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

3.4 5
by Joan Schenkar
     
 

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Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt is now a major motion picture (Carol) starring Cate Blanchett and Mia Wasikowska, directed by Todd Hayes

A 2010 New York Times Notable Book
A 2010 Lambda Literary Award Winner
A 2009 Edgar Award Nominee
A 2009 Agatha Award

…  See more details below

Overview

Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt is now a major motion picture (Carol) starring Cate Blanchett and Mia Wasikowska, directed by Todd Hayes

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

From the Publisher

“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 water course 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, a considerable achievement given the immense detail of this biography. Highsmith was a detail junkie. Schenkar's nonlinear organizing method was a brilliant idea to save herself -- and the reader -- from data overload. This is a biography of clarity and style. A model of its kind. ” —Jeanette Winterson, The New York Times Book Review; cover review

“This is no ordinary biography...[Ms. Schenkar] writes with great authority and perverse affection...'The Talented Miss Highsmith' breaks much ground in connecting Highsmith's diabolical tales with the real women who prompted her strongest passions ....In addition to its impressive sweep, this biography also values minutiae. An exacting inventory of the contents of Highsmith's office captures every mundane object, right down to the goat's bell and the Wite-Out pencil. Highsmith loved details like that. And Ms. Schenkar shows an uncannily keen grasp of Highsmith's spirit. ” —Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“Throughout nearly 700 pages of lustrous text, Schenkar's prose is as supple and shapely as Highsmith's was flat and functional. "The Talented Miss Highsmith" is both dazzling and definitive ... Its scope and scholarship are unassailable, and its vigor indefatigable. t's a volume as original as its contemptible, miserable, irresistible subject.” —Daniel Mallory, Los Angeles Times

“Ms. Schenkar provides a vivid, disturbing portrait of a writer whose work--thanks to some virtuosic movie-making--is known more as source material than as literary art in its own right... It is hard to imagine a more thoroughly fact-filled or energetic biography than "The Talented Miss Highsmith" or one more determined to examine the deepest recesses of its complicated subject.” —Alexander Theroux, The Wall Street Journal

“[A] biography that captures the writer in all her sullen, sinister, ambivalent glory. Grade: A” —Entertainment Weekly

“What most impresses me with Schenkar's approach is its boldness: she casts aside chronology to get at the themes of her heroine's character, and she conjures those themes by unabashedly connecting the events of Highsmith's life to her work. So we get marvellous formulations like this: 'Pat thought about love the way she thought about murder: as an emotional urgency between two people, one of whom dies in the act.' Much of Highsmith's work remains little known by the general reading public, and the details of her fascinating life obscure, Schenkar's book should serve as a corrective. We plan on delving into some Highsmith books we haven't read (I've just begun "The Price of Salt" and Jon is tackling Ripley), and we hope you'll approach this month's pick in a similar way--as an invitation to learning more about the work of, as Schenkar puts it, 'Her High Darkness, Patricia Highsmith: author of some of the twentieth century's most dangerous fictions.'” —Macy Halford, The New Yorker Online Book Club: Book of the Month

“Schenkar's fascinating biography portrays Highsmith as driven by obsessions, especially her love-hate relationship with her mother, and a yin-yang ambivalence that became a central main theme in her writings ... The catalyst for Schenkar's exhaustive, compelling work, which boasts copious end notes, maps, charts, diagrams, bibliography, and chronology, was the recent unearthing of 8,000 pages of Highsmith's secret journals. The result is an essential, scholarly, lesbian, and literary biography.” —Booklist

“A comprehensive, nuanced evaluation of Highsmith Country.” —Kirkus Reviews

“VERDICT: An imaginative, definitive Highsmith biography, great for literature students, Highsmith fans, and mystery readers.” —Library Journal

“Joan Schenkar is the first writer to grapple with Patricia Highsmith on every level of her being, from her bizarre personal life to her incredibly prolific writing life. It's hard to avoid superlatives when describing Schenkar's biography, but there doesn't seem to be any other way to go about it.” —Deirdre Bair, winner of the National Book Award for Samuel Beckett: a Biography

“This is an epic biography - vivid with Joan Schenkar's concern for her subject - the mercurial, gifted, fascinating mystery novelist Patricia Highsmith. Schenkar is an inexhaustible researcher and meticulous cultural historian, especially in the hidden pan-sexual world of literary New York of the 40s and 50s. She has a remarkable ability to evoke landscapes, relationships and, above all, a myriad of personal details from the fountain pen Highsmith used to the amount of alcohol she drank to the women she loved (and lost) all the while telling us how Highsmith concocted masterpieces like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. This is a big book, an awesome achievement. ” —Patricia Bosworth, author of Diane Arbus: a Biography

“Patricia Highsmith is a fascinating and bizarre figure, and a tremendous challenge for the biographer who has to account for her alcoholism, lesbianism, negativism, criminal tendencies, huge talent and much else. Joan Schenkar has accomplished this amazing feat with a really smart book. ” —Diane Johnson, critic and novelist, author of Lulu in Marrakech

“I was enthralled by The Talented Miss Highsmith. It's a brilliant biography, so finely judged in its critical appreciation of Pat's work, wonderfully informative about its sources and inspiration, and both enlightening and harrowing in its revelation of her tormented personality and darkly troubled yet (because of her exceptional talent) in some ways triumphant life. ” —Francis Wyndham, critic, editor, winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award forThe Other Garden

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

ISBN-13:
9780312363819
Publisher:
Picador
Publication date:
01/04/2011
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
704
Sales rank:
407,593
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 1

HOW TO BEGIN: Part 1

"No writer would ever betray his secret life, it would be like standing naked in public."—Patricia Highsmith 9/3/40

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 roll-top 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 U.S. –- with some diversionary information about her work on the crime-busting comic book adventures of Black Terror and Sgt. 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 semi-suburban 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 modelleled 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 boarding house 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, off-hand 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. Among 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 further than Mother's's medecine 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 Lovers Book of Beastly Murder, to pets who dispatch their abusive human "parents" straight to Hell.

Nor did Pat herself usually look further 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.

Excerpted from The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar.

Copyright © 2009 by Joan Schenkar.

Published in December 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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Meet the Author

JOAN SCHENKAR is the author of Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde as well as a collection of plays, Signs of Life: 6 Comedies of Menace. She lives in Paris and Greenwich Village.

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The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Srednivashtar More than 1 year ago
Many published reviews, including the one in "Kirkus Review," allude to a friend of Highsmith who characterized her as a "high-functioning Asperger's" sufferer. If one sifts through the multi-colored sands of Schenkar's exhaustive, and sometimes convoluted biography, a picture of a profoundly narcissistic personality eventually reveals itself. All those extra colors: her homosexuality, anti-semitism, anorexic tendencies, willful disregards for authority, others feelings, and filial obligations, tend to confuse a reader at first. In sum, though, this was a terribly unpleasant woman endowed with a gift for writing terribly unpleasant, yet entertaining work. Schenkar's writing can be frustratingly tangential, and tends to take flight right when something particularly nasty has arisen, i.e., an allusion to anti-semitism explodes immediately into a history of comic books. Looking at the photos is like seeing the picture of Dorian Gray out of the attic. Highsmith becomes the vision of her self-abnegation and dark outlook: lovely to hideous.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Patricia Highsmith was an unusual woman and one of our best suspense novelists ever. Unfortunatley this American author was long better recognized and acclaimed in Europe than in her native United States, but happily a resurgance of interest in Highsmith seems underway, helped in part by this in-depth study of a true American "original". While her works that have been translated into highly successful films (Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" and a more recent film version of "The Talented Mr. Riply") have helped to fuel something of a cult following, many of her works reflect her Lesbian lifestyle, which for years were therefore considered somewhat taboo among many otherwise would-be readers. This is unfortunate in that Ms. Highsmith was a highly creative writer and a master at crafting hard-to-put-down novels. Researcher Joan Sechenker has brilliantly captured Highsmith in all her complexity, aided by a large body of notes and cahiers which she left behind.
EdwCarney More than 1 year ago
An extraordinary biography of a very strange person. Organized thematically, it ranges over Patricia Highsmith's life without being slavish to chronology. In fact, the author thoughtfully provides a chronological summary to help those who feel a bit lost. Every one of the pages of this long book (over 560 pages with appended material) is worth the time. This is not a literary biography in the strict sense, but it explains a good deal about the odd place in the imagination Schenkar calls "Highsmith country" and helps us begin to understand how the odd people we meet in her books got that way. There is a great deal of detail about Highsmith's loves, her mixed relationship with her mother, her frugality, her bigotry, and her inability to tolerate ease or comfort in her life. All of this is attested by the material in her "cahiers" as Highsmith called her notebooks. Sometimes Schenkar seems to drift too far from the evidence in her conclusions, but the ideas she presents are entertaining, if speculative. Schenkar has no illusions about her subject's questionable hold on humanity, but she makes us feel some sympathy for this intriguing woman.