Patricia Highsmith

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Patricia Highsmith
Publicity photo from 1966
Born Mary Patricia Plangman
(1921-01-19)January 19, 1921[1]
Fort Worth, Texas, U.S.
Died February 4, 1995(1995-02-04) (aged 74)
Locarno, Switzerland
Occupation Novelist
Nationality American
Period 1942–1995
Genre Suspense, psychological thriller, crime fiction, romance
Subjects Murder; violence; obsession; insanity
Literary movement Modernist literature
Notable works


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. In addition to her series of five novels with Tom Ripley as protagonist, she wrote 17 additional novels 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."[2]

Early life

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,[3] and his wife, Mary Plangman (née Coates; September 13, 1895 – March 12, 1991). The couple divorced ten days before their daughter's birth.[4] In 1927, Highsmith, her mother and her adoptive stepfather, artist Stanley Highsmith, whom her mother had married in 1924, moved to New York City.[4] 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 lived 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.[4] 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.[4][5] Highsmith's mother predeceased her by 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 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.[4]

In 1942, Highsmith graduated from Barnard College, where she studied English composition, playwriting, and the short story.[4] 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.[4]

Comic books

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.[4]

With Nedor/Standard/Pines (1942–43), Highsmith wrote Sgt. Bill King stories and contributed to Black Terror, Real Fact, Real Heroes, and True Comics. She additionally wrote comic book profiles of Einstein, Galileo, Barney Ross, Eddie Rickenbacker, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Isaac Newton, David Livingstone, and others. From 1943–45, she wrote for Fawcett Publications, scripting for such Fawcett Comics characters as the Golden Arrow, Spy Smasher, Captain Midnight, Crisco, and Jasper. Highsmith also wrote for Western Comics from 1945 to 1947.[6] Under editor Leon Lazarus, she wrote romance comics for the Marvel Comics precursors Timely Comics and Atlas Comics.[6]

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."[7][page needed]

Writing career

Highsmith's first novel was Strangers on a Train, published in 1950, which contained "the violence that became her trademark."[5] The book proved modestly successful when it was published in 1950. Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 film adaptation of the novel strengthened Highsmith's reputation.

Highsmith's second novel, The Price of Salt, was published under the nom de plume Claire Morgan.[8] It garnered attention as a lesbian novel because of its rare happy ending.[8] She did not publicly associate herself with this book until late in her life, probably because she had mined her personal life for the book's content.[4]

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.[9] 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.[10]

Film and television 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.[4][11]

Personal life

Highsmith appearing on the British television discussion programme After Dark in June 1988

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 once said, "My imagination functions much better when I don't have to speak to people."[16]

Highsmith loved cats, and she bred about three hundred snails in her garden at home in Suffolk, England.[17] Highsmith once attended a London cocktail party with a "gigantic handbag" that "contained a head of lettuce and a hundred snails" who she said were her "companions for the evening".[17]

"She was a mean, hard, cruel, unlovable, unloving person", said acquaintance Otto Penzler. "I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly."[18] Other friends and acquaintances held different views of Highsmith. Gary Fisketjon, who published her later novels through Knopf, said that "she was rough, very difficult... but she was also plainspoken, dryly funny, and great fun to be around."[18] Phyllis Nagy, who adapted 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".[19][20]

Highsmith loved woodworking tools and made several pieces of furniture. She worked without stopping. In later life, her stance became stooped, with an osteoporotic hump.[4] Though her writing – 22 novels and 8 books of short stories – was highly acclaimed, especially outside of the United States, Highsmith preferred for her personal life to remain private.[8]

Highsmith was a lifelong diarist. She left behind eight thousand pages of handwritten notebooks and diaries.[21]


Highsmith had sexual relationships mostly with women.[22] She never married or had children.

In 1943, Highsmith had an affair with artist Allela Cornell, who committed suicide in 1946 by drinking nitric acid[23] and, in 1949, with novelist Marc Brandel.[23]

From November 1948 until May 1949 Highsmith underwent psychoanalysis in an effort to "get myself in a condition to be married," as she wrote in her diary, with her then boyfriend Marc Brandel. She was incapable of enjoying sex with him — she wrote in a letter from 1970 to her stepfather, that it felt like "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," though she tried it with several men — and so submitted herself to twice-a-week therapy sessions. Ironically, this effort to turn straight inspired The Price of Salt, in which two women meet in a department store and begin a passionate affair.[24][25]

In early September 1951, she began an affair with sociologist Ellen Blumenthal Hill, traveling back and forth to Europe to meet with her.[4] 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."[4] 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.[26] It has been torn in half at the waist so that only her upper body appears.[4] She dedicated Two Faces of January (1964) to Tietgens.

Between 1959 and 1961, she fell in love with Marijane Meaker,[27] who wrote under the pseudonyms "Vin Packer" and "Ann Aldrich" and later wrote young adult fiction as "M.E. Kerr".[27][28] 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.[note 1]

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[29] and Saul Bellow. Her work was assessed as having a "misogynist streak," [30] particularly after the publication of her short-stories collection Little Tales of Misogyny.[note 2]


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.[4] 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 died of aplastic anemia and cancer in Locarno, Switzerland, aged 74. She was cremated at the cemetery in Bellinzona, and a memorial service was conducted at the Catholic Church in Tegna, Switzerland.[4]

She left her estate, worth an estimated $3 million, to the Yaddo colony, which had provided her with support in the 1940s, support that allowed her to produce her first novel.[5] Patricia Highsmith's literary estate is archived in the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern.[31]



Short-story collections

  • Eleven (1970; also known as The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories), introduction by Graham Greene
  • Little Tales of Misogyny (1974)
  • The Animal Lover's Book of Beastly Murder (1975)
  • Slowly, Slowly in the Wind (1979)
  • The Black House (1981)
  • Mermaids on the Golf Course (1985)
  • Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes (1987)
  • Chillers (1990)
  • Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories (2002; posthumously published)

Collected works

  • Patricia Highsmith: Selected Novels and Short Stories (2010)


  • Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966)
  • Miranda the Panda is on the Veranda (1958; children's book of verse and drawings, co-written with Doris Sanders)


See also


  1. Meaker recalled: "[Patricia] was a wonderful, giving, funny person when I [first] met her. I can always remember her smile and her laughter because that was so much a part of her. But when she came back she was despicable. I couldn't believe her hatred for blacks, for Jews in particular, but even for gay people. She hated everybody." de Bertodano (2003)
  2. The book was first published in 1975 in German, under the title Kleine Geschichte für Weiberfeinde, appearing in English two years later. The German title means, literally, Little Tales For Misogynists. (Lezard 2015) A critic noted, "This is not a book to teach the misogynists a lesson: it's something you might give a misogynist on his birthday," but found the accusations of misogyny to be without foundation. (Lezard 2015)


  1. "Mary P Highsmith in the United States Social Security Death Index, February 4, 1995
  2. Dirda (2009)
  3. Castle (2003)
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 4.14 4.15 Schenkar (2008)[page needed]
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Cohen (2010)
  6. 6.0 6.1 Lazarus (2009)
  7. The Talented Mr. Ripley
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Dawson (2015)
  9. Rich, Frank (December 12, 1999). "American pseudo". New York Times. Retrieved November 27, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Leavitt, David (June 20, 2004). "Strangers in a Bar". New York Times. Retrieved November 27, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Berlinale 1978: Jury members".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Ebert (1996)
  13. Wilson (May 2003)
  14. Peary, Gerald (Spring 1988). "Patricia Highsmith interview". Sight & Sound. 75 (2): 104–105. Retrieved October 6, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Ebert (2006)
  16. Guinard (1991)
  17. 17.0 17.1 Currey (2013) p.12
  18. 18.0 18.1 Fierman (2000)
  19. "How Patricia Highsmith's Carol became a film: 'Lesbianism is not an issue. It's a state of normal'". The Guardian. November 12, 2015. Retrieved December 14, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "Phyllis Nagy: On Screen Writing and Carol". The Laughing Lesbian. November 13, 2015. Retrieved December 14, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. Schenkar (2011)
  22. The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar, Les Girls 1-14
  23. 23.0 23.1 Wilson (July 2003)
  24. The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar, Chapter 16: Social Studies Part 2
  25. The Inner Life of Patricia Highsmith by Kate Hart
  26. Rolf Tietgens, portrait of the writer Patricia Highsmith at age 21 (1942) - Photos as ukiyo-e: pictures of the floating world - The senses of literature
  27. 27.0 27.1 de Bertodano (2003)
  28. Meaker (2003)
  29. Winterson (2009)
  30. Walter (2003)
  31. Swiss National Library, 2007
  32. Peters, Fiona (2011). Anxiety and Evil in the Writings of Patricia Highsmith. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing. pp. 17–8. Retrieved November 28, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. Hillerman, Tony; Herbert, Rosemary, eds. (2005). A New Omnibus of Crime. Oxford University Press. p. 194.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


External links