflies’ wings, come to me on a column of smoke Come into my room through a keyhole and through the crack of the door and the floor I turn like an idiot in quest of you’ (Diary, 1 November 1951). A month later she writes ‘She [Ellen] loves to dominate me, I feel by ordering my life to give me a sense of helplessness and dependence on her,’ commenting that Ellen remonstrated against her tendency to drink too much and as a consequence leave her apartment in a state of chaos with the bed unmade, empty bottles left standing on tables, glasses, pots and plates unwashed in the sink. Most of Highsmith’s friends recall that Ellen lived in an orderly manner, and the term ‘governess’ is used not only by Skattebol, along with ‘school mistressy’, as we will find from Huber and Lewis, below. But again, this notion of Ellen as the buttoned-up academic and civil servant who could not deal with the emancipated lifestyle of the artist simplifies a more complex clash between personalities. In an undated cahier from close to the period when they first met, Ellen told her that ‘I hate the common man’, which from her Jewish background and her experience of Europe after the war could be taken as a condemnation of populism as the fuel for fascism and other forms of political extremism. In a 1981 interview Highsmith spoke of a ‘sociologist friend’, Ellen, whose ‘opinion is that most people are quite ordinary, that universal education hasn’t brought the happiness and beauty that people had hoped’ (The Armchair Detective, vol. 14, no. 4, 1981).

Ellen felt that the liberal democratic ideal of universal education as a route to collective justice and social equality was a worthy ideal doomed to failure, evidenced in what had occurred in the civilised nations of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century. In her diary of 4 September 1951 Highsmith writes an entry that is by equal degrees gnomic and revealing. ‘Ellen and I argue and misunderstand each other in all our conversation,’ because she, Ellen, ‘was Europe as it is supposed to be, and so few individuals find.’ Ellen had lost family members in the Holocaust and was perfectly able to appreciate the bizarre contrast between an aspiration towards high culture and intellectual esteem in Europe and the almost simultaneous cultivation of unsurpassed evil. Many of Highsmith’s characters after The Price of Salt exhibit a taste for foul behaviour, murder included, while seeming to respect and adhere to the general mantra that intellectual and aesthetic discrimination are correctives to malevolence. Ellen’s frightful, despairing sense of something having gone wrong with civilisation played a part in her lover’s creation of figures who readers might recognise as versions of themselves and be at once horrified by what their mirror images are capable of doing.

Highsmith eventually came to treat her relationship with Ellen as a form of penance for her various failures and shortcomings. Even after their affair was over—and it ended painfully—she remained in contact with her as if observing some kind of penitential rite. Both knew that they would never again be lovers and the antipathy that had drawn them apart endured and increased. As we shall see, the casual antisemitism she displayed in her early life mutated in late middle age into something more pronounced and visceral. She even preferred to refer to herself as ‘Jew-hater’ rather than an antisemite, making sure that loathing should not be mistaken for mere prejudice. We have to take seriously the possibility that Ellen’s ethnicity played a part in this.

In mid-September they set off on what had become Highsmith’s ritual odyssey with new lovers; in Ellen’s car, an Opel Kapitän, with Ellen driving (Highsmith had still not passed her test). The episode is striking as a weird replica of the Thelma and Louise-style excursion undertaken by Therese and Carole in The Price of Salt. No one was chasing them but they seemed intent on pursuing a journey that was untraceable, that, for as long as they wished, distanced them from their lives and work. They crossed the border into Alsace, went south through the Rhône-Alpes and Provence and turned east into northern Italy, visiting places Highsmith had been to before, remembered from her time with Kathryn, and then to Venice. In her diary Highsmith records having cocktails with Peggy Guggenheim at Harry’s Bar, recording that Peggy’s son, Sinbad, looked ‘sickish’ and complaining that Peggy ‘barely took in the fact’ that the film version of Strangers on a Train had received eye-catching reviews in the US.

Once more we must rely on Highsmith’s notebook for the authenticity of this and indeed that the individuals mentioned took cocktails together at all. There are no accounts of it from any of the others, in print or interviews. Highsmith also reports that following two days in ‘darkish rooms’ they took a beautifully lit suite in the Gritti Palace, a sixteenth-century mansion favoured by, amongst others, Hemingway and Somerset Maugham, and one of the most expensive hotels on the Grand Canal. Margot Johnson had recently sold the rights of Strangers on a Train to a Swedish publisher for $200, a welcome but not outstanding addition to Highsmith’s precarious earnings as a freelance author, much of which would be squandered on the extortionate rates of the Gritti Palace and on her insistence that they dined in the most exclusive restaurants in the city. An indication that the idyll was less than perfect comes from the contrast between two diary entries. On 14 September she writes that ‘I feel like a coolie the gods have suddenly snatched up and made a prince, with ring, a halo, and immortality.’ Two days later: ‘I must watch Ellen from moment to moment to judge her temper. She is not easy to get on with.’ A week after that she booked them into an equally exclusive place (‘swankiest hotel’ in her words) on Lake Como: ‘I care nothing about money these days, not that I have any it is the unknown side of me that Ellen finds attractive: impracticality, generosity, imagination, the poet, the dreamer, the child. And I am too inclined to act a part in all of it’ (Diary, 20 September 1951).

In early February 1952, the couple set off again on a rather manic journey through some of the most enchanting regions of Central Europe and the Mediterranean. They went first to Paris, a hurried trip making brief visits to acquaintances such as Janet Flanner and her partner Natalia Danesi Murray, who were appalled by the way in which Highsmith introduced Ellen to them and then seemed to treat her as a regrettable appendage. Then south to Nice, Cannes, Le Perthus, various small resorts on the south-eastern French coast and then across the border to Barcelona, from where they took the ferry to Mallorca—though despite the improving climate there was no sense of this trip being a relaxed holiday.

The itinerary was anarchic with nothing resembling a schedule of destinations, even less so a plan for how long they might stay at each of them. Once again Ellen was the driver but Highsmith navigated and planned—or to be more accurate, resolutely failed to do either. Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) is customarily regarded as the archetypal blend of travel book and novel, a chaotic narrative of going everywhere and nowhere across America at great speed and with no particular purpose. Highsmith did it first, and her nomadic reluctance to stay anywhere for long underpinned what would become the novels that grew out of her time with Ellen, The Blunderer and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Anyone with a hint of sense would have been reluctant to leave the places they visited irrespective of the attractions of their next destination. This was Paris and the Mediterranean at their most enticing. The war had closed down the main resorts to celebrity writers and film stars who had flocked to them in the 1920s and 30s and the adventurous middle classes of northern Europe were not yet wealthy enough to become their seasonal colonists. The small towns and chic cities retained an antique charm without being crowded, but Highsmith insisted that they race through each without allowing either woman to properly enjoy the experience. The Blunderer and The Talented Mr Ripley do not refer directly to the journeys undertaken by the two women, largely at Highsmith’s behest, but in each the narrative is driven by a figure with a maniacal energy to keep going while not being clear about their destination or the consequences of their actions.

After spending only a week in Mallorca they sped back through southern France to Italy, to the towns that had become Highsmith’s emotional talismans. Venice was visited once more, this time with hysterical brevity, as if Highsmith wished to pay allegiance to the city without unnecessary encounters with other people. During early March, when they had driven from Paris to Nice, Highsmith wrote a short piece of unfinished fiction called ‘Hell on Wheels’ which lives up to the promise of its title: it tells the story of two people on the road to oblivion, unable to understand the reason for their shared destiny. At a more mundane level the two women quarrelled persistently on everything, from Highsmith’s drinking through their tastes for food—Highsmith found local fare in France and Spain repulsive—to Ellen’s dog who accompanied them and which Highsmith sometimes plotted to kill. Similarly Stackhouse, in The Blunderer, entertains murderous thoughts about his wife Clara’s dog.

In Florence, in June 1952, Highsmith writes of a dream in which Kathryn Cohen features. She, Highsmith, sets the naked Kathryn alight but, horrified, her victim emerges from the flames apparently well, apart from slightly singed patches of skin. At the close of the entry Highsmith seems to recognise Kathryn as a version of herself: ‘I had two identities: the victim and the murderer’ (cahier, 18 June 1952). Kathryn, we should note, was Ellen’s elegant predecessor.

Again, their stay in Florence was brief but their next location seemed to suggest for Highsmith, if not a sense of completion, then an offer of sangfroid. Positano had marked the turning point in Highsmith’s brief relationship with Kathryn. Shortly after they left the town they had become lovers and it seems as though she was now experimenting in some manner with the relationship between the past and the present. She recalled it as an idyll, consecrating it on her subsequent solo journey, so perhaps she felt that it might magically rescue her sometimes precarious affair with Ellen. At just over ten days it was by far the longest stay of their trip and has since become a legend in the geography of literary history as the model for Mongibello, in which much of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) takes place. It was not until 1989 that Highsmith wrote in Granta of how her stay in the town with Ellen provided the inspiration for Tom Ripley.

According to her recollection she rose early, at around six in the morning, walked to the balcony of their hotel room and ‘noticed a solitary young man in shorts and sandals with a towel flung over his shoulder, making his way along the beach There was an air of pensiveness about him, maybe unease. And why was he alone? Had he quarrelled with someone? What was on his mind?’ She adds that she never saw him again and she did not mention him in her cahier. This is puzzling given that her cahiers and diaries are made up of everything that struck her as even faintly extraordinary. It would not be until the mid-1950s that Positano became a destination for discriminating tourists, prompted by John Steinbeck’s Harper’s Bazaar article of 1953. Steinbeck emphasised the contrast between the beauty of the place—very few of the buildings seemed less than two centuries old—and its desolate state. The old palazzi and bourgeois villas were empty and the population appeared to be made up of poverty-stricken middle-aged fishermen and small traders, with the exception of those who worked in its two hotels. The young man who Highsmith saw on the beach, returning from his swim at dawn, was evidently an outsider, if he existed at all.

In 1989, when Highsmith did the piece for Granta (‘The Scene of the Crime,’ vol. 29, winter 1989), Ripley had become for her the equivalent of Conan Doyle’s Holmes, even Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the figure who defined her as a writer. By making him real, albeit elusive and mysterious, she was also increasing the saleability of the works in which he appeared as a murderous psychopath. Highsmith had visited Positano twice before she took Ellen. Whether or not we believe her story that the man on the beach appeared to her on this occasion is immaterial when we consider that he did so, according to her, at the time she was sharing a bedroom with a figure who she would also treat as deranged and malicious and who, like Ripley, would be with her in various forms for the remainder of her life.

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Excerpted from Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith. Copyright ©2021 by Richard Bradford. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC. 

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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