Patricia Highsmith could be an unpleasant, even nasty, woman. She never had a lasting romantic relationship and died, in 1995, alone, after alienating some friends and many lovers. Neighbors tell tales of her rants in late life against Jews and other minorities. She fed her cats better than she did her house guests, and sometimes hinted at preferring the more silent company.
Her characters are similarly vicious. Her most famous creation, Tom Ripley, kills without compunction. Her books are populated, in fact, with murderers, some guilt-ridden, some not. The women don’t fare much better, often portrayed as flighty, promiscuous, or both. Her creatures of both sexes are a dangerous bunch, ensnaring the innocent and guilty alike.
Yet there remains something appealing both about Highsmith and her unsettling books. This comes shining through Joan Schenkar’s new biography, The Talented Miss Highsmith, though at times the author seems to have little fondness for either. “Everything human was alien to her,” Schenkar declares on the first page. It’s an odd thing to say about a woman who grappled with depression, rejection, and alienation in her life, and conscience, sin, and alienation in her art—especially since the evidence is all over this overlong book. If to be human is, in part, to wonder what it is to be human, Highsmith was always human. The question of identity—specifically, how much of an individual’s identity is a response to society and hence subject to breakdown—was at the heart of her criminal fictions, written in a century in which the question became one of life or death.
Highsmith was born Mary Patricia Plangman in 1921 in Fort Worth, Texas, nine days after her parents’ divorce was finalized. She didn’t meet her father, who had urged an abortion, until she was twelve. She had her most passionate of her many love-hate relationships with her mother, a glamorous commercial artist who abandoned the child to her own mother to find work in New York. Highsmith joined her mother, after a remarriage, in Manhattan at age six. She never forgave her for breaking her vow to divorce Stanley Highsmith, and always blamed the older woman for her tortured inner life—she was a lesbian who was never comfortable with the fact.
At Barnard College she published in the Barnard Quarterly and eventually became its editor. Her talent was apparent immediately, and Highsmith only ever held day jobs for the few years after graduation. Her first was researching and writing for the national Jewish press—she couldn’t land a job at the New Yorker, Vogue, or Mademoiselle. (Despite her efforts, she never had a story published in the New Yorker until after her death.)
It’s a wonder Highsmith found time to write, as the woman later (wrongly) described as a recluse took full advantage of Manhattan’s social benefits. She was great friends in high school with Judy Tuvim, who became the Oscar-winning actress Judy Holliday, and the list of notables she befriended constantly grew: Carson McCullers, Jeanne Moreau, Peggy Guggenheim, Buffie Johnson. In Tangier she visited Paul Bowles, who shared her themes of violence and breakdown. Her beloved cat Spider ended up with Muriel Spark, another writer preoccupied with the question of identity. She went to bed with Arthur Koestler, apparently in response to discovering that her ex-fiancé, Marc Brandel, had told him that she was homosexual—she worried the revelation would hurt her professionally. (The tryst wasn’t successful and the now-notorious Koestler said he “did not know homosexuality was so deeply engrained.”)
One of those famous friends jump-started her career. Truman Capote recommended her for a place at Yaddo, where she worked on her first novel, Strangers on a Train. The book was published in 1950, and Hitchcock’s film turned her into a star a year later. She published her next novel, The Price of Salt, under a pseudonym; it was one of the first novels about homosexuality that had a happy ending. She spent most of the rest of her life in self-imposed exile in Europe, where she was always taken more seriously. She was an alcoholic, but a functioning one, publishing twenty-two novels—including The Talented Mr. Ripley and its four sequels—and seven collections of short stories.
It takes some time to tease these facts out of this biography. Schenkar believes that because Highsmith was an unconventional writer, she needs an unconventional biography. So The Talented Miss Highsmith is not organized chronologically, but by what Schenkar calls the writer’s obsessions—her mother, her lovers, alter egos, inanimate objects. It makes for an often infuriating, sometimes repetitive read. Schenkar goes from anti-Semitism to comics to money in the course of three pages. (That first subject is a complicated one. There’s no question Highsmith railed against the Jews, and she wrote pseudonymous letters to editors criticizing Israel. Yet she named Saul Bellow her favorite writer, had affairs with Jews male and female, and saw herself as one-quarter “Jewish intellectual.”) Andrew Wilson’s 2003 biography, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, is an easier read, and more insightful in places, as when he discusses how Highsmith was reluctant to admit her homosexuality to her mother. Unlike Wilson, Schenkar makes much of Highsmith’s work in the comics in the 1940s—too much, really. She’s best at giving the particulars of Highsmith’s personal life. Though her analysis of the many love affairs is thin, the piling up of detail through quotations from her diaries gives a forceful sense of how difficult her interior life must have been.
Schenkar doesn’t care much for Highsmith’s style, repeatedly calling it “flat.” (The biographer’s own writing is frequently over the top.) Yet Highsmith was a master at establishing mood through the use of word choice and rhythm. Already in Strangers on a Train, she made the novel move in tune with its characters. Graham Greene called her “the poet of apprehension,” and that sick feeling is all over her masterpiece The Tremor of Forgery, about a writer who loses all sense of proper self on a research trip to Tunisia. Her style is immediate, which suits her subject. Her work could be summed up with “There but for the grace of God go I,” as she argues that there are circumstances under which all of us will crack.
Gore Vidal called Highsmith “[o]ne of our greatest modernist writers,” yet she’s often seen as the “high-class detective novelist” Norman Mailer described to Schenkar. Highsmith wasn’t particularly experimental in style, but she was in theme, taking as her subject the age-old problem of original sin and making it modern by speculating whether morality—and even conscience—are man-made. She’s the amoral moralist, a writer who let her characters get away with murder and obsessed over the question of whether they should.