BEST KNOWN for her psychological thrillers, Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, gained worldwide fame in 1950 when it was adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock. Soon thereafter, in 1952, writing under the name Claire Morgan, she released the lesbian novel The Price of Salt. She used the pseudonym to avoid being pegged as a “lesbian book-writer,” but 38 years later the book was published under her own name and retitled Carol (1990). Her notoriety further increased with the release of the story of the duplicitous and murderous Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955). Both Ripley and Carol were adapted for the silver screen, and both were Oscar-nominated films.
In his new biography Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires, Richard Bradford chronicles the life and work of Highsmith with an emphasis on what is not widely known about her. What emerges is a disturbing picture. Bradford’s thesis is that Highsmith channeled aspects of her life, personality, thoughts, and relationships into her plots and characters. He uses Highsmith’s personal notebooks, diaries, and interviews with friends and former lovers to draw his conclusions. Bradford finds that Highsmith was an ardent racist who “was an equal opportunity offender. … You name the group, she hated them.” Most notable was her avid anti-Semitism in addition to her racism.
Highsmith was an alcoholic who drank from dawn to dusk, whose drinking only got worse as she aged. She had numerous affairs with women, and, states Bradford: