The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith
  • The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith
  • The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith

The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith

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by Joan Schenkar

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A 2010 New York Times Notable Book
A 2010 Lambda Literary Award Winner
A 2009 Edgar Award Nominee
A 2009 Agatha Award Nominee
A Publishers Weekly Pick of the Week

Patricia Highsmith, one of the great writers of twentieth-century American fiction, had a life as

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A 2010 New York Times Notable Book
A 2010 Lambda Literary Award Winner
A 2009 Edgar Award Nominee
A 2009 Agatha Award Nominee
A Publishers Weekly Pick of the Week

Patricia Highsmith, one of the great writers of twentieth-century American fiction, had a life as darkly compelling as that of her favorite "hero-criminal," the talented Tom Ripley. Joan Schenkar maps out this richly bizarre life from her birth in Texas to Hitchcock's filming of her first novel, Strangers on a Train, to her long, strange self-exile in Europe. We see her as a secret writer for the comics, a brilliant creator of disturbing fictions, and an erotic predator with dozens of women (and a few good men) on her love list. The Talented Miss Highsmith is the first literary biography with access to Highsmith's whole story: her closest friends, her oeuvre, her archives. It's a compulsive page-turner unlike any other, a book worthy of Highsmith herself.

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Editorial Reviews

Jeanette Winterson
Schenkar has a wonderfully bold approach: not worrying about a linear chronology (although this is meticulously supplied in the appendices), but choosing instead to follow the emotional water­course of Highsmith's life, allowing her subject to find her own level—to be tidal, sullen, to flow without check, so that events in one decade naturally make an imaginative tributary into turbulence before and after. Schenkar's writing is witty, sharp and light-handed…This is a biography of clarity and style. A model of its kind.
—The New York Times Book Review
Janet Maslin
This is no ordinary literary biography. Ms. Schenkar, also a playwright, is not one of those thorough, respectful scholars who let the facts and the literature speak for themselves. Hers is an unusually assertive voice, which makes it well suited to Highsmith…Her approach is innovative…And her sensibility is sufficiently ghoulish to keep her undaunted by what she calls Highsmith's "hundreds of raspingly acute portraits of quietly transgressive acts," which is a relatively mild way of characterizing the shock value of Highsmith's tirelessly misanthropic work.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Author and playwright Schenkar (Truly Wilde) presents a compelling portrait of suspense novelist Patricia Highsmith (1921–1995), whose own life was often as twisted as that of her antihero Tom Ripley. Dispensing with the traditional chronological narrative, Schenkar divides her study into themed sections, which crisscross and mirror each other, embodying the themes of doubling and alter egos in Highsmith's work and life. From her early years in Texas through her time soaking up Manhattan's literary life in the '40s to her self-exile in Europe, Highsmith kept diaries in which she meticulously detailed everything from her myriad female lovers to plot ideas. Pessimistic, alcoholic and chronically unhappy, Highsmith created some of the most chilling tales of psychological suspense and betrayal, including The Talented Mr. Ripley and its sequels, and Strangers on a Train. Schenkar's research is impeccable, and she makes excellent use of the voluminous Highsmith archives in Switzerland and interviews with Highsmith's friends, ex-lovers and literary contemporaries. “Perversion,” Highsmith once said, “interests me most and is my guiding darkness,” and Schenkar illuminates how her demons played out on the page and in real life. 16 pages of b&w photos. (Dec.)
Library Journal
Playwright Schenkar (Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar's Unusual Niece) has written a meticulous and careful biography of one of 20th-century America's great crime and mystery writers, the author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Patricia Highsmith's emotional life was complex and difficult; her lifelong obsession with her relationship to her mother and her homosexuality set the parameters for her travels, friends, lovers, and work. Growing up in Fort Worth, TX, and New York City, Highsmith finally settled in Switzerland. Schenkar, using Highsmith's diaries, notebooks, and writings, tells of her alcoholism, paranoia, depressions, desires, and needs; she is especially good at describing Highsmith's years as a comic book writer and the homosexual culture of the 1940s–50s. Schenkar works through the books, highlighting Highsmith's themes of murder, forgery, identity, doubling, shame, and death while noting the difference between the author's early and best work and her later, inferior writings. VERDICT An imaginative, definitive Highsmith biography, great for literature students, Highsmith fans, and mystery readers.—Gene Shaw, Paramus P.L., NJ
Kirkus Reviews
Exhaustive study of the much-loathed suspense writer best known for the Ripley novels and Strangers on a Train. Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) generated distaste in many contemporaries for a variety of reasons, including her alcoholism, racism, anti-Semitism and her tendency to give friendship tokens then demand them back. As playwright and biographer Schenkar writes, she was mean, cruel and sexually rapacious with women and a few men. The author traces Highsmith's corrosive behavior to her supreme hatred of her stepfather, whom her mother promised to divorce, then reneged on. Along the way, she damaged most of her relationships, facts well documented in dozens of journals, diaries, short-story collections, massive correspondence and endless lists now housed in the Swiss Literary Archives in Berne, which Schenkar had access to. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Highsmith's family relocated to New York, where she graduated from Barnard, began reading Dostoyevsky and started submitting manuscripts to the New Yorker, which continually rejected them. She then spent eight years writing plot arcs for Timely Comics before penning Strangers in 1950, which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock a year later. She used a pseudonym, Claire Morgan, for her second book, The Price of Salt (1952), a lesbian romance that became an underground hit. In 1955, Highsmith published the first of the five books featuring the criminal hero Tom Ripley. Holding to an eight-page-per-day writing schedule, which she maintained for most of her life, Highsmith incorporated her obsessions into her work. She kept 300 snails, for instance, because she liked to watch them copulate, and they show up in Deep Water (1957). Her snobbishness,homosexual undercurrent and love/hate relationship with America are omnipresent. Schenkar makes the case that Highsmith was most comfortable when she was herself uncomfortable, living in cold, dark houses throughout Europe where she never mastered the native languages, or was virulently alienating lovers, editors and most particularly her mother. She died alone, by choice, in Switzerland in 1995. A comprehensive, nuanced evaluation of Highsmith Country. Agent: Russell Galen/Scovil Chichak Galen Literary Agency

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Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.40(h) x 2.30(d)

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The Talented Miss Highsmith

The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith

By Joan Schenkar

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2009 Joan Schenkar
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-6101-1


How to Begin

Part 1

No writer would ever betray his secret life, it would be like standing naked in public. — Patricia Highsmith, 1940

What was difficult was you never saw her alone, in her normal routine, because the moment you were there, she was a different person. — Barbara Roett, in conversation with the author

An Ordinary Day

On 16 November 1973, a damp, coldish breaking day in the tiny French village of Moncourt, France, Patricia Highsmith, a fifty-two-year-old American writer living an apparently quiet life beside a branch of the Loing Canal, lit up another Gauloise jaune, tightened her grip on her favorite Parker fountain pen, hunched her shoulders over her rolltop desk — her oddly jointed arms and enormous hands were long enough to reach the back of the roll while she was still seated — and jotted down in her writer's notebook a short list of helpful activites which "small children" might do "around the house."

It's a casual little list, the kind of list Pat liked to make when she was emptying out the back pockets of her mind, and it has the tossed-off quality of an afterthought. But as any careful reader of Highsmith knows, the time to pay special attention to her is when she seems to be lounging, negligent, or (God forbid) mildly relaxed. There is a beast crouched in every "unconcerned" corner of her writing mind, and sure enough, it springs out at us in her list's discomfiting title. "Little Crimes for Little Tots," she called it. And then for good measure she added a subtitle: "Things around the house — which small children can do ..."

Pat had recently filled in another little list — it was for the comics historian Jerry Bails back in the United States — with some diversionary information about her work on the crime-busting comic book adventures of Black Terror and Sergeant Bill King, so perhaps she was still counting up the ways in which small children could be slyly associated with crime. In her last writer's journal, penned from the same perch in semisuburban France, she had also spared a few thoughts for children. One of them was a simple calculation. She reckoned that "one blow in anger [would] kill, probably, a child from aged two to eight" and that "Those over eight would take two blows to kill." The murderer she imagined completing this deed was none other than herself; the circumstance driving her to it was a simple one:

"One situation — maybe one alone — could drive me to murder: family life, togetherness."

So, difficult as it might be to imagine Pat Highsmith dipping her pen into child's play, her private writings tell us that she sometimes liked to run her mind over the more outré problems of dealing with the young. And not only because her feelings for them wavered between a clinical interest in their upbringing (she made constant inquiries about the children of friends) and a violent rejection of their actual presence (she couldn't bear the sounds children made when they were enjoying themselves).

Like her feisty maternal grandmother, Willie Mae Stewart Coates, who used to send suggestions for improving the United States to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (and got handwritten answers back from the White House), Pat kept a drawerful of unconventional ideas for social engineering just itching to be implemented. Her notebooks are enlivened by large plans for small people, most of them modelled on some harsh outcropping of her own rocky past. Each one adds a new terror to the study of child development.

One of her plans for youth — just a sample — seems to be a barely suppressed rehearsal of the wrench in 1927 in her own childhood when she was taken from her grandmother's care in the family-owned boardinghouse in Fort Worth, Texas, all the way across the United States to her mother's new marriage in a cramped apartment in the upper reaches of the West Side of Manhattan. Pat's idea for child improvement (it migrated from a serious entry in her 1966 notebook to the mind of the mentally unstable protagonist in her 1977 novel, Edith's Diary) was to send very young children to live in places far across the world — "Orphanages could be exploited for willing recruits!" she enthused, alight with her own special brand of practicality — so that they could serve their country as "junior members of the Peace Corps."

Like a tissue culture excised from the skin of her thoughts, her odd, offhand little list of 16 November 1973 (written in her house in a village so small that a visit to the post office lumbered her with unwanted attention) turns out to be a useful entrée into the mind, the matter, and the mise-en-scène of the talented Miss Highsmith. Amongst its other revelations, the list makes recommendations for people (small ones) whose lives parallel her own: people who are fragile enough to be confined to their homes, free enough to be without apparent parental supervision, and angry enough to be preoccupied with murder.

Here is her list.

16/11/73 Little Crimes for Little Tots.

Things around the house — which small children can do, such as:

1) Tying string across top of stairs so adults will trip.

2) Replacing roller skate on stairs, once mother has removed it.

3) Setting careful fires, so that someone else will get the blame if possible.

4) Rearranging pills in medicine cabinets; sleeping pills into aspirin bottle. Pink laxative pills into antibiotic bottle which is kept in fridge.

5) Rat powder or flea powder into flour jar in kitchen.

6) Saw through supports of attic trap door, so that anyone walking on closed trap will fall through to stairs.

7) In summer: fix magnifying glass to focus on dry leaves, or preferably oily rags somewhere. Fire may be attributed to spontaneous combustion.

8) Investigate anti-mildew products in gardening shed. Colorless poison added to gin bottle.

A small thing but very much her own, this piece of ephemera, like almost everything Pat turned her hand to, has murder on its mind, centers itself around a house and its close environs, mentions a mother in a cameo role, and is highly practical in a thoroughly subversive way.

Written in the flat, dragging, uninflected style of her middle years, it leaves no particular sense that she meant it as a joke, but she must have ...mustn't she? The real beast in Highsmith's writing has always been the double-headed dragon of ambiguity. And the dragon often appears with its second head tucked under its foreclaw, and its cue cards — the ones it should be flashing at us to help us with our responses — concealed somewhere beneath its scales. Is Pat serious? Or is she something else?

She is serious and she is also something else.

All her life, Pat Highsmith was drawn to list making. She loved lists and she loved them all the more because nothing could be less representative of her chaotic, raging interior than a nice, organizing little list. Like much of what she wrote, this particular list makes use of the materials at hand: no need, children, to look farther than Mother's medicine cabinet or Father's garden shed for the means to murder your parents. Many children in Highsmith fictions, if they are physically able, murder a family member. In 1975 she would devote an entire collection of short stories, The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder, to pets who dispatch their abusive human "parents" straight to Hell.

Nor did Pat herself usually look farther than her immediate environment for props to implement her artistic motives. (And when she did, she got into artistic trouble.) Everything around her was there to be used — and methodically so — even in murder. She fed the odd bits of her gardens, her love life, the carpenter ants in her attic, her old manuscripts, her understanding of the street plan of New York and the transvestite bars of Berlin, into the furnace of her imagination — and then let the fires do their work.

Perhaps suggestion number 3 in "Little Crimes for Little Tots," "the setting of careful fires, so that someone else will get the blame if possible," is the most disturbing, implying, as it does, both the double vision which produced her most interesting fiction (a single crime, but the culpability floats between two characters, as in her novel The Blunderer) and the kind of premeditation that might get those "Little Tots" sent straight up the river to the "Big House."

"Deadpan" was Pat's most available mode of expression, and her deadpan style here ("Style does not interest me in the least," she feinted in 1944) blows smoke rings of doubt around her intentions. And because her own childhood was the only childhood which ever truly interested her, there is one final smoke ring that rises mockingly above the rest: which child murdering whose parents was this list really made for?

Could her list's imagined victims have something to do with the complicated parentage of little Patsy Plangman (who had one more parent than she wanted, one less parent than she needed), born on the birthdays of both Edgar Allan Poe and his devilish character-with-a-doppelgänger, William Wilson? That's the little Patsy Plangman who grew up to be no one's "patsy" and who, as Patricia Highsmith, presented herself and her best characters as orphans with parents and adults with double lives. Like her life, Pat's work — even to its smallest element — is full of interesting suggestions.

What was it, for instance, that brought Pat Highsmith, a writer with considerable successes behind and before her — but now, midway on her life's journey, in dark woods, with the right road lost (Pat was reading Dante in Italian just now) — to set up her Fortress of Solitude in an obscure suburban village in France?

There is a good Highsmith story coiled behind this question, as well as a crucial Highsmith history. To find them, we shall have to go back to her desk in Moncourt. Questions concerning Highsmith's life are usually best answered in the vicinity of one of her desks.

As a child, Pat lay seething with resentment on couch-beds in living rooms of too-small apartments in Manhattan and Queens listening to the raised voices of her mother and stepfather. As an adult, she demanded and secured a series of fiercely defended private spaces which allowed her imagination to intensify its own interests. It was in houses (they were never quite the homes she'd hoped for) where she finally arranged the privacy she needed more than she needed anything else. And the most important physical feature of that privacy was always, always a room with a desk.

Here in the village of Moncourt, Pat and her desk are tucked up under the eaves in the second-floor bedroom of her house (first-floor in France), an hour's train ride from Paris. Although she sits in front of the scrolled rolltop like a snail in front of its shell, her posture is deceptive; she is not unshelled. The house itself is in a hameau, a tiny hamlet within the village of Moncourt, entirely encircled by a protective stone wall. It is two months and three days before her fifty-third birthday.

Eleven months ago, she began a poem: "I live on thin air / And thin ice." Still, here in this house, as in every other place she has ever lived, she has made sure that there are at least two layers of solid material (house walls and a stone wall, in this case) between her and the rest of the world. When she is alone and writing — that is, when she is at her most dangerous — Patricia Highsmith likes to play it safe.

The desk she is sitting at provides a kind of catalogue of her working habits. Sheaves of printed stationery, filched during her literary sojourns at Europe's better hotels (her publishers pay for these trips), are stacked in its cubbyholes. Matchbooks, acquired by the same means, are secreted in its drawers. There are scraps of paper left over from the two and a half manuscript drafts she types of each of her works (for neatness, she says, not because she needs to revise); she often reuses them for her vast correspondence, cutting them carefully in half if a half sheet is all she needs. Even the rinsed-out receptacle holding her pencils once had another life as a jam jar. Nothing is wasted in her household.

A Gauloise jaune smoulders away in a half-filled ashtray beside her. A glass of cheap scotch is within easy reach. Somewhere in the room there is a forgotten tumbler of milk and a cup of cooling coffee. Two bottles of Valstar beer, both empty, are on the floor under the desk.

At twenty, when she was a junior at Barnard College living at home in New York City — and just as liable to falling through the crust of the world as she is now — Pat first wrote about thin ice:

We live on the thin ice of unexplained phenomena. Suppose our food suddenly did not digest in our stomachs. Suppose it lay like a lump of dough inside us and poisoned us.

Food has disturbed her on and off since she was an adolescent. She wrote to her professor friend Alex Szogyi (he was also a food writer) that food was her bête noire — and she has come to attach many confusions to the act of eating. France, the culinary center of the Western world, means nothing to her: "I don't even like the food," she writes from Fontainebleau. She thinks America's "Nixon" problem is gastric: "the USA [is] suffering a prolonged attack of acid stomach, an irrepressible urge to throw up." She herself often has the urge to throw up. Her idea of an attractive name for a cookbook is "Desperate Measures." For a long time now, liquids have been her most important nourishment.

At this moment, she has put down her pen and begun to type on the coffee-colored Olympia Portable Deluxe typewriter that has accompanied her on all her restless travels since 1956. Its hard-shell carrying case is pasted over with shipping labels from European countries. The Olympia — a ripple of Leni Riefenstahl runs through its brand name — occupies a major portion of the desktop.

Her typing style is distinctive: brutal, dogged, and unhurried. She uses only four or five fingers to strike the keys, she strikes them hard, and she strikes from above, like someone attacking the keyboard of a musical instrument. Her fingers appear to limp a little, and their rhythm is syncopated. She could be playing a harpsichord. She has always wanted to play the harpsichord. Instead, she will give a harpsichord and the lessons for playing it to her favorite character, the talented Mr. Ripley. And, as an afterthought, to Ripley's wife, the belle, blank Heloise.

The single bed with the striped bedspread, the one she sleeps in when she sleeps alone (which she mostly does these days), is in this small room as well, at a right angle to her desk. A chocolate-point Siamese cat is curled up on it. A radio, a box of tissues, and a bottle of Vicks Vapo-Rub are on a simple stand beside the bed. An old bluish Persian carpet, frayed here and there, is on the floor. There is a roof window just above her eye level — an old-fashioned tabatière — which opens onto the courtyard.

As usual, her desk faces a wall.

It is 5:22 in the morning.

As she bends her head over her typewriter, the exposed nape of her neck, usually concealed with a scarf or a turtleneck sweater — "I have no neck," she remarked flatly to an interviewer — shows signs of a dowager's bulge. Her shoulder-length hair, still coiffed in the classic pageboy she went to Barnard with in 1938, falls forward over her face. "Coiffed" is not quite the word for it; Highsmith harbors a lifelong "dislike of being groomed" by professionals, calling it "a curious way to regain morale — having other people administer" to you. She pushes her pageboy back with her thumbs — first one side, then the other — and tosses her head slightly in the characteristic gesture that settles her hair. In grooming, as in everything else, Patricia Highsmith prefers to do it herself.


Excerpted from The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar. Copyright © 2009 Joan Schenkar. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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