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

By Joan Schenkar
St. Martin’s Press, 2009

The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s best-known book, recounts the transformation of Tom Ripley from a petty con man running tax scams to a chilling sociopath who kills to maintain his grip on la dolce vita. At the request of Mr. Greenleaf, a wealthy American businessman, Tom Ripley travels to the Italian Riviera to persuade Dickie Greenleaf, his son, to return to New York. Instead, Ripley insinuates himself into Dickie’s expat lifestyle, developing an obsession with Dickie’s possessions, and by extension, Dickie himself. When faced with expulsion from this world, Ripley murders Dickie and impersonates him, taking on the role to such perfection that he forgets how to speak like himself. He kills again and performs an elaborate cover-up to fool the Italian police, who suspect that someone—Tom Ripley, Dickie Greenleaf—has been killed. The book concludes with Ripley’s ultimate triumph: convincing a grief-stricken Mr. Greenleaf that Dickie has left him the sole beneficiary of his will. Ripley takes his leave as a successful criminal, a con man par excellence, and a conscience-less killer who will remake himself over and over again in pursuit of il meglio—the best.

One of the most remarkable—and disturbing—aspects of Ripley’s rise is how we come to sympathize with Ripley, to see the world through his eyes. The flat, matter-of-fact narrative, and our inside knowledge of Ripley’s obsessions, calculations, and desperate grasping after a life not his own compels a readerly connection, perhaps even identification: we want Ripley to get away with it (and he does for four more novels). After he kills Freddie Miles, one of Dickie’s friends who’s on to his con, Ripley reflects on the dead man:

He stood looking down at Freddie’s long, heavy body in the polo coat that was crumpled under him, that he hadn’t the energy of the heart to straighten out, though it annoyed him, and thinking how sad, stupid, clumsy, dangerous, and unnecessary his death had been, and how brutally unfair to Freddie. Of course, one could loathe Freddie, too. A selfish, stupid bastard who had sneered at one of his best friends—Dickie certainly was one of his best friends—just because he suspected him of sexual deviation. Tom laughed at that phrase “sexual deviation.” Where was the sex? Where was the deviation? He looked at Freddie and said low and bitterly, “Freddie Miles, you’re a victim of your own dirty mind.”

Here, Highsmith masterfully captures the mental gyrations of a sociopath. Ripley’s first response is aesthetic—Freddie Miles’s body looks bad in his pristine Roman apartment—and the closest he comes to remorse is lamenting the unfairness of the murder. But as he continues to reflect on the crime, he persuades himself that Freddie Miles deserved death, that his suspicions of “sexual deviation” in the relationship between Dickie and Tom were not only unfounded, but also constitute a justifiable reason for homicide.

The sexually deviant, remorseless manipulator Highsmith created in Tom Ripley seems safely fictional, the product of authorial invention. But Joan Schenkar’s new biography of Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Miss Highsmith, reveals exactly how much the author and character share. Patricia Highsmith never murdered anyone, but Schenkar shows how Highsmith shared in Ripley’s potent mixture of sexual attraction, obsession, self-invention, and violence. Highsmith herself seemed fixated on drawing parallels between herself and her fictional alter ego: she said at one point that she only identified with her male murderers. Ripley won a Special Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1956; wrote Highsmith, “When I removed the glass to clean and dry it, I lettered ‘Mr. Ripley and’ before my own name since I think Ripley himself should have received the award.” As Schenkar points out, Highsmith also signed herself “Pat H, alias Ripley,” and when discussing Ripley, she said, “I often felt that Ripley was writing it.”

It’s quite a shock to realize that Tom Ripley is not just the product of a brilliant writer able to somehow conjure the darkest thoughts of a materialistic sociopath but rather the realization of the author’s own desires and obsessions on the page. In the opening pages of her biography, Schenkar draws attention to one of the lists Highsmith wrote (lists were on the very short list of things she loved), “Little Crimes for Tiny Tots,” which identifies eight methods of domestic homicide, including tying string across the top of the stairs so that adults will trip and putting anti-mildew products in the gin. Another author’s recital of methods enterprising young Ripleys could put to use to do away with inconvenient parents might read as black humor, but with Highsmith, it’s hard to say where black humor shades into even blacker seriousness.

Patricia Highsmith was born in 1921 in Fort Worth, Texas, to Mary Coates Plangman, an artist and fashion illustrator. Her early life was marked by familial instability: her father, Jay Bernard Plangman, divorced her mother nine days before her birth, and did not see Pat until she was twelve. For the first few years of her life, Pat was raised by her maternal grandmother in Texas while her mother worked as an illustrator. Pat loathed her stepfather, Stanley Highsmith, who her mother married when Pat was three and a half. Schenkar spends four chapters exploring Highsmith’s intense and complicated relationship with her mother. She begins the section titled “La Mamma” with a selection of Highsmith’s own musings on maternal relationships. In 1940, Highsmith wrote, “I am married to my mother./ I shall never wed another.” Even more troublingly, she describes a story she wants to write that reveals the homicidal impulse always lurking at the edges of her fiction:

Have a great desire to write sometime of a young girl putting her mother (guardian, aunt) to bed, agreeing to all her proposals…nicely pouring her cup of warm milk, promising never to speak to her young man again, and then, with a smile, the girl plunges the scissors into her mother’s bosom, and turns them.

The smile, the plunge, and the turn: these moves were familiar to Highsmith in every sense. Schenkar writes, “The great love of Pat Highsmith’s life—and, certainly, her greatest hate—was her artistic, stylish, erratic, critical, and very frustrated mother…. No one affected Pat more strongly than Mary and the reverse was also true.” Until Highsmith cut off contact with her mother twenty years before her death, the two wrote each other long, passionate, and angry letters with “the venom and energy of disappointed lovers.”

In 1927, the Highsmiths moved to New York, where Pat lived for the next two decades (interrupted by periodic stays with her grandmother in Fort Worth), eventually attending Barnard College and toiling as a scriptwriter for B-grade comics. She published a number of short stories, and worked on two unfinished novels, The Click of the Shutting and The Dove Descending, before completing Strangers on a Train in 1949. With Strangers on a Train, in which two men reciprocate crimes on the other’s behalf, Highsmith found the narrative arrangement that would preoccupy her for the rest of her career: male attraction, doubling, and violence. In later works such as Deep Water, The Tremor of Forgery, and above all, the five Ripley novels, Highsmith explores the queasy intersection between desire and destruction.

This intersection was home to Highsmith in her personal life as well as her fiction. In a poem to Virginia Kent Catherwood, Highsmith expresses her characteristic mix of love and violence: “Murder fills my heart tonight/ Like the words of first love.” When living in New York, she pursued (and was pursued by) numerous lovers, and she channeled the powerful emotions generated by these relationships to flesh out her fiction while holding the women themselves at arms length. A typical Highsmith romance began with obsession and ended with rejection, manifesting itself in extreme honesty concerning the former beloved’s faults and praise of her new love. She had a particular penchant for sleeping with both partners of a couple without the other’s knowledge—as Schenkar points out, in relationship geometry, Highsmith always preferred the triangle. She did have long-term but tumultuous relationships with Ellen Hill and the novelist and translator Marion Aboudaram. Although she was attracted to women, Highsmith had a notably poor opinion of them; she published a collection of short stories titled Little Tales of Misogyny, which Schenkar describes as “corrosive loathings.” Despite her checkered romantic history, she used her own experience to write the lesbian classic The Price of Salt, one of the first such stories where the two protagonists do not commit suicide or return to relationships with men. Highsmith’s daring only went so far—she published it under the pseudonym Claire Morgan.

Pursuing a woman, Highsmith moved to England in 1962 and never returning to live in the United States, moving to France in 1967 and Switzerland in 1973. She considered herself an American writer and continued to set her fiction in American locales, but her greatest literary fame was in Europe. Although she often made friends with her neighbors, Highsmith became more reclusive as she grew older, and more of an alcoholic: she began drinking first thing in the morning, and rarely kept food in the house. Her guests often complained that if they wanted to eat, they would have to bring the food themselves. She kept over three hundred pet snails because she liked their androgyny (“It is quite impossible to tell which is the male and which is the female,” she said in an interview) and found it relaxing to watch them copulate. Far more disturbing is her well-documented anti-Semitism, which manifested itself in bizarre deceptions. When living in Switzerland, she wrote numerous anti-Semitic letters to Swiss newspapers, disguising her identity behind multiple aliases. Highsmith died in 1995 in Locarno, Switzerland, leaving her assets and royalties to Yaddo and a linen closet filled with the notebooks and diaries that Schenkar mined for her biography.

To capture Highsmith’s strange life, with its obsessions and dangers, Schenkar organizes her biography by theme rather than chronology, a bold move that possesses the same unsettling effect as Highsmith’s fiction. Schenkar explains, “In her fictions, in her facts, and in her affections, Patricia Highsmith circled around the same coordinates, the same grievances, the same inspirations.” By mapping these recursive elements across Highsmith’s life, Schenkar avoids the typical narrative of growth that guides most biography—for a very good reason, since Highsmith never developed or learned from her mistakes. Instead, she took a sort of sadistic pleasure in revisiting the same ground over and over again, like a murderer returning to the scene of a crime.

Schenkar’s daring challenge to conventional biography manages to capture the shape of Highsmith’s life—each section is roughly chronological—while offering a fractured portrait of an artist that captures the essence of Highsmith’s life and work. It is dazzling accomplishment, bolstered by Schenkar’s careful archival research and exhaustive knowledge of Highsmith’s notebooks and cahiers. Schenkar’s writing is fluid, incisive, more three-dimensional than Highsmith’s pared-down narratives. Here, Schenkar discusses the inevitable narrative shaping that occurs with death:

People are drawn to closure, and demand it (usually in vain) of both art and life. And so the stories about Pat Highsmith’s death, her cremation and her memorial service in the Catholic church in Tegna—as well as the halo of blurred memories evoked by these events—tend to have an obituarial tinge. They are gentle stories, curtain tales, and they put a softly rendered end to the sundered psychologies and murderous passions, the bad motives ad good intentions, and the infernal filiation of paradoxes, hesitations, cruelties, seductions, successes, prejudices, and surprising kindnesses that made up the character of the talented Miss Highsmith.

Schenkar’s ability to reflect on the narrative tendency of biography, and expose how it betrays and obscures its subjects, allows her to step beyond the chronological to trace the “infernal filiation” she finds at work in Highsmith’s life. But The Talented Miss Highsmith not only offers a Cubist portrait of Highsmith—all angles exposed simultaneously—but also provides a new way forward for biography, a genre ripe for reinvention (witness Hermione Lee’s entry into the fray with Virginia Woolf’s Nose in 2005). In her attempt to find a new mode of life-writing—and its place in literature—Schenkar occasionally stretches to draw parallels, comparing Highsmith’s mother Mary to Zelda Fitzgerald, for example, or identifying a spelling mistake (“Pettit” for “Petit”) as evidence of Highsmith’s instincts for doubling. Yet on the whole, Schenkar’s turn for narrative playfulness makes for enjoyable reading, as when she describes the chaos that attends Highsmith’s role as jury president of the Berlin Film Festival:

Imagine—let’s have some fun with this—that an otherwise idle little devil, engaged by Hell’s Upper Management to plant crippling suspicions into the minds of working writers, has applied itself directly to the Problem of Patricia Highsmith.

The Talented Miss Highsmith clocks in at over six hundred pages, and by the end, I felt as though I knew Patricia Highsmith better than she knew herself (as Schenkar points out, Highsmith was not big on self-awareness). I even wondered if this were a case of the biography outshining the life of the subject—after all, Highsmith is mostly known for her Ripley novels and Strangers on a Train, the source material for the Hitchcock movie of the same name. Does Patricia Highsmith deserve such a good biography?

Schenkar describes Highsmith as “an outsider artist of exceptional gifts,” and Highsmith herself clearly thought about her place within the literary pantheon—she routinely glossed over her early career of writing for comics such as The Black Terror, The Fighting Yank, and Jap Buster Johnson and sought out the publishing house Verlag, who printed her books in hardcover editions. Schenkar argues for Highsmith’s transcendence of the “suspense” or “crime” genre, suggesting that Ripley deserves “one of the small allotments in the real estate of the Great American novel” because in its ruthless protagonist, Highsmith exposes the country’s dark side.

The biography operates on the presumption that Highsmith is worthy of attention and her strange, obsessive life worth excavating, and it is true, the dark elements of Highsmith’s psyche make for fascinating reading. Even her aversion to food takes on dark humor in Schenkar’s recounting when she describes how Highsmith, bored during long dinner parties, would unleash her pet snails on the table to leave long silver trails of slime and put the other diners off their food. The details Schenkar presents—she thoughtfully includes a reproduction of a chart Highsmith drew up that ranked her lovers on attributes such as physique, complexion, and reason for dissolution of the relationship—amuse and horrify in turn.

Schenkar writes from the inside, from the perspective of years of work tracking down Highsmith’s writing, former lovers, family members, and friends. And it’s here that she locates her answer, although always implicitly. Schenkar calls this terrain “Highsmith Country,” the bizarre, lonely, and ever-shifting mental landscape of Tom Ripley’s creator. Schenkar writes, “But in all her long fictions and in her best short works, there is always something wounding, something disorienting, and something that doesn’t meet the eye—something deeply damaging to the reader. Few authors have been so willing to bite the hand that buys them.” Here, Schenkar makes her case. The identification between Highsmith the author and the sociopathic characters that populate her works creates this damaging fiction. Patricia Highsmith may never have been able to live inside another’s head—a quality found in most fiction-writers—but she could make her readers live inside hers, and thanks to Schenkar’s book, we know that it is the most terrifying place of all.

Alyssa Meyers is a PhD candidate in English Literature at Columbia University. She is writing her dissertation on the political uses of time in medieval literature.