May 22, 2024

Highsmith’s Nonstop New York: Bringing the Map to Life

Everybody here was someone else before
And you can want who you want
Boys and boys and girls and girls ….

—Taylor Swift, from “Welcome to New York”

In the thicket of super high-rises going up near Central Park South, it’s anything but rare to read of apartment sales like the $95 million recently fetched by the penthouse at 432 Park Avenue, a ninety-six-story needle in the sky….The tower casts a shadow on Central Park, making it all too perfect an emblem of the sacrifice of the public to the private in the neoliberal age.

—from Nonstop Metropolis

I’m beginning my journey through 20th-century New York City with a 21st-century boost from Taylor Swift ahead of a dose of “ninety-six-story-needle” reality from Rebecca Solnit’s introduction to Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas (University of California Press 2016), edited by Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.

Although I live only an hour’s drive away from Manhattan, the last time I was there was four and a half years ago for the New York Public Library’s centennial celebration of J.D. Salinger, whose own New York lives on in his fiction. All this year I’ve been missing the city where Swift says “everybody’s searchin’ for a sound we hadn’t heard before,” and where in the 1940s novelist Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) lived life to the hilt and wrote about it in her diaries and notebooks.

Meanwhile I’ve been admiring the handsome, inventive, intricately detailed maps in Nonstop Metropolis. The first map, “Singing the City: The New York of Dreams,” is layered with the names of songs and singers according to their respective neighborhoods (Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street,” Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem”). What worked for me was “53rd & 3rd,” not the Ramones song noted on the map but the neighborhood I knew as a ninth grader and when I bonded with the city a decade after Highsmith.

On Third Avenue

According to her notebook for January 27, 1943, Highsmith had just turned 22 and moved out of her parents’ apartment to her first home, at 353 East 56th, where she was headed one late night “so drunk with alcohol and cigarette and sleeplessness” that she was weaving “from one side of the pavement to the other” as a boy and girl emerged from a Third Avenue bar. In parting, the girl tells the boy “Take care of that cold!” and he says “You take care of it for me!” and she says “I will.” Highsmith was tempted to begin a conversation, moved by “the sense of fiction in the scene,” the “mood, the style, the atmosphere and the tones unplayed above and below, the multitudinous sketch lines which a writer might have put in before and after,” none of which she’d have remembered so well had she been sober. And so she concluded that drinking was “a fine imitation of the artistic process,” that “there’s something of the artist in every drunkard” and “God bless them all!”

Highsmith wasn’t drunk when she gave her blessing to Henry James. On January 16, 1945, a day after discoursing on hangovers (“intimations of the tomb”), she wrote, “Henry James sits on a shelf, inviting me to forget my brief and unimportant day and stay with him in a slow moving, rarefied world which I know will leave me clean, belonging finally to no time and place.” She ends the entry: “Merely to exist is an ecstatic pleasure. How inadequate are all these words, when the physical sensation makes me taut, wanting to shout, laugh, leap around my room, and at the same time be quiet and learn and feel all I can.”

New York Numbers

James’s musings on the mundane nature of the city’s numbered streets accompany his conflicted appreciation of “Remarkable, unspeakable New York!” in The American Scene (1907). “Where was the place after all?” he asked himself. “Was it ‘on’ Third Avenue, on Second, on fabulous unattempted First? Nothing would induce me to cut down the romance of it, in remembrance, to a mere address, least of all to an awful New York one.”

Highsmith’s New York moments took place in the shadow of the Third Avenue El, which was still standing in January 1953 when I would take the subway at 53rd and Third every school day morning while my father took it uptown to Columbia University and my mother took the El downtown to her job with the Waterfront Crime Commission. A quick inventory of the streets I lived on besides East 53rd include East 57th (above Hammacher Schlemmer), West 87th (home to Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, and W.B.Yeats), and 137th and Riverside Drive (sublet from the actor who shot Gregory Peck in the back in The Gunfighter). First year on my own in New York it was 16 Christopher Street (home to e.e. cummings, Yoko Ono, and the Stonewall Inn). Two summers of long walks and jazz in the night were spent on Washington Square North, whose entry hall was used in William Wyler’s film of Henry James’s Washington Square.

A New York Legend

Does it matter that I had no intention of blessing drunken writers when I began my lament for this unlosable lost city? That’s the beauty of New York. Turning a vicarious corner last week, I found myself back on my old block of West 87th, off Central Park, scene of a grisly murder in a television series, The Night Of, created by Steven Zaillian, whose recent Netflix series Ripley is what led me to Patricia Highsmith in the first place.

“The legend of James Agee was becoming known to the literary community of Manhattan,” according to Robert Coles, “around the time Henry Luce moved Fortune magazine into the Chrysler Building, where the enormously talented writer who drank a lot, slept around, and … would write while listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony so loudly and so often that people worried whether the Chrysler Building would withstand the orchestral blasts.”

I found the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in Teresa Carpenter’s collection New York Diaries 1609 to 2009 (Modern Library 2012), which also includes several entries that match up with Sunday to Wednesday of this week, May 19-22. In the May 19, 1953 entry, filmmaker Judith Malina (Paradise Now) writes: “King Street is one of those dark, quaint vestiges of old New York and the route to it from the café is dank with garbage pails and [T.S. Eliot’s] ‘the yellow smoke that curls.’ The room on the first floor floods the street with light. It is fearsomely bright. Inside, Agee sits at his typewriter acting out each sentence before he writes it. His face moving to the rhythm. I watch for a long time before he sees me through the window and lets me in.”

Jesse James Lives

I hadn’t originally intended to include Jack Kerouac, another fatally heavy drinker, in this slice of Manhattan, but here he is in New York Diaries on May 20, 1948, waiting to hear from a publisher (Scribner’s) about the novel eventually published by Harcourt, Brace as The Town and the City: “Their silence and businesslike judicious patience is driving me crazy with tension, worry, expectation, disappointment — everything.” The heart of the entry is Kerouac’s response to the “thrilling news that Jesse James is still alive,” which “doesn’t seem to impress the New York world at all.” Since Kerouac had to know somewhere deep down that Jesse had been shot dead in 1882, his excitement shows that Highsmith was right to celebrate drinking as “a fine imitation of the artistic process,” wherein “the brain jumps directly to that which it seeks,” if not always the truth.

Two More Swerves

On May 21, 1910, artist John Sloan stood in the rain watching Suffrage Party women in a parade and protest meeting at Union Square and found himself “in a little hot worded row with a man who was ridiculing the women, no bloodshed.” Seventy-seven years ago today, May 22, 1947, diarist Edward Robb Ellis arrived by train in New York City “which I’d never seen before, walked through the grandeur of Grand Central Terminal, stepped outside, got my first look at the city and instantly fell in love with it. Silently, inside myself, I yelled: I should have been born here!

The last of these 20th-century Manhattan match-ups took place on April 23, 1946, Shakespeare’s birthday, when Highsmith noted that no city in the world “approaches New York, which is almost the site of the universal womb, the simulacrum of the Wonderful Bed (physical comfort) from which the recluse, the cosmopolitan, the man of intellect, may stretch forth his hand to obtain whatever thing it be that he desires — food, art, or a character.”


“Oscillating New York,” the last map in Nonstop Metropolis, comes with an essay by historian Thomas J. Campanella, who writes: “Manhattan is still the glowworm of Gotham, but its monopoly on light is not what it was,” as it “schlepps” more and more to Brooklyn “for food, culture, and even work…. In the end, of course, we all leave town. And even the most committed Manhattanite must leave the mighty isle — unless opting to be scattered there as ashes.”

In the end, the metaphor rules. As Rebecca Solnit explains in the introduction, the idea behind the title is of “a huge heart forever pumping an exceptionally fluid population in and out of the city. When your heart stops, you die; the city never stops; and New York in particular is a nonstop metropolis, throbbing and rushing at all times of day and night.”


Note: I’m looking forward to reading Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt, which came to be known as the rare “lesbian novel with a happy ending.” Originally published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, it was not released under Highsmith’s name until 1990, when it was retitled Carol. In 2015, 20 years after the author’s death, Todd Haynes adapted the novel into a film starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.