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                             HOW TO BEGIN
                                       part 2




It is late April, still the cruellest month, in 1965. And it is London, still
“swinging”—but not for everyone.
    London is certainly not swinging for Patricia Highsmith, the attractive,
fiercely ambitious, and, in Europe at least, seriously regarded forty-four-year-
old American “suspense” writer whose alabaster skin and almond eyes have
only just begun to show the signs of her drinking and her disappointments.
She has driven down to North London—she has some business with the BBC1—
from her rural residence in Suffolk, Bridge Cottage in Earl Soham, having
passed the winter holidays of 1964–65 in her usual festive spirits.
    “The holidays here exhaust one, creeping through closed windows like a
poisonous gas,” Pat writes from Suffolk, sounding just like a Highsmith char-
acter. Never one to greet the New Year with anything like enthusiasm (“Happy
New Year . . . I hate the phrase”),2 she complains steadily of the English weather,
the English temperament, and the “dreary” English pubs with their “danger-
ous dart-games.”3 She is—this has only darkened her mood—deep in the dy-
ing stages of an English love affair.
    The object of Pat’s affections is a vibrantly attractive, classically cultured,
solidly married Londoner—we’ll call her Caroline Besterman*—and she is
the most profound attachment of Pat’s adult life. Pat’s first meeting with Caro-
line in London in the summer of 1962 left her love-struck as never before. The
honeymoon the two women managed to steal in France that autumn set the
seal on their love affair. Pat flew over to Paris from New York to scoop Caro-
line shyly off the boat train from London and spend a delerious long week

* Caroline Besterman is a pseudonym.
12                       the talented miss highsmith

with her in a hotel in the Sixth arrondissement, a week Pat described in
scorching terms. “She . . . melts into my arms as if she were smelted by Vul-
can expressly for that purpose. I can make love happily to her all night long.” 4
     Some of this love affair was conducted in public. Pat, whose late-life neigh-
bors in Switzerland saw her shudder away from the touch of other people,
even to the extent of refusing formal handshakes, felt free enough on the
streets of Paris in late 1962 to embrace Caroline Besterman so passionately
that her own earring flew off and rolled out of sight down the Boulevard St-
Germain.5
     “ ‘Can I kiss you in some doorway?,’ ” Pat asked, deferentially.
     “ ‘Never mind the doorway,’ ” said Caroline.6
     When they could bear to leave their bed, the two women dined and drank
à la française, paid a visit to Baudelaire’s tomb and Notre Dame, went to the
ceremonies for the Prix Goncourt (Pat was a little surprised to see a woman
win),7 and met several times with Pat’s French translator, Jean Rosenthal, who
gave her clear advice about French publishing houses. Pat, trying to hide her
new relationship from Rosenthal and his wife, travelled with Caroline out to
a small studio in St. Cloud where they saw a soundless preview of Le Meurtrier,
Claude Autant-Lara’s film of Pat’s novel The Blunderer. Caroline found the lead
actor, Maurice Ronet, “very attractive” and Pat thought the fi lm “very in-
tense, quite faithful to the book.”8 Their long week together was a rare combi-
nation of business, culture, and pleasure.
     On her way back to the States, the enraptured Pat made a quick stop in
London, where Caroline booked her a room at Oscar Wilde’s last London ho-
tel, the Cadogan. Pat paid a secret visit to Caroline’s marital home, kissed her
“in several rooms, though not in every one of them!” and celebrated by play-
ing songs from the cast album of Pal Joey before taking a taxi to the airport.
Pat was followed as far as the gate by Caroline—and accompanied onto the
plane by the bottle of Gordon’s gin she kept in the large woven Mexican bag
she always carried with her: her bolsa.9
     Back in her house in New Hope, Pennsylvania, in November, Pat finds
that all terms are inadequate to her feelings. And that all feelings are inade-
quate to her situation:

     Beauty, perfection, completion—all achieved and seen. Death is the
     next territory, one step to the left. I don’t want to see any more, to feel
     or experience any more. . . . Pleasure has already killed me, trans-
     formed and translated me. . . . I am the drunken bee wandered into
     your household. You may with courage eject me through the window;
     or by accident step on me. Be assured, I’ll feel no pain.10
                             How to Begin: part 2                               13

    Love, as usual, makes Pat think of death, of murder. And thoughts of
death, also as usual, force her into a decision.
    “But there is no use in making any further effort to live without her. I can-
not. And in all my 41 years, I have never said or written this about anyone else
before.”11
    So, although Pat was correcting the proofs of her much-rewritten novel
The Two Faces of January, and had been hoping “to do a short story & make a
beginning on paper of the prison novel [The Prisoner, later The Glass Cell]”
she’d been imagining since September of 1962, she “cleared [her] compli-
cated decks,”12 left her possessions and her rented house in New Hope,
where she’d been living since 1960, and, in early 1963, crossed the wine-
dark seas and settled in Earl Soham in Suffolk (after moving from Paris to
Positano into the house she’d rented the summer before, and thence to
Aldeburgh; despite her reference to Emily Dickinson’s “drunken bee,” the
“beeline” was never part of Pat Highsmith’s approach to travel) in what had
been two country cottages, now “knocked together” as one dwelling: Bridge
Cottage.
    The double structure of Bridge Cottage suits Pat’s psychology just as much
as the ambiguities of this love affair with Caroline Besterman, someone else’s
wife, suit her temperament.
    As her feelings for Caroline sink into familiar acrimony (Pat has a fetching
habit of falling for women because they are married, then berating them for
being attached to their husbands), Pat spends the Suffolk winter of 1964–65
holed up in her “brick-floored” study; freezing, brooding, and trying hard to
understand her new country.13 “England is brilliant at describing its own short-
comings, very slow at doing anything about them.”14 She is also making “Notes
on Suspense” for a book she is writing for a Boston publisher.
    “Suspense writers, present and future: Remember you are in good com-
pany. Dostoyevsky, Wilkie Collins, Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe . . . there
are hacks in every kind of literary field. . . . Aim at being a genius.”15
    She saws wood to warm herself instead of fi ring up her stoves—“I be-
come more Scrooge-like with age,” she confesses16 —and she does not take
her mother’s practical advice about the excellent insulating properties of
old newspapers.17
    “I see little of my friend [Caroline Besterman] . . . ,” Pat writes to her col-
lege chum in New York, Kingsley Skattebol, in January of 1965. “It is hard to
bear when I sit alone in the country 98% of the time.”18 Kingsley is one of Pat’s
oldest friends, but she has never been told that Pat and Caroline Besterman
are lovers, and she will not learn this interesting fact until after Pat’s death.19
Pat likes to partition her confidences, imagine herself as emotionally neglected
14                       the talented miss highsmith

(a satisfying habit since childhood), and calculate the percentages of her un-
happiness.
    Actually, Pat is having a much better time in Earl Soham than she lets on.
She has made fast friends with her obliging neighbor, the writer Ronald Blythe,
who is working on his soon-to-be-acclaimed book about Suffolk, Akenfield,
when he first meets her. Ronald Blythe invites Pat into his circle of artistic and
literary males. Amongst them is James Hamilton-Paterson, future author of
Gerontius and Cooking with Fernet-Branca. Hamilton-Paterson once walked out
of a room after Pat had erupted in a “brief burst of tears.”20 “I don’t blame him,”
wrote Pat, who would certainly have done the same thing herself; “give him
my love.”21
    Ronald Blythe and Pat see each other regularly; he, “cycling to Earl Soham
to have supper with her, or she, coming to see me in her Volkswagen.” They go
on day trips together to scout out old churches and unfamiliar pubs, they cook
for each other (Pat always “left stuff on her plate, smoked between courses,
and didn’t much like food”), and—dedicated writers both—they communi-
cate by letter between visits, even though they live only four miles apart.
    “She was a great ranter,” Ronald Blythe says. And there is certainly “a great
deal” of ranting about Caroline Besterman in Pat’s early letters to him, while
her conversation was “full of hatred for her mother and wild goings on.” But
Pat never ranted at Blythe or even quarrelled with him—perhaps because
he never challenged her. “She had beautiful manners,” he thinks, “lovely
manners . . . and I got used to her excessive language.”22
    But there are sharp drops into strangeness in their friendship. Cycling
home from a visit to Pat, Ronald Blythe—then a warden of his village church,
now a canon of the cathedral—was once “overcome by a kind of terrible dark-
ness. I felt quite ill, as though I’d been in the presence of something awful. . . .
And then the next time we saw each other she said that, well, some things
about her, I wasn’t to worry about them. She knew [what I’d been feeling]. . . .
It never happened again[,] but I had just felt awful in her presence.”23
    And on “one or two occasions,” Pat breached the boundaries of their friend-
ship with “a faint, physical exploration . . . Her attitude was a kind of trespass
on my body, rather like a man examining me. . . . I couldn’t understand it
really, [but] it was of no importance whatsoever.”* They were never, says
Dr. Blythe, lovers in any conventional sense; this was something else. Some-
thing, quite possibly, to do with Pat’s rather clinical interest in the male anat-
omy and in what she once identified as “the thrill of domination.”24


* Ronald Blythe was “surprised” to see himself featured in a BBC documentary about Pa-
tricia Highsmith as one of her “lovers.” The idea, he says, is “ridiculous.”
                            How to Begin: part 2                               15

    Ordinarily, though, Pat is “very close and affectionate and warm and
touching. [Our] relationship was almost entirely about writing. . . . We didn’t
have anyone near we could talk to about writing [and so] we talked by the
hour about our work. . . . I took all my friends to see her.”25
    The Suffolk solitude Pat complains of in her letters (and describes self-
pityingly in her notebooks, her cahiers) is far more populous and social than
she cares to admit. And so, as she chats for hours on end about her work to her
fellow writer Ronald Blythe, she is also inserting into her little handbook-in-
progress for suspense writers, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1965), this
resonant antipathy:
    “I cannot think of anything worse or more dangerous than to discuss my
work with another writer. It would give me an uncomfortably naked feeling.”
    Like most writers, what Pat really likes to set down in her notebooks are the
things that disturb her, the daily and historic irritations rasping away at her
nerves. Because of this, her meticulous self-archiving—at the end of her life,
there will be eight thousand pages of notebooks and diaries—can be deceptive.
The areas of Pat’s life which do not bother her often go unrecorded.
    Taking Patricia Highsmith at her “word” will always be a complicated
business.
    Just now, Pat has come to London to stay for a few days with Barbara
Ker-Seymer—the impeccably well- connected, once-bohemian portrait pho-
tographer and close friend of most of London’s twenties and thirties Café
Society—and Ker-Seymer’s lover, the enterprising Barbara Roett.
    The Barbaras live together in a charming crescent street in Islington
with a house on one side of the crescent’s curve and a studio en face. They
prefer to have Pat stay with them because, as Barbara Roett says, “if she were
only visiting us, it was hell.” When Pat came to London “it was for a binge,
[she liked] to chat and tirade around the house until quite late . . . whereas
we wanted to go to bed at a reasonable time.”26 It was much easier to give Pat
keys of her own.
    “Quarrelling with Pat,” says Barbara Roett, “would be like quarrelling
with a dog with rabies. You could get bitten. But it wasn’t the fear of being bit-
ten, it was the fear of knowing better. . . . When I understood her . . . I felt a
compassion for her. I thought she was isolated from love in a simple way: Love
your parents.”27



On the other side of London, in a leafy part of Kensington, in a lovely old
house with steps that curve like a castle staircase from the walk in its front
yard to the top of the house’s final floor, lives another friend of Pat Highsmith.

				
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