Quentin at the Castro

It was a joy having the discussion with Quentin Tarantino on stage at the Castro Theatre this last Monday about his newest book, Cinema Speculation. It was a great, cinephile-heavy evening at a beautiful historic theatre, The Castro.

And read Tarantino's Cinema Speculation -- a fascinating book -- rigorous film study, memoir, insider knowledge, stories, and of course, cinema speculations. And more. It's so smart and unique -- and so entertaining to read. An essential film book--  a one-of-a-kind with the distinctive voice and opinions of Tarantino. I'll write more but for now, thanks for the talk, Quentin! 


top photo courtesy Castro Theatre 

Happy Birthday Marilyn Monroe


Happy Birthday, Marilyn Monroe.

Here's a letter Thomas Pynchon wrote to his former Cornell friend and roommate, writer Jules Siegel, in the early 1960s. MM is brought up -- she "got out of the game" as Pynchon wrote.  Siegel published a portion of the letter in a 1965 issue of Cavalier magazine. He wrote that, "Pynchon, hiding out from the world in Mexico City, wrote on blue-line graph paper to a suicidal writer friend." 


"When Marilyn Monroe got out of the game, I wrote something like, 'Southern California's special horror notwithstanding, if the world offered nothing, nowhere to support or make bearable whatever her private grief was, then it is that world, and not she, that is at fault.'

"I wrote that in the first few shook-up minutes after hearing the bulletin sandwiched in between Don and Phil Everly and surrounded by all manner of whoops and whistles coming out of an audio signal generator, like you are apt to hear on the provincial radio these days. But I don't think I'd take those words back.

"The world is at fault, not because it is inherently good or bad or anything but what it is, but because it doesn't prepare us in anything but body to get along with.

"Our souls it leaves to whatever obsolescences, bigotries, theories of education workable and un, parental wisdom or lack of it, happen to get in its more or less Brownian (your phrase) pilgrimage between the cord-cutting ceremony and the time they slide you down the chute into the oven, while the guy on the Wurlitzer plays Aba Daba Honeymoon because you had once told somebody it was the nadir of all American expression; only they didn't know what nadir meant but it must be good because of the vehemence with which you expressed yourself."

And here's my piece on Marilyn for the Los Angeles Review of Books -- how she was on my mind, and everywhere, even on a blanket in Death Valley...

Notes From the Unashamed



Barbara Payton was gracious enough to let Leo Guild into her apartment. That’s one way of looking at this sleazy/sad alliance, a union of two making a fast buck, pushing forward in spite of their shambling lives and, in the end, perpetually losing. But as Guild reported later, Payton, though polite on the phone, was in person, gross: “pig fat” as he indelicately -- that's not the right word -- cruelly called her and with a “red, angry scar coming from under the shirt and running down her thigh.” 

Recalling their meeting to work on her 1963 autobiography, the shocker “I Am Not Ashamed” (more recently reissued through Spurl Editions, the cover photograph a weary and worn out Payton clutching a box of tissues, walking through court in her last mink coat) Guild in, 1967 (the year Barbara died), wrote in Pix Magazine:


"I left my typewriter at six o’clock and drove over to a broken- down apartment house (since razed) opposite a bar she hung out in called the Coach and Horses. The smell in the hall was of cooking cabbage. Her apartment was number six. I knocked and she yelled, ‘Entre vous.’”

“Entre vous!” Well, now that is gracious, aggressively so. And weirdly charming. Charming in the way we might imagine Beverly Michaels angrily letting in Percy Helton in Wicked Woman. Gracious in the way Shelley Winters might attempt to impress James Mason’s Humber Humbert in Lolita. Loud and scarily friendly, but, delightful, in her own way. And harder. And tougher. And sadder. But the hell does Guild think he is? Payton just happened to be a Hollywood prostitute at the time, living with her pimp. What made Guild any more superior? Had Charles Bukowski been privy to this (and one wonders if Payton and Bukowski ever crossed paths – they were imbibing in nearby Hollywood watering holes), he would’ve lessoned Guild on manners regarding the proper slumming of winos. This is, in Bukowki’s words, a “distressed goddess” you’re dealing with here. A woman who went from once being married to intellectual, dapper Franchot Tone to knifed by a trick (“Thirty-eight stitches from my fleshy belly down.”) And then there was Tom Neal. Entre vous at your own risk.


Guild was the ghostwriter behind Payton’s infamous autobiography boasting the blazing, pre-hashtag anti slut-shaming title, “I Am Not Ashamed” (which she did indeed, say, bless her) a man who exploited and recorded a wine soaked, once-gorgeous ex-movie-star at one of the lowest points of her life. Guild also penned Hedy Lamar’s scandalous “Ecstasy and Me” as well as books on Frank Sinatra, Jayne Mansfield and Fatty Arbuckle, and then, moving to Holloway House, cranked out titles like, “Street of Ho's.” Yes, “Street of Ho’s.” He’s an odd writer. Terrible, in some cases, but when merged with Payton, something interesting happened. There’s a hyper-drama and unaffected quality to the prose, likely as Barbara’s mental state at the time, the way drink and drugs crank you up and flatten you out. Yes, Guild was strange too. As described by The Stranger’s Paul Collins, perhaps the only writer who marked the ten year anniversary of Guild’s passing, the 1976 “Street of Ho’s” reads “like... well, like Bob Hope's assistant writing a novel about hookers. Representative sentence: ‘Sheila made him a ham and cheese sandwich and they made love while he ate.’”

Frankly, and perhaps out of context, that’s a good sentence. Weird, sexy, direct, and a little disgusting. Or a little delicious. Your choice. And interestingly, something Payton may have said while throwing her head back and cackling a laugh. And then there’s the joke about Bob Hope. He knew a thing or two about Barbara. Payton’s reported ex-lover, Hope allegedly slept with her, furred and jeweled her, and kept her in an apartment (while married of course). She later ratted him out to the tabloids. This did nothing to harm Hope (of course) and everything to bury Barbara – her burning of bridges did her no favors. But she didn't deserve that.


Hollywood does not like their beloved comedians to be revealed as, well, human, and a little sleazy. And Payton’s behavior, some might say unseemly, some might say she made her own bed, some might say rebellious, harmed her career. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but hell hath no fury like legions of Hollywood men, many probably given the brush-off by young, beautiful Barbara, watching and enjoying the decline and decay of a woman. Barbara (arguably) created some of her problems, but she was also damaged, from childhood, from Hollywood, from drink and drugs. There's something beyond sexism when it comes to Barbara  – sadism. And perhaps some masochism on her part. Baby Jane Hudson was treated nicer (and, in a crazy way, treated herself better) than Barbara. At least she had a maid and a house and a sister. But that was just fantasy.


Guild tapped out Payton’s tome quickly, serialized it in some scandal rags, and publisher Holloway House paid her 1,000 bucks -- money that supposedly dissolved in a bottle of booze or burned up on a bent spoon of heroin. The book came and went and then, through time, came back again, a cult curiosity. The ultimate downfall. Who had ever written a book this unabashedly unashamed? No one.


But here’s the thing, Payton’s drunken ramblings and recollections (who knows how much are true or truer than you could ever imagine?) melding with Guild’s jazzed-up pulp speak becomes something of a minor masterpiece (though minor is not exactly the right word here...). A dime store (in the best sense of the term) “Notes From Underground” -- the bellowing of the underground woman, telling us there is something wrong with her looks (and most certainly her liver), filled with regret, self-doubt, black humor, pride and touching reassurance that it might work out one day knowing damn well it probably won’t. As she, via Guild, wrote with all the flavor of Horace McCoy: “Forever is just a weekend, more or less.”

Kiss tomorrow goodbye

Horace McCoy, in fact, fits within this story, a story he could have written, and a writer connected to Payton’s own stardom: Her big breakout came from a McCoy adaptation, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, a title so prophetic it’s almost too tragically perfect. After the gorgeous, blonde impressed in earlier fare, most notably Trapped opposite Lloyd Bridges (terrific), Warner Brothers signed her and in, 1950, she acted her hard-boiled ass off opposite one of the biggest WB stars of all time, James Cagney. She was great in it (she was great in a lot of movies -- even the lesser ones -- she had gorgeous "it," she had grit, she had reality). She had made it. As she wrote:

“This may seem conceited, but it’s true. I was first to use what now is called ‘The Method’ act. I felt my power before I even went before the cameras. Jimmy Cagney was the star. I played a girl named ‘Holiday’ in the movie Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.

“I just talked and stumbled around and wasn’t formal – just had fun. The critics loved it. The word ‘natural’ was used in all the reviews. Sure, I was scared before I went before the cameras, but it all worked out perfectly.”

She was a natural. I love that she was proud of this work. She should be.

She boasts:

“I went out with every big male star in town. They wanted my body and I needed their names for success. There was my picture on the front pages of every paper in the country.”

But over a decade later, things had changed:

“Today I live in a rat-infested apartment with not a bean to my name and I drink too much Rose wine. I don't like what the scale tells me. The little money I do accumulate to pay the rent comes from old residuals, poetry and favors to men. I love the Negro race and will accept money only from Negroes. Does it all sound depressing to you? Queasy? Well, I'm not ashamed.”


But was she ashamed? One is not so sure, giving the book an extra dose of pathos. If you read John O’Dowd’s impressive, indispensable biography of Payton, entitled, “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” Payton was not simply the tough tootsie the autobiography made her out to be. She was an early rebel, she played by her own rules, she fucked off and fucked up, but she wasn’t a terrible person --- she loved her son, felt awful about losing him (and her son still loves her), was often a loyal friend and was, quite clearly, deeply alcoholic. She was also shooting heroin. O’Dowd has nothing nice to say about the Payton/Guild collaboration and, as empathetic as O’Dowd is, one can easily see why. 


But there’s a raw power to “I Am Not Ashamed,” that, even with and because of its questionable veracity, stuns with a harrowing account of that timeless struggle so many face in Hollywood – keeping a firm grip. And adding to the struggle – keeping a firm grip as a woman in Hollywood. The book works as real documentation of a downfall but also allegorical – mythic in its observations of just how hard some women can fall. And how much men can want women to fall. And how women can even embrace that fall. The shelf life of an actress was terrifying then, and terrifying now. Barbara’s demise reads like a horror movie for any actress losing one too many parts as time marches on. The roles are drying up. What to do? The world twists to make them seem a grotesque.


Barbara, in her own words, only knew how to act. She tried to employ herself, wash hair, work at a hotel, move to Mexico (which she enjoyed) but that was short lived. This is an actress and, so, even her bedtime escapades became something of a show; she’s still the star of her own movie (as detailed in O’Dowd’s book she often left the shades open with clients, so those outside world could get a proper screening). She was the big, peroxide, blonde star lead in her seamy little world, with all its ups and downs, bounced checks, stolen purses, court appearances and police pick-ups -- she would continue to make money pleasing her public. Once they were fans, now some were Johns. And they were as worshipful and as critical as the public and the writers and the lovers ever were. And nasty.


The judgment of her seems especially harsh, twisting her beauty into continual ugliness and the (gasp!) horror of growing old and not just blousy, bloated. The way people viewed Payton (though some friends felt for her) is with the underlying sense of “she deserves it.” Well. Franchot Tone can mess up his life and relationships three times over, but once Barbara took up with Detour actor Tom Neal after marriage to Tone (Neal almost killed Tone in a beat down that was the scandal of Hollywood – something you can’t even imagine today, and Neal is another story...) the often powerful, charismatic actress (she really had it on screen – even up to her last film, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Murder is My Beat) was done for.

Payton Not Ashamed

There’s an account in O’Dowd’s book of a Payton friend observing Barbara on the street from his car during her downbeat days, running through the rain in the night. She’s wearing short shorts and sopping weight. What a sight. That blonde, wet and rushing through the darkness, her hair glowing. He was horrified by what he saw, but, he could still see that movie star there; the confidence of her gait. She walked like a goddess. Looking at Payton through various police snaps and older sexy shots, the reader can see it too, even in the supposedly "ghastly" photos taken of Payton for “I Am Not Ashamed.” Yes, she looks a little less like her more glamorous days, but there’s a beautiful woman there (even Guild, as mean as he was, could see it). She really was a stunning creature – good bones, luscious lips, a defined jaw –it’s still there – just a little worse for wear. So what? How dare she age? How dare she suffer and not stay pretty? And, to me, she is still pretty. And she is interesting. 

But... thinking of her battered body, jumping into all of those stranger's cars, how is she supposed to look? Perfect? That image of her running down the street in wet shorts, it's so sad and sick and insolently sexual. One can see how men would gravitate to her, even in that debased state and exactly for that debased state. She’s not just a diamond in the rough but a diamond in a gutter, covered by a wet mink – you’d have to look closely to see her glistening. And she must have. I'm going to think she did.


One can imagine Payton still looking like a hot mama in some of those bars. I'm sure she was. Internally, though? Men go through hard times in life, indeed, but women, women have wombs. Wombs are strong. I'm sure she could still enjoy sex. But there had to be pain there. If I read about her staggering down the street, too many hard sex encounters, one involving a knifing, it’s hard not to think of a wounded womb, almost as if Payton’s mixture of pride and self-loathing is the ultimate, dramatic symbol of a self-flagellating movie star saint. Her sex as stigmata. (That sounds so dramatic reading it now, but I am moved by her.) By the end of “I Am Not Ashamed,” no matter how sordid and check-cashing both Barbara and Guild were in exploiting her sorry state, one can only feel empathy. As she opined:

“Well, I could do all sorts of things, and to do them right, and it might look like they would lead to fame and fortune but... down, down, I skidded with nothing to hold onto."


Payton died at 39. Kidney and heart failure. Just got up, staggered across the room, walked into the bathroom and dropped dead in her parent’s house. Never made it to 40, that dreaded age for actresses. Could she have turned it around? Maybe. But probably not-- not the way the world often works (I wish she could have). And would she have wanted to? I don't know? She was excited at the end of the book – she was called to be an extra in the Robert Aldrich picture Four For Texas. Aldrich, he of Baby Jane, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Autumn Leaves and The Legend of Lylah Clare. Ironic that Aldrich excelled at the feminine "grotesque" (I say that in quotes because I don't find these women grotesque) while managing to be quite sympathetic towards the perils of women aging (see Autumn Leaves -- Joan Crawford is not grotesque, just vulnerable and human and beautiful). But this was on screen... Movies of lonely women and wrecked movie stars are easier to stomach. Facing those lines, bleached hair and drunken, lost eyes in the flesh -- that’s too close to the truth. It’s not amusing, it's not entertaining, but it is human and if it were a man, it would be much more accepted. Obviously, unfarily. As she wrote of her colorful, tragic, short life with some great performances in there: “It was joke-like. But I couldn’t laugh.”


Journey Through the Past: Special Deluxe


“We were beginning to feel that the Continental had a soul, memories of the past and feelings about where we were going and what we were doing.” – Neil Young

When I was nine-years old, my mother rambled around in an old pine green Dodge station wagon. It was a big honkin’ thing, it seemed so out-dated, the back-end smashed, the seats an obnoxious green (everything in that car was green) the benches all tore up, wrapped together with silver duct tape so that when her purse spilled, which was often, dimes and quarters and lipstick tubes would get stuck and lost forever in the upholstery. She called it “The Green Bomb,” I later deemed it “Divorce Wagon" because it seemed like the dad-is-gone car. I don’t even remember the car from before. I was too young when they divorced (5) and I never processed it properly. In my mind, it magically showed up once my dad left (or she left him), though it must have been the family wagon. But there it remained – the car where mom donned big sunglasses and listened to songs on a tinny radio and was probably crying or raging or weirdly content – all over the place. Like the groceries rolling around the back seat when she rode the break, driving us kids insane. I don’t remember my Dad ever even being near that car. I hated that car.

Now, I’d kill to have that car. Once mom re-married and we moved from old-car-cool Bainbridge Island, Washington where no one cared about old ripped-up station wagons, neighbors loved vintage cars (and we had about five cars there anyway, including an MG, A VW Square-back, a motorcycle and my Uncle’s Lotus) to, what I viewed, an uptight little college town in Oregon, where cars were boring and newer (they all started looking like suppositories to me), a place where I had to make new friends who might just judge ripped seats and busted-up back ends, I could feel myself sinking into the floorboards whenever we picked up the infrequent play date in that thing. I turned against that car. I didn’t care to fit in there, I just loathed that the car used to be just fine. Now it was this rambling eyesore to, what I perceived, a bunch of jerks. That car represented something torn up in life. I just wanted her to get RID of it.


And then one day my mom came home and surprised us all: A gold Mazda (I can't remember the model). What?! I was so thrilled by this sexy, new car, I jumped up and down: “It’s so shiny!” And then, I asked… "So, what happened to the Dodge?” Mom replied, cheerfully "Oh, it's gone." I was suspicious: "Gone? You sold it? Someone’s gonna fix it up?" My mom said, laughing a little, almost sing-songy: "No, no, no. It's going to be crushed.” Suddenly, I was horrified and, then, filled with guilt. Surely I’d felt empathy in my little life before but this felt like something new, something I was complicit in. This is all my fault. I wailed, “The Dodge is all alone? It's all alone in some crusher? It's going to be killed?!!" My mother kept saying, annoyed, "It's just a car, Kimberley. It's not going to die." I protested, "It IS going to die. They're killing the car!” I continued on, awash with crushing remorse: “I was so horrible to that car! I feel so bad for the Dodge -- alone. We have to save the car!”

Kim morgan desert photo by trent debord

I started to cry. And I couldn’t stop crying. The car became a person, it had feelings and I pictured it entering the crusher, knowing how much the family hated him, cold and alone. And now he was being upgraded with this gold… slut. What if dad does the same thing? What if they don’t get back together? I know mom’s married, but maybe they’ll get back together anyway? I became so incensed with the tacky gold car that I yelled at the car, "You’re so full of yourself!" and then ran inside and cried some more. I mourned that green Dodge for an entire week. A full fucking week. Maybe more. I never liked the Mazda. My mother thought I was insane. I don’t think so. I needed more cars in my life (which I made sure of here and here). And I just needed Neil Young in my life. He did come, later. Thank god. In tough times and wonderful times and magical times, many times marked by cars. Many times in a car. On the road. From the hot desert of Joshua Tree to icy Winnipeg, Manitoba, Young's last city he lived before he drove to California. Young is always felt. I remember the first time I saw the aurora borealis in Gimli, MB. I was so stunned, it was so beautiful, and I could only hear it in my mind the way Young so uniquely and melodically phrases it in "Pocahontas": "Aurora borealis, the icy sky at night...

“Only love can break your heart” but Young knows just as I do, just as many others do, so can cars. With his book, one of my favorite memoirs, “Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life and Cars” he anthropomorphizes every single car in life from childhood until now. He even paints in watercolor, charming, impressive pictures of each one. It’s all so touchingly detailed, lovely and bittersweet, and then both revealing and mysterious, like Neil Young himself. (Stay with me here, but there's even a touch of Robert Walser in these accounts, the micro memories, and Young's enigmatic writing manages to convey something more revealing than perhaps even he imagines). Cars carry you on adventures and disasters and they can let you down, but you also let them down. I only wish auto enthusiast (if that’s even the right term for Mr. Young, more like beautiful obsessive, an auto-erotic) had been present at that past scene to tell my mother that I wasn’t crazy.


As he writes about his 1941 Chrysler Highlander Coupe, purchased in Malibu in 1975, which he loved, but never fully restored, he cited this reason for it’s disrepair, a reason full of regret and maybe even an excuse: “I don’t know why. It’s hard to understand, but somehow I think it has to do with Vietnam… Perhaps I should have not bought it and just left it alone and maybe someone would have fixed it up. Right now it is a struggle, a story incomplete, an empty feeling. I have to do something about it.”


Young’s book is incredible for chronicling nearly every car he’s known, owned, worked on, didn’t work on and then some, from his parents' 1954 Monarch Lucerne, to his various Hearses, one famously named Mort, where he’d haul his equipment around as a young musician and famously drive from Canada to Los Angeles, breaking down on Sunset Blvd, to his 1957 Corvette (a great car to speed around his new home in Laurel Canyon) to a 1951 Wily Jeepster, to a 1954 Cadillac Limousine (named “Pearl”)… Listing all of the cars would take forever, but Young’s owned them and loved them and his gear-headedness is so open and expansive, it’s impressive and passionate. He’s not one of those annoying classic car types – the ones who cherry out a badass muscle car or do the easiest thing in the world: Buy an old Mustang – he seems to love them all, find something curious and soulful about a car.

The slick and the fast, the rambling heaps, the ridiculously enormous family sedans from the 50s all have equal importance and appeal. And, as the chapters illuminate, each car has a memory attached, written with vivid, at times, dream-like detail. Cars drive in and out of his life, underscoring all of the changes and upheaval, some sweet, some exciting, some rock and roll, some down home and family and some very sad. Cars even help him become more ecologically conscious. He loves all of his gas guzzlers, but grows increasingly concerned about CO2 emissions, hence his interest in driving with renewable fuel (like his 2000 Hummer 1) and then, his now famous fuel efficient LincVolt, a 1959 Lincoln Continental converted into a hybrid demonstrator.


And then there’s divorce.

Some of the most moving moments in the book come from Young writing about his parents' divorce. What’s with cars and divorce? Do all of us children of divorce have a car attached? In a chapter covering his dad’s late 1950s Triumph TH3, he remembers his father leaving his mother (with a letter) and that his father was, in his way, telling him about the departure before it happened while driving in that car. “I knew it! I knew it!” little Young exclaims after his father ditches mom. His mother asks, “You knew what?” and then he proceeds to tell her about their car trip. His mother cries and, as Young writes, “I just held on to her.” The memory becomes more painful:

“A few days later, I came home from school and found Mommy in the driveway in front of the garage. She had her record collection out, a big pile of 78s from a couple of boxes. At first, it looked like she was organizing something. But Mommy was crying now, taking out each 78, looking at it, and breaking it on the cement driveway. That was one of the saddest things I have ever seen. I try to block it out of my mind. Just a late afternoon, sun getting ready to set, and there is this picture of her crying and breaking each record, making a little comment with each one.”


What a heartbreaking recollection. And from car trip to house to garage to driveway to… music. It all swirls together in Young’s evocative memoir. When discussing his 1959 Lincoln Continental, his “most outrageous car of them all” and the one he used in his Bernard Shakey-directed movie Greendale (the car that would become the “LincVolt”) Young reflects in the relative present time (the late 2000’s), driving through a lonely Las Vegas with his partner in Shakey Productions, Larry Johnson, discussing the “empty lots, as well as a huge dark old hotel that was no doubt about to be blown up… The giant building where Elvis had played his first Vegas shows. Such was the way of progress in Las Vegas. Out with the old and in with the new. “


Touchingly, Young wonders how the Continental might feel about this ever-changing Vegas landscape, “rumbling along, taking this in, no doubt noticing it was much older than that aging hotel, now slanted for demolition.” The directness and mystery of Young is all over this book, making it, sometimes, as affecting as his music. When he turns back to both the car and to himself and then, states something so obvious, it takes you aback with its frank emotion, the way a lyric like “Do you think of me and wonder if I’m fine?” does from “Journey Through the Past” (that title and song, is damn nearly what this book is all about).

Young writes, “We were beginning to feel that the Continental had a soul, memories of the past and feelings about where we were going and what we were doing. Spending a lot of time with a car can do that.” 

Milk Blood Bone: Patricia Highsmith

From my essay at the Daily Beast, on the oddity, allure and brilliance of Patricia Highsmith: The critically acclaimed film "Carol," based on one of her books, has helped introduce a new generation to this most puzzling, contradictory, but indispensable novelist.

Patricia Highsmith disliked food. Or, rather, she had a deeply problematic relationship with food that produced fascinating, unsettling musings, vividly intertwined with digestion and eating. Her short story, “The Terrapin,” in which a disturbed boy murders his mother with a kitchen knife after she boils a tortoise alive, Highsmith merged food issues with her own mother issues to a magnificently bent level of hysteria and horror: The dark side of domesticity. An anorexic in adolescence, and a slight woman her whole life, one who stocked liquor in her kitchen and nothing else, she found food tedious, frequently disgusting and even disturbing, blaming some of societal ills and politics on the results of food. She wrote once: “the USA [is] suffering a prolonged attack of acid stomach, an irrepressible urge to throw up.”


She pondered further, at another time, about how food affects us: “We live on the thin ice of unexplained phenomena. Suppose our food suddenly did not digest in our stomachs. Suppose it lay like a lump of dough inside us and poisoned us.”

That’s not a crazy supposition, really.

And yet, she loved a comforting warm glass of milk, something that would show up in The Price of Salt (now the movie Carol) with a dreamy strangeness and a corporal sensuality. As she writes it, milk is a bit gross, but, romantic and powerful:

“Therese was propped on one elbow. The milk was so hot, she could barely let her lip touch it at first. The tiny sips spread inside her mouth and released a melange of organic flavors. The milk seemed to taste of bone and blood, of warm flesh, or hair, saltless as chalk yet alive as a growing embryo. It was hot through and through to the bottom of the cup, and Therese drank it down, as people in fairy tales drink the potion that will transform, or the unsuspecting warrior the cup that will kill. Then Carol came and took the cup, and Therese was drowsily aware that Carol asked her three questions, one that had to do with happiness, one about the store, and one about the future. Therese heard herself answering. She heard her voice rise suddenly in a babble, like a spring that she had no control over, and she realized she was in tears.”


This is just one aspect to the woman who was the oddity and sometimes genius named Patricia Highsmith, a cookie full of arsenic (if she heard it, she had to have appreciated the Odets/Lehman line of poisoned confection) who is full of so many contradictions that she is endlessly fascinating and frequently baffling. The preoccupation with the disgust for food shows a need for control, the drinking shows a need to let go—the push and pull of a hard heart and a woman full of passion—someone who ran from and ran towards the voluptuous and often icky aspects of life.


It’s not surprising that biographers (chiefly the great Joan Schenkar, whose gorgeously written and elucidating The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith informed this piece) compared her to her most famous creation: Tom Ripley. Schenkar wrote, “Pat was back in the United States making her credo of ‘quality’ the central obsession of the character who was to become, crudely speaking, her own fictional Alter Ego: Tom Ripley. (Pat was never ‘the woman who was Ripley,’ but she did give Ripley many of the traits she wished she had, as well as quite a few of her obsessive little habits.) Like Pat, Ripley began as a flunker of job interviews and a failure at self-respect. Like Pat, Ripley found his ‘quality’ of life in Europe.”

After studying Highsmith’s life, you come away impressed, shocked, amused, and wondering if you could ever like this person. But liking her doesn’t matter; she’s not Willy Loman (Highsmith wrote in her diary of Arthur Miller’s character, “I find I have no sympathy for the individual whose spirit has not led him to seek higher goals … at a much younger age.”). She was a woman so intricate and so her own self (she couldn’t help but be her own self) that even she may not have understood how modern she was, or even fancied that idea (she loathed being pigeonholed).

Even by today’s standards, she’s still modern. Though she certainly wouldn’t have bandied a term like “feminist” around, she lived a progressive life, falling in love with women, never marrying to suit convention (though she did toy with the idea of marriage and with therapy for her homosexuality and, blessedly, that didn’t take), striving for both her own art and making good money while uttering some perfectly awful prejudices and then turning around and contradicting them. One of her best friends in high school was the young Judy Holliday (then, Judy Tuvim) and for decades Highsmith kept a photo of the Born Yesterday actress dressed in a man’s suit.

There’s much discussion of Highsmith of late, all interesting, from Margaret Talbot’s excellent New Yorker piece about the real life back story of Carol to a New York Post headline screaming, “The drunk bisexual racist behind Cate Blanchett’s new movie.” All these years later, Highsmith is still pissing people off.


Todd Haynes’s superb, beautiful and moving Carol, adapted from Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt, has created the buzz and for good reason—it’s one of the best reviewed movies of the year, a much needed woman’s picture, and a gorgeous universal story about two women falling in love, with each other. Though Carol features an aggrieved husband, this is a movie about women, one could say (to Highsmith’s likely cringing) a feminist picture about females finding themselves, their work, their sexuality, and mutual adoration in the less permissive time of ’50s New York City, subverting the rules society has placed on them. There’s something of Highsmith, who published The Price of Salt in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, in both older Carol and younger Therese, in her often highly dramatic relationships and yearning. For although she was a woman who wrote brilliantly about murder and sociopaths, and though she was a woman frequently remembered as grumpy, bizarre, and downright caustic, she confessed of a swooning heartache and dream that’s so stirring it makes you want to cry:

“Persistently, I have the vision of a house in the country with the blond wife whom I love, with the children whom I adore, on the land and with the trees I adore. I know this will never be, yet will be partially that tantalizing measure (of a man) leads me on. My God and my beloved, it can never be! And yet I love, in flesh and bone and clothes in love, as all mankind.”

Her compulsions and contradictions were encyclopedic: food hater, snail lover, drinker, thinker, bigot, progressive, lover of women and younger women—much younger women in many cases (rumor has it that The Price of Salt inspired Nabokov’s Lolita). And yet, while she was the very definition of independent (never married, never put down roots, and in her 40s permanently abandoned America for Europe), she was also ruled by an intensely close and corrosive relationship with her mother.

According to Schenkar, Highsmith’s mother, Mary, was a chronic and histrionic creator of domestic scenes “so dreadful that Pat had to call in Dr. Auld, the local physician, to sedate them both. Pat reported that Mary had threatened her with a coat hanger—and each woman said things the other never forgot. Four years earlier, Mary Highsmith had written to her daughter: ‘I believe you would gladly put me in Dachau if it were possible without a minute’s thought.’”

Both a sensualist and an obsessive compulsive ascetic, Highsmith was a revolutionary: she lived a problematic, fascinating life as a man would: complicated and sometimes unfathomable. But then many women are like this, we just don’t hear or read about them as much. For all of her compelling complexities and provocative strangeness, the world and women need more Patricia Highsmiths.

Read the piece at The Daily Beast.