Stranger Than Fiction – Spotlight on an Author

“My New Year’s Eve Toast: to all the devils, lusts, passions, greeds, envies, loves, hates, strange desires, enemies ghostly and real, the army of memories, with which I do battle — may they never give me peace.”  Those are not the comments of a demented villain in a thriller, but rather an entry that author Patricia Highsmith made in her personal journal at 2:30 a.m. on New Year’s Eve 1947.  She was 26 years old, and in less than three years would publish her first book – a psychological thriller entitled Strangers on a Train.  A year after that Alfred Hitchcock would make a memorable movie based on the book.

She would go on to write many more very strange novels, and would lead a decidedly unconventional life filled with hundreds of short-lived love affairs (mostly with women), disagreements with friends and business associates, strange fantasies and desires that she turned into novels and short stories, and lots and lots of alcohol and cigarettes.  She was a very pretty woman when she was young, but photographs of her late in life show a woman who looks burned out, and unhappy.Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith 2Pat Highsmith began life in Fort Worth, Texas on January 19, 1921.  Her parents, Jay and Mary Plangman separated nine days before her birth, and she lived with her maternal grandparents off and on for much of her childhood.  In 1924 her mother married Stanley Highsmith, and they moved in with Pat and her grandparents.  Pat instantly hated her stepfather, and harbored homicidal thoughts about him.  Her relationship with her mother wasn’t much better.  Though they were not estranged, every meeting seems to have been unpleasant.  After a visit in 1970 her mother wrote to Pat saying, “My doctors say if you had stayed 3 more days I would be dead.”

Like most of her life, her start in writing was unconventional: she worked as a writer for various comic books.  Her first job, in 1943, was with Richard E. Hughes who created the superhero Black Terror.  After a year with Hughes, she became a freelance comic scripter for six years.  Highsmith was one of the few women employed in that profession at the time.

She also worked in Bloomingdale’s department store for a while.  One day she waited on a beautiful married woman named Kathleen Wiggins Senn, and instantly fell in love with her.  She found out where she lived and stalked her (as she did some of her lovers), though she never met Senn again.  However, her erotic fantasies about Senn were the basis for The Price of Salt (1952), a novel about a lesbian relationship that ends happily.  Since books about lesbians – especially with happy endings – were taboo at the time, she wrote under a pseudonym.

Highsmith’s love affairs never lasted long in part, at least, because of her often unpleasant personality.  And it didn’t help that she would have affairs with her lovers and her lover’s friends at the same time.  Through her novels and short stories she often took revenge on her ex-lovers by basing characters on them, and having all sorts of horrible things happen to them.  A dog in one of her stories was named after the dog owned by one of her exes.  As you have probably guessed, the dog was killed in the story.

Her other relationships didn’t fare well either.  She frequently changes both U.S. and European publishers due to disagreements.  If she submitted a manuscript and her publisher rejected it or if her publisher tried to edit it too much, she wrote that publisher off and moved along to another one.  She also changed her will numerous times as her love for various people in her life turned to hatred.  Some people considered her to be a misanthrope, and I think that’s a fair assessment of her.

You are probably most familiar with Highsmith through her “Ripliad” – a series of five novels about the talented and totally amoral Tom Ripley.  The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), the first and best known novel in the series, was made into a movie starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jude Law in 1999.  An excellent French movie version of the same book was released in 1960.   Plein Soleil (Purple Noon is its English title) had a slightly different plot line from the novel, and featured a surprise ending that I found fascinating.  The movie starred a relatively new French actor named Alain Delon as Tom Ripley.

One has to wonder how much she and Tom Ripley had in common especially since she sometimes signed herself “Tom/Pat,” identified herself as “Pat H, alias Ripley,” and wrote, “I often felt that Ripley was writing it” [the novel].

 Now that you have an image in your mind of what Highsmith was like, it may surprise you to learn that she and one of her lovers, Doris Sanders, published a book for children in 1958 entitled Miranda the Panda is on the Veranda.  Sanders and Highsmith wrote the book and Highsmith provided the illustrations.

One of her many peculiarities was her love for snails.  Her fascination seems to have begun in 1946 when she saw two snails copulating in a fish market in New York City.  She took them home with her, and later wrote, “I admire snails for their self-sufficiency. . . . I usually take five or six of my favorites with me when I go on holiday.”  At one point when she lived in England she kept 300 snails as pets.

Patricia Highsmith died from aplastic anemia and lung and adrenal gland cancer on February 4, 1995 in Locarno, Switzerland. She was 74.  She left here $3 million estate to Yaddo, an artist colony in Sarasota Springs, New York.

Many authors are “different,” but she went far beyond “different.”  “Obsessions are the only things that matter,” she said.  “Perversion interests me most and is my guiding darkness”

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