The Talented Miss Highsmith
The author of The Talented Mr. Ripley series, and other diabolical crime mysteries had talent indeed, and an eccentric personality to match. The 2009 biography of Patricia Highsmith written by Joan Schenkar, entitled The Talented Miss Highsmith, attests to these facts. Patricia Highsmith, born Mary Patricia Plangman, is laid open to the reader by the excellent hand of Schenkar, who reveals Highsmith’s foibles, faults and fears through journals, stories, reports, diary entries and personal notes. The end result is a lonely, dark and secretive woman.
Living in Astoria, Queens at age ten, Highsmith began reading the poems of Edgar Allan Poe, and later developed a taste for abnormal psychology. From her apartment in Queens, she could walk from the East River and look across to Wards Island where the largest mental hospital had been built, and just a little farther north, Rikers Island, the biggest prison in New York State. Hell Gate, a deep waterway, and Hell Gate Bridge were also part of her geography. We read in Schenkar’s biography:
Pat was surrounded by an atmosphere of Crime, while a vision of Hell was just at her feet and over her head.
After her childhood years, Pat moved with her mother and stepfather to Greenwich Village, a place of artistic talent and literary freedom, as well as eclectic lifestyles that suited her own very well. In no way was Highsmith typical of the feminine model revered during that era in New York magazines; rather, she was a non-conforming loner, mannish in her impeccable Brooks Brothers shirts, proud, erotic, and attracted to women. Smoking and drinking ferociously at times, she was constantly in and out of love affairs, some going on simultaneously. She was a person too often uncomfortable in her own skin and who sometimes questioned her own sanity. She wrote:
I fear the madness in me quite near the surface.
Highsmith felt the “dark forces in her blood” were directing her life. A significant influence on the writer’s emotions was her mother Mary Highsmith with whom she had an ongoing love-hate relationship. They were ferociously tied to each other, and the mother’s effect on the daughter led the writer to binge on alcohol for days. Her mother criticized everything Highsmith did from her chosen lifestyle, smoking, drinking, lesbianism, and her writing. One wonders if Highsmith’s drive to succeed came from wanting to finally satisfy her mother.
Highsmith made lists of everything in her life. She said she did this to keep her demons at a distance. The lists grounded her, and she also made diagrams, graphs and charts for the same reason: to keep her mind from traveling too far out. Highsmith kept a daily journal as well as notes for her ongoing writing projects. These prolific accounts of her life and writings are what the biographer uses to tap into Highsmith’s story.
In order to support her lifestyle in New York, the writer worked for four years in the comic book industry, drawing and writing texts that she abhorred and was ashamed of. But like Theodore Dreiser, she sacrificed her writing integrity in order to live the lifestyle she wanted. Later she would choose to live in Europe where she could live a cultured, vibrant life without it costing her an excessive amount of money. We learn that she had high standards for herself and for everyone and everything around her. She had many friends but was not friendly and would not tolerate fools gladly. Every person she met was fodder for her novels and many of her own experiences show up quite observably in her novels.
For a writer like myself, this biography was as insightful and intriguing as Highsmith herself. Not a stone has been left unturned nor a note unread in this giant tome about one of the most-read crime authors in the 20th century.
Gretta Barclay is a passionate reader, writer, and lover of art in all its forms. She writes essays, short stories, poems, and novels. Her first novel, “To See a Sundog”, is an adventure story that takes place in a small Midwest town. She is in the process of writing her second novel.