By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
Here are two anecdotes about the great American suspense novelist Patricia Highsmith. When she heard President John F. Kennedy launch into his “Ask not what your country can do for you . . .” speech on television, she left the room and went into the kitchen to feed the cats. And when she was drawing up her will, she wavered between bequeathing her fortune to the Yaddo Arts Colony and the Palestinian Intifada. Yaddo got it, but it’s hard to imagine any other major American novelist of the late-20th century considering the latter as a legatee. Even William Burroughs wasn’t that alienated from mainstream American life.
People are strange, as Jim Morrison once sang, but Patricia Highsmith was a lot stranger than most. Like Paul Bowles and Gore Vidal, her fellow novelists-in-exile (with whom she corresponded), she stood at a slight angle to the American universe. In Andrew Wilson’s fascinating — if a bit too long — new biography, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, there are photographs of the young author in 1949, standing on the deck of a ship about to sail from New York to Europe. She looks radiantly happy. The Old World was where she, and her heroes (they were almost always men), wanted to be.
Six years later, Tom Ripley, the Europhile antihero of The Talented Mr. Ripley, would make the same journey. Highsmith described his feelings about the city as he prepared to leave:
The atmosphere of the city became stranger as the days went on. It was as if something had gone out of New York — the realness or the importance of it — and the city was putting on a show just for him, a colossal show with its buses, taxis and hurrying people on the sidewalks . . . As if when his boat left the pier on Saturday, the whole city of New York would collapse with a poof like a lot of cardboard on a stage.
As that passage shows, Highsmith was a mesmerizing writer who locked readers into her protagonists’ point of view with unequaled ferocity. But despite having her first novel, Strangers on a Train, turned into a successful movie by Alfred Hitchcock, she failed to get much critical recognition in her own country. Since the success of Anthony Minghella’s 1999 movie adaptation of her first Ripley novel, that has changed. New editions of her books are on the shelves, and more films are being produced (the latest, Ripley Underground, stars John Malkovich, who was born to play the role). Until recently, anyone curious about the novelist’s life would have had nothing but a few dusty magazine profiles to go on. Now, together with Wilson’s biography, there is Marijane Meaker’s fascinating Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950’s (from which the anecdotes at the beginning of this article were taken).
Highsmith was born Mary Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth, Texas, on January 19, 1921. Her mother tried to induce a miscarriage by swigging turpentine during her pregnancy, and her father moved out of the house before she’d even been born. When she was 6, her mother remarried (Highsmith took her stepfather’s name, but never accepted him otherwise), and the family moved to New York in search of work. Highsmith discovered her lesbianism early, but her mother never accepted or forgave it. Unconditional love, which every child needs, seems to be the one thing Highsmith never got. She fought with her mother throughout her life and met her real father only once, when she was 17. He tried to seduce her. The seeds for the alienation she suffered and would express in her novels — almost all her protagonists are deeply neurotic and often outright criminal — were sown early.
Her mother may not have approved, but Highsmith herself had no problem with or timidity about her sexuality. Strikingly attractive when she was young, she seduced women by the score despite suffering from an often-crippling shyness. But as is clear from Meaker’s memoir — the two women lived together as lovers for about a year — she was unable to stick with anyone for long, preferring to flit from lover to lover, and country to country (Mexico, Italy, England, France, Switzerland . . .). She also drank heavily, more and more as the years went on, but never let it interfere with her work. Wilson’s biography, which traces the increasing toll of alcoholism, isolation and ill health, can make grim reading. Particularly near the end, when Highsmith turned into a racist bore and anti-Semitic crank — ironically, since she wrote brilliantly about cranks in her novels.
Meaker’s memoir, which begins with a glamorous touch in a Greenwich Village lesbian bar in 1959, when Highsmith was “a handsome, dark-haired woman in a trench coat” drinking gin and smoking Gauloises, ends even more painfully than Wilson’s biography. In 1992, only three years before Highsmith’s death and 32 years after they’d last seen each other, the two women spent three days together at Meaker’s home in East Hampton. It was a long three days. Highsmith’s conversation consisted mainly of diatribes against blacks, Jews and Israel.
Even in her bitter final years, one has to admire her unflagging dedication to craft and consistent hard work. She produced 22 novels (one of which, Carol, was originally published under the name Claire Morgan and is a lesbian classic) and seven collections of short stories in all. She also kept a detailed diary (from which Wilson got much of his information) throughout her life. There is a marvelous anecdote in Meaker’s book about how, when she lived in New York, Highsmith used to get the names for her characters by driving up and down the highways looking at signs and billboards. The inspiration for the character Tom Ripley came to her on a beach in Positano, but the name came from an ad for “Ripley Clothing” on the West Side Highway.