Murder, She Wrote
On the page, Patricia Highsmith could inspire a law-abiding citizen to become a willing accomplice to murder, at least within the realm of the imagination. Her fiction features ordinary protagonists with whom one readily identifies, though they are often unlikable and elicit from readers (and from other characters within the narrative) a mixture of desire and repulsion. As we gain access to their psyches and get caught up in their extraordinarily hapless predicaments, we find the moral ground slowly shifting. Before we know it, we're colluding with them, hoping they will get away with theft, deceit, even murder. Her most infamous creation is the slick, charismatic, insinuating and unconscionable Tom Ripley, who covets other people's station in life, and kills to appropriate it for himself. In all five books in the Ripley series, you can't help but root for the antihero as he lies, kills--and slips away without a trace.
Off the page, Highsmith--who is the subject of two new biographical works--was as disquieting, seductive and complex as any of the people she invented. Both English journalist Andrew Wilson, author of the exhaustive biography Beautiful Shadow, and novelist Marijane Meaker, who has written a memoir of her ex-lover and friend, show that Highsmith was at once spiteful and endearing, erudite and crass, a cantankerous, stingy, alcoholic misanthrope who could charm people with her mordant wit, modesty and disarming vulnerability. Highsmith seemed to revel in these contradictions. She was a refined, brooding butch lesbian who frequented the various West Village underground gay bars during the McCarthy era, but favored the social company of men. She was romantically promiscuous, struggling by turns with feelings of loneliness and claustrophobia that propelled her in and out of relationships. A Texas native, she was a fierce critic of postwar US culture and foreign policy, and would go into self-imposed exile in Europe in 1963. Highsmith was vehemently opposed to US involvement in the war in Vietnam and later became outspoken in her support for Palestinian liberation. For all her solidarity with the wretched of the earth, however, Highsmith harbored a deep admiration for Margaret Thatcher and cast votes in absentia for Richard Nixon, George Bush Sr. and Ross Perot. She was an anti-Semite and a racist, as well as a serious devotee of Jewish writers Franz Kafka and Saul Bellow, and counted many Jews among her close friends, including newspaper columnist Ben Zion Goldberg, Arthur Koestler and artist Lil Picard.
As intensely guarded as she was about her personal life, she was, to the benefit of her future biographers, an ardent and brutally honest chronicler of her innermost thoughts and experiences. Highsmith, who died in 1995, left behind close to forty journals--her "cahiers," as she called them--where she documented all her ideas (the genesis and progression of most of her fiction can be found in these pages). She was also a prolific correspondent and diarist, leaving behind countless letters and personal journals describing a lifelong battle with depression, and evoking fraught, often tumultuous relationships with friends, business associates, lovers and her mother, Mary Coates Highsmith, a woman who cast the longest-lasting--and most detrimental--shadow on her.
Born Mary Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921 to parents whose brief marriage had unraveled nine days earlier, Patricia Highsmith believed she was destined for a miserable existence, remembering her young self as an "alert, anxious-faced child over whom hangs already the grey-black spirit of doom." Her mother, an illustrator, would remarry a commercial artist, Stanley Highsmith, in 1924, a man the young "Pat" soon came to resent. Before she was 10, she was already relishing fantasies about murdering her stepfather for coming between her and her mother. She would later write in her cahiers, "I learned to live with a grievous and murderous hatred very early on. And learned to stifle also my more positive emotions. All this probably caused my propensity to write bloodthirsty stories of murder and violence."
Her parents' career ambitions brought the Highsmiths to New York City in the late 1920s, but a mixture of economic strife brought on by the Depression, as well as ongoing marital problems, would periodically force them to return to Texas. In 1933 Mary left her second husband, taking her young daughter with her to Fort Worth. But a few short weeks later, Stanley came to retrieve his wife, leaving Highsmith behind with her grandmother. She would never forgive her mother for the yearlong abandonment. Mary was tempestuous and emotionally abusive, and according to Meaker, "had once made the mistake of telling Pat, in a joking manner, that probably the reason Pat loved the smell of turpentine was that she had swallowed some in an attempt to abort her." When Highsmith was 14, Mary asked her daughter, "Are you a les? You are beginning to make noises like one." Wilson writes that these remarks made Highsmith feel "more alienated and introverted" and that in retrospect, Highsmith felt that if "Mary really cared about her...surely she would have attempted to help."
As Highsmith grew older, her mother became increasingly sinister, and may have been suffering from an early onset of dementia. Wilson portrays Mary as a merciless critic, dismissing her adult daughter as pretentious and elitist. She was disrespectful of Highsmith's work, even though she was the dedicatee of two books, and unapologetic when she lost a copy of the manuscript for The Talented Mr. Ripley. A manipulative and meddlesome presence in Highsmith's life, she would often phone and write to Meaker to complain about the women in her daughter's life, lovers and friends alike. Mother and daughter would stop all communication in the 1970s, but even in her absence, Mary continued to haunt Highsmith. "Mary Highsmith was never far from her mind, particularly as Pat looked back on her life," writes Meaker. "Pat's bitterness over her relationship with her mother was almost as relentless as her fury at the Jews."
Highsmith was mistrustful of kind women, choosing instead to seek out the ornery, the disparaging, the unpredictable, the absolutely inaccessible--in other words, she pursued women like mom, and consciously or not, set the transference into play. Her friend Lil Picard was "bossy and proprietary" in Meaker's estimation, and sociologist Ellen Hill, with whom Highsmith had a tormented relationship for years, was practically interchangeable with Mary. Wilson and Meaker both depict her as icy, needy and eager to belittle Highsmith.