Patricia Highsmith’s Confessions and Rebellions at Yaddo
Richard Bradford on Strange Times at the Legendary Writers’ Retreat
In March 1948 Highsmith applied to become a member of the colony of artists and writers at Yaddo in upstate New York. She had heard of the place from Truman Capote, whom she’d met at a book launch in February. Capote was the newest literary celebrity in New York, having established his reputation with a series of short stories, notably the eerie “Miriam” (from which Highsmith borrowed the name for Guy’s wife) and the novel Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948). He was openly homosexual and during his conversation with Highsmith he suggested that she should spend time at Yaddo, where he had stayed while writing his novel. He explained that the colony, or refuge, provided writers with “unconventional inclinations” the opportunity to exempt themselves from the pressures and prejudices of mainstream society.
Highsmith, on Capote’s recommendation, was accepted and arrived at Yaddo on May 10, 1948. Strangers on a Train was in progress but directionless and unfocused. Three years earlier she had come across Margot Johnson, an influential literary agent, who to her credit had taken the time to read some of Highsmith’s work and sent samples of her fiction-in-progress to the major New York publishers. All had been rejected, including the early first-draft chapters of Strangers on a Train. Yaddo’s influence on her progress, at least in her view, can be judged in terms of her bequest to the institution of three million dollars shortly before her death, which seems generous given that she spent only two months there. During this short period she pressed her sprawling debut draft into a narrative that would horrify and entertain for decades to come.
Originally Yaddo had been a Queen Anne-style country house, built in the mid-19th century—the British Georgian architectural mode endured for wealthy East Coast Americans as a badge of distinction. When it was bought by Spencer and Katrina Trask in the 1880s it was derelict, and they replaced it with a building that blended Tudor, medieval, gothic and Victorian excess. It was a grotesque melange of styles that calls to mind a vastly expanded version of the Bates residence in Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Highsmith remembers it as a place where artists and writers variously addicted to drink, drugs and sex went to dry out, only to find that it encouraged excess. Katrina Trask, who decided that their country retreat should become a hub for artistic inspiration, told her husband that “the future is clear to me … At Yaddo they will find the Sacred Fire, and light their torches at its flame. Look Spencer! They are walking in the woods, wandering in the gardens, sitting under the pine-trees, creating, creating, creating!” Substitute “staggering,” “falling,” and “collapsing” for “walking,” “wandering” and “sitting” and one has a more accurate picture of Yaddo and its residents in the summer of 1948.
Among Highsmith’s contemporaries were the novelist Flannery O’Connor, the English fiction writer Marc Brandel and the black crime writer Chester Himes. Its director, Elizabeth Ames, was, according to Highsmith, a strange, creepy sort of woman, silent and sinister like Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, and while Ames perpetually spied on her guests, she did not seem to care about what they got up to. She installed a dormitory-style routine of breakfast at 8:00, lunch at an equally specified time and a general expectation that guests should spend around eight hours in their rooms in the unremitting pursuit of artistic fulfillment.Lipshutz, like many others in the largely conservative psychoanalytical establishment of mid-20th-century America, shamelessly refashioned Freud’s theories into a model for conformity.
The result was mass rebellion, led largely by Highsmith, involving in-house drinking sessions and even more chaotic group excursions to nearby Saratoga Springs. Highsmith began this maniacal ritual of evenings-out in Saratoga two days after her arrival, apparently laying down a challenge to Himes and Brandel by downing ten Martinis and Manhattans, alternately, adding a dash of gin to each. She wrote to Kate Kingsley Skattebol that she suffered a “48-hour hangover” but carried on undeterred. The newcomer Flannery O’Connor declined invitations to join these self-destructive excursions—she was a devout Roman Catholic with strong opinions on the morality of alcohol—but one night Highsmith left her a bottle of bourbon.
A tremendous thunder storm had been forecast and when the drinkers returned, they found her kneeling on the porch, pointing at a knot in the beam of the porch wood. “What are you doing?” asked Highsmith and O’Connor replied, “Look, can’t you see it?! … Jesus’s face.” The bottle was half empty and Highsmith later commented that “ever since then I’ve not liked that woman.” Why? Perhaps because in the cahiers and diary entries during these years Highsmith appends her murderous fantasies, vivid descriptions of sexual desire and alcoholic abuse with variations on the phrase “then read the Bible.” One suspects that, in her case, recourse to the good book involved a mixture of self-caricature and masochism.
The impact of Marc Brandel on the completion of Strangers on a Train is significant, through it should be stressed that this was unintentional on his part. Brandel’s real name was Marcus Beresford. He was born in London in 1919, the son of the novelist and esteemed patron of the arts J.D. Beresford. He was educated at Westminster College, one of England’s major public schools, and St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge. By the time he met Highsmith at Yaddo he had published two acclaimed novels, Rain Before Seven and The Rod and the Staff. Tall, athletically built, with light-brown hair and chiseled cheekbones, he was by anyone’s standards an attractive prospect, which begs the question of why he declared his love for Highsmith, and more importantly why she, for around six months, took his proposals seriously. He asked her to marry him on four occasions and it was not as though she had misled him regarding her prevailing sexual inclinations.
In the course of their first proper conversation during an afternoon together on the banks of the lake at Yaddo she explained to him that she had, for as long as she could remember, been a lesbian and that, at 27, she had been sexually involved with an extraordinarily large number of women, and that she was having an ongoing affair. On two occasions she spent nights away from Yaddo at a hotel with a woman from New York called Jeanne. She commented later that his response to her disclosures was “amazingly tolerant,” which is commendable, but does not explain why he thought he could treat her as something she was not.
They had sex before they left Yaddo and her account of this in one of her confessional letters to her stepfather more than two decades later is vividly honest, to say the least. Sex with him, she wrote, felt like “steel wool in the face, a sensation of being raped in the wrong place—leading to a sensation of having to have a, pretty soon, a boewl [she meant “bowel”] movement” (1 September 1970). Highsmith’s notebook entries on sex with women focus exclusively on mutual clitoral stimulation, not vaginal penetration, so we must assume that in this instance she regards heterosexual/penetrative sex as something so foul as to stimulate a bowel movement.
Nonetheless, she agreed to stay with Brandel later that summer in a house he had rented in Provincetown, Cape Cod, an attractive coastal resort that had earned the reputation as a kind of Greenwich Village-by-Sea, at least for those New York bohemians wealthy enough to rent or purchase a property there. Highsmith arrived in early September to find that Brandel was taking drinks with Ann Clark, who was vacationing from New York at a nearby house. He planned to use Ann as an antidote to the abnormalities of Yaddo. She was cosmopolitan: a painter, designer and ex-Vogue model who would, he assumed, help create an atmosphere of civilized interaction, at least until he and Highsmith were alone. But within a day Ann, who had previously only had heterosexual relationships, agreed to meet Highsmith for a date as soon as the two of them returned to the city. However even before they left Provincetown, “on a little wharf near my deck … we were making love and I was going absolutely out of my mind. I’d never felt anything like that in my life” (Clark to Wilson, 12 April 2000).
Later that month when they met at Ann’s apartment: “Considering I’d been in bed with more men than I could remember, I couldn’t believe what was happening. The next morning I said, ‘I just lost my virginity.’ She couldn’t believe I’d never been in bed with a woman before.” It is not surprising that in the same account to Wilson she treats Brandel with contempt. “He was unattractive because of being a sneering and nasty drunk … He launched into his great successes in England with his first novel … [I took] an instant dislike to him.” The woman who had fallen in love with Highsmith within hours of meeting her regarded her new lover’s suitor as vile. It therefore seems odd that Highsmith herself should continue to countenance Brandel’s obsession with her. In her letter to Stanley she reported that she had sex with Brandel “many times … [t]wenty–thirty.” While considering this we should bear in mind the fact that while she was having affairs with Brandel and Ann (and Jeanne) she was also choreographing an equally bizarre relationship, between Guy and Bruno in Strangers on a Train.
Things entered a new level of strange in November 1948 when Highsmith, following the advice of her composer friend David Diamond, enrolled on a course of therapy with the New York psychoanalyst Eva Klein Lipshutz. Lipshutz, a graduate of Columbia, specialized in the analysis and correction of deviation: alcoholism, other forms of addiction and, most prominently, non-heterosexual inclinations and desires. She was well qualified and respected in her profession, which should cause us wonder if, at least in the 1940s, the boundary between expertise and quack diagnosis was secure. After Highsmith explained to her that she had spent virtually all of her adult life sexually involved with other women, Lipshutz informed her patient that like those addicted to violence, alcohol or drugs, a “cure” was available. Lipshutz was a crude Freudian and she spelled out to Highsmith that her relationships with women involved a persistent ritual of loving and leaving them because she was recreating and compensating for her irresolutely mixed feelings of love and hatred for her mother, Mary.There is no evidence to suggest that Highsmith regarded her lesbianism as a deformity or a state from which she wished to free herself.
Highsmith was incapable of maintaining a happy relationship with a woman, Lipshutz continued, because in truth she hated all of them, in part subconsciously in that her “unnatural” lesbianism had forced her to sublimate her genuine desire to enter into a conventional heterosexual relationship with a man. Lipshutz’s theory was a distortion of Freud’s ideas on homosexuality which predated pro-gay liberalism by around a century. Freud acknowledged that homosexuals were “different” but that their sense of undergoing an “illness” was due to societal prejudice rather than the nature of their sexuality. He believed that therapy must enable them to come to terms with who they are rather than to treat gay sexuality as something that might be remedied through a psychoanalytical cure. Lipshutz, like many others in the largely conservative psychoanalytical establishment of mid-20th-century America, shamelessly refashioned Freud’s theories into a model for conformity, believing it their duty to rectify all manner of deviant inclinations which might threaten the ideals of law, order, patriotism, religion and the secure family.
In her diary Highsmith left sardonic comments following her sessions with Lipshutz. The therapist at one point recommended that she should begin group therapy with four married women who were displaying latent lesbian tenancies and who had come to her for, as they saw it, treatment for feelings that aroused in them a sense of horror and dismay, comparable to homicidal inclinations towards their husbands and children. Highsmith might, Lipshutz indicated, benefit from contact with women who knew they were ill and were terrified of the potential consequences of what they’d become. In her diary she wrote, “Perhaps I shall amuse myself by seducing a couple of them” (6 May 1949).
There is no evidence to suggest that Highsmith regarded her lesbianism as a deformity or a state from which she wished to free herself. She had sometimes had sex with men, but largely out of curiosity and certainly not because she wanted to reconcile herself to a form of normality enjoyed by others. Nowhere in her cahiers and diaries does she record an expression of affection for Brandel, let alone a wish to force herself into desiring him or forming some long-term relationship. She provoked and dismissed his marriage proposals rather than countenancing them as serious possibilities. Similarly, she regarded Lipshutz as farcical and incompetent.
Highsmith was manipulating both of them, not out of aversion, but perhaps because they embodied normality. Brandel was the dashing, esteemed novelist who would be a perfect husband for an aspiring author and Lipshutz would set her on the route to propriety, conformity and the lifestyle that would make her an appropriate partner for Brandel. She was not taking them seriously, but nether did she distance herself from them. By participating in their routines of normality she became the subversive intruder. She wanted to establish a tension, a dynamic between the world of conventional inclinations and morals and a life of perpetual deviancy. Using Brandel and Lipshutz as bastions of the former she could pass between them while experimenting with another spectrum of norms and deviances, levels of proper and murderous behavior—in her draft of Strangers on a Train.
From Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires by Richard Bradford. Used with the permission of Bloomsbury.