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.
In Wilson’s book, where most infatuations blend into one another in an indistinguishable hodgepodge of torturous conquests, Hill is the one lover to emerge as a fully realized person. Highsmith was romantically prolific, and a biographer has to be judicious, but too many important girlfriends get lost in the “beautiful shadows,” as it were, including Meaker. Wilson appreciates the importance of women in Highsmith’s life–for example, he intuits that it was her obsession with a married woman, and not merely her growing disillusionment with things American, that led her to move to Europe in 1963. He even interviewed the daughter of the woman who unwittingly inspired Highsmith’s pseudonymous lesbian 1952 novel, The Price of Salt (later published under the author’s name, and retitled Carol). But he has a tendency to get mired in long, overwritten passages that establish historical background for readers to understand the world in which Highsmith lived. This is especially apparent in earlier chapters, where Wilson needlessly describes the New York sights young Highsmith may have seen, or popular books she may have read. He also goes to great lengths to rehash each of her novels and the ensuing critical response both in the United States and in Europe, book by book, critic by critic. A thorough researcher does not necessarily make for a discerning writer, though he does include plenty of necessary and delectably strange details about his subject, her penny-pinching (she drove nearly a hundred miles to save money on a jar of spaghetti sauce) and her fascination with snail-breeding (Highsmith had more than 300 live snails, becoming so fond of her little pets that she’d smuggle them–thirty at a time–under her breasts as she traveled between England and France).
Wilson excels, however, at evoking the author’s frustration with the publishing industry and her reception here and in Europe. Highsmith experienced early success with the publication of her 1950 debut novel, Strangers on a Train, with a boost from Alfred Hitchcock, who adapted it to the screen the following year, hiring detective novelist Raymond Chandler to write the screenplay. Hitchcock’s was ultimately a far tamer version of Highsmith’s story: Hers featured both men carrying out a crisscross murder scheme; the filmmaker, opting for a more moralistic route, had only one man actually committing a murder.
Strangers put Highsmith on the map as a mystery novelist, but this was something of a curse, since she wanted to see her finely crafted stories and novels considered alongside Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Camus and Poe. Being trapped in a genre certainly kept her stories out of the publication in which she most longed to appear during her lifetime, The New Yorker (which published her story “The Trouble With Mrs. Blynn” posthumously, in 2002); instead, hers were regularly featured in publications like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
Being a mystery writer also set Highsmith up to disappoint and confuse the general American reader, who didn’t take kindly to the moral challenges she posed in her fiction. She was one of a handful of high-minded noir writers, like Chester Himes, David Goodis and Jim Thompson, who proved to be too dark to be appreciated in their own time by American readers, instead finding their audience in Europe. Highsmith consistently garnered praise from her critics on both sides of the Atlantic throughout her career for her rare insight into the criminal mind and her intricate plotting. But commercial success would almost always elude her, especially in Britain and the United States, where her books would rarely sell more than 9,000 copies. (The Ripley series was the exception, inspiring films by René Clément, Wim Wenders and Anthony Minghella.)
Highsmith wasn’t about to let sales affect her literary vision. Writing was her life–not only a means to navigate the world but the very thing that got her out of bed in the morning, her escape from heartache and depression. She rarely sacrificed her industrious writing schedule, even when she was drinking heavily. Instead, she tried to change her luck by switching literary representation, which she did several times, from her first agent Margot Johnson, whom Wilson says she fired because “she believed she just wasn’t working hard enough to sell her books and raise her advances,” to Patricia Schartle at McIntosh & Otis in the United States and A.M. Heath in England, two agencies that worked together, representing Highsmith for more than twenty years. When Highsmith began to take an active role in managing her financial affairs later in life, she became obsessed with her earnings and decided she didn’t want to pay their respective commissions. “The latter two agents take 5% each on German, Italian, Scandinavian, etc. sales, causing me to lose 20% instead of 10%,” wrote Highsmith in a letter to her friend Alain Oulman. “With double taxation arriving or creeping, I cannot afford this.”
Schartle was infuriated by the allegations that both McIntosh & Otis and A.M. Heath were fleecing Highsmith, and subsequently fired her client. Highsmith had already burned a number of bridges on both sides of the Atlantic with her paranoiac demands and stinginess, and had no one to represent her in the States or in Britain. She resolved to reassign all of her literary management over to Diogenes Verlag, her Swiss publisher, who to this day serves as the executor of her literary estate.
If Highsmith was unfair to her agents, she also bore grudges against the US publishing industry, which she believed to be disloyal to her and her huge body of work. She was constantly moving from house to house–Harper & Row, Doubleday, Alfred A. Knopf, the Atlantic Monthly Press and the Mysterious Press–in search of a contract. Editors with whom she worked for years would have to reject projects because publishers didn’t know how to market her properly, as she was a hybrid of heady, high art and genre fiction. Gary Fisketjon, her editor at the Atlantic Monthly Press and Knopf, said, “She defied categorization, but was temptingly close to fitting into the category of mystery and she had a cynicism about human transactions that wasn’t particularly user-friendly.” Fisketjon had to pass on her last novel, Small g: a Summer Idyll, which features a story line about a young gay man who is tricked by his doctor into believing he is HIV-positive. “In the best of all possible worlds it would be published as a young title, but the lunatic right-wing fringe that’s running this country wouldn’t have that,” he said.
Fisketjon’s rejection marked the end of the line for Highsmith, who would be without an American publisher for the rest of her life. It was “a final symbolic gesture summing up the uneasy relationship between the displaced writer and the country of her birth,” writes Wilson. He cites a lament by Neil Gordon, writing in this magazine, that America “denied her…her painful and complicated insight into guilt and denial–much as her characters deny their guilt. That leaves her, so to speak, denied in the unconscious of our literature much like the guilt is denied in her characters: always present, never cured, never acknowledged and never understood.”
The demonstrated lack of enthusiasm by American publishers ultimately wore on Highsmith. Meaker thinks it exacerbated her anti-Semitism, as Highsmith believed most of the publishing industry was Jewish. Highsmith railed against her American publisher Otto Penzler, who removed her dedication to the Palestinians in her novel People Who Knock on the Door, and even her first editor, Joan Kahn at Harper & Row. “Christ, what a little dictator she was! That whole family of Jews thought they were God’s gift to publishing…like so many of that tribe,” she said to Meaker on their last visit in 1988. Meaker’s portrayal of Highsmith can be sympathetic, even tender, but she doesn’t shy away from depicting her former lover as a racist and anti-Semite. By contrast, Wilson is more than halfway through his biography before delving into her virulent anti-Semitism. Perhaps it cast a sharper impression on Meaker because she had to put up with her incendiary remarks in person. Meaker became so exasperated with Highsmith’s merciless rants during their last encounter that she told her she sounded “like someone with an obsessive-compulsive disorder. You can’t go for long without bringing up the Jews, just as someone has to compulsively wash their hands, or go back three steps.”
In a way, Highsmith’s anti-Semitism is emblematic of everything that was at war within the mind of this extraordinarily conflicted woman. Many of the women she loved, the friends she cherished and the writers who inspired her art were Jewish. Yet her dislike of Jews dates as far back as her elementary school years in New York City, and as she got older and increasingly more paranoid, her anti-Semitism became more acute, possibly a symptom of her neurosis.
Throughout Beautiful Shadow, Wilson makes a daring case for recognizing Highsmith as a political writer, arguing that her grim vision was as shaped by the world’s turmoil as it was by her own. With its depictions of people coming undone against the pressures of conformity and harboring various paranoiac fantasies, Highsmith’s fiction, he argues, responded to what she perceived as the hypocrisies and perversions of cold war America. It’s an interesting argument but something of a stretch: As politically feisty as Highsmith was, and as much as she may have wished to imbue her literature with a political consciousness, she hardly touched on the affairs of the world in her novels and stories. The passion that underlay her opinions–which could seem abitrary at times, and were often as unpredictable as her temperament–was doubtless genuine. She was an avid reader of books and newspapers, and even as she became increasingly isolated, she kept herself apprised of current events. Her zealousness, however, was more an expression of her displaced fury than of altruistic concern for the oppressed. Highsmith was always an armchair activist whose principal weapon was her acid tongue. In fact, her single letter to the editor (a response to William Safire’s attack on Gore Vidal’s 1986 Nation essay about Israel and the American right) appeared in the International Herald Tribune, under the pseudonym “Edgar S. Sallich of Brione, Switzerland.” The neuroses and murderous fantasies of Highsmith’s fiction were born of her own internal struggles, particularly with her mother, not of the cold war.
Meaker, who is in a position to know, doesn’t remember Highsmith as a politico, per se, just as outspoken. “From what Pat wrote me about her life,” she says, “she had never been a part of any political group or movement.” Meaker portrays her as a devoted cat lover and dedicated friend, a social creature who balanced work and play with ease. But we also see how prone she was to riling others with bawdy jokes and, especially after a few drinks, provocative, occasionally racist or anti-Semitic comments. Her charms would eventually wear away with age (and a potent mixture of inner rage and alcohol), only to be replaced by unbounded cruelty. Amazingly, her writing never suffered–it only got better.