The New York Times Book Review
The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmithby Joan Schenkar
Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt is now a major motion picture (Carol) starring Cate Blanchett and Mia Wasikowska, directed by Todd Hayes
Patricia Highsmith, one of the great writers of 20th Century American fiction, had a life as darkly compelling as that of her favorite "hero-criminal," talented Tom Ripley. In this revolutionary/p>/b>/i>/i>
Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt is now a major motion picture (Carol) starring Cate Blanchett and Mia Wasikowska, directed by Todd Hayes
Patricia Highsmith, one of the great writers of 20th Century American fiction, had a life as darkly compelling as that of her favorite "hero-criminal," talented Tom Ripley. In this revolutionary biography, Joan Schenkar paints a riveting portrait, from Highsmith's 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 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.
The New York Times Book Review
The New York Times
“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
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The Talented Miss Highsmith
The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith
By Joan Schenkar
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Joan Schenkar
All rights reserved.
How to Begin
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.
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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
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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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.
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.
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.