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Highsmith at 100: Literary legacy marred by racism

Few writers are as popular or more embedded in pop culture

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Talented Mr. Ripley, gay news, Washington Blade
A scene from ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley,’ a film version of Patricia Highsmith’s series of novels about the famous protagonist. Her work is available in print, e-book and audiobook format. (Photo by Phil Bray; courtesy Paramount/Miramax)

You don’t know this about me but I’m a murderer. At least that’s what the brilliant, talented, queer novelist Patricia Highsmith, who was born 100 years ago, may well have called me.

Why, would Highsmith renowned for her novel “Strangers on a Train” and other psychological thrillers, have said this of me? Because, I confess, I’ve eaten snails, smothered, so to speak, in garlic and butter. Highsmith, a misanthrope, gave us in her fiction Tom Ripley, the world’s most charming, but murderous sociopath. Yet, she (seriously) believed that you were a murderer if you ate snails.

Welcome to the world of Patricia Highsmith!

Few writers are as popular, well regarded or more embedded in pop culture than Highsmith, who lived from 1921 to 1995. She wrote many short stories and more than 20 novels. More than 25 movies and numerous TV adaptations have been made of her work. Highsmith’s diaries (comprising some 8,000 pages) will be published this year. A movie, with the same name, of her 1957 psychological erotic thriller “Deep Water,” starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas will be released in August.

Her first novel, “Strangers on a Train,” is a gripping psychological thriller. In it, two men, strangers, meet on a train. Guy has a troublesome wife who won’t divorce him, and Bruno, an engaging sociopath is enraged that his wealthy father won’t give him money. Bruno proposes that they go “criss-cross” – that they murder the person who’s so annoying to each other. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 movie of the novel will keep you glued to your seat.

Highsmith is perhaps best known for her series of novels about Tom Ripley. (“The Talented Mr. Ripley,” the first of the Ripley novels, was published in 1955. The last Ripley thriller, “Ripley Under Water,” was released in 1991.) Ripley is a sociopath. Lies are to him what potato chips are to junk food addicts: he can never tell just one. Ripley steals other people’s identities, forges paintings and murders anyone who’s an obstacle on his path. Yet, I dare any reader, no matter how saintly, not to love him. He’s handsome, courteous, clever, witty, great at doing impressions of people and has fabulous taste in art, food, and wine.

Highsmith’s work will give you an unforgettable mix of pleasure and suspense. As you read, you’ll wonder: Why am I enthralled by characters who deceive and steal identities as naturally as they might have a beer or coffee? Why am I rooting for a murderer? Graham Greene called Highsmith “the poet of apprehension.”

Perhaps Highsmith’s most important contribution to LGBTQ history was her groundbreaking 1952 novel “The Price of Salt” (later re-titled “Carol”). As I’ve written before in the Blade, Highsmith originally wrote the novel under the pseudonym Clare Morgan out of fear that using her real name would have derailed her career. “The Price of Salt” was a rare novel for that time: It featured a lesbian couple who didn’t die or go to jail. It gave hope to generations of queers.

A Fort Worth, Texas native, she moved at age 12 with her mother and stepfather to New York City. Highsmith often said that her mother had told her that she’d tried to abort her by drinking turpentine.

Highsmith was brilliant, eccentric, but “bigoted, obsessed and intolerant,” Richard Bradford wrote in “The Daily Mail.”

She had numerous relationships with women as well as some male lovers. In one diary entry, Highsmith noted that she’d had 10 lovers in one day. She “made the likes of Casanova look demure,” wrote Bradford, author of the new biography “Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith.”

Highsmith didn’t like Black people or women (except for sex). She was so virulently anti-Semitic that she wished more Jewish people had been killed in the Holocaust.

Yet, Highsmith had a soft spot. She left her estate to Yaddo, the writer’s retreat where she worked on “Strangers on a Train” in 1948.

Knowing about Highsmith’s bigotry is stomach turning. Yet her writing is magnificent, thrilling, pleasurable, and psychologically profound. That’s something to celebrate on her centennial.

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Despite the hype, Wenner memoir is a buzzkill

Reading this book is as exciting as perusing a spreadsheet

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Jann S. Wenner (Book cover image courtesy Little, Brown)

‘Like a Rolling Stone: A Memoir’
By Jann S. Wenner
c.2022, Little, Brown
$35/592 pages

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the Rolling Stones sang in 1965.

When reading “Like a Rolling Stone: A Memoir” by Jann S. Wenner, you may well find yourself singing along with the Stones.

Whether you’re a Boomer who grew up to the soundtrack of the rock ‘n’ roll, Woodstock generation (from the Grateful Dead to Jimi Hendrix to Bob Dylan to Joni Mitchell), a Gen-Xer who listened to punk rock, a millennial who voted for Barack Obama or a Gen-Zer who put Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” back on the charts, you’re likely curious about Wenner’s memoir. 

In 1967, Wenner, 76, co-founded (with music critic Ralph J. Glisten) Rolling Stone, the magazine of youth culture and politics. Decades later, Wenner co-founded the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Today, Wenner with his husband, designer Matt Nye and their three children, divides his time between Montauk, N.Y., Manhattan, and Sun Valley, Idaho. He and his ex-wife Jane are on amicable terms. Wenner and his former spouse have three sons.

Who other than Wenner, you’d think, digging into “Like a Rolling Stone,” would be better at taking us behind the scenes of the cultural history of more than half a century (from the late 1960s through the early 2020s)?

You’d expect, given the rock stars and politicians Wenner has known, worked with and interviewed (from Mick Jagger to John Lennon and Yoko Ono to Bob Dylan to Obama to acclaimed photographer Annie Leibovitz to Bill Clinton), that Wenner’s memoir would be brimming with dazzling anecdotes, wit, and insights.

Unfortunately, despite all of the hype and anticipation, “Like a Rolling Stone” is, by and large, a buzzkill.

Wenner, who grew up in San Francisco, has been associated with bold-faced names since he was a child. When he was hard to handle, Dr. Benjamin Spock stepped in to treat him.

His life was privileged from the get-go. His father was in the baby formula business and his mother was a novelist.

In boarding school, Wenner wrote a gossip column for the school paper and discovered (though he would be in a hetero marriage for decades) that he liked boys. He went on to college in Berkeley, Calif., during the height of the Free Speech movement. At 21, he was able to obtain the money he needed to start “Rolling Stone.”

Nearly every page of Wenner’s nearly 600-page memoir is infested with name-dropping. Celebs, tony nightspots and jet-setting locales appear more often than ants at a July 4th picnic.

But Wenner rarely reveals anything interesting about the famous names or his interactions with them.

Take Bruce Springsteen. What do we learn about the Boss from Wenner? That Springsteen at Wenner’s 60th birthday party sang, “Champagne, pot cookies and a Percocet/Keep him humming like a Sahre jet.”

Wenner’s name-dropping is a reminder that in 1986, Wenner with the Walt Disney Company bought Us Weekly, the celeb gossip magazine.

What’s most disappointing about the memoir is that Wenner says so little about what life has been like for him as a gay man.

It’s understandable that he, as a man of his generation, didn’t come out until the 1990s.

But, a fifth of the way into the 21st century, Wenner writes little about what it was like to be closeted for decades. Or how being closeted impacted Rolling Stone.

Wenner interviewed Bill Clinton extensively for Rolling Stone. Yet, he doesn’t reflect on DOMA or “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Wenner wasn’t totally insensitive to what it means to be LGBTQ. One of his sons, Theo, talked to him about kids speaking of his “dad being gay.”

Wenner sent a condolence note to the parents of a Rolling Stones staffer and one of Andy Warhol’s lovers who died of AIDS. Rolling Stone published one of the first stories about AIDS.

But you can’t help wishing that “Like a Rolling Stone” had more of a queer quotient.

Thankfully, Wenner sometimes tells a revealing anecdote about a celeb. One day, he recalls, when he dined with John Lennon in a restaurant, a fan approached Lennon for an autograph. “Can’t you see I’m eating,” Lennon said to the fan, showing how annoying it was to have his privacy breached.

Yet, even with the glitz and glam, reading much of this memoir has the excitement of perusing a spreadsheet.

Wenner has done what neither God nor the Devil could do: he’s made his friend Bette Midler seem dull.

Wenner has led a fascinating life. His story is more interesting than anything a novelist, like his pal Tom Wolfe, could have imagined.

If only Carrie Fisher or Oscar Wilde had written his memoir.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Books

New ACT UP book is part history, part memoir

‘Boy with the Bullhorn’ chronicles hard work, grief, anger

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(Book cover image courtesy of Fordham University Press)

‘Boy with the Bullhorn: A Memoir and History of ACT UP New York’ 
By Ron Goldberg
c.2022/ Fordham University Press
$36.95/512 pages

The sign above your head shows what’s going on inside.

Last night, you made the sign with a slogan, firm words, a poke to authority – and now you carry it high, yelling, marching, demanding that someone pay attention. Now. Urgently. As in the new book, “Boy with the Bullhorn” by Ron Goldberg, change is a-coming.

He’d never done anything like it before.

But how could he not get involved? Ron Goldberg had read something about ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and he heard they were holding a rally near his workplace. It was 1987, he’d never participated in anything like that before, but whispers were everywhere. He and his friends were “living under a pervasive cloud of dread.”

He “was twenty-eight years old… scared, angry, and more than a little freaked out” about AIDS, he says.

Couldn’t he at least go down and hold a sign?

That first rally led Goldberg to attend a meeting, which, like most, as he came to realize, were raucous and loud and “electric.” Because he was “living fully ‘out and proud’,” and because he realized that this was an issue “worth fighting for,” he became even more involved with ACT UP by attending larger rallies and helping with organizing and getting his fellow activists fired up. He observed as women became involved in ACT UP, too. Monday night meetings became, for Goldberg, “the most exciting place in town.”

There, he learned how politics mixed with activism, and why ACT UP tangled with the Reagan administration’s leaders. He puffed with more than just a little ownership, as other branches of ACT UP began spreading around the country. He learned from ACT UP’s founding members and he “discovered hidden talents” of his own by helping.

On his years in ACT UP, Goldberg says, “There was hard work, grief, and anger, surely, but there was also great joy.” He was “a witness. And so, I began to write.”

Let’s be honest: “Boy with the Bullhorn” is basically a history book, with a little memoir inside. Accent on the former, not so much on the latter.

Author Ron Goldberg says in his preface that Larry Kramer, who was one of ACT UP’s earliest leaders encouraged him to pull together a timeline for the organization and this book is the result of the task. It’s very detailed, in sequential order and, as one reads on, it’s quite repetitive, differing basically in location. It’s not exactly a curl-up-by-the-fire read.

Readers, however – and especially older ones who remember the AIDS crisis – won’t be able to stop scanning for Goldberg’s memories and tales of being a young man at a time when life was cautiously care-free. The memories – which also act as somewhat of a gut-wrenching collection of death-notices – are sweet, but also bittersweet.

This book is nowhere near a vacation kinda book but if you have patience, it’s worth looking twice. Take your time and you’ll get a lot from “Boy with the Bullhorn.” Rush, and it might just go over your head.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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‘Before We Were Trans’ explores a complicated history

Scholars ‘need to tread carefully and responsibly’

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(Book cover image courtesy of Seal Press)

‘Before We Were Trans’
By Kit Heyam
c.2022, Seal Press
$30/352 pages

Yes or no: before there were rockets, there were no astronauts.

No, there wasn’t a need for them without a vehicle to go where people only dreamed of going. But yes – the word “astronaut” is more than a century old. Words and labels matter, as you’ll see in “Before We Were Trans” by Kit Heyam, and time is no excuse.

On the evening of June 8, 1847, John Sullivan was apprehended by gendarmes while weaving down a sidewalk in London. Sullivan was wearing a few women’s garments, and was carrying more, all of it stolen. Because it wasn’t the first time he was arrested, he spent 10 years in an Australian penal colony for his crime.

“Is this story a part of trans history?” asks Heyam.

There aren’t enough clues to determine Sullivan’s truth, not enough “evidence that their motivation for gender nonconformity was not external, but internal.” The answer’s complicated by the fact that “transgender” wasn’t even a word during Sullivan’s time. Presumably, Sullivan was white but even so, we must also consider “that the way we experience and understand gender is inextricable from race.”

Surely, then, Njinga Mbande, the king of Ndongo, can be considered trans; they were assigned female at birth but presented themselves as king, as did Hatshepsut of Egypt. In precolonial Nigeria, the Ekwe people were gender-fluid, to ensure that there was a male in the household. Do political and social reasons fit the definition of trans?

In England, it was once believed that to dress like the opposite sex was to become that gender. In prison camps during World War I, men participated in plays to ease the boredom, and some ultimately lived permanently as women. Early history shows many examples of people living as “both.” Were they trans or not?

Says Heyam, “historians need to tread carefully and responsibly when we talk about the histories of people who blur the boundaries between intersex and trans.”

Moreover, can we allow that there’s probably some “overlap”?

The answer to that could depend on your current situation and mindset. Absolutely, author Kit Heyam dangles their own opinion throughout this book but “Before We Were Trans” doesn’t seem to solve the riddle.

Judging by the narrative here, though, it’s possible that it may be forever unsolvable. There’s a lot to untangle, often in the form of partially recorded tales that hark back to antiquity and that are shaky with a lack of knowable details. Even Heyam seems to admit sometimes that their thoughts are best guesses.

And yet, that tangle can leave readers with so much to think about, when it comes to gender. Ancient attitudes toward trans people – whether they were, indeed, trans or acted as such for reasons other than gender – absolutely serve as brain fodder.

This is not a quick-breezy read; in fact, there are times when you may feel as though you need a cheat-sheet to follow similar-sounding names. Even so, if you take your time with it, “Before We Were Trans” may put you over the moon.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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