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 1950 onward
Genre Suspense, psychological thriller, crime fiction
Subjects Murder; violence; obsession; insanity
Literary movement Modernist literature
Notable works Strangers on a Train; The Ripliad


Patricia Highsmith (19 January 1921 – 4 February 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 with Tom Ripley as protagonist, she wrote 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[edit]

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 (13 September 1895 – 12 March 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.[5][4] 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]


Highsmith was a lifelong diarist. She left bebind eight thousand pages of handwritten notebooks and diaries.[6] After graduating from college, she started applying for work in various magazines, such as Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, The New Yorker, Mademoiselle, Good Housekeeping and others, carrying "impressive" recommendations from "highly placed" professionals, and was getting rejected.[4] Her short stories started appearing eventually in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, in the early 1950s.

Comic books[edit]

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.[7] Under editor Leon Lazarus, she wrote romance comics for the Marvel Comics precursors Timely Comics and Atlas Comics.[7]

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."[8]


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.[9] It garnered attention as a lesbian novel because of its rare happy ending.[9] 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]

Film and television adaptations[edit]

One of the best-known film adaptations of Highsmith's novels is Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. A television remake in 1996, entitled Once You Meet a Stranger, changed the gender of both lead characters from male to female.

The first of the five Ripley novels, The Talented Mr. Ripley, inspired two film adaptations; a French production in 1960 entitled Plein soleil ("Purple Noon" in English), directed by René Clément, with Alain Delon as Ripley, and in 1999 an American production, directed by Anthony Minghella, with Matt Damon as Ripley. The earlier French version was criticized by both Highsmith and film critic Roger Ebert for implying that Ripley will be captured by the police.[10][11]

The second novel, Ripley Under Ground, was filmed in 2005, with Barry Pepper as Ripley, and directed by Roger Spottiswoode.

The third of the Ripley novels, Ripley's Game, was also filmed twice, first as the German 1977 film Der Amerikanische Freund with Dennis Hopper as Ripley and directed by Wim Wenders. The film incorporated elements of the second novel Ripley Under Ground.[12] Highsmith initially disliked the film but later changed her mind.[12]

Ripley's Game was filmed a second time as an English-language Italian production in 2002, with John Malkovich as Ripley and directed by Liliana Cavani. It was released in the US only on home video and not to theatres. Although not all critics were favorable, Roger Ebert regarded it as the best of all the Ripley films to date.[13]

Although five films have been adapted from three of the Ripley novels, to this date no actor has played Ripley more than once.

All twelve episodes of the 1990 television series Mistress of Suspense are based on stories by Patricia Highsmith. The series aired first in France, then in the United Kingdom. It is available in the US under the title Chillers. Each episode is introduced by Anthony Perkins.

Highsmith's Cry of the Owl was filmed twice in 1987, as a German television film (Der Schrei der Eule), and as a French theatrical film (Le cri du hibou) directed by Claude Chabrol.

A film adaption of The Price of Salt was released in 2015, titled Carol, directed by Todd Haynes, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

In 1978, Highsmith was president of the jury at the 28th Berlin International Film Festival.[14][4]

Personal life[edit]


Highsmith appearing on 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."[15]

Highsmith loved cats, and she bred about three hundred snails in her garden at home in Suffolk, England.[16] 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".[16]

"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."[17]

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."[17]

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.[9]


Highsmith had sexual relationships with women and men. She never married nor had children.

In 1943, Highsmith had an affair with artist Allela Cornell, who was to commit suicide in 1946 by drinking nitric acid[18] and, in 1949, with novelist Marc Brandel.[18]

In early September of 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 precisely on account of his homosexuality, confiding 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; it has been torn in half at the waist so that her genitalia and lower body are missing.[4] She dedicated her 1964 book, Two Faces of January, to Tietgens.

Between 1959 and 1961, she fell in love with Marijane Meaker,[19] who wrote under the pseudonyms of Vin Packer and Ann Aldrich but later wrote young adult fiction under the name M.E. Kerr.[19][20] In the late 1980s, after 27 years of separation, Highsmith began sharing correspondence with Meaker again, and one day she showed up on her doorstep, slightly drunk and ranting bitterly. Meaker subsequently recalled the "horror" she felt upon noticing the changes in Highsmith's personality by that point.[note 1]

Religious and racial views[edit]

Highsmith was a "consummate atheist". She was never comfortable with black people, and she was outspokenly anti-semitic – so much so that when she was living in Switzerland in the 1980s, she invented nearly 40 aliases, identities she used in writings sent 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[21] and Saul Bellow. Her work was assessed as having a "misogynist streak," [22] 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]


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 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] Her last novel, Small g: a Summer Idyll, was published a month after her death. Patricia Highsmith's literary estate is archived in the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern.[23]




Short-story collections[edit]

  • Eleven (1970; also known as The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories)
  • 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[edit]

  • 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[edit]


  1. ^ As 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 misogynism to be without foundation. (Lezard 2015)


  1. ^ "Mary P Highsmith in the United States Social Security Death Index, 4 February 1995
  2. ^ Dirda (2009)
  3. ^ Castle (2003)
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Schenkar (2008)
  5. ^ a b c Cohen (2010)
  6. ^ Schenkar (2011)
  7. ^ a b Lazarus (2009)
  8. ^ The Talented Mr. Ripley
  9. ^ a b c Dawson (2015)
  10. ^ Ebert (1996)
  11. ^ Wilson (May 2003)
  12. ^ a b Peary (1988)
  13. ^ Ebert (2006)
  14. ^ "Berlinale 1978: Jury members". 
  15. ^ Guinard (1991)
  16. ^ a b Currey (2013) p.12
  17. ^ a b Fierman (2000)
  18. ^ a b Wilson (July 2003)
  19. ^ a b de Bertodano (2003)
  20. ^ Meaker (2003)
  21. ^ Winterson (2009)
  22. ^ Walter (2003)
  23. ^ Swiss National Library, 2007


External links[edit]