#WomensHistoryMonth ProFile Friday
Patricia Highsmith (January 19, 1921 – February 4, 1995) was a thriller writer best known for her novels Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley; she wrote for comics while she tried to get her novels published.
Highsmith was born Mary Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth, Texas, the only child of artists Jay Bernard Plangman (1889—1975) and his wife, the former Mary Coates (September 13, 1895 — March 12, 1991); the couple divorced ten days before their daughter’s birth. She was born in her maternal grandmother’s boarding house. 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, she was taken 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 she also lived in Astoria, Queens. Pat Highsmith had an intense, complicated relationship with her mother and largely resented her stepfather. 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 an abortion, but she refused. Highsmith never resolved this love–hate relationship, which 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 Highsmith made good use of her grandmother’s extensive library. At the age of eight, she discovered Karl Menninger’s The Human Mind and was fascinated by the case studies of patients afflicted with mental disorders such as pyromania and schizophrenia.
In 1942 Highsmith graduated from Barnard College, where she had studied English composition, playwriting and the short story.
Living in New York City and Mexico between 1942 and 1948, she wrote for comic book publishers. Answering an ad for “reporter/rewrite,” she arrived at the office of comic book publisher Ned Pines and landed a job working in a bullpen with four artists and three other writers. Initially scripting two comic book stories a day for $55-a-week paychecks, she soon realized she could make more money by writing freelance for comics, a situation which enabled her to find time to work on her own short stories and also live for a period in Mexico. The comic book scriptwriter job was the only long-term job she ever held.
With Nedor/Standard/Pines (1942–43), she wrote Sgt. Bill King stories and contributed to Black Terror. For Real Fact, Real Heroes and True Comics, she wrote comic book profiles of Einstein, Galileo, Barney Ross, Edward Rickenbacker, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Isaac Newton, David Livingstone and others. In 1943–45 she wrote for Fawcett Publications, scripting for such Fawcett Comics characters as the Golden Arrow, Spy Smasher, Captain Midnight, Crisco and Jasper. She wrote for Western Comics in 1945–47.
Highsmith also wrote for Timely Comics, for such titles as The Destroyer and Jap-Buster Johnson, as well as some romance titles. Editor Vince Fago tried to set her up on a date with Stan Lee, but nothing came of it. She would later work the names of her comic book compatriots into her novels, including inker Joe Sinnott editor Dorothy Woolfolk (under her maiden name Roubicek). The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), one of the title character’s first scam victims is comic book artist Frederick Reddington, a parting gesture directed at the earlier career she had abandoned: “Tom had a hunch about Reddington. He was a comic-book artist. He probably didn’t know whether he was coming or going.”
Highsmith’s first novel was Strangers on a Train, which emerged in 1950, and which contained the violence that became her trademark. At Truman Capote’s suggestion, she rewrote the novel at the Yaddo writer’s colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. The book proved modestly successful when it was published in 1950. However, Hitchcock’s 1951 film adaptation of the novel propelled Highsmith’s career and reputation. Soon she became known as a writer of ironic, disturbing psychological mysteries highlighted by stark, startling prose.
Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt, was published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. It garnered wide attention as a lesbian novel because of its rare happy ending, and it sold over a million copies. She did not publicly associate herself with this book until late in her life, probably because she had extensively mined her personal life for the book’s content. As her other novels were issued, moviemakers adapted them for screenplays: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), Ripley’s Game (1974) and Edith’s Diary (1977) all became films.
Highsmith included homosexual undertones in many of her novels and addressed the theme directly in The Price of Salt and the posthumously published Small g: a Summer Idyll. The inspiration for The Price of Salt’s main character, Carol, was a woman Highsmith saw in Bloomingdale’s department store, where she worked at the time. Highsmith acquired her address from the credit card details, and on two occasions after the book was written (in June 1950 and January 1951) spied on the woman without the latter’s knowledge.
She was a lifelong diarist, and developed her writing style as a child, writing entries in which she fantasized that her neighbors had psychological problems and murderous personalities behind their façades of normality, a theme she would explore extensively in her novels. The protagonists in many of Highsmith’s novels are either morally compromised by circumstance or actively flouting the law. Many of her antiheroes, often emotionally unstable young men, commit murder in fits of passion, or simply to extricate themselves from a bad situation. They are just as likely to escape justice as to receive it. The works of Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoevsky played a significant part in her own novels.
Her recurring character Tom Ripley—an amoral, sexually ambiguous con artist and occasional murderer—was featured in a total of five novels, popularly known as the Ripliad, written between 1955 and 1991. He was introduced in The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Highsmith died of aplastic anemia and cancer in Locarno, Switzerland, aged 74. She retained her United States citizenship, despite the tax penalties, of which she complained bitterly, from living for many years in France and Switzerland. She was cremated at the cemetery in Bellinzona, and a memorial service conducted at the Catholic Church in Tegna, Switzerland.
In gratitude to the place which helped inspire her writing career, she left her estate, worth an estimated $3 million, to the Yaddo colony. Her last novel, Small g: a Summer Idyll, was published posthumously a month later.
- Strangers on a Train (1950)
- The Price of Salt (as Claire Morgan) (1952), also published as Carol
- The Blunderer (1954)
- The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)
- Deep Water (1957)
- A Game for the Living (1958)
- Miranda the Panda Is on the Veranda (1958; children’s book)
- This Sweet Sickness (1960)
- The Cry of the Owl (1962)
- The Two Faces of January (1964)
- The Glass Cell (1964)
- A Suspension of Mercy (1965), also published as The Story-Teller
- Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966)
- Those Who Walk Away (1967)
- The Tremor of Forgery (1969)
- Ripley Under Ground (1970)
- Eleven (1970; also known as The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories)
- A Dog’s Ransom (1972)
- Ripley’s Game (1974)
- Little Tales of Misogyny (1974)
- The Animal Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder (1975)
- Edith’s Diary (1977)
- Slowly, Slowly in the Wind (1979)
- The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980)
- The Black House (1981)
- People Who Knock on the Door (1983)
- Mermaids on the Golf Course (1985)
- Found in the Street (1987)
- Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes (1987)
- Ripley Under Water (1991)
- Small g: a Summer Idyll (1995)
- Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories (2002; posthumously published)
- Patricia Highsmith: Selected Novels and Short Stories (W.W. Norton, 2010)