“It would be fine to see you in Santa Fe & if you possibly change your mind, address is: Hotel La Fonda, Santa Fe, New Mex. for the next two weeks at least. I keep thinking about that idea we had for a couple of murders.” (Highsmith, p.47)
Patricia Highsmith’s season in Santa Fe during the 1950s was—as she referred to it, invoking Rimbaud—her season in l’enfer.[i] They don’t tell you so in the literary guides to the city. Patricia Highsmith and William Burroughs don’t register in them. I’m drinking a Hendricks martini in the bar of the Hotel La Fonda, Santa Fe, the place where Charles Bruno gets drunk and plots murders in Highsmith’s first novel Strangers on a Train (1950), the novel that is failed by Hitchcock’s version because the film does not permit the reciprocal murder plot that is the indispensable spine of Highsmith’s original. The renovated horseshoe bar where I’m sitting has moved fifteen feet to the east since Highsmith’s time, and La Placita, the exterior courtyard has been, quite reasonably, covered over and is known now as La Plazuela, but the effect—if your versions of Americana or literature don’t feature in the guidebooks—is agreeable. Highsmith’s La Fonda, and the central Plaza of Santa Fe upon which it sits, are resolutely alcoholic and Dionysian. It’s a sick place; you might recall from Strangers… there’s a dead bull dressed in an overcoat and a hat on the Plaza, propped against a bench, a grotesque parodic corpse prank. The town, Charles Bruno’s awful mother declares before his drinking binge, is good for nothing but silver.[ii]
“The Plaza spread suddenly before him, full of chickens and kids and the usual old men eating piñones for breakfast. He stood still and counted the pillars of the Governor’s palace to see if he could count seventeen, and he could. It was getting so the pillars weren’t a good gauge anymore. On top of a bad hangover, he ached now from sleeping on the goddamned cobblestones. Why’d he drink so much, he wondered, almost tearfully. But he had been all alone, and he always drank more alone. Or was that true? And who cared anyway? He remembered one brilliant and powerful thought that had come to him last night watching a televised shuffleboard game: the way to see the world was to see it drunk.” (Highsmith, p.64)
Apropos delirium: excluded also from the guidebooks, but surely deserving of a brass commemorative plaque, is the fact that William Burroughs’ inchoate homoerotics of gang violence notched some progress at La Fonda. According to Burroughs:
“A story about four jolly murderers was conceived in the Hotel La Fonda on a rare trip to Santa Fe when I was feeling guilty about masturbating twice in one day…
A middle aged couple very brash and jolly…
“Sure on I’d kill my own grandmother for just a little kale.”
“We have regular rates of course…” the woman observed tartly.
A soft plump pearl gray man stands there with a sickly smile. He is flanked by a skull face Mexican boy also smiling who was later to become Tio Mate in The Wild Boys.” (Mottram, p.18)
Burroughs attended Los Alamos Ranch School for Boys[iii] from 1929. In March 1930, when he was sixteen, Burroughs was taken—like Highsmith’s Charles Bruno—to Santa Fe by his mother. On the Plaza, he visited Capitol Pharmacy where he purchased enough chloral hydrate to overdose on the Sunday following his return to Los Alamos. This was the beginning of Burroughs career as a junkie. Later that year, in October, A.J. Connell the closeted homosexual Director of the Los Alamos Ranch School took Burroughs back to Santa Fe. He did so quite frequently. As Burroughs biographer Ted Morgan explains it:
“They stayed at La Fonda, where all the rooms opened on a patio, and a band played at dinnertime. On one of these occasions, Billy went to his room and at once masturbated. Later they went down to dinner—the band was playing ‘La Chocolate’—and after dinner he went to the bathroom and masturbated again. Ashamed at having masturbated twice in the same day, he decided to start a novel […] of which a page or two were completed on hotel stationary.” (Morgan, p.54)
I suppose they don’t put up brass plaques for that, but I think they should. Here, in 1930, Noted American Author of Naked Lunch William S. Burroughs Twice Masturbated and Began His First Novel… La Fonda is built upon the remains of what was once The Exchange Hotel, where, according to lore, Billy the Kid[iv] worked as a dish washer. Letting the gin do its work, I return to my speculation—first considered close to a decade ago—that it is this fact, the proximity of the spectral outlaw, that was the frisson that so affected young Billy Burroughs. You can feel this same sexual tension in The Place of Dead Roads (1983), and Burroughs’ queering and transference of Kit/Kim Carson(s).
In these ways, not in the tourist guides, La Fonda is a good place to drink and commune with late-modernism and the darker deliriums of great American literature. The martini is as it should be: taste of floral chrome, the quicksilver messenger, clean and glassy, very cold, you don’t touch the olive until you’re almost finished, so there’s the green bitterness at the end. It’s good for the blood to inhabit these occult spaces. Outside, you can walk Charles Bruno’s route onto the Plaza. There are no chickens, but the silver is there. The dead bull has been removed, but you can still count the pillars.
—James Reich, November 2017.
[i] According to Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith, “She called Santa Fe ‘l’enfer’ in her notebook—and leaves us to imagine why.” (p.347) This was during the time of her affair with Ellen Hill.
[ii] Highsmith had an ambivalent attitude toward Santa Fe. She began writing The Talented Mr. Ripley here in 1954, and in Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, Andrew Wilson recounts that “Santa Fe was one of the towns in which Highsmith thought she might settle, but obviously during her time there she changed her mind.” (Wilson, p.306)
[iii] Gore Vidal attended a decade after Burroughs in 1939. As is well-known, Los Alamos Ranch School for Boys became the campus of the Manhattan Project. A. J. Connell received notice from the War Department by letter in December 1942. The Fuller Lodge, where the boys used to eat meals, including “strange dishes like calves’ brains, unfamiliar fish from the Rio Grande, and baked bananas” (Morgan p.48) is now used for naturalization ceremonies, and it was there that I became an American citizen, in the cradle of the bomb.
[iv] Much has been made of the chronology surrounding Santa Fe Governor Lewis Wallace’s completion of his novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880) at the Governor’s Palace on the Plaza and his role in the history and mythology of Billy the Kid. Gore Vidal’s Billy the Kid film of 1989, starring a pre-Tombstone Val Kilmer films the death of Billy the Kid as a crucifixion. There is a case to be made that Kilmer’s Doc Holliday in Tombstone (1993) is influenced by the dandyism of Burroughs’ The Place of Dead Roads.
Patricia Highsmith. Strangers on a Train. New York: Norton, 1993.
Eric Mottram. William Burroughs: The Algebra of Need. London: Marion Boyars, 1977.
Ted Morgan. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs. New York: Norton, 2012.
Joan Schenkar. The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011.
Andrew Wilson. Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith. New York: Bloomsbury, 2003.