Home featured How ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ Foretold Our Era of Grifting

How ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ Foretold Our Era of Grifting

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THERE’S AN ART to imposture. It’s the how they did it, I think, rather than the self-evident why, that keeps us fascinated by tales of con artists and “visionaries,” the gurus and hucksters, schemers and dreamers, the online dating scammers — all of our 21st-century buccaneers of society, politics and commerce. From the small-time grifters like Anna Sorokin, who adopted the last name Delvey to masquerade in downtown New York circles as a European heiress for four years before she was convicted of second-degree grand larceny in 2019, to the murderous faux WASP “Clark Rockefeller,” as the serial impostor Christian Gerhartsreiter was known until his clubby life was upended by kidnapping charges in 2008, all impostors come equipped with a tall tale and a look to match. In Sorokin’s case, it seemed to be largely about the chunky Celine glasses, code for jolie-laide cool; in Gerhartsreiter’s, it was the Lacoste shirts and East Coast lockjaw copied from the millionaire character on “Gilligan’s Island.” The nose ring and “street” argot of Jessica Krug, a.k.a., Jess La Bombalera — the white professor of history and Africana studies whose career until a few months ago had rested in good part upon a racial identity that was not, in fact, her own — the black turtlenecks and baritone of Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes, accused of defrauding investors of millions with shoddy blood-testing technology, even the normcore terry-cloth sweatband and neuroleptic philosophizing of Nxivm’s Keith Raniere, the volleyball enthusiast who ran a self-actualization scheme that preyed upon the bodies and wallets of women: All have become metonyms of the actual offenses, clues to self-delusions.

In the digital age, such dedication to voice and costume might seem oddly retro, not to mention a bit campy — more Mrs. Doubtfire than Jay Gatsby. But in American letters, it’s the antihero of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel, “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” who sets the bar for imposture: Tom Ripley’s real-life counterparts seem to never quite measure up, though they are inevitably compared to him in the press — the very character is shorthand for the more epicurean or erudite of charlatans. That it is a literary character who has come to embody the grifter archetype seems right; self-authorship is, of course, all about creating a convincing character within the narrative structure of one’s own aspirational thinking. In each case, it seemed to be somewhere in this dedication to the coding — Holmes’s Steve Jobs impersonation; the embarrassing minstrelsy of Krug’s attempt at a Nuyorican get-up — that things went awry, the performance of authenticity tipping over into caricature. It’s less fun, of course, to think of why we give narcissists so much credit. Some might find themselves inspired to question what they, too, might be capable of, were they less inhibited by things like principles or truth, while others — those of us who suffer from impostor syndrome — might wonder how easily we might find ourselves slipping into a thrown-on persona, trading our finely honed self-skepticism for the cheapest version of hope. Con artists have a way of milking the hypocrisies of an age: How easily friendship and belonging can be bought, in Sorokin’s case, or how the light-skinned (in the case of Krug) and the one-percenters (in the case of Gerhartsreiter) tend to be given the benefit of the doubt. Like a good novel, a skilled impostor can be the lie that tells the truth.

ImageChadsey’s “Sartorialist Study (Jack of Spades)” (2020).
Credit…Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery. Photo by Joshua Scott

Do we live in a golden age of fraud? The con artist or snake-oil salesman, cornerstone of American culture long before Ripley, was memorialized in Herman Melville’s 1857 classic, “The Confidence-Man,” on which a charming fraud takes a series of guises on a steamboat trip, and it has taken on bewildering new dimensions in the 21st century. We are, after all, the culture that made big business of wishful thinking, major industries of advertising and self-help. The United States is the birthplace of Scientology, Don Draper and Donald Trump, Bernie Madoff and Enron, subprime mortgages, QAnon, flat-Earthism, birtherism, the anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers. American self-conception, that wobbly construct, has long depended on a good amount of delusional entitlement: the necessity to dream, to just do it! Many people have always known that the American dream was a hoax, or at least accessible mostly to a select (white) few; for everyone else, it’s all coming to the surface: that behind our foundation myths resided another, less-told history — one that involved swindling the Indigenous population out of land, centuries of enslavement of Black people and the largely invisible, unpaid labor of women. If the creation of a stable private self depends upon a coherent external reality, or at least a consensus view of it, maybe it’s no wonder that we’ve become confused about where our self-fashioning begins and ends. Now that personality has become a branding opportunity, should we assume that all identities are largely assumed?

When “The Talented Mr. Ripley” was first published, a villain who never gets his comeuppance was still rare and transgressive in American literature. Ripley became the vanguard for an unsettlingly relatable kind of con man, one who ensnared us in his worldview, who was as secretly cutting in his observations as we were, who challenged the presumptions of how not just his but all narratives should unfold. And while there has been no decade since the sunlit, ice-blooded novel’s publication that it hasn’t found a devoted audience, as well as new interpretations — including, most memorably, two films, René Clément’s “Purple Noon” (1960) and Anthony Minghella’s 1999 adaptation (a favorite quarantine watch for many) under the original title starring Matt Damon — it seems especially resonant in our current one. Ripley’s sense of life as a rigged game, and his view of the fraudulence of American privilege, feel built for this moment, as do his combustible embodiments of self-absorption, self-invention and self-hatred (a new version for television featuring Andrew Scott, the “hot priest” from “Fleabag,” is forthcoming from Showtime). One might argue that technology has made it harder to deceive people given that we’re all but a Google away, but technology has also made the natural human temptation to self-flatter, to metaphorically Photoshop ourselves into or out of existence all the more tempting for the chronic exaggerator, the serial confabulator, the natural overcompensator. It’s also helped everyone else’s big dreams — you can be anything, if you have the right clothes, hair, trainer, therapist and so on — feel achievable. More than ever, being successful in America seems to be not just about seeing how far one might color outside the lines but dependent upon it. And while some delusions of the self are less opportunistic and others feel more ingenuous, the tilt of reality to suit ourselves is nonetheless slippery. In an era in which we can alter reality to flatter us, in which factual knowledge has become a political opinion or something to algorithmically filter, it has become all too easy to believe our own lies.

Credit…© Miramax/Courtesy of Everett Collection

“THE MAIN THING about impersonation,” Ripley muses midway through the novel, after having acquired some expertise in the field, “was to maintain the mood and temperament of the person one was impersonating.” Both the novel and Minghella’s chillingly decorative film begin with a case of misidentification: The nondescript Ripley is taken by the shipbuilding magnate Herbert Greenleaf for an Ivy League classmate of his wayward son, Richard, known as Dickie. Dispatched to a small Mediterranean town in southern Italy to retrieve him, Ripley is seduced by Greenleaf’s languorous life of martini lunches and afternoons on the beach. It’s hard to know which Ripley wants more: to sleep with Greenleaf or to be Greenleaf, who has a boat, a closet full of bespoke clothing and a beautiful signet ring — not to mention the kind of assurance of a man who believes he deserves what he has and will always have more. (What he doesn’t have is talent: In the novel, Greenleaf is the kind of amateur artist who paints sunsets in his girlfriend’s eyes; in the film, he’s a jazz aficionado.) Highsmith never overplays her hand in winning our sympathies for Ripley, but the ironic tension of the setup is clear enough. Who is really the fraud, the empty-headed playboy who gets by on connections and unearned income, or the unprivileged striver? Once Ripley bludgeons Greenleaf to death with an oar on a boating trip, covering his tracks and assuming his victim’s identity, the real mystery isn’t who committed the crime but why we can’t help rooting for him. Some readers might even go so far as to identify with Ripley, including those of us who grew up as code-switchers, or who have, metaphorically or otherwise, built new lives on foreign shores.

This is Highsmith’s brilliance as a novelist, her way of making us experience life as a tightening noose, making us complicit, effectively separating us from our humanity. In early reviews of the book — which was, until after her death in 1995, generally received as genre entertainment rather than the mordant anatomization of American class that it is — the character was often described as a sociopath. But I think Highsmith’s flouting of ethical certainties, her disinterest in justice, read differently today. Ripley is many things — an unloved orphan who grew into a man believing he deserved better; a queer kid bullied for being “a sissy”; an aesthete sensitive to ugliness marooned within a pragmatic and sensually stunted culture (an arrangement of fruit in his first-class stateroom is enough to improve his mood) — but a criminal mastermind he is not. Ripley’s sexuality is far less ambiguous in the film: Minghella adds a bath scene in which a disrobed Greenleaf (Jude Law, in his prime) plays a game of chess with a clothed Ripley, who awkwardly asks if he can join him in the tub. In Minghella’s film, unlike the novel, the murder is a crime of passion, not premeditation, a passion that might be read not only as desire or obsession but as a form of queer rage, perhaps: a closeted man’s revenge against his own marginalization and the easy privilege of his straight peers. In the novel, Ripley is in the closet even to himself; queerness is kept at the level of insinuation on the part of Marge, Greenleaf’s casual girlfriend, who is envious of the boys’ nascent friendship. In later Ripley novels — Highsmith wrote four more — he acquires, unconvincingly, a wife. Highsmith is, of course, a writer, not a therapist, but her rendering of Ripley’s descent into murder suggests how identity occluded by society might fracture into pathology. But more striking to me now is that while Highsmith allows Ripley the freedom to kill in the novels that bear her name, she won’t allow him to come out even in his own thoughts. Ripley is poignant today because we know he never will embrace the truth of himself on any level. As Frank Bidart put it in his 2012 poem “Queer”: “Lie to yourself about this and you will / forever lie about everything.”

Credit…© Paramount Pictures/Photofest

What feels ruthless today, then, isn’t the character but the context: the pretense of American liberty and meritocracy. In a world increasingly divided into Greenleafs and Ripleys, surely there are more than a few of us who have wished to wield a figurative oar at those who fail upward, buoyed by Daddy’s money, tax loopholes and prep-school connections. It should be noted that, as universal and quintessentially American as the book is, it is not complicated by race (that story has been told, too, albeit from a white perspective, in John Guare’s 1990 play, “Six Degrees of Separation”). Still, it’s hard not to read “Ripley” now and see it as a damning portrait of white male privilege, showing us how a white male is presumed credible, that he can slip beneath any wire and is always taken at his word. Jared Kushner is Dickie Greenleaf, buying his way into Harvard, but he is also Tom Ripley: He gets away with it because of how he looks. How, then, should we think about an author at once so cleareyed about the social mores of the time and yet so mired in them? If we now can embrace Ripley, what about his author, whose queer villains, written with compassion tinged with disgust, were largely stand-ins for herself? (While Highsmith wasn’t ashamed of her own sexuality, she resisted being known as a “lesbian author” and preferred to write about men, just as she preferred the company of men — except, of course, in bed.) Finally, if we “get” Ripley now, do we have social progress to thank, or is it because “sociopathy” simply looks an awful lot like getting by in contemporary America?

Highsmith’s atmospheric unease — her keen sense of the depths concealed by pleasing surfaces — has made her irresistible for film directors, but Ripley’s interiority has always been difficult to pull off onscreen. Many skilled actors have tried, including Alain Delon and John Malkovich in 1960 and 2002, respectively, playing the character in a more silken vein than the earnest Damon, who seemed credibly working-class, neither smooth nor especially clever. It’s far easier, of course, to be drawn in by Ripley in the book, where he remains as featureless as a Waldorf doll. This may also be why our contemporary frauds seem to pale in comparison to the real thing: It’s not because Ripley’s so audacious but because he’s on such intimate terms with us; the connoisseur of imposture has become the connoisseur’s impostor. Even the thriller writer Dan Mallory (a.k.a., A.J. Finn), who sought pity from publishing-industry colleagues and admissions committees by inventing tragic illnesses and deaths, abandoned a doctoral thesis at Oxford on Highsmith’s novels in the aughts, as if sensing he wasn’t quite up to the task. Ripley was a murderer, but he had a code; “he doesn’t kill unless he has to,” as the author put it.

Credit…© Times Film/Photofest

Ripley oscillates between obsession and repulsion when it comes to other people but believes unwaveringly in the transcendence found in good style — the best food, clothes and interiors. (The real romance, in Highsmith, is always with the finer things in life.) Both the novel and Minghella’s film turn on a scene in which Greenleaf catches Ripley trying on his clothes and mannerisms. After assuming Greenleaf’s identity, he decorates a palazzo in Venice for himself, hiring a pair of servants who “knew the difference between a Bloody Mary and a crême de menthe frappe.” Ripley likes to spend whole “evenings looking at his clothes — his clothes and Dickie’s — and feeling Dickie’s rings between his palms and running his fingers over the antelope suitcase he had bought at Gucci’s [sic]. He loved possessions, not masses of them, but a select few. … They gave a man self-respect.” The art of imposture isn’t only about getting the forged signatures on the letters and bank checks right; it’s about the mood, the tone, the attitude, much as a novelist creates a fictional character. (In a later Ripley book he becomes an art forger.) The most heartbreaking moment in the novel is when he’s forced to put on his own shabby coat and return to himself. It isn’t Dickie Greenleaf, but Tom Ripley, he’d wanted to leave at the bottom of the sea.

ONE WAY TO escape from the person you are is, of course, to become the others in your imagination: Just ask any fiction writer. “Impersonation, the substitution of one identity for another, the forgery of personality and the fluidity of character, were all native states for Patricia Highsmith,” wrote Joan Schenkar in her 2009 biography of the author, “The Talented Miss Highsmith,” which traces the furnishings of Highsmith’s imagination to her childhood reading (Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries and the Freudian analyst Karl Menninger’s case histories) and to her relationship with her narcissistic, competitive mother, an artist who, according to biographers, liked to joke that she’d tried to abort Highsmith by drinking turpentine. Highsmith’s parents divorced before she was born, in Fort Worth, Texas; she took the name of her stepfather, Stanley Highsmith, and grew up in Texas and in New York City. At 24, the Barnard College graduate was earning her living by writing scripts for comic books, with their secret identities and clothes with special powers. She was also keeping a diary, in which she noted, “There is an ever more acute difference — and an intolerableness — between my inner self, which I know is the real me, and various faces of the outside world.” At 27, she underwent psychoanalysis, and her doctor suggested that she join group therapy with some “married women who are latent homosexuals.” She remarked in her notebook, “Perhaps I shall amuse myself by seducing a couple of them.” Like Alfred Hitchcock, who adapted her first novel, “Strangers on a Train,” for his 1951 noir, she had a thing for elegant blondes.

Fiction became a way to bridge the distance between those public and private selves; living abroad, too, seemed to grant her a sense of clarity and liberation while affirming her separateness. Just before writing the first “Ripley” novel, Highsmith read the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” (1835-40), trying to gain perspective on her own countrymen and women, refining her understanding of hypocrisy and perversity at the heart of American identity. Like Ripley — and like Henry James, whose 1903 novel, “The Ambassadors,” in which an American man in Paris finds himself awakening to the charms of another way of being, is a model for the first “Ripley” novel — Highsmith preferred to live in Europe, residing for many years in England and France before eventually settling in Switzerland. “No book,” she said, “was easier for me to write, and I often had the feeling Ripley was writing it and I was merely typing.”

Credit…© Rene Burri/Magnum Photos

If our sympathy for Ripley has deepened over time, so, perhaps, has our ambivalence about his author, though her literary star has, quite rightly, only risen in the decades since her death. One of the stranger details in Highsmith’s biography is the fact that she went through a phase in which she carried her pet snails with her to dinner parties in a large handbag (her 1957 novel, “Deep Water,” soon to be a film starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, features a scene in which snails crawl over the murderer’s hands, stately and sinister). Among Highsmith’s most unpleasant traits was her propensity, in later years, to pen anti-Semitic and anti-Israel letters to newspapers under fake names. After her death (of aplastic anemia and lung cancer), Otto Penzler, a former publisher, referred to Highsmith as “a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being,” while acknowledging the brilliance of her fiction. Her circle of European women friends must have found something more tender in a person who seemed to be both longing for affection and closed off to it. (That she left her multimillion-dollar estate to Yaddo, the artist retreat in upstate New York where she wrote “Strangers on a Train,” seems to have gone some distance in redeeming her on this side of the pond.)

The novelist Graham Green called Highsmith “the poet of apprehension,” but she was also our great chronicler, at a time of peak social conformity, of American secret selves. One wonders what she would have made of our era of proud self-declaration. Her sole love story, the 1952 novel “The Price of Salt,” which was made into Todd Haynes’s 2015 film, “Carol,” was written under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan; it was, for decades, one of very few American lesbian novels with a happy ending, and therefore wildly popular. It’s also Highsmith’s only novel that believes in love, though — crucially — Therese and Carol’s happy ending depends upon the latter acquiring a large apartment for them on the Upper East Side. Carol, a beautiful suburban housewife in mink inspired by a customer Highsmith once locked eyes with in the toy department at Bloomingdale’s, where she briefly worked one Christmas in her late 20s, is another kind of escape artist, one who gives up her own child for a chance at a life less thwarted. Like the “Ripley” novels, “The Price of Salt” is a form of horror story. But it’s also, I think, a survival manual. In the 1990 edition, retitled “Carol” and published under her own name, Highsmith seemed to shed her prickly distance to the world, writing movingly in her afterword of a time when “gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan,” when you got off the subway at a different station so as not to arouse suspicion. This, of course, has largely changed now. Today, “identity” feels a bit like a paradox, either celebrated as if it were entirely knowable and indisputable, or else the potential subject of an ambitious makeover. What hasn’t changed, I think, is the dodge: the fear that someone might see us for who we really are.

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