The Talented Miss Highsmith

February 9th, 2010
The Talented Miss Highsmith: The secret life and serious art of Patricia Highsmith.
By Joan Schenkar. Published by St Martin’s Press. 660 pages.
Reviewed by Jeanette Winterson.

Patricia Highsmith said of herself, ‘I am always in love…’ (p348).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 Pat would have liked, because although reclusive, she was interested in posterity. Such display also allowed Pat to ‘hide in plain sight’, as her hero Edgar Alan Poe put it in The Purloined Letter, the fact that all her relationships had failed. Pat had died in hospital alone, and the last person to see her was her accountant. Pat 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. Pat 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.

Pat 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, Pat was working in the toy department of Bloomingdales 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 1950’s and homosexuality was classified as a disease and a disorder. Pat’s Freudian therapy was aimed exclusively as ‘curing’ her, though bizarrely she was offered a support group with other women, mostly married, who had homosexual tendencies. Pat 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 40’s and 50”s New York, and 60’s and 70’s Paris. She travelled in search of fresh encounters, and to rid herself of too much that could be known by others. Moving around gave her mental and emotional freedom, and kept her in control of her own narrative.

She left eight thousand pages of diaries and ‘cahiers’, but as her biographer notes, forged, fabricated and altered where necessary, just like her anti-hero Ripley. Highsmith lied all the time – to her lovers, to her friends, to the tax authorities, to her 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 Texas in 1921, in her grandmother’s boarding house. The family had come from Alabama, where Pat’s great grandfather had owned a pre-civil war plantation and 110 ‘body-slaves’. (Pat loved that image).

Pat was never comfortable with blacks and she was outspokenly anti-Semitic – so much so that when she was living in Switzerland in the 1980’s she invented around thirty-eight ‘aliases’, all of whom spent their time writing to various government bodies and newspapers, deploring the State of Israel and the ‘influence’ of the Jews.

Yet Pat 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 1940’s.

Pat Highsmith had a kind of archive-attachment disorder; she adored lists. She chronicled, mapped, numbered and cross-referenced everything about her life, including rating her lovers, but she wiped out what didn’t suit her, and only vaguely acknowledged, when pressed by the more ferrety kind of interviewer, to conjuring up a few story-lines for Superman and Batman.

In fact her job was much less glamorous than plotting for those super-heroes, 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-colour 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 grievous and murderous hatred early on. And learned to stifle also my more positive emotions’. (p89). She also believed that any homosexual, in concealing their preferences, ‘conceals his humanity and natural warmth of heart as well.’ (P383)

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. For forty years she travelled with hundreds of snails in her luggage, 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. It wasn’t the supposed confines of crime writing that was the problem, 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 Schenker is the first person to be given access to the full Highsmith archive in Bern. The University of Austin, Texas had offered $25,000 for the papers, which Pat dismissed as the ‘price of a second-hand car’. Hiding herself in a Swiss vault is very Highsmith. She did though, at the last possible second, leave her considerable fortune to Yaddo.

Schenkar has a wonderfully bold approach – not worrying about a linear chronology – although this is meticulously supplied in the appendices – but choosing to follow the emotional watercourse of Pat’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.
The writing is witty, sharp, and light-handed; a considerable achievement given the immense detail of this biography. Highsmith was a detail-junkie. Schenkar’s non-linear organising 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 for such a work.

published in the New York Times in December 2009.