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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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Books

Book details fight to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Clinton-era policy was horrific for LGB servicemembers

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‘Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’
By C. Dixon Osburn
c.2021, self-published $35 hardcover, paperback $25, Kindle $12.99 / 450 pages

When Senior Airman Brandi Grijalva was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base, she talked with a chaplain’s assistant about some problems she had at home. The chaplain’s assistant said what she told him would be confidential. But when she revealed that she was a lesbian, the chaplain’s assistant no longer kept her conversation with him confidential. Grijalva, after being investigated was discharged.

Craig Haack was a corporal in the Marines serving in Okinawa, Japan. Haack, who had made it through boot camp, felt confident. Until investigators barged into his barracks. Looking for evidence “of homosexual conduct,” they ransacked everything from his computers to his platform shoes. Haack was too stunned to respond when asked if he was gay.

In 1996, Lt. Col. Steve Loomis’ house was burned down by an Army private. The Army discharged the private who torched Loomis’ house. You’d think the Army would have supported Loomis. But you’d be wrong. The army discharged Loomis for conduct unbecoming an officer because a fire marshal found a homemade sex tape in the ashes.

These are just a few of the enraging, poignant, at times absurd (platform shoes?), all-too-true stories told in “Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by C. Dixon Osburn.

As a rule, I don’t review self-published books. But “Mission Possible” is the stunning exception that proves that rules, on occasion, are made to be broken.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) was the official U.S. policy on gay, lesbian and bisexual people serving in the military. Former President Bill Clinton announced the policy on July 19, 1993. It took effect on Feb. 28, 1994.

Sexual orientation was covered by DADT. Gender identity was covered by separate Department of Defense regulations.

Congress voted to repeal DADT in December 2010 (the House on Dec. 15, 2010, and the Senate on Dec. 18, 2010). On Dec. 22, 2010, Former President Barack Obama signed the repeal into law. 

DADT banned gay, lesbian and bisexual people who were out from serving in the U.S. military. Under DADT, it was not permitted to ask if servicemembers were LGB. But, LGB servicemembers couldn’t be out. They couldn’t talk about their partners, carry photos of their girlfriends or boyfriends or list their same-sex partner as their emergency contract.

It took nearly a year for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to go into effect. On Sept. 20, 2011, Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “certified to Congress that implementing repeal of the policy {DADT} would have no effect on military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion or recruiting and retention,” Osburn writes.

Before DADT, out LGBT people weren’t permitted to serve in the military. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was intended to be a compromise—a policy that would be less onerous on LGB people, but that would pass muster with people who believed that gay servicemembers would destroy military readiness, morale and unit cohesion.

Like many in the queer community, I knew that DADT was a horror-show from the get-go. Over the 17 years that DADT was in effect, an estimated 14,000 LGB servicemembers were discharged because of their sexual orientation, according to the Veterans Administration.

But, I had no idea how horrific “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was until I read “Mission Possible.”              

In “Mission Possible,” Osburn, who with Michelle Benecke, co-founded the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), pulls off a nearly impossible hat trick.

In a clear, vivid, often spellbinding narrative, Osburn tells the complex history of the DADT-repeal effort as well as the stories of servicemembers who were pelted with gay slurs, assaulted and murdered under DADT.

Hats off to SLDN, now known as the Modern Military Association of America, for its heroic work to repeal DADT! (Other LGBTQ+ organizations worked on the repeal effort, but SLDN did the lion’s share of the work.)

You wouldn’t think a 450-pager about repealing a policy would keep you up all night reading. But, “Mission Possible” will keep you wide-awake. You won’t need the espresso.

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‘Two Omars’ is uneven, but remarkable memoir

Celebrated actor’s gay grandson charts own path

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Omar Sharif Jr. came out during Arab Spring. (Book cover image courtesy of Counterpoint Press)

‘A Tale of Two Omars’
By Omar Sharif Jr.
c.2021, Counterpoint Press $26.00 / higher in Canada / 224 pages

You always wanted to make your mark.

There’d be no footstep-following in your life. You’d carve your own path, select your own adventures, seize the opportunities that appealed to you, and blaze trails for the sake of others’ journeys. You’d take the best of those you knew and loved, and you’d go your own way. As in the new memoir, “A Tale of Two Omars” by Omar Sharif Jr. you’ll also make your own mistakes.

Born into a family that had ties on several continents, Omar Sharif Jr. never had to worry about money or a place to live. On one side of the family—his maternal side—the Holocaust left a mark on his mother’s parents, who’d barely escaped the concentration camps. On the other side, Sharif’s paternal grandparents were both famous and beloved actors with roots in Egypt. Sharif was close with his entire family, but particularly with his grandfather, Omar Sharif.

Sharif recalls many a dinner party, listening, while his grandfather held court at dinner, laughing and telling stories. Everyone, everything seemed so elegant and refined and those meals showed Sharif a life that he could have if he wanted it. As time passed, the lessons he received were paid back: He was one of the few allowed to help his grandfather as Alzheimer’s took hold at the end of the great actor’s life. 

But this is not a story of a famous actor or a grandfather. It’s the story of a man who’s not just half-Jewish and Egyptian. He’s also gay, a part of himself that Sharif kept hidden until well into adulthood, although he says that other children must’ve sensed it when he was young. It was a part of himself that he feared revealing to his father. It helped him land a dream job that ultimately became a nightmare. 

The title of this book—”A Tale of Two Omars”—is a bit of a misnomer. Judging by what author Omar Sharif Jr. writes here, there are several Omars: The activist; a globe-hopper; a son and grandson; a writer and a grandfather whose life was impactful but who has a surprisingly small footprint in this book.

Which is not to say that readers will like them all.

Indeed, parts of this book may seem as though you’ve read them before: Bullied as a child, fear of coming out, the college revelation, the mismatched first love. Those ubiquitous bits are here, but they pale in comparison to Sharif’s ultra-urbane life and the hair-raising, terrifying account of getting and getting out of what seemed like the ultimate job with a wealthy sheikh, a job that slowly grew dangerous. That story-within-a-story is so edgy, so mouth-drying, that you’ll throw away the thriller you bought last week.

Then there’s the part about his life-threatening activism, a tale that starts and ends this book …

And so, beware at the unevenness of this memoir, but understand that the tedium doesn’t linger. Skip past the ho-humness of “A Tale of Two Omars” and the rest is remarkable.

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Books

‘Charm Offensive’ suffers from too much drama

A cute story but we all know how it will end

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‘The Charm Offensive: A Novel’
By Alison Cochrun
c.2021, Atria $17.00 / 368 pages

The applause is all for you this time.

It’s deafening, really — perhaps because there’s a standing ovation beneath it. All the work you did, the emoting, the emotions, you know how much your fans appreciate it. So take a bow. Drink in the love. As in the new novel, “The Charm Offensive” by Alison Cochrun, that’s one thing that’s sometimes missing in life.

Dev Deshpande was good at his job. He knew it, his colleagues knew it, it was fact. He might personally be terrible at love – case in point: he was still smarting from a three-months-ago break-up with his boyfriend, Ryan – but Dev was a pro at his job as producer for the reality TV show, “Ever After.” In fact, he’d been in charge of making dreams happen for six years’ worth of beautiful “Ever After” contestants; it helped that he believed in fairy tales.

Maybe one day, he’d find his own Prince Charming.

Just not this season.

This season, his lead director made him handle the “prince” instead of the usual “princesses,” and that was a challenge.

Charles Winshaw was 28, devastatingly handsome, extremely wealthy, and a nervous, introverted nerd who rarely dated. Geeky, awkward, and prone to panic attacks, he sincerely had no clue how to be romantic. Truth was, he was only there because his best friend and agent put him on “Ever After” to counter a reputation for being weird.

Still, Charlie was weird, and it was up to Dev to make him work for the show.

Shoring up Charlie’s confidence didn’t work, and neither did a pep talk. He couldn’t seem to just perform a role without freaking out and it was becoming obvious. By the time Dev’s assistant suggested having a few practice dates, Dev was willing to try anything.

He took Charlie to dinner. He spent time doing jigsaw puzzles with him, and he got Charlie to relax a little. If sparks flew, well, it was one-sided: Charlie was completely straight.

Wasn’t he?

You know what’s going to happen in the end, don’t you? Of course, you do. You’ll know it by page 30, step-by-step, with virtually no surprises, which leaves a long way to the final sentence of “The Charm Offensive.”

Now, it’s true that this novel is cute. It has its lightly humorous moments and author Alison Cochrun gives it a good cast, from contestant to show creator. It doesn’t lack details; in fact, reality dating show-watchers will feel right at home here. It even has the ubiquitous panoply of exotic locales for the “challenges” that the contestants must endure.

At issue is the length of this book. There’s too much of it, too many shirts that creep up, too many mentions of vomit, too much needless drama, too many will-he-won’t-he, when we know full well he will. This extra doesn’t ratchet up the tension, it makes things slow.

And so: cute story, familiar scenes, good characters in “The Charm Offensive.” But if taut is what you want in a rom-com, leave this book and bow out.

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