The Books: The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith, by Joan Schenkar

Daily Book Excerpt: Biography

Next biography on the biography shelf is The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith, by Joan Schenkar

I don’t think my books should be in prison libraries.
— Patricia Highsmith, 1966

I read this fantastic biography a couple of months ago, and while I would not count Patricia Highsmith as an obsession (I’ve only read three of the Ripley books, and Strangers On a Train – she wrote much much more), what I appreciate so much about Joan Schenkar’s writing is her ability to pour her obvious obsession about Highsmith into her prose in an interesting and engaging way. It takes courage to write the way she does. It’s perhaps difficult to describe, and the book is unlike any other biography I’ve ever read. Schenkar has lived and breathed her Highsmith obsession for decades. You can feel, in the introduction, her own baffled question of how on earth to start. How to even BEGIN to describe this personality in a way that someone not up to speed would understand? Well, Schenkar made me understand. She did so by not worrying too much about making Patricia Highsmith comprehensible (because, let’s be honest, the dame was extremely difficult to understand, with all of her deceptions and secretiveness), but by saying, essentially: “Isn’t this woman off the charts fascinating? Let me share with you all of the reasons that I personally find her fascinating.” It’s a very vulnerable biography, in terms of what it reveals of the author, and while that may sound annoying, it is not at all. That’s what I want in a biography. I want to feel the author’s passion. Ron Chernow does that, although he has a more conventional style than Schenkar.

Schenkar has so much to say about Patricia Highsmith, she has studied her so closely, that she organizes the book in terms of Highsmith’s obsessions – rather than in terms of a linear timeline. So Schenkar doesn’t worry so much about getting us up to speed. She leaps around in time, she has giant sections with multiple chapters, but unlike more conventional biographies where the chapter headings let you know where you are in time and space (New York 1945 – 47 or Yale Years or whatever) – Schenkar has chosen to organize the book in terms of Highsmith’s ongoing lifelong themes, as interpreted by Schenkar: “A Simple Act of Forgery” is one of the section headings. The two chapters under the “forgery” heading, which come at the very beginning of the book, examines how Highsmith would deceive her own personal notebooks/journals, altering dates to make it seem like she was somewhere she wasn’t, messing with her own timeline, editing them to basically fool anyone who would look at the journals. Highsmith was obsessed with forgery (you can see that in her books), and so she would forge her own version of her own life in her deceptive notebooks, for all kinds of swirling interesting psychological reasons – and these chapters break some of those reasons down. But these are really the first chapters of the book. We barely know where Highsmith was born, we barely know anything about her, and Schenkar, in starting this way, launches us into the land of alter egos and double-lives which is so so important in trying to understand Patricia Highsmith – far more important than learning where she was born.

Schenkar eventually, throughout the book, gives us all the biographical details we need to know, and there is a conventional timeline placed in the very back of the book, for those who need to orient themselves in space and time (like myself). A giant section called “Alter Ego” has 5 chapters in it. In these chapters, Schenkar takes on different aspects of HIghsmith’s life, all having to do with the creation of alter egos, as well as the duplicitous nature of much of Highsmith’s biography. So in that section, we have an analysis of Tom Ripley, who is, of course, Highsmith’s alter ego – one of the most chilling portraits of a sociopath ever put on paper (the most chilling probably being either Iago or Raskolnikov, with Cathy from East of Eden licking at their heels) – and how Highsmith became so fascinated by doubles. Her most famous books involve some sort of doubling – usually with two male characters. The homoerotic nature of the bond between Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf is, of course, made explicit – and so too in Strangers on a Train. The terrifying fluidity of personality that Highsmith nailed so accurately – how easy it would be to take on the life of another person – to infiltrate that person’s sense of self … Schenkar explores those themes in the Alter Ego section. But also, outside of her books, Highsmith kept her life fiercely compartmentalized, guarding each different section with a ferocity like a warlord. Her literary life was separate from her family life from her friend life – and all of her lovers, whom often overlapped, were kept in the dark about the presence of the others. This required byzantine deceptions on Highsmith’s part, and you wondered how she kept all her lies straight. She even lied in her own journals. She would write in the present tense in her journal to make it seem like she was in London at that time, when she was actually in Switzerland (or whatever).

When I first read The Talented Mr. Ripley it scared me so much because it seemed so accurate. I may not be obsessed with Patricia Highsmith but I am obsessed with psychopaths, and Highsmith’s devastating portrait of one (from the inside) is unforgettable. It is totally in line with all of the recent psychological studies of these creatures – studies which, of course, Highsmith never read because they weren’t even published. But she knew the truth of what it was like for these people, these oddities of human nature. When I first read the book, I was so curious about Patricia Highsmith (I knew nothing about her), and I remember wondering, “She had to have known someone like Tom Ripley. This is too spot-on.” After reading Schenkar’s book, the truth is revealed: Patricia Highsmith WAS Tom Ripley (without the murders). Keeping her Tom Ripley nature hidden from those she encountered took a lot of deception. She became a master at it. When she was young, her gorgeous looks were a convenient smokescreen. Everyone who met her in the 1940s talk about her beauty, and how dropdead gorgeous she was in person. Compelling, you couldn’t look away. So because of her looks, Highsmith was able to operate in secret. Nobody would guess the nasty little stories Highsmith was cooking up at home, the stories of murder and lies and crime, the psychologically devastating stories of people overtaken by a stronger Other who co-opted them completely.

There is a section called “Les Girls”, the biggest section in the book (with 14 chapters) and that details Highsmith’s unbelievably complicated romantic life (and how it informed her work). Her books are full of clues. Highsmith was a lesbian (when she was a little girl she insisted on dressing like a boy), and always felt like a man. Trapped in the wrong body (which makes me wonder if she was actually transgender). When she was young, she was stunningly beautiful (but her looks faded really quick – years of heavy drinking took its toll), and she navigated through the underworld of lesbian life in New York and Paris and London, having intense relationships, some of them quite crazy, and many of them overlapping. She was rarely alone. She would get obsessed with a certain woman (one woman she saw for 2 seconds at a counter at Bloomingdale’s and became so obsessed she found out who she was and used to drive out to New Jersey to stalk her house), and then pour all of her feelings into her books, which are full of stopped-up erotic emotions. Patricia Highsmith was a bit of a dog. She was a seducer, a player, a stud. She dressed in crisp white shirts and riding breeches, even when she was a college student at Columbia. She was striking. She never hid who she was. She wrote a lesbian novel called The Price of Salt under a pseudonym (I haven’t read it), and friends advised her not to publish it at all. But this book came out from her gut, she would not be stopped. Unlike some of her contemporaries, she did not buckle to convention. She knew she could never get married. She would never have children. (Perhaps that’s a blessing. I shudder to think of Patricia Highsmith as a mother.)

Patricia Highsmith was obsessed with numbers. She made charts and diagrams (some of which are included in the book). You can see that in the Ripley books, with their obsessive counting. She loved the finer things. She was a materialist. She only wanted the best coffee, the best cigarettes. She went to Columbia, and while the other students were living conventional college student lives, Highsmith went to classes, did her homework, and then trolled the streets, going to underground lesbian nightclubs, trying to infiltrate the burgeoning literary scene in New York at that time, making powerful friends who tried to help her out. She meant business. She was not in college just to bide her time before getting married. She knew that that would never be for her. She wanted to be a writer. It’s amazing to see how ambitious she was, how fearless. Crashing parties of the New York literati, and befriending some giant editor who tried to open a few doors for her. Many of those in power were closeted lesbians, who looked out for their own. (Or, at least, they were closeted in public. Many of them were married, but they had a whole double life going on.) Her contemporaries wondered how on earth Highsmith circulated in such heady company at such a young age. Highsmith was ambitious, she meant business. She doesn’t appear to have been well liked, people were mostly afraid of her (and rightly so), but she used people for how they could serve her. Many of these relationships lasted decades, but by the end of Highsmith’s life it seems that she had alienated most everyone. There were huge ruptures with some of her lifelong friends.

Photo taken by a friend when Pat was a college student. This friend was gay, and was attracted to her because she seemed so much like a boy. If I recall correctly, he asked her to marry him. I think she slept with him once – she did sleep with a few men, including good friend Arthur Koestler – but it seems she was just trying to figure out what the fuss might be about in terms of heterosexual sex, and she realized repeatedly, after sleeping with a man, that straight sex just was not for her. Didn’t do anything for her at all.

Highsmith kept a chart in one of her notebooks detailing all of her lovers. It’s a creepy little document, with columns for different aspects of each sexual experience. How many times they made love, if the lover was good, if orgasms were had, what the hair color was, what the body type was. This was a running document that she kept for years. It’s ridiculous to me that people were so shocked and appalled by Duke student Karen Owen’s sex-rating document, as though that stuff hasn’t been going on forever. I know it’s horrifying for men to imagine being “rated” like that, but oh well, if you dish it out you should be able to take it, right? Besides: it wasn’t meant for public consumption. God help me if my private journal with an X-rated PRIVATE description of my night with so-and-so got out. It’s for me, I like to write, it’s private. The pile-on to that poor girl was disgusting. Disgusting. Unless you honestly believe that women don’t talk about sex with their friends and compare and rate their lovers – in which case you need to wake up and start living in the real world. A strange sidenote to that story (and my favorite part of it): The infamous Tucker Max, proponent of the Girls Gone Wild lifestyle and chronicler of his sexual exploits, defended Karen Owen, and pretty much said exactly what I was thinking when that whole story broke (warning: language there that some people might be offended by. Hell, I’m offended by some of it, and would never use such words myself, but it’s his thoughts I agree with. I like Tucker Max, and I actually love him for this particular piece of writing.) Back on track: I thought of that whole Duke-sex-list story looking at Highsmith’s own version of Karen Owen’s Power-Point, and her little markings (brunette, blonde), some of them written in code, really shows how obsessed she was with trying to ORGANIZE the sometimes overpowering experience of love and sex into something more manageable. I relate to that. Looking at her lovers-chart also made me very very glad that I didn’t know Patricia Highsmith and that I hadn’t slept with her.

She was ruthless. Many of her girlfriends reported that Patricia Highsmith was the best lover they ever had. It’s a running theme.

In many ways a nasty little person – Joan Schenkar, unlike other biographers, does not protect Highsmith from our judgment. She is not afraid of the unsavory elements of Highsmith’s personality. As a matter of fact, Schenkar loves them, she relishes them. It’s all just fascinating to Schenkar. She is not defensive on behalf of her subject, AND she is not condemnatory towards her. She presents all the evidence in a unique and compulsively readable way, and one of the side results is that you want to read everything Highsmith ever wrote.

Schenkar understands that her job as a biographer is to share what she knows, to share all of the things SHE has been thinking about, and I just love the format she chose for the book (a bold move), and I found her writing incisive, exciting, and engaging.

Speaking of alter egos:

Joan Schenkar uncovered the extent of Patricia Highsmith’s involvement in the comic book world of the 1940s. Comic books were reaching a sort of critical mass at that point, and although they sold like hotcakes, writers often hid their involvement in the quick-cash world of comics. It was not a respected artform. If you wanted to be a serious writer, then revealing you wrote panels for Superman might have lessened your street cred. Patricia Highsmith, while she was in college, circulating in New York, got a job with a comic books publisher (one of the few women involved, and the only woman in that particular office) and wrote up plots as well as dialogue for various comic book characters (she is mainly known for her work on “The Black Terror”) for a good year of solid work. It was her main job. At night, she would go home and work on her crime stories and thrillers, and by day she sat at a desk in the comic book office, toiling away at her panels. She worked there for a year, but then for six or seven years afterwards, she maintained a position as a freelance writer for various comic book outfits. She would send her scripts back to New York from Switzerland or Venice or Paris. She worked hard. Her embarrassment at her involvement led her to completely conceal it later on in her life, brushing it off as if she kind of worked there for almost a year, not long at all. The truth is much different. It was one of her main sources of income during her beginning years as a writer, when she found it hard to break into the growing field of genre literary magazines, and also legit literary magazines. Her writing for comic books kept her afloat financially. She also, obviously, from her notes and outlines, took her work very very seriously. She didn’t seem to think she was “slumming”, even though in later life she appeared to take that view. Her notes are detailed, she puts arrows next to certain lines, saying, “Flesh this out, add more detail”. She worked as hard on those comic books as she did on her novels. She relished the work.

Joan Schenkar delves deep into the world of comics (well-trod territory for anyone who has read Michael Chabon’s magnificent The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), and interviews as many of the survivors of that era that she can find, old old men now who remember the pretty dark-haired girl hovered over her desk at the comic book office, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and doing her job. She was a novelty: a girl writing for the comics! Many of these men seem to recall that she probably was a lesbian, they got a homosexual vibe, but her beauty was so compelling that many of them had huge crushes on her. Patricia Highsmith is not the only writer to hide her comic-books past. Many writers took the same path she did, and then, when they had success as “real” writers, were terrified that their past writing about superheroes would come to light. Schenkar’s chapter on Highsmith’s work on comic books is a masterpiece. She paints the picture of what that time was like, yes, but she also puts forth the theory that despite Highsmith’s embarrassment about her comics-book-past, it worked on her on a far deeper level than she could probably acknowledge. Comic books are full of alter egos. You might even say that “alter egos” are comic books defining characteristic. Mild-mannered clumsy reporter by day, Superman by night. The list goes on and on. Schenkar theorizes that Highsmith’s obsession with doubling made her a very successful comic-book story writer, and that her submersion in the world of comics helped her, later, to create the Ripley books, and all the others where mirror-image personalities and overlapping alter egos (with the constant fear of detection) are the themes.

So I am going to excerpt from the comic book chapter. It’s good good stuff. Schenkar does not look down on comics. You actually can sense that she wants to go into it even deeper, and says at one point, “But this story is outside the scope of this book.”

I know there are other biographies out there of Patricia Highsmith and I have not read any of them. But this is one of the most entertaining biographies I have ever read.

Excerpt from The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith

Only his boy sidekick, Tim Roland, knew that the real name and true identity of the Black Terror, two-fisted nemesis of “Our Fascist Enemies”, was Bob Benton, “mild-mannered” neighborhood ph armacist. And only his creator, Pat’s meticulous editor at the Sangor-Pines comics shop, Richard E. Highes (his real name was Leo Rosenbaum), understood just how closely Bob Benton and his Alter Ego, the Black Terror, were modeled on the comic book characters of Clark Kent and Superman.

Superman was the creation of two seventeen-year-old carriers of the Zeitgeist from Cleveland, Ohio, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; both of them were children of Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe. In 1938, six years after they first imagined him, the dogged young duo finally published a story about Superman in a DC comic book. The starkly illustrated myth of the superpowered orphan from another galaxy, the kindly farm family who adopted him, and his mild-mannered second self, Clark Kent, the human shield for Superman’s secret identity, quickly inflamed the imaginations of American children – as well as the business instincts of some of New York’s more disreputable publishers.1

“After Superman,” says Stan Lee, godfather of the Superhero Spider-Man and the figure from the Golden Age of American Comics most closely associated with Pat’s favorite employer, Timely comics (now the world-renowned Marvel Comics), “if artists wanted to be successful, they thought, ‘I guess we better give our characters costumes and double identities.'” And if those artists and writers had “ethnic” names, they usually provided themselves with the same cover story they gave to their characters: another identity cloaked by an anglicized surname. (Stan Lee’s real name: Stanley Martin Lieber.) In the world of American comics of the 1940s, imitation was the most commercial form of flattery.

Bob Benton/Black Terror was one of a long line of Clark Kent/Superman imitations. Like all copies, he suffers from a deteriorated image; his story is less sharply focused than Superman’s. He follows the common Superhero formula of costume (tights, a cape, an insignia), a series of evil opponents to vanquish, and a boy sidekick to help him with the fights. In 1954, in a book called Seduction of the Innocent, the well-meaning, socially concerned, progressive psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Wertham2 – subsequently much vilified by comic book fans – had a fine time exposing just what another successful Superhero, Batman, was really getting up to with his boy sidekick Robin (homosexual relations) – and cataloguing the dangers (violence, racism, and sexism) he thought comic books posed to the psyches of America’s children. Black Terror’s own special superpower – the result of his Alter Ego’s life-changing laboratory accident – is his bullet-repelling superskin. But Black Terror’s birth in a pharmacist’s lab could never compare to the glorious emigrant myth propelling Superman: an intergalactic journey to Kansas in a transparent capsule launched by his doomed parents from their dying planet Krypton.

Still, as the splash page of a wartime Black Terror tells us, Black Terror could always be counted upon to fight for his country: he went wherever the “Axis octopus rears its deadly head.” Some of the Superheroes who preceded the Black Terror did more than that. They went to war against Hitler long before the United States joined the battle – and for the most obvious reason: American Jews were writing and drawing them.3

Like Pat, her mostly youthful confr&egraveres in the comics business were underdogs yearning to be top dogs. Like Pat, they had all been schooled in the American Dream. But unlike Pat, many of them had been locked out of the “quality” ends of their chosen professions – for them, it was commercial illustration and advertising – because of ethnic prejudice. Most of Pat’s cohorts in the comics, said Al Jaffee, cartoonist and editor at Timely comics, would have “drifted into the comic-book business [because] most of the comic-book publishers were Jewish.” Will Eisner, cofounder of the world famous Eisner-Iger comics shop and inspired creator of The Spirit, precursor of the graphic novel, agreed: “[T]his business was brand new. It was the bottom of the social ladder. [Those who wanted to get] into the field of illustration found it very easy to come aboard.”

Most of these young comics artists and writers were steeped in popular culture: detective magazines, science fiction magazines, fantasy and horror magazines, and cr&egraveme de la hard-boiled crime fiction magazines like Black Mask.4 And many of the stories in the magazines they were reading had been infused by their authors’ admiration for the same writers who had illuminated Pat’s youth: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, et al. This dilution of high culture slowly trickled down into the rough, rich mix that was the American comic book in the 1940s, helping to shape its stories and its artwork, however crudely and simplistically. (Pat once described her comics work as being like “writing two ‘B movies’ a day.”) Dostoevsky and Kafka, Nietzsche and Poe, Rider Haggard and H.G. Wells, hard-boiled crime fiction, science fiction, pulp romance, and German Expressionist film – anything vividly adrift in the Zeitgeist was vacuumed up and made use of by the four-color six-panel world of the comic book.

And there was another crucial source comic book creators were drawing on: their own ethnic and religious histories. Siegel and Shuster’s “Krypton” names for Superman and his father, Kal-El and Jor-El, are both derived from the Hebrew nomenclature for “God”. And the story of Moses, the Jewish hero who led his people out of Egypt, and the legend of the sixteenth-century Golem – the giant, incomplete, servant-being created from the clay of the Vltava River by the chief rabbi of Prague to protect his community from anti-Semitic attacks – took on special significance in an era when the very survival of European Jewry was being threatened. The Golem, especially, had all the attributes of a Superhero except one: he was a little lacking in initiative.

“You shall obey my commands,” [said Rabbi Judah Loew to the Golem,] “and do all that I may require of you, go through fire, jump into water or throw yourself from a high tower.”

Will Eisner thought the “golem was very much the precursor of the super-hero” because the Jews “needed someone who could protect us … against an invincible force. So [Siegel and Shuster] created an invincible hero.” Cartoonist Jules Feiffer, invoking the Eastern European emigrant background of Siegel and Shuster, provided the wittiest variation on Eisner’s comment: “It wasn’t Krypton that Superman really came from, it was the planet Minsk.”

When Pat gave her “criminal-hero” Tom Ripley a charmed and parentless life, a wealthy, socially-poised Alter Ego (Dickie Greenleaf), and a guilt-free modus operandi (after he kills Dickie, Tom murders only when necessary), she was doing just what her fellow comic book artists were doing with their Superheroes: allowing her fictional character to finesse situations she herself could only approach in wish fulfillment. And when she reimagined her own psychological split in Ripley’s character – endowing him with both her weakest traits (paralyzing self-consciousness and hero-worship) and her wildest dreams (murder and money) – she was turning the material of the “comic book” upside down and making it into something very like a “tragic book”. “It is always so easy for me to see the world upside down,” Pat wrote in her diary – and everywhere else.

In October of 1954, working on The Talented Mr. Ripley and thrilling to the idea of corrupting her readers, Pat said plainly what she was doing.

“What I predicted I would once do, I am already doing in this very book (Tom Ripley), that is, showing the unequivocal triumph of evil over good, and rejoicing in it. I shall make my readers rejoice in it, too.”

And then, just as plainly, Pat said why she was doing it, giving an account that sounds like Will Eisner’s explanation of how people who are trapped by “invincible forces” might feel compelled to escape into “invincible” Alter Egos.

“The main reason I write is quite clear to me. My own life, however interesting I try to make it by traveling and so forth, is always boring to me, periodically. Whenever I become intolerably bored, I produce another story, in my head. My story can move fast, as I can’t, it can have a reasonable and perhaps perfect solution, as mine can’t. A solution that is somehow satisfying, as my personal solution never can be.

“It is not an infatuation with words. It is absolute day dreaming, for day dreaming’s sake.”

Certainly, the suggestion that any of her novels could have shared a creative inspiration with comic books would have driven the talented Miss H into conniption fits. And the tenor of her response to the hint that Thomas P. Ripley, her boyish (and goyische) “hero-criminal”) might owe even a fraction of his identity to the Golem of Prague, the Moses who led the Jews through the desert, or the Superman imagined by two Bar Mitzvah boys from Cleveland Ohio, is only too easy to imagine.5

But Crime and Punishment and The Ambassadors were not the only fictions working away in Pat’s imagination while she was making up Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, et al. Hundreds, probably thousands of comic book scenarios dramatizing the escape from one identity to another – and the uncomfortably yoked lives of Alter Egos – had already passed through her mind, coloring it, in Emily Brontë’s luminous phrase, “like wine through water.” The inspiration that made a “hero” of a conscienceless killer like Tom Ripley in 1955, and Alter Egos of the high-minded architect and the sodden, psychopathic spawn of a rich man in Strangers on a Train in 1950, was one of the distinguishing marks of Pat’s imagination. But that imagination had not only been infused by Dostoevsky and Poe, Proust and James and André Gide; it had also been marinating for seven long years in the colorful tropes of the American comic book.

Pat Highsmith got her culture “high” and – complaining about working for the comics almost as much as she complained about loving women – she also got her culture “low”.

1 The story of how Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s “Superman” was sold out from under them (for $130) in a transaction almost as pitiful as the deal local Indians made when they traded the island of Manhattan for a fistful of beads and a few dollars – and the subsequent tale of how Siegel and Shuster’s Clark Kent/Superman was copied in some form or other by every comics shop in New York – is one of the founding fables in the short, violent, utterly absorbing history of the Golden Age of American Comics.

2Frederic Wertham was the consulting psychiatrist for Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald at the Phipps Clinic in Baltimore during her incarceration there. He was one of the first psychiatrists to use art therapy for diagnosis and encouraged Zelda in her painting. In gratitude, she gave him eleven watercolors.

3In 1940, nearly two years before the United States entered the war, Superman hauled Hitler and Stalin before a World Court in a DC comic. In February of that same yar, Timely comics’ Superhero Sub-Mariner tackled Nazi submarines. And in March of 1941, nine months before Pearl Harbor, the most successful Superhero at Timely, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America, made his debut on a sensational comic book cover by Jack Kirby (real name: Jacob Kurtzberg) on which Captain America knocked Hitler out of the frame with a well-placed punch to the jaw.

4A word about Black Mask. Black Mask magazine was founded in 1920 by the prominent critics H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan to generate money for their upscale publication, Smart Set. Black Mask published “hard-boiled” fictions by mostly contemporary writers, many of whom were much better known than Pat, and most of whom went on to publish with Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine when Black Mask was folded into it. (Pat’s story “The Perfect Alibi” appeared in the March 1957 issue of EQMM along with stories by Alberto Moravia and Agatha Christie.) Although EQMM was the most consistent publisher of Pat’s short fiction for decades, in later life she didn’t care to emphasize her “pulp” connection, even as a link to other authors. In 1950, Raymond Chandler, who published his first story in Black Mask, had a terrible time trying to make a film script from Strangers on a Train for Alfred Hitchcock. In 1977, in the introduction she wrote to a book about Chandler, “A Galahad in L.A.”, Pat deliberately ignored her EQMM “pulp” connection to Chandler, mentioning Black Mask only to say that it “paid a penny a word,” and alluding only to her more “respectable” film connection with him.

5The American painter Edward Hopper, who shared Pat’s fascination with architecture and alienation, labored for fourteen years as an advertising illustrator. His advertising work influenced his American subjects in much the same way that working for the comics – and sourcing her fictional crimes from newspaper articles – colored Pat’s.

This entry was posted in Books, writers and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The Books: The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith, by Joan Schenkar

  1. april says:

    “I don’t think my books should be in prison libraries.” Hahahahaha

    This sounds great! I hope the book is even half as good as the review…

  2. george says:

    For some inexplicable reason I find it surprising and oddly reassuring that fiction featuring psychopathic behavior came from someone flirting with it in her personal life. If Ms. Highsmith had been a dotty little lady, avid gardener and member of the Lady’s Library Auxillary and the local Historical Society I don’t believe I’d have been at all surprised at the incongruity.

  3. sheila says:

    April – I so love that quote from her. She understood that her books are basically “how-tos” for budding psychopaths.

    Fascinating dame, quite awful, really – but LOVED the biography. Joan Schenkar is something. Her author photo shows her laughing and smoking a cigar. She fascinates me almost as much as Highsmith does. Many of her books chronicle the incestuous world of intellectual/artistic lesbians in the 1940s and 50s – a relatively small underground community with lots of overlap. I’d love to read her other stuff.

  4. sheila says:

    George – it was great to see where her inspiration came from: herself. Although she remains completely hidden, you can read the Ripley books as almost autobiographical, or at least a plea for understanding: “Here is what it is like to be me.”


    The fact that she was able to so accurately depict her own experience is evidence of her talent. The way people felt something was “off” with Tom Ripley, how they stayed away, sensing the danger – sensing they were in the presence of something “other” … and how much he wanted to belong. But he can’t – because he is missing essential parts of being human.

    Patricia Highsmith said it herself in a terrifying quote: “Everything human is alien to me.”

  5. Paul H. says:

    Sounds like a fascinating book and an even more fascinating woman. It’s great to find a biographer who is willing to play around with the form. To be honest, when the subject of a biography has not had a particularly remarkable childhood, I resent having to wade through five chapters of school prizes and traumatic trips to the seaside before I get to the good stuff. Schenkar’s approach sounds much better.

    As for comic boook writing, I can understand Highsmith’s later embarressment, but after all, the only categories of writing that matter are good vs bad, everything else is form. Salman Rushdie wrote advertising copy. He was good at it too, in the way that Highsmith was good at comic books. There’s nothing to be ashamed about. Pocket the money and write plays in the evening for goodness sake.

  6. sheila says:

    Paul – I totally agree with your last point. It’s hard when you’re actually in the thick of it though. I have a freelance writing job right now which is sucking my soul a bit, and makes me feel like I will never accomplish what I want to accomplish. But yes, I am taking the money and running!

    Patricia Highsmith was such a devious little person – she lied about so much – not just her comic books past … so it seems she always wanted to cloud everything about herself in mystery. I am still not sure what that is about – it may have to do with being gay in an era before you really could be “out” – so secrecy was paramount (although she didn’t seem too tormented – she just went about having love affairs and writing about them in her journals like any person would) … but I think there might be something in the need to hide such an essential part of herself. But I’m just speculating.

    And I agree: Joan Schenkar’s decision to structure the book based on giant THEMES, rather than biographical events, is one of the reasons I found it so compelling. Great stuff!

  7. I have read and enjoyed her books and especially loved the film Ripley’s Game based on her work. An extraordinary writer and individual.

  8. bybee says:

    Back in 2003, I read Andrew Wilson’s Beautiful Shadow, another bio of Patricia Highsmith. I was intrigued with what he presented but compared to The Talented Miss Highsmith, it seems like he barely scratched…no, make that barely touched her life. I must have this book.

  9. Doc Horton says:

    Well, I must say, in the photo opening this post, she certainly does look like she’s making sure there are no witnesses around to see what she is about to do to that cat.

  10. Catherine says:

    I actually just started reading Schenkar’s book about Dolly Wilde. Her style of biography is really unlike anyone else I’ve read: it seems tailor-made to her subjects. Also, I’m mesmerized by that top photo of Highsmith, the one where she’s holding a book and looking straight at the camera. She looks so young and fresh-faced and deviant.

  11. Robert says:

    Why had I not heard about Highsmith before???

  12. Robert says:

    (I’ve since read some of her stuff recently and am totally astonished.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.