Patricia Highsmith (January 19, 1921 – February 4, 1995) was an American novelist and short story writer, known for her psychological thrillers, which led to more than two dozen film adaptations. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, has been adapted for stage and screen numerous times, notably by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951. Highsmith wrote 22 novels, including her series of five novels with Tom Ripley as protagonist, and many short stories. Michael Dirda observed, "Europeans honored her as a psychological novelist, part of an existentialist tradition represented by her own favorite writers, in particular Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Kafka, Gide, and Camus."
Highsmith was born Mary Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth, Texas. She was the only child of artists Jay Bernard Plangman (1889–1975), who was of German descent, and Mary Plangman (née Coates; September 13, 1895 – March 12, 1991). The couple divorced ten days before their daughter's birth. In 1927, Highsmith, her mother and her adoptive stepfather, artist Stanley Highsmith, whom her mother had married in 1924, moved to New York City. When she was 12 years old, Highsmith was sent to Fort Worth and lived with her grandmother for a year. She called this the "saddest year" of her life and felt "abandoned" by her mother. She returned to New York to continue living with her mother and stepfather, primarily in Manhattan, but also in Astoria, Queens.
According to Highsmith, her mother once told her that she had tried to abort her by drinking turpentine, although a biography of Highsmith indicates Jay Plangman tried to persuade his wife to have the abortion but she refused. Highsmith never resolved this love–hate relationship, which reportedly haunted her for the rest of her life, and which she fictionalized in her short story "The Terrapin", about a young boy who stabs his mother to death. Highsmith's mother predeceased her by only four years, dying at the age of 95.
Highsmith's grandmother taught her to read at an early age, and she made good use of her grandmother's extensive library. At the age of nine, she found a resemblance to her own imaginative life in the case histories of The Human Mind by Karl Menninger, a popularizer of Freudian analysis.
In 1942, Highsmith graduated from Barnard College, where she studied English composition, playwriting, and the short story. After graduating from college, she applied without success for work at such magazines as Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, The New Yorker, Mademoiselle, and Good Housekeeping, offering "impressive" recommendations from "highly placed" professionals.
Highsmith endured cycles of depression, some of them deep, throughout her life. Despite literary success, she wrote in her diary of January 1970: "[I] am now cynical, fairly rich ... lonely, depressed, and totally pessimistic." Over the years, Highsmith suffered from female hormone deficiency, anorexia nervosa, chronic anemia, Buerger's disease, and lung cancer.
According to her biographer Andrew Wilson, Highsmith's personal life was a "troubled one;" she was an alcoholic who, allegedly, never had an intimate relationship that lasted for more than a few years, and she was seen by some of her contemporaries and acquaintances as misanthropic and cruel. She famously preferred the company of animals to that of people and stated in a 1991 interview, "I choose to live alone because my imagination functions better when I don't have to speak with people." Her chronic alcoholism intensified as she grew older.
Otto Penzler, who met Highsmith in 1983 and was chosen as her U.S. publisher through his Penzler Books imprint, and four years later witnessed one of her theatrics at dinner tables intended to create havoc and shipwreck an evening, said after her death that "[Highsmith] was a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being…I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly…. But her books? Brilliant.”
Other friends, publishers, and acquaintances held different views of Highsmith. Editor Gary Fisketjon, who published her later novels through Knopf, said that "She was very rough, very difficult...But she was also plainspoken, dryly funny, and great fun to be around." Composer David Diamond met Highsmith in 1943 and described her as being "quite a depressed person—and I think people explain her by pulling out traits like cold and reserved, when in fact it all came from depression." Phyllis Nagy, who adapted Highsmith's second novel The Price of Salt into the film Carol, said that Highsmith was "very sweet" and "encouraging" to her as a young writer, as well as "wonderfully funny".
Highsmith loved cats, and she bred about three hundred snails in her garden at home in Suffolk, England. Highsmith once attended a London cocktail party with a "gigantic handbag" that "contained a head of lettuce and a hundred snails" which she said were her "companions for the evening".
She loved woodworking tools and made several pieces of furniture. Highsmith worked without stopping. In later life, her stance became stooped, with an osteoporotic hump. Though her writing — 22 novels and 8 books of short stories — was highly acclaimed, especially outside of the United States, Highsmith preferred her personal life to remain private.
A lifelong diarist, Highsmith left behind eight thousand pages of handwritten notebooks and diaries.
She never married or had children.
Highsmith had sexual relationships primarily with women. Although when younger she had occasionally engaged in sex with men she did not feel physical attraction for them and wrote in her diary that "the male face...isn't beautiful to me." In a 1970 letter to her stepfather Stanley, Highsmith described her sexual encounters with British novelist Marc Brandel as "steel wool in the face, a sensation of being raped in the wrong place—leading to a sensation of having to have, pretty soon, a boewl [sic] movement."
In 1943, Highsmith had an affair with artist Allela Cornell, who committed suicide in 1946 by drinking nitric acid.
During her stay at the Yaddo artist's colony in 1948, Highsmith met writer Marc Brandel (the son of J.D. Beresford) and entered into a short-lived relationship with him. While she was working on Strangers on a Train, he convinced her to visit him in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he introduced her to painter Ann Smith, and the two became involved. After Smith left Provincetown, Highsmith felt she was "in prison" with Brandel and told him she was leaving. "[B]ecause of that I have to sleep with him, and only the fact that it is the last night strengthens me to bear it." Highsmith, who had never been sexually exclusive with Brandel, resented having sex with him. Highsmith temporarily broke off the relationship with Brandel and continued to be involved with several women; reuniting after the well-received publication of his new novel. Beginning November 30, 1948, and continuing for the next six months, Highsmith underwent psychoanalysis in an effort "to regularize herself sexually" so she could marry Brandel. The analysis was brought to a stop by Highsmith, after which she ended her relationship with Brandel.
To help pay for the twice-a-week therapy sessions, Highsmith had taken a sales job during Christmas rush season in the toy section of Bloomingdale's department store. Ironically, it was during this attempt to 'cure' her homosexuality that Highsmith was inspired to write her semi-autobiographical novel The Price of Salt, in which two women meet in a department store and begin a passionate affair.
In early September 1951, she began an affair with sociologist Ellen Blumenthal Hill, traveling back and forth to Europe to meet with her. When Highsmith and Hill came to New York in early May 1953, their affair ostensibly "in a fragile state," Highsmith began an "impossible" affair with the German homosexual photographer Rolf Tietgens, who had played a "sporadic, intense, and unconsummated role in her emotional life since 1943." She was reportedly attracted to Tietgens on account of his homosexuality, confiding that she felt with him "as if he is another girl, or a singularly innocent man." Tietgens shot several nude photographs of Highsmith, but only one has survived. It has been torn in half at the waist so that only her upper body appears. She dedicated The Two Faces of January (1964) to Tietgens.
Between 1959 and 1961, she fell in love with Marijane Meaker, who wrote under the pseudonyms "Vin Packer" and "Ann Aldrich" and later wrote young adult fiction as "M.E. Kerr". In the late 1980s, after 27 years of separation, Highsmith began corresponding with Meaker again, and one day showed up on Meaker's doorstep, slightly drunk and ranting bitterly. Meaker later said she was horrified at how Highsmith's personality had changed.
Religious and racial views
Highsmith was a "consummate" atheist. She was never comfortable with black people and she was outspokenly anti-semitic. When she was living in Switzerland in the 1980s, she used nearly 40 aliases when writing to various government bodies and newspapers deploring the state of Israel and the "influence" of the Jews. Nevertheless, some of her best friends were Jewish, such as authors Arthur Koestler and Saul Bellow. Her work was assessed as having a "misogynist streak," particularly after the publication of her short-stories collection Little Tales of Misogyny.
Highsmith believed in American democratic ideals and in "the promise" of U.S. history, but she was also highly critical of the reality of the country's 20th-century culture and foreign policy. Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes, her 1987 anthology of short stories, was notoriously anti-American, and she often cast her homeland in a deeply unflattering light. Beginning in 1963, she resided exclusively in Europe. She retained her United States citizenship, despite the tax penalties, of which she complained bitterly while living for many years in France and Switzerland.
Highsmith, aged 74, died from a combination of aplastic anemia and lung cancer at Carita hospital in Locarno, Switzerland, near the village where she had lived since 1982. She was cremated at the cemetery in Bellinzona, a memorial service was conducted in the Catholic Church in Tegna and her ashes interred in its columbarium.
She left her estate, worth an estimated $3 million, and the promise of any future royalties to the Yaddo colony, where she spent two months in 1948 writing the draft of Strangers on a Train. Patricia Highsmith bequeathed her literary estate to the Swiss Literary Archives at the Swiss National Library in Bern, Switzerland.
Before her short stories started appearing in print, Highsmith wrote for comic book publishers from 1942 and 1948, while she lived in New York City and Mexico. Answering an ad for "reporter/rewrite", she landed a job working for comic book publisher Ned Pines in a "bullpen" with four artists and three other writers. Initially scripting two comic-book stories a day for $55-a-week paychecks, Highsmith soon realized she could make more money by freelance writing for comics, a situation which enabled her to find time to work on her own short stories and live for a period in Mexico. The comic book scriptwriter job was the only long-term job Highsmith ever held.
From 1942–43, for the Sangor-Pines shop (Better/Cinema/Pines/Standard/Nedor), Highsmith wrote "Sergeant Bill King" stories and contributed to Black Terror and Fighting Yank comics; and wrote profiles such as Catherine the Great, Barney Ross, and Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker for the "Real Life Comics" series. From 1943–1946, under editor Vincent Fago at Timely Comics, she contributed to its U.S.A. Comics wartime series, writing scenarios for comics such as Jap Buster Johnson and The Destroyer. During these same years she wrote for Fawcett Publications, scripting for Fawcett Comics characters "Crisco and Jasper" and others. Highsmith also wrote for Western Comics from 1945 to 1947.
When Highsmith wrote the psychological thriller novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), one of the title character's first victims is a comic-book artist named Reddington: "Tom had a hunch about Reddington. He was a comic-book artist. He probably didn't know whether he was coming or going."
Novels and short stories
Highsmith's first novel was Strangers on a Train, published in 1950. The book proved modestly successful when it was published. Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 film adaptation of the novel strengthened Highsmith's reputation.
Highsmith's second novel, The Price of Salt, was published in 1952 under the nom de plume Claire Morgan. Highsmith mined her personal life for the novel's content. Its groundbreaking happy ending and departure from stereotypical conceptions about lesbians made it stand out in lesbian fiction. In what BBC 2's "The Late Show" presenter Sarah Dunant described as a "literary coming out" after 38 years of disaffirmation, Highsmith finally acknowledged authorship of the novel publicly when she agreed to the 1990 publication by Bloomsbury retitled Carol. Highsmith wrote in the "Afterword" to the new edition:
If I were to write a novel about a lesbian relationship, would I then be labelled a lesbian-book writer? That was a possibility, even though I might never be inspired to write another such book in my life. So I decided to offer the book under another name.
The appeal of The Price of Salt was that it had a happy ending for its two main characters, or at least they were going to try to have a future together. Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing – alone and miserable and shunned – into a depression equal to hell.
The paperback version of the novel sold nearly one million copies before its 1990 reissue.
Her short stories appeared for the first time in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in the early 1950s.
Her last novel, Small g: a Summer Idyll, was rejected by Knopf, her usual publisher by then, a few months before her death in February 1995. It was published in the UK a month after her death by Bloomsbury Publishing, and nine years later in the US by W.W. Norton.
- 1946 : O. Henry Award for best first story: for "The Heroine" in Harper's Bazaar
- 1951 : Edgar Award nominee: for best first novel, for Strangers on a Train
- 1956 : Edgar Award nominee for best novel: for The Talented Mr. Ripley
- 1957 : Grand Prix de Littérature Policière: for The Talented Mr. Ripley
- 1963 : Edgar Award nominee for best short story: for "The Terrapin"
- 1964 : Gold Dagger Award from the Crime Writers' Association of Great Britain, in the category of Best Foreign Novel: for The Two Faces of January
- 1975 : Grand Prix de l'Humour Noir : for L'Amateur d'escargot
- 1990 : Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Ministry of Culture
Film, television, and radio adaptations
Several of Highsmith's works have been adapted for other media, some more than once. There have been five adaptations of the Ripley novels, all independent of one another. In 1978, Highsmith was president of the jury at the 28th Berlin International Film Festival.
- 1951. Strangers on a Train was adapted for a film of the same name directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
- 1958. Strangers on a Train was adapted by Warner Brothers for an episode of the TV series 77 Sunset Strip.
- 1963. The Blunderer was adapted for a French-language film directed by Claude Autant-Lara known in English as Enough Rope (Le meurtrier).
- 1987. The Cry of the Owl was adapted as a French-language film with the title translated literally as Le cri du hibou and directed by Claude Chabrol.
- 1987. The Cry of the Owl was filmed for German television with the title translated literally as Der Schrei der Eule.
- 1990. The twelve episodes of the television series Mistress of Suspense are based on stories by Highsmith. The series aired first in France, then in the U.K. It became available in the U.S. under the title Chillers.
- 1996. Strangers on a Train was adapted for television, entitled Once You Meet a Stranger. The gender of the two lead characters was changed from male to female.
- 2014. The Two Faces of January became a film of the same name released during the 64th Berlin International Film Festival. It was written and directed by Hossein Amini and starred Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Oscar Isaac.
- 2014. A radio drama of "Carol" (i.e. The Price of Salt) was broadcast by BBC Radio 4, with voice acting by Miranda Richardson as Carol Aird and Andrea Deck as Therese Belivet.
- 2015. A film adaption of The Price of Salt, titled Carol, was written by Phyllis Nagy and directed by Todd Haynes, starring Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird and Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet.
Adaptations of Ripley Series
- 1960. The Talented Mr. Ripley, the first Ripley novel, inspired the French-language film Plein Soleil (titled Purple Noon for English-speaking audiences, though it translates as "Full Sun"). René Clément directed and Alain Delon played Ripley. Both Highsmith and film critic Roger Ebert criticized the screenplay for altering the ending to prevent Ripley from going unpunished as he does in the novel.
- 1999. The Talented Mr. Ripley was adapted again for film, this time for an American production, directed by Anthony Minghella with Matt Damon as Ripley.
- 2005. Ripley Under Ground, the second novel in the Ripley series, became a film of the same name, directed by Roger Spottiswoode with Barry Pepper as Ripley.
- 1977. Part of the second, Ripley Under Ground and the third of the Ripley novels, Ripley's Game, became the German-language film Der Amerikanische Freund (The American Friend), directed by Wim Wenders with Dennis Hopper as Ripley. Highsmith initially disliked the film but later changed her mind.
- 2002. Ripley's Game became a film of the same name when adapted a second time for an English-language Italian production directed by Liliana Cavani with John Malkovich as Ripley. Although not all critics were favorable, Roger Ebert regarded it as the best of all the Ripley films.
- Arn, Jackson (November 25, 2015). "Adaptation: Patricia Highsmith". Film Comment. Film Society of Lincoln Center. Retrieved March 11, 2016.
- "Berlinale 1978: Jury members".
- Wilson, Andrew (May 24, 2003). "Ripley's enduring allure". The Telegraph. Retrieved October 6, 2015.
- Ebert, Roger (July 3, 1996). "Purple Noon". RogerEbert.com. Retrieved October 6, 2015.
- Gerald, Peary (Spring 1988). "Patricia Highsmith". geraldpeary.com. Retrieved October 6, 2015.
- Ebert, Roger (April 9, 2006). "Ripley's Game". RogerEbert.com. Retrieved October 6, 2015.