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Racist, nympho, crime writer a turn-up for the books... Ulster University professor on Tom Ripley author's life of debauchery


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Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith

AN Ulster University professor has delved into the sordid life of one of the world's most famous crime writers for his latest biography, detailing how Patricia Highsmith was a racist, bisexual, nymphomaniac, alcoholic marriage wrecker - with a snail fetish.

Richard Bradford sifted through the massive collection of the late author's private diaries and notebooks to uncover how she spent most of her adulthood drunk from breakfast to bedtime, and revelled in breaking up lesbian couples.

Highsmith - creator of best-sellers including The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers On A Train - also had such a preference for animals over humans she thought pets should be fed with aborted or miscarried human foetuses, and carried up to 100 snails to parties in her handbag.

Richard, Professor of English at the Ulster University, told Sunday Life: "She was even more peculiar than the stories she wrote. She seemed to rejoice in shocking people.

"First of all, there was the way she seemed to like animals more than human beings.

"Then there was the somewhat outrageous comments she made to people about anti-Semitism. She preferred to be known as a 'Jew hater'.

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Matt Damon playing Tom Ripley alongside Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow

Matt Damon playing Tom Ripley alongside Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow

Matt Damon playing Tom Ripley alongside Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow

"It was as though she deliberately wanted to shock people, in a mixture of nihilism and masochism."

Richard's book Devils, Lusts And Strange Desires: The Life Of Patricia Highsmith also details how Highsmith despised black people, Latinos, Mexicans, Indians, 'Red Indians', the French and Catholics.

Londonderry-based Richard, also director of the Ulster Literary Biography Research Centre, said of Highsmith's relentless sexual appetites that led her to have up to 10 lovers a day: "Compared to her, the likes of Casanova, Errol Flynn and Lord Byron might be considered lethargic, even demure."

He adds in his book she fantasised about slaughtering her lovers and was so sexually voracious she "particularly enjoyed affairs with married women, but breaking up lesbian couples came a close second".

Highsmith's equally obsessive love of animals led her to mourn the sight of beasts in the zoo "imprisoned, forced to make love and defecate while being watched".

She became fixated on snails when she watched two mating, leading her to cultivate a snail colony that provided her with a plentiful supply of the creatures to stuff in her bag and bra when she was travelling between England and France.

"She liked the idea of the grotesque, she liked the idea of hate and murder - which is why she wrote so many books about it," added Richard. "She liked things that people found distasteful."

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Devils, Lusts And Strange Desires: The Life Of Patricia Highsmith, by Richard Bradford

Devils, Lusts And Strange Desires: The Life Of Patricia Highsmith, by Richard Bradford

Devils, Lusts And Strange Desires: The Life Of Patricia Highsmith, by Richard Bradford

Richard's biography also makes very clear Highsmith's greatest inspiration for her bloodthirsty psychopathic characters is herself - describing her crime books as one long autobiography.

Her shape-shifting, closeted gay playboy wannabe Tom Ripley - played by Matt Damon and John Malkovich in Hollywood adaptations of her Ripley books series - turns to murder to continue duping his way into the upper classes by whatever means necessary.

And her smooth-talking Bruno Antony is the stranger on a train who stalks a clean-cut tennis player after trying to talk him into a criss-crossed game of "swapping murders".

Like Ripley, Highsmith only lusted after sexual partners who were part of the upper class - and she started to sign her letters to friends 'alias Ripley' during the writing of the character.

Like Bruno, she was a stalker - with Richard's book detailing how she fell in love with a millionaire's daughter called Kathleen Senn who struck the author with her beauty while she was rummaging through women's underwear in Bloomingdale's, New York.

After finding Kathleen's address she tracked her to her home, which she stared at for hours before developing a desire to murder the girl, who later killed herself.

Highsmith's actions also bordered on murder. She left one of her lovers, Ellen Hill, dying on the floor of their apartment from a self-inflicted overdose while she went out to dinner and only phoned a doctor at 4am when she returned to find her in a coma.

One of her later fictional characters Ralph is described as a "perverted, reclusive, anti-Semitic racist".

Highsmith died loveless and childless from lung cancer in 1995 at her modernist fortress of a home in Switzerland aged 74, drunkenly watching repeats of EastEnders. By then, the Texas-born miserabilist had been a drunk for years, once setting her hair on fire at a party by stumbling inebriated at a London party into a candle display.

Highsmith wrote in one of the estimated 50,000 pages of her diaries and notebooks stored by the Swiss Literary Archives: "The psychopath is an average man living more clearly than the world permits him".

Her darkness may partly be explained by Highsmith being an unwanted baby; she was the survivor of a botched abortion who was abandoned by her mother.

She also hated her stepfather and may have been sexually abused as a child by two men while staying with her grandmother.

Former Oxford teacher Richard - who has also published acclaimed biographies of professional misanthropes Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin - said: "She once wrote to one of her editors to ask why she wasn't as popular in the States as she was in Europe. They told her she had gone a bit far for the American audience.

"She said, 'That's alright', because she just didn't like human beings very much."

  • Devils, Lusts And Strange Desires: The Life Of Patricia Highsmith, by Richard Bradford, is published by Bloomsbury Caravel on January 21.

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