Meeting with a Legend

The success of Todd Haynes’s movie at this year’s Cannes festival, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, brings to mind my visit to Switzerland in 1993 to interview the reclusive writer.

As it was necessary to drive through the Swiss Alps from Italy to meet that elusive and very private writer, I needed the help of Ros Milani-Gallieni, who was working for Garrard on special projects.

Apart from her driving ability, Ros’s company was a sheer delight. We flew to Milan, where we hired a car and proceeded towards Lugano, the nearest town to Patricia Highsmith’s hideaway, where we spent the night before negotiating the Alps in search of her. She had given us directions to a small village, where she said she would be waiting.

She was there when we arrived, looking dishevelled and rather strange. She asked Ros to stay behind and invited me into her car. We drove up a mountainous road for about twenty minutes before reaching our destination. The house stood in a semi-wilderness and its interior was sparse, its decor rather grim. It struck me as an unhappy environment in which she must have led a kind of monastic existence. She offered me an alcoholic drink as we entered, but I declined. I needed to have my wits about me for this potentially difficult encounter.

The interview was full of drama, as I suspected it might be. Twice during the course of my questioning Miss Highsmith stood up furiously and refused to proceed. As I tried to placate her with apologies for any intrusion into her private life, she poured herself a large whisky and gradually became less tense and more amenable. Her hostility finally disappeared when I referred to her book People Who Knock on the Door, which she had dedicated to ‘the courage of the Palestinian people and their leaders in their struggle to regain a part of their homeland’. Her face then became animated and I realised how committed she was to the Palestinian cause.

From then on the interview became less of a burden and I felt I had achieved my goal. Any unpleasantness had been avoided, partly because of my Palestinian origins. Her initial anger somehow turned to sympathy. She drove me back to where Ros was waiting and the parting was more congenial than the reception had been. Ros drove us down to Milan airport, handed in the car and we flew back to London. For a short trip, it had had more than its share of melodramatic moments.

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