Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Beautiful Shadow

Patricia Highsmith is still, I suspect, largely unknown in the United States despite the fact that most people will remember the Alfred Hitchcock film, Strangers on a Train (not to mention the 1987 farce based on that film, Throw Mama from the Train), and the 1999 release of The Talented Mr. Ripley, all of which are based on novels by Highsmith. Between 1950 and her death in 1995, she produced twenty-two novels, seven collections of short stories, a book about writing and even a children’s book called Miranda the Panda is on the Veranda.

I have long been a fan of psychological suspense novels but have only recently started to read Patricia Highsmith because, frankly, she is not one of those high-profile writers who are found on the bookshelves of every Barnes & Noble or Borders bookstore in which I browse for new material (what that says about chain bookstores is a whole other story). As it turns out, I didn’t know what I was missing, and when I found a copy of Andrew Wilson’s Patricia Highsmith biography, Beautiful Shadow, I found that Highsmith’s personal life was every bit as interesting and as strange as her books.

Highsmith lived most of her adult life in Europe, spending more than a decade in France before moving to Switzerland where she died in 1995. But she was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and that state and her country left permanent marks on her despite the amount of time that she spent criticizing America and its foreign policy from Europe. She was born on January 19, 1921 just nine days after her parents were granted a divorce and, in fact, her birth name was Patricia Plangman not Patricia Highsmith. Three years after her divorce Mary Plangman married Stanley Highsmith, a commercial artist, and it was Stanley’s surname that Patricia was given when she started school in New York City. Highsmith always felt that she had been deceived by her mother regarding her real father and it is one of the many things for which she never forgave Mary.

The real Patricia Highsmith was largely defined by the fact that she was a lesbian although she did sleep with the man to whom she was engaged at one time, novelist Marc Brandel. She cared enough for Brandel to undergo six months of psychotherapy in an attempt to remake herself into a heterosexual but, of course, that effort was doomed to be an unsuccessful one. After graduating from Bernard, and while aiming to become a serious writer, she spent several years writing dialogue and plots for several comic book publishers at the rate of $55 per week. Her friend Truman Capote helped her get a place in Yaddo, a writer’s colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, at which she spent two months working on Strangers on a Train. Although she only ever spent two months there, it was to Yaddo that Highsmith left her entire fortune of some $3 million plus all future royalties paid on her works.

Patricia Highsmith is remembered for the way that her novels were so often told from the point-of-view of a sociopath as he committed murders and other assorted crimes. She did this so well that the reader often found himself sympathizing with the criminal and hoping that he escape justice despite the awful things that he had done. She was capable of describing, in detail, crimes of extreme evilness but she did it in such a direct, logical and detached way that the evil seemed real and almost commonplace. Most of her books have a homosexual undertone and that, along with the utter amorality of some of her leading characters, made it somewhat difficult for her to get her work published in the United States. It seemed easier for her to find willing publishers in Europe and she was always much more popular in Western Europe than she has ever been in her country of birth.

Twenty interesting “facts” that are noted in the Wilson biography:

1. Her mother’s side of the family was known to have large feet and hands, something that Highsmith inherited even to the extent that in her later years people often remarked that her hands gave her a masculine look.

2. She was largely brought up by her grandmother, Willie Mae, and she never got over the fact that she had been “abandoned” by her mother at an early age.

3. She believed that she had been sexually abused between the ages of four and five but had no specific memories about such abuse.

4. She recorded in one of her dozens of notebooks that she started keeping at age 15 that her IQ was 121.

5. In 1939 she joined the Young Communist League but had become disillusioned with the party by 1941 and left it.

6. Highsmith had a long string of physical relationships with women and considered herself to be promiscuous because most of her relationships lasted just a few months and she recognized her own “insatiable appetite for constant supply of new conquests.”

7. She had a great desire for self-knowledge and used her notebooks to very frankly record her thoughts on any subject that crossed her mind.

8. She was disgusted by most gay women that she encountered and believed that most of them were stupid and beneath her, much preferring the company of gay men.

9. The main themes of her writing were the lure of the double, blurring of identity and homoeroticism at which was usually only hinted.

10. Highsmith admired and was most influenced by the work of Edgar Allan Poe, James M. Cain, Kafka, Melville, Hawthorne and Dostoevsky (with whom she fell in love at age 13).

11. Her mental instability and that of her mother frightened her.

12. Stanley Highsmith finally adopted her in 1946 when she was 25 years old.

13. Richard Chandler wrote a screen adaptation for Hitchcock of Strangers on a Train that was rejected and a new writer was hired to complete the task.

14. Her second novel, written under the pen name Claire Morgan, was a lesbian novel that she didn’t dare publish under her real name.

15. She was known to be “anti-Israel,” anti-Vatican and anti-war but was politically conservative when it came to things like public welfare and people whom she saw as making no effort to take care of themselves. Some considered her attitude to be racist.

16. Alcoholism was a major problem for her and she was seen as a hostile person who was incapable of any long-term kind of relationship.

17. She felt that only her writing stood between her and insanity.

18. She absolutely loathed the feminist movement of the sixties and seventies.

19. A friend of hers saw her as “a lesbian who didn’t particularly like women; a writer of the most insightful psychological novels who, at times, appeared bored by people; a misanthrope with a gentle, sweet nature.”

20. Although she lived in Europe for the last 32 years of her life, Highsmith continued to vote in U.S. presidential elections.
I doubt that I would have enjoyed the company of Patricia Highsmith but I do find her to have been a fascinating woman, one of those people with the kind of flawed personality that lends itself to the creation of great art. I recommend that anyone interested in reading Highsmith’s books read this biography first because of all of the insights it offers into her creative process and choices of subject matter.

Rated at: 5.0


  1. Highsmith's biography sounds very interesting! Her life sounds quite sad, and from your description, not many people would have enjoyed her company. I remember reading about Dylan Thomas' life and behavior the first time, and knowing that I wouldn't have liked the man, regardless of my love for his poetry.

    As you mention, the sad, flawed lives of many artists produced some great works.

  2. Despite the fact that this is Andrew Wilson's first book, it is an amazingly well-researched and well-written biography. He had access to all of Highsmith's dozens of notebooks and most of her friends and remaining family spoke with him as he was gathering his research.

    I only wish that he had included fewer "spoilers" concerning the plots of some of her novels...in particular the one I'm reading right now, Ripley Under Ground.

  3. I picked up the BOCD of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN by Highsmith. Have you read that one?

  4. Not yet, Joy, though I've seen the movie version a couple of times. Highsmith wasn't happy with the movie, especially the ending, because she considered it to have been softened too much by Hitchcock. I'm looking forward to reading the actual book sometime...but you know how those TBR lists go.