Author Patricia Highsmith wrote her first stories in high school. After graduating from Barnard College in 1942, she published several short stories in magazines before the release of her first novel Strangers on a Train (1950). Her next work, The Price of Salt, was a huge hit, but it was published under the pen name Claire Morgan. Her most famous character, Tom Ripley, made his debut in 1955’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Ripley Under Water (1991) was her last published work. She died in 1995.
Early Life and Career
Born Mary Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921, novelist Patricia Highsmith is remembered for such dark, suspenseful tales as Strangers on the Train (1952) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955). Her parents Mary and Jay had divorced nine days before she was born. All her life, Highsmith struggled in her relationship to her mother. She grew up knowing that her mother had tried to end her pregnancy, as she told the New York Times. “She drank turpentine before I was born trying to have a miscarriage.” But Highsmith insisted that she “didn’t mind” about the failed abortion.
Her family situation didn’t improve with her mother’s marriage to Stanley Highsmith in 1924. While she took her stepfather’s last name, she never got along with him. She couldn’t stand the way he and her mother bickered. A voracious reader, Highsmith found solace in books. Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales about the detective Sherlock Holmes were some of her early favorites. She also developed an interest in abnormal psychology and read the case studies featured in The Human Mind by Dr. Karl Menninger while still in elementary school.
Highsmith attended Julia Richman High School in New York City. She published some of her first stories in the school’s magazine. In 1938, Highsmith began her studies at Barnard College. There she worked on the college’s literary publication. After graduating in 1942, she looked for a job in publishing and eventually landed work writing several different comic book series. Highsmith used her free time to work on her fiction and published short stories in several magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar.
Much Admired Author
Recommended by friend Truman Capote, Highsmith was invited to hone her craft at the famous writers’ colony Yaddo in upstate New York. There she worked on what would become her debut novel, Strangers on a Train (1950). The story follows two characters, Bruno and Guy, who have a chance encounter on a train. They reach a deadly pact, each agreeing to kill someone for the other. Legendary director Alfred Hitchcock adapted the book into a film the following year.
In 1952, Highsmith published a novel that she chose to release under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. The novel, The Price of Salt (later published as Carol), follows the relationship between a married woman and the young shop girl she falls in love with. This sensational tale of a lesbian love affair became a best seller, but Highsmith didn't reveal herself as its author until much later. This move reflected the prejudices of the times as well as her own struggles with her sexuality. She had a few relationships with men, but her most meaningful romances were with women. Biographer Joan Schenkar, author of The Talented Miss Highsmith, told the New Yorker that “Pat had a penchant for married women who stayed with their husbands and kept their affairs with Pat secret.”
With 1955’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, Highsmith created one of literature’s most fascinating characters. Tom Ripley, a charming psychopath, stops at nothing to assume another person’s identity—not even murder. Highsmith went on to write several more Ripley novels over the years, finishing up with 1991’s Ripley Under Water. Highsmith continued to explore the darker aspects of humanity in her work with such works as Deep Water (1957) and This Sweet Sickness (1960). While many viewed her as a crime writer, Highsmith didn’t like that title. She told the New York Times that she wanted “to be considered a good entertainer. But each book is, in a sense, an argument with myself, and I would write it, whether it is ever published or not.”
In the early 1960s, she moved to Europe where her career continued to thrive. She eventually became better known abroad than in her native country, writing The Tremor of Forgery (1969) and Edith’s Diary (1977) among other novels. Highsmith settled in Switzerland in the early 1980s where she lived for the rest of her life.
Death and Legacy
Highsmith published her final novel, Ripley Under Water, in 1991. Four years later, she died on February 4, 1995, in Locarno, Switzerland. She left behind 20 novels and 7 short story collections as well as countless personal journals. These journals gave later biographers insight into the reserved, publicity-shy author’s work and life. Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith (2003) by Andrew Wilson and The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith (2009) by Joan Schenkar both draw from Highsmith’s own notes. Marijane Meaker, a girlfriend of Highsmith’s, wrote about their relationship, in the 2003 memoir Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s.
Although she passed away more than 20 years ago, Highsmith’s stories remain compelling today. Her most popular character, Tom Ripley, has been featured on the big screen several times, most recently in the 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley starring Matt Damon. In 2015 The Price of Salt was also made into a feature film, under the title Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.
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