Where talented Mr Ripley first came to life

View of beach from Highsmith’s room in the Miramare

  POSITANO -- The sociopathic murderer and conman at the centre of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels first came to life on a pebbly grey beach in Positano early one morning in 1950, if his author is to be believed. 

In an article written years later for the literary magazine Granta, Highsmith described how she woke early and stepped out onto the terrace of her hotel to observe a young man walking alone on the beach. She had the feeling he was an American tourist and was struck by his air of pensiveness, even unease. 

  “The stretch of the Positano beach, which has not changed much except that it may now hold a few more boats or people, has no particular fascination for me. Ripley was not really born there, was just an image for me, and needed another element to spring to life: imagination, which came many months later,” Highsmith wrote. 

  Positano did become important for “The Talented Mr Ripley”, the first of the Ripley novels, transmuted into a fictional Mongibello, and featuring on the dust cover of the 1957 British first edition. 

  Having inspired the 1999 thriller starring Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, the story has now been turned into a Netflix TV series titled Ripley, with Andrew Scott, Dakota Fanning, and Johnny Flynn in the lead roles and filmed in moody black and white. 

  When Highsmith woke at 6 a.m. she may well have been roused by the birdsong, which in spring begins at around 5 a.m. Rising about the same time as the author, the sky above Positano was illuminated by a three-quarter moon and strands of cloud turned pink by the dawn. Streetlights were still on in the cream, white and red honeycomb of houses that clings to the steep slopes of the Lattari Mountains. 

  Two tourists were enjoying the solitude of Ripley’s beach. Seen from a distance, they stood in silent complicity, occasionally leaning together in conversation and filming the peaceful scene on their mobile phones.

  Encountered as they climbed the steps afterwards, they turned out to be two young visitors from Philadelphia. Anthony Penna and Catherine Myers, both 24, had decided to mark the last day of their holiday in Italy by watching the sunrise from the beach. Like most visitors and townsfolk, they were unaware of the Highsmith/ Ripley connection.

  “We loved it. It’s so peaceful and the people are so nice here. We’re sad to be leaving and already planning our next trip,” Penna said. They weren’t planning a career of crime.

  Though she doesn’t say so in her article, Highsmith almost certainly spotted the lone figure on the beach — a “young man in shorts and sandals with a towel flung over his shoulder” — while staying in the Hotel Miramare.

  The front door was off its hinges last month as the hotel underwent a thorough spring cleaning. Carmela De Martino, 30, one of the receptionists, showed us room 210, where, according to hotel lore, the famous novelist had bedded down with her gay lovers.

  De Martino acknowledged that the Highsmith connection was little known in Positano and had not been used to promote tourism. “The name Positano already is a strong draw for tourists. We don’t need more publicity, but it can’t do any harm,” she said.

  The fishing village was put on the map for international travellers by the American writer John Steinbeck, who published an account of a visit there in the May 1953 edition of Harper’s Bazaar. In it he mentions staying in Le Sirenuse Hotel. He also appears to have stayed at the Miramare, signing the 1952 guest book and adding a drawing of a pigeon next to his name.

  According to Richard Bradford, a professor of literature at Ulster University and author of a biography of Highsmith, the author visited Positano in 1950 and again the following year. On the first occasion she was accompanied by Kathryn Hamill Cohen, the beautiful and moneyed wife of her publisher. The following year she was with Ellen Blumenthal Hill, a sociologist with whom she had a four-year relationship.

  A prickly character who hopped from one damaging relationship to another, Highsmith was fascinated by the violence and duplicity that she gave expression to in Ripley, with the fictional character becoming a kind of alter ego for her.

  “Whether or not we believe her story that the man on the beach appeared to her on this occasion is immaterial when we consider that he did so, according to her, at the time she was sharing a bedroom with a figure who she would also treat as deranged and malicious and who, like Ripley, would be with her in various forms for the remainder of her life,” Bradford wrote in “Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith."

  Bradford noted numerous parallels between Tom Ripley and Highsmith’s own biography, including a weakness for social climbing and a desire to manipulate reality. Highsmith was drawn to Europe as a romantic destination and an environment that was potentially more tolerant of homosexuality than McCarthy-era America.

  Film royalties from her novel “Strangers on a Train” enabled her to enjoy the Grand Tour experience that drew wealthy east coast Americans to Europe after World War II, he said. “She was of Texas redneck stock, but passed herself off as an east coast blue blood.”

  It was surprising that she hadn’t mentioned the figure on the Positano beach in her diaries from the time, Bradford said. There was a sense that her accounts of meetings with contemporary literary giants, including Somerset Maugham and W.H. Auden, may be unreliable, he added. “There is a suspicion that she wanted a legacy that was more interesting than the truth.”

  She had even abandoned Ellen Hill, a lover who had come to know her better than she liked, after Hill took an overdose of barbiturates and gin in the Manhattan apartment they were sharing. “Highsmith didn’t seem to care. Within weeks she started to write ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’,” Bradford said. “Highsmith knew she was a pretty unpleasant individual but it didn’t seem to cause her unease. Her work is so in- interesting, complex and basically good because she wasn’t.”



View of the sea from the author’s room
Steinbeck's signature in guestbook