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.”