Highsmith, Patricia (1921–1995)

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Highsmith, Patricia (1921–1995)

American writer who specialized in psychological crime thrillers. Name variations: (pseudonym) Claire Morgan. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, on January 19, 1921; died in Locarno, Switzerland, on February 5, 1995; only child of Jay Plangman (a commercial artist) and Mary (Coates) Plangman (a commercial artist); graduated from Julia Richman High School in Manhattan; graduated from Barnard College, New York City, 1942; never married; no children.

Selected works:

Strangers on a Train (1949); (under pseudonym Claire Morgan) The Price of Salt (1952); The Blunderer (1954); The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955); Deep Water (1957); (juvenile with Doris Sanders) Miranda the Panda Is on the Veranda (1958); A Game for the Living (1958); This Sweet Sickness (1960); The Cry of the Owl (1962); The Two Faces of January (1964); The Glass Cell (1964); The Story-Teller (1965); Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966); Those Who Walk Away (1967); The Tremor of Forgery (1969); The Snail Watcher and Other Stories (1970); Eleven (1970); Ripley Under Ground (1971); A Dog's Ransom (1972); Ripley's Game (1974); The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder (1975); Little Tales of Misogyny (1977); Slowly, Slowly in the Wind (1979); The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980); The Black House (1981); People Who Knock on the Door (1982); Mermaids on the Golf Course and other Stories (1985); Found in the Street (1986); Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes (1987); Ripley Under Water (1991).

The author of some 30 books, most of them in the crime-fiction genre, Patricia Highsmith gained recognition in 1950 with her first novel Strangers on a Train (filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951 with a screenplay by Raymond Chandler). She is best remembered, however, for her five-book series centering on Tom Ripley, an opportunistic, amoral gentleman-murderer who made his debut in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) and whose final escapade, Ripley Under Water (1991), was written when the author was

70. Highsmith, a reclusive figure who lived most of her adult life in Europe, won numerous awards for her dark, psychological thrillers which were extremely popular in Europe and attracted a cult following in the United States. The author, however, never took her success too seriously. "It's nothing like James Michener, I'm sure," she once commented.

Highsmith was born in 1921 in Fort Worth, Texas, the only child of commercial artists who separated before she was born. "If your father walked out before you were born and your mother says she tried to abort you by guzzling turpentine, you may grow up with a sour view of humanity," writes Richard Corliss. Reared by her grandparents until age six, Patricia subsequently moved to New York with her mother Mary Plangman Highsmith and stepfather, artist Stanley Highsmith. She found solace from a less than happy childhood in books. "I could read like a streak, because my grandmother taught me when I was two," she said later. By the age of eight, Highsmith had read all of the stories of Sherlock Holmes as well as Karl Menninger's The Human Mind, a book of case histories about kleptomaniacs, pyromaniacs, serial murderers, and other colorful patients Menninger had treated. "The very fact that it was real made it more interesting and more important than fairy tales. I saw that the people looked outwardly normal, and I realized there could be such people around me."

Highsmith edited her high school newspaper and began writing short stories at age 17. She majored in English at Barnard College and, after graduating in 1942, supported herself for a while writing plots and dialogue for a comicbook publisher. In 1945, she came a step closer to a legitimate writing career with the publication of a short story in Harper's Bazaar. With the help of Truman Capote, she joined the Yaddo artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York, where she began her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), now considered a suspense classic. The story concerns psychopath Charles Bruno, who meets the unhappily married Guy Haines on a train, murders Haines' wife, and then demands that Haines kill his father as a return favor. This plot line, involving the intersecting of two radically different characters (sometimes good and evil), came to characterize several of High-smith's later works, including The Two Faces of January (1964), Crime Writers of England's novel of the year.

In the first book of the well-known and critically acclaimed Ripley series, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), Highsmith's charming, cultured, and psychopathic antihero Thomas Ripley, an American traveling in Europe, murders a man and takes on his identity with impunity. Becoming wealthy on the man's inheritance and gaining access to European society, Ripley eventually resumes his own identity. Praised by Anthony Boucher of The New York Times Book Review for her "unusual insight into a particular type of criminal," Highsmith won both the Mystery Writers of America Scroll and the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière for the novel, which was also made into a successful film by the French director René Clement in 1961 under the title Purple Moon. In 1999, The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett , and Jude Law , was released to major acclaim. "Ripley is one of the most interesting characters in postwar fiction," said its director Anthony Minghella. "This sense of a man with his nose pressed up against the window, the sense that there's a better life being led by other people—to me these feelings are familiar and pungent." Another of Highsmith's novels, The Cry of the Wolf (1962), was filmed by director Claude Chabrol in 1988.

In addition to her novels, Highsmith authored six volumes of short stories. Written in her detached style, they are as chilling as her longer works. Graham Greene, in a foreword to The Snail Watcher and Other Stories (1970), published in England as Eleven, notes that Highsmith changed her technique to accommodate the shorter format. "She is after the quick kill rather than the slow encirclement of the reader, and how admirably and with field-craft, she hunts us down."

Highsmith lived in Italy, England, and France before settling in a small Swiss village outside of Locarno. Never married, she lived alone with her beloved cat, Charlotte. "I don't like to live with people," she explained. "I don't like to talk all the time and adjust my schedule to others." In addition to writing, Highsmith painted, sculpted, and enjoyed puttering in her carpentry studio. She kept her morning free for business and personal correspondence (including a lively exchange with fellow expatriate Gore Vidal who claimed they shared "the same dim view of America") and worked in the afternoons and early evening, typing out her manuscripts on a manual typewriter that she rescued from the trash. Her stories, she insisted, were never taken from actual crimes or from personal experiences but came to her impulsively. "I do not ever think of suspense or unease when I'm writing," she said. "I can't explain where the ideas come from. No, I never try to analyze that, never." Patricia Highsmith died in Locarno, on February 5,1995. In 1998, it was revealed that she had bequeathed her $3-million estate to Yaddo, where she had written Strangers on a Train.


Berch, Bettina. "Patricia Highsmith," in Belles Lettres. Summer 1995.

Mainiero, Lina. American Women Writers. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1980.

Moritz, Charles. Current Biography 1991. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1990.

"Pages," in People Weekly. January 11, 1993.

"The Talented Mrs. Highsmith" and "Can Matt Play Ripley's Game?" in Time. December 27, 1999, n.p.

related media:

Strangers on a Train (101 min. film), starring Farley Granger, Ruth Roman , and Robert Walker, screenplay by Raymond Chandler, produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Warner Bros., 1951.

The American Friend (film adapted from Ripley's Game), starring Dennis Hopper, directed by Wim Wenders, 1977.

The Cry of the Wolf, filmed by director Claude Chabrol, 1988.

Purple Noon (French film based on The Talented Mr. Ripley), starring Alain Delon, directed by René Clement, re-released in U.S., 1996.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (film), starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Jude Law, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Jack Davenport, written and directed by Anthony Minghella, Paramount, 1999.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts