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.