The talented Miss Highsmith The secret life and serious art of Patricia Highsmith

Joan Schenkar

Book - 2009

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BIOGRAPHY/Highsmith, Patricia
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New York, N.Y. : St. Martin's Press 2009.
Main Author
Joan Schenkar (-)
1st ed
Physical Description
xx, 684 p., [16] leaves of plates : ill., facsims. ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • A Note on Biography
  • 1. How to Begin
  • 2. A Simple Act of Forgery
  • 3. La Mamma
  • 4. Greek Games
  • 5. Alter Ego
  • 6. Social Studies
  • 7. Les Girls
  • 8. The Real Romance of Objects
  • 9. The Cake That Was Shaped Like a Coffin
  • Acknowledgments
  • Appendix 1. Just the Facts
  • Appendix 2. Patricia Highsmith's New York
  • Appendix 3. Charts, Maps, Diagrams, and Plans
  • Notes and Sources
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index
Review by New York Times Review

Patricia Highsmith said of herself, "I am always in love. . . ." Yet at her memorial service in Tegna, Switzerland, in 1995, there were no lovers from the past, and there was no lover to mourn her in the present. The service was filmed, which Highsmith would have liked, because although reclusive, she was interested in posterity. Such display also allowed Highsmith to hide in plain sight (as her hero Edgar Allan Poe put it in "The Purloined Letter") the fact that all her relationships had failed. Highsmith had died in a hospital alone, and the last person to see her was her accountant. Highsmith was obsessed with taxes. There had been so many lovers, usually women, but men, too, including Arthur Koestler, who had the good sense to give up. Highsmith was attractive to men and to women, until her diet of alcohol and cigarettes (she hated food) raddled her beauty. Men never fired her imagination, except in her fiction, where her males, especially Tom Ripley, are versions of herself. It was women she wanted, and she found them in bars, on boats, at parties and, best of all, in settled relationships with other people. Highsmith loved a triangle, and she liked to destroy it, axing the part of the couple she didn't want, but usually sleeping with her first. Hers was a life jammed with encounters, and it is not by chance that her novels obsessively use the unexpected life-changing/ life-threatening encounter as the drive into the narrative - think "Strangers on a Train" or any of the Ripley series. Highsmith's one explicitly homosexual novel, "The Price of Salt," uses the spring of a particular encounter that the writer never forgot. As a young woman in New York City, Highsmith was working in the toy department of Bloomingdale's earning Christmas cash when a wealthy Venus in furs - older, handsome - came in to order a doll. Simultaneously falling in love and falling ill with a fever, Highsmith went home in a daze and plotted the whole scenario for her novel - and even dared to give it something like a happy ending. What she didn't dare to do was publish it under her own name. But this was the 1950s, and homosexuality was classified as a disease and a disorder. Highsmith's Freudian therapy had been aimed exclusively at "curing" her, though, bizarrely, she was offered a support group with other women, mostly married, who had homosexual tendencies. Highsmith thought she might seduce a couple, and as her lover at the time observed, "better latent than never." Patricia Highsmith was as secretive as an oyster. She enjoyed the closeted hidden underground world of the gay scene in '40s and '50s New York and '60s and '70s Paris. She traveled in search of fresh encounters, and to rid herself of too much that could be known by others. Highsmith left 8,000 pages of diaries and "cahiers," but as Joan Schenkar notes in "The Talented Miss Highsmith," she forged, fabricated and altered where necessary, just like her antihero Ripley. She lied all the time - to her lovers, to her friends, to the tax authorities, to publishers, agents, journalists, and to posterity. Lying about the facts was her way of telling the truth - as she understood it. She was born in Fort Worth in 1921, in her grandmother's boardinghouse. The family came from Alabama, where Highsmith's great-grandfather had owned an antebellum plantation and 110 "body-slaves." (Highsmith loved that image.) Highsmith was never comfortable with blacks, and she was outspokenly anti-Semitic - so much so that when she was living in Switzerland in the 1980s, she invented nearly 40 aliases, identities she used in writing to various government bodies and newspapers, deploring the state of Israel and the "influence" of the Jews. Yet Highsmith had Jewish friends, and her first boss was a Jew who did nothing but support her work. She wrote him out of her history, as she did her stint at writing comic strips in New York in the 1940s. Patricia Highsmith in New York in the 1940s. Highsmith had a kind of archive-attachment disorder; she adored lists. She chronicled, mapped, numbered and cross-referenced everything in her life, and even rated her lovers, but she wiped out what didn't suit her and only vaguely acknowledged, when pressed by the more ferrety kind of interviewer, having conjured up a few story lines for Superman and Batman. In fact her job was much less glamorous than plotting for those superheroes, but the comic strip formula of threat/pursuit/ fantasy life/alter ego/secret identity was the formula she used in all her work. The four-color, six-panel comic strip shaped Patricia Highsmith the crime writer like nothing else - however much she cared to cite Dostoyevsky and Henry James. Her emotional shaping came from her sexuality and from her turbulent relations with her mother and stepfather. "I learned to live with a grievous and murderous hatred very early on. And learned to stifle also my more positive emotions." She also believed that homosexuals, in concealing their preferences, conceal their "humanity and natural warmth of heart as well." Concealment was her game, and her way of life. Dating three women at a time was not difficult for her. She collected snails, liking their portable hiding place and the impossibility of telling which was male and which was female. She traveled with snails in her luggage and kept hundreds at home. If she was bored at dinner parties, she might get a few snails out of her purse and let them loose on the tablecloth. As she didn't eat much, she was often bored at dinner parties. How good a writer was she? "Strangers on a Train," "The Price of Salt" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" are hypnotic and amoral novels, pushing past any genre, unsettling the reader and using the limitations of her prose style - her karate-chop syntax - to create a powerful effect. My own feeling is that when Highsmith consciously tried to be literary it never worked, and when she went for money and fame (the more she earned the meaner she became), she found a formula and lost her form. The problem wasn't the supposed confines of crime writing, but her increasing refusal - in love or in work - to let a relationship happen. And art is always about relationship - to the material, to the self, and to the world in all its chaos and intrusion, its terror and its glory. And yet, with Ripley she created a new kind of criminal, not seen before in crime/ murder/detective fiction - his nearest relative being something out of de Sade -whose criminal libertines challenge what we mean by good and evil, and also thrive unpunished. Joan Schenkar has been able to use previously unpublished and undocumented Highsmith material and has been given full access to the Highsmith archive in Bern, Switzerland. The University of Texas at Austin had offered $25,000 for the papers, which Highsmith dismissed as the "price of a used car." Hiding herself in a Swiss vault is very Highsmith. She did, though, at the last possible second, leave her considerable fortune to the artists' colony Yaddo. Schenkar has a wonderfully bold approach: not worrying about a linear chronology (although this is meticulously supplied in the appendices), but choosing instead to follow the emotional watercourse of Highsmith's life, allowing her subject to find her own level - to be tidal, sullen, to flow without check, so that events in one decade naturally make an imaginative tributary into turbulence before and after. Schenkar's writing is witty, sharp and light-handed, a considerable achievement given the immense detail of this biography. Highsmith was a detail junkie. Schenkar's nonlinear organizing method was a brilliant idea to save herself - and the reader - from data overload. This is a biography of clarity and style. A model of its kind. 'I learned to live with a grievous and murderous hatred very early on,' Highsmith said. Jeanette Winterson's latest novel is "The Stone Gods."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [December 20, 2009]
Review by Booklist Review

Highsmith is best known for Strangers on a Train (1950) and her Ripley series, which begins with The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955). Schenkar's fascinating biography portrays Highsmith as driven by obsessions, especially her love-hate relationship with her mother, and a yin-yang ambivalence that became a central main theme in her writings, which also evinced the fast-moving action she developed while writing comic books in her twenties. The Highsmith Country she created was filled with the constant shifting of identities, both inward and outward, that created the consistency, the fierce peculiarity, the weird, graveled originality of her work. The author of a pseudonymous landmark lesbian novel The Price of Salt (1951), Highsmith was a femme fatale whose same-sex affairs spanned the Atlantic Ocean, a series of sudden, wild passions, another signature theme in her fiction. The catalyst for Schenkar's exhaustive, compelling work, which boasts copious end notes, maps, charts, diagrams, bibliography, and chronology, was the recent unearthing of 8,000 pages of Highsmith's secret journals. The result is an essential scholarly, lesbian, and literary biography.--Scott, Whitney Copyright 2009 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Author and playwright Schenkar (Truly Wilde) presents a compelling portrait of suspense novelist Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995), whose own life was often as twisted as that of her antihero Tom Ripley. Dispensing with the traditional chronological narrative, Schenkar divides her study into themed sections, which crisscross and mirror each other, embodying the themes of doubling and alter egos in Highsmith's work and life. From her early years in Texas through her time soaking up Manhattan's literary life in the '40s to her self-exile in Europe, Highsmith kept diaries in which she meticulously detailed everything from her myriad female lovers to plot ideas. Pessimistic, alcoholic and chronically unhappy, Highsmith created some of the most chilling tales of psychological suspense and betrayal, including The Talented Mr. Ripley and its sequels, and Strangers on a Train. Schenkar's research is impeccable, and she makes excellent use of the voluminous Highsmith archives in Switzerland and interviews with Highsmith's friends, ex-lovers and literary contemporaries. "Perversion," Highsmith once said, "interests me most and is my guiding darkness," and Schenkar illuminates how her demons played out on the page and in real life. 16 pages of b&w photos. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Playwright Schenkar (Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar's Unusual Niece) has written a meticulous and careful biography of one of 20th-century America's great crime and mystery writers, the author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Patricia Highsmith's emotional life was complex and difficult; her lifelong obsession with her relationship to her mother and her homosexuality set the parameters for her travels, friends, lovers, and work. Growing up in Fort Worth, TX, and New York City, Highsmith finally settled in Switzerland. Schenkar, using Highsmith's diaries, notebooks, and writings, tells of her alcoholism, paranoia, depressions, desires, and needs; she is especially good at describing Highsmith's years as a comic book writer and the homosexual culture of the 1940s-50s. Schenkar works through the books, highlighting Highsmith's themes of murder, forgery, identity, doubling, shame, and death while noting the difference between the author's early and best work and her later, inferior writings. VERDICT An imaginative, definitive Highsmith biography, great for literature students, Highsmith fans, and mystery readers.-Gene Shaw, Paramus P.L., NJ (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Exhaustive study of the much-loathed suspense writer best known for the Ripley novels and Strangers on a Train. Patricia Highsmith (19211995) generated distaste in many contemporaries for a variety of reasons, including her alcoholism, racism, anti-Semitism and her tendency to give friendship tokens then demand them back. As playwright and biographer Schenkar writes, she was mean, cruel and sexually rapacious with women and a few men. The author traces Highsmith's corrosive behavior to her supreme hatred of her stepfather, whom her mother promised to divorce, then reneged on. Along the way, she damaged most of her relationships, facts well documented in dozens of journals, diaries, short-story collections, massive correspondence and endless lists now housed in the Swiss Literary Archives in Berne, which Schenkar had access to. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Highsmith's family relocated to New York, where she graduated from Barnard, began reading Dostoyevsky and started submitting manuscripts to the New Yorker, which continually rejected them. She then spent eight years writing plot arcs for Timely Comics before penning Strangers in 1950, which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock a year later. She used a pseudonym, Claire Morgan, for her second book, The Price of Salt (1952), a lesbian romance that became an underground hit. In 1955, Highsmith published the first of the five books featuring the criminal hero Tom Ripley. Holding to an eight-page-per-day writing schedule, which she maintained for most of her life, Highsmith incorporated her obsessions into her work. She kept 300 snails, for instance, because she liked to watch them copulate, and they show up in Deep Water (1957). Her snobbishness, homosexual undercurrent and love/hate relationship with America are omnipresent. Schenkar makes the case that Highsmith was most comfortable when she was herself uncomfortable, living in cold, dark houses throughout Europe where she never mastered the native languages, or was virulently alienating lovers, editors and most particularly her mother. She died alone, by choice, in Switzerland in 1995. A comprehensive, nuanced evaluation of Highsmith Country. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 1 HOW TO BEGIN: Part 1 "No writer would ever betray his secret life, it would be like standing naked in public."--Patricia Highsmith 9/3/40 AN ORDINARY DAY On 16 November, 1973, a damp, coldish, breaking day in the tiny French village of Moncourt, France,  Patricia Highsmith, a fifty-two year old American writer living an apparently quiet life beside a branch of the Loing Canal, lit up another Gauloise jaune , tightened her grip on her favorite Parker fountain pen, hunched her shoulders  over her roll-top desk -- her oddly-jointed arms and enormous hands were long enough to reach the back of the  roll while she was still seated -- and jotted down in her writer's notebook a short list of helpful activites "which small children" might do "around the house." It's a casual little list, the kind of list Pat liked to make when she was emptying out the  back pockets of her mind, and it has the tossed-off quality of an afterthought. But as any careful reader of Highsmith knows, the time to pay special attention to her is when she seems to be lounging, negligent, or (God forbid) mildly relaxed. There is a beast crouched in every "unconcerned" corner of her writing mind and, sure enough, it springs out at us in her list's discomfiting title. "Little Crimes for Little Tots," she called it.  And then for good measure she added a subtitle: "Things around the house which small children Can do..." Pat had recently filled in another little list -- it was for the comics historian Jerry Bails back in the U.S. -- with some diversionary information about her work on the crime-busting comic book adventures of Black Terror and Sgt. Bill King , so perhaps she was  still counting up the ways in which small children could be slyly associated with crime. In her last writer's journal, penned from the same perch in semi-suburban France, she had also spared a few thoughts for children. One of them was a simple calculation. She reckoned that "one blow in anger [would] kill, probably, a child from aged two to eight. . ." and that "Those over eight would take two blows to kill." The murderer she imagined completing this deed was none other than herself; the circumstance driving her to it was a simple one: "One situation - maybe one alone - could drive me to murder: family life, togetherness." So, difficult as it might be to imagine Pat Highsmith dipping her pen into child's play, her private writings tell us that she sometimes liked to run her mind over the more outré problems of dealing with the young. And not only because her feelings for them wavered between a clinical interest in their upbringing (she made constant inquiries about the children of friends) and a violent rejection of their actual presence (she couldn't bear the sounds children made when they were enjoying themselves). Like her feisty, maternal grandmother Willie Mae Stewart Coates, who used to send suggestions for improving the United States to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (and got handwritten answers back from the White House), Pat kept a drawerful of unconventional ideas for social engineering just itching to be implemented. Her notebooks are enlivened by large plans for small people, most of them modelleled on some harsh outcropping of her own rocky past. Each one adds a new terror to the study of child development. One of her plans for youth -- just a sample -- seems to be a barely-suppressed rehearsal of the wrench in 1927 in her own childhood when she was taken from her grandmother's care in the family-owned boarding house in Fort Worth, Texas all the way across the United States to her mother's new marriage in a cramped apartment in the upper reaches of the West Side of Manhattan. Pat's idea for child-improvement (it migrated from a serious entry in her 1966 notebook to the mind of the mentally unstable protagonist in her 1977 novel, Edith's Diary ) was to send very young children to live in places far across the world  --"Orphanages could be exploited for willing recruits!" she enthused, alight with her own special brand of practicality -- so that they could serve their country as "junior members of the Peace Corps." Like a tissue-culture excised from the skin of her thoughts, her odd, off-hand little list of 16 November, 1973 (written in her house in a village so small that a visit to the Post Office lumbered her with unwanted attention) turns out to be a useful entrée into the mind, the matter, and the mise-en-scène of the talented Miss Highsmith. Among its other revelations, the list makes recommendations for people (small ones) whose lives parallel her own: people who are fragile enough to be confined to their homes, free enough to be without apparent parental supervision, and angry enough to be preoccupied with murder.  Here is her list. "16/11/73 Little Crimes for Little Tots. Things around the house - which small children can do, such as: 1) Tying string across top of stairs so adults will trip. 2) Replacing roller skate on stairs, once mother has removed it. 3) Setting careful fires, so that someone else will get the blame if possible. 4) Rearranging pills in medicine cabinets; sleeping pills into aspirin bottle. Pink laxative pills into antibiotic bottle which is kept in fridge. 5) Rat powder or flea powder into flour jar in kitchen. 6) Saw through supports of attic trap door, so that anyone walking on closed trap will fall through to stairs. 7) In summer: fix magnifying glass to focus on dry leaves, or preferably oily rags somewhere. Fire may be attributed to spontaneous combustion. 8) Investigate anti-mildew products in gardening shed. Colorless poison added to gin bottle." A small thing but very much her own, this piece of ephemera, like almost everything Pat turned her hand to, has murder on its mind, centers itself around a house and its close environs, mentions  a mother in a cameo role, and is highly practical in a thoroughly subversive way. Written in the flat, dragging, uninflected style of her middle years, it leaves no particular sense that she meant it as a joke, but she must have...mustn't she? The real beast in Highsmith's writing has always been the double-headed dragon of ambiguity. And the dragon often appears with its second head tucked under its foreclaw and its cue-cards -- the ones it should be flashing at us to help us with our responses - - concealed somewhere beneath its scales. Is Pat serious? Or is she something else? She is serious and she is also something else. All her life, Pat Highsmith was drawn to list-making. She loved lists and she loved them all the more because nothing could be less representative of her chaotic, raging interior than a nice, organizing little list. Like much of what she wrote, this particular list makes use of the materials at hand: no need, children, to look further than Mother's's medecine cabinet or Father's garden shed for the means to murder your parents. Many children in Highsmith fictions, if they are physically able, murder a family member. In 1975 she would devote an entire collection of short stories, The Animal Lovers Book of Beastly Murder, to pets who dispatch their abusive human "parents" straight to Hell. Nor did Pat herself usually look further than her immediate environment for props to implement her artistic motives. (And when she did, she got into artistic trouble.) Everything around her was there to be used -- and methodically so -- even in murder. She fed the odd bits of her gardens, her love life, the carpenter ants in her attic, her old manuscripts, her understanding of the street-plan of New York and the transvestite bars of Berlin into the furnace of her imagination - and then let the fires do their work. Excerpted from The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar. Copyright (c) 2009 by Joan Schenkar. Published in December 2009 by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher. Excerpted from The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.