Highsmith, (Mary) Patricia

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Highsmith, (Mary) Patricia

(b. 19 January 1921 in Fort Worth, Texas; d. 4 February 1995 in Locarno, Switzerland), author of twenty-two superb suspense novels, five of which feature her most famous character, Tom Ripley.

Highsmith was the only child of Jay Bernard Plangman and Mary Coates. Her parents separated five months before her birth, and Highsmith did not meet her father until she was twelve. Her mother, a commercial artist, married Stanley Highsmith, a fashion illustrator for Women’s Wear Daily, who moved his family to New York City. Although Highsmith took her stepfather’s name, her mother’s second marriage floundered with separations occurring when the child was twelve, sixteen, and nineteen years old. Highsmith was deeply alienated from her mother and avoided her for the last two decades of the parent’s life. Highsmith’s earliest years were spent in Texas with her maternal grandmother, who taught her to read at age two. She finished secondary school at Julia Richman High School in Manhattan, then graduated from Barnard College in 1942 with a B.A. degree in literature and zoology. She was already writing stories; “The Heroine” was first published in Harper’s Bazaar and then included in the O. Henry Prize Stories of 1946. Highsmith spent much of the 1940s living in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, writing comic books for cash and novels on the weekends. The writer Truman Capote supported her application to Yaddo, the artist colony in upstate New York, where she wrote Strangers on a Train. Rejected by six publishers, it was published by Harper Brothers in 1950 and soon made into a classic motion picture directed by Alfred Hitchcock. In this story, two men, Bruno and Guy, meet on a train and make an implicit pact to kill each other’s enemies (a former lover and a parent). As with many Highsmith tales, this brief encounter and a seemingly juvenile agreement result in irrational terror, ruined lives, and murder.

Highsmith traveled to Europe in the early 1950s, returned to Manhattan, then journeyed to Mexico and the American Southwest. In 1952 she published The Price of Salt under the pen name Claire Morgan. In this pathbreaking novel of lesbian love, the protagonists reunite rather than die as required in standard gay novels. The book sold more than a million copies. Decades later Highsmith acknowledged it as her work and wrote an afterword to a new edition of the book, retitled Carol (1991). Her second gay novel, Found in the Street (1986) depicted homosexual family relations during the AIDS plague. A third novel about homosexuality, Small g, published just before her death in 1995, chronicled relationships gone astray in a gay bar. While many of her novels had gay themes, Highsmith lived alone and refused to discuss her own sexual preferences.

In her nonfiction book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, which appeared in 1966 under her own imprint, High-smith states that “art has nothing to do with morality, convention, or moralizing.” This comment led Russell Harrison, the author of the only critical book on High-smith, to associate Highsmith with the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Other scholars have argued that Highsmith’s work reflects the psychological fears of middle-class life and the closeted world of 1950s American homosexuality. Graham Greene famously described Highsmith as the “poet of apprehension” in an introduction to one of her works. Additional traits displayed by her characters include a propensity for stalking, inability to differentiate between people and objects, and a casual attitude about murder.

Highsmith’s fame rests primarily on her five-volume Tom Ripley series. In the first of these novels, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), she created the memorable title character, an imposter who invents an Ivy League education and elite social manners. Hired by a wealthy man to induce his son, Dickie Greenleaf, to return from idleness in Europe to work in the family business in the United States, Ripley at first insinuates himself into Greenleaf’s circle of émigrés, then kills him when Greenleaf and his friends ultimately reject him. Ripley assumes Greenleaf’s identity, forges a will bequeathing the victim’s money to himself, and creates a new life of luxury. Two movies have been made of this book, René Clément’s Plein soleil (Purple Noon, 1960) and Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). Highsmith continued the series in Ripley Under Ground (1970), in which Ripley counterfeits a dead painter’s work and kills an art collector who threatens to expose him. A third novel in the series, Ripley’s Game (1974), is a story of revenge; Wim Wenders’s Der Amerikanische freund (The American Friend, 1977) is a film version of this novel. The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980) is Highsmith’s unsuccessful attempt to establish an heir to Ripley’s evil talents; and the last, Ripley Under Water (1991) describes how a greedy American pursues the protagonist. The Ripley novels, argues the critic David Cochran, offer the hero as a mixture of the American success story and a cold-blooded, rationalist killer, through whose behavior Highsmith questions the means and legitimacy of American supremacy in the cold war.

Highsmith has generally been labeled as a crime and suspense novelist. She did not reject this description, noting that crime novels sold well and provided a good living. Since her death, however, many critics have agreed that Highsmith created her own genre, in which life is a trap with no escape. Her terror is more psychological than physically brutal. Though such acts as Ripley’s murder of Dickie Greenleaf usually set the plot in motion, other novels include no violence. Yet the result is inevitably the same, the suffocation of the individual’s spirit. Despite his triumphs over rivals, for example, Tom Ripley could never be described as happy, merely smug. Highsmith did not pursue artistic prose but preferred blunt, matter-of-fact language that seduces the reader into complicity with murder. At times she came close to political statements. In The Cry of the Owl (1962), a community turns against the hero, a turn of events critics have likened to McCarthyism.

Originally an attractive woman, Highsmith’s features became more severe as she aged, perhaps because of her smoking habit. She moved to Europe permanently in 1961, living in England from 1963 to 1966, France from 1967 to 1982, and Switzerland from 1982 until her death. She enjoyed an isolated existence, preferring not to talk to other people. Visitors found her polite but reclusive. Her companions were cats; in her 1975 collection of short stories The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murders, household pets torture their owners. Highsmith rarely visited the United States and her work has always sold far better in Europe than in her native land. She died alone in Locarno of lung cancer and aplastic anemia. She left no survivors and bequeathed her entire estate of $3 million to Yaddo. Highsmith’s influence is strongest among writers who combine suspense with feminist and/or lesbian fiction, a fairly new genre.

The fullest discussion is Russell Harrison, Patricia Highsmith (1997). Useful articles include David Cochran, “‘Some Torture That Perversely Eased’: Patricia Highsmith and the Everyday Schizophrenia of American Life,” Clues 18 (1997): 157–180; and Susannah Clapp, “The Simple Art of Murder,” New Yorker (20 Dec. 1999). An obituary is in the New York Times (5 Feb. 1995).

Graham Russell Hodges