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||Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) - Mary Patricia (née Plangman, stepfather's name Highsmith); has also written as Claire Morgan|
American mystery writer, whose works were especially successful in Europe. Highsmith has explored the psychology of guilt and abnormal behavior in a world without firm moral ground. Often her novels deal with questions of fading identity and double personality. She also published several volumes of short stories in the fields of fantasy, horror, and comedy. Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train was based on Highsmith's novel. Her series character, Tom Ripley, has inspired several films.
"But the beauty of the suspense genre is that a writer can write profound thoughts and have some sections without physical action if he wishes to, because the framework is an essentially lively story. Crime and Punishment is a splendid example of this. In fact, I think most of Dostoyevsky's books would be called suspense books, were they being published today for the first time. But he would be asked to cut, because of production costs." (from Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, 1966)
Patricia Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas, but she grew up in New York. Her parents, who separated before she was born, were both commercial artists. Her father was of German descent and she did not meet him until she was twelve – the surname Highsmith was from her stepfather. For much of her early life, she was cared for by her maternal grandmother. Her great-grandmother Willi Mae was "a Scot, very practical, though with a great sense of humor, and very lenient with me," Highsmith later recalled.
Highsmith was educated at Julia Richmond Highschool in New York and at Columbia, where she studied English, Latin and Greek, earning her B.A. in 1942. According to some sources, Highsmith spent some time providing story-lines for the comics after leaving college. It is believed she worked on scripts for Black Terror and possibly Captain America.
Highsmith showed artistic talent from an early age – she painted and remained talented sculptor, but she had determined to be a writer. She had written as a teenager stories and edited the school magazine at Barnard College, and after leaving college she worked with comic books, supplying the writers with plots. Before her first book, Highsmith had a number of jobs, including that of a saleswoman at a New York Store.
As a writer Highsmith made her debut with Strangers on a Train (1950). It depicts two men, an architect and a psychopath, who meet on a train, and "swap" murders. "Any kind of person can murder. Purely circumstances and not a thing to do with temperament! People get so far – and it takes just the least little thing to push them over the brink. Anybody. Even your grandmother. I know." (from Strangers on a Train) Highsmith developed the idea further in The Blunderer (1954), where a man's wife dies accidentally but people become suspicious when he regularly visits another who had murdered his wife. "Some people are better off dead -like your wife and my father, for instance," states Bruno, the rich psychopath and proceeds to carry out his part of the bargain. This work set the tone for her following novels, in which two different worlds intersect and the border between normal and abnormal persons is seen vague and perhaps nonexistent.
The cunningly plotted melodrama inspired the director Alfred Hitchcock who made it into film. Both the book and the film are considered classic in the suspense field. The story has also been filmed later, in 1969 under the title Once You Kiss a Stranger, directed by Robert Starr. It did not gain much attention, but Danny DeVito' spinn-off Throw Momma From the Train (1987), which turned the story into black comedy, was better received.
Highsmith's The Price of Salt (1953) appeared under the pseudonym Claire Morgan after her publishers had turned it down. The homosexual love story between a married woman and a shopgirl was in its time unusual and sold almost million copies. In 1991, the book was reissued with an afterword under the title Carol. Highsmith dealt with sexual minorities in her other works, and her final novel, Small G: A Summer Idyll (1995), depicted a bar in Zurich, where a number of homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual characters are in love with the wrong people. The novel was rejected by her usual publisher, Knopf. Highsmith herself had a number of lesbian affairs, but in 1949 she also become close to the novelist Marc Brandel. Between 1959 and 1961, Highsmith had a relationship with Marijane Meaker, who wrote under the pseudonym M.E. Kerr.
Tom Ripley, Highsmith's most popular character, is a small-time con man and bisexual
serial killer, who was introduced to the world in The Talentet Mr. Ripley (1955). The critic and awarded mystery writer H.R.F. Keating included the work in his Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books
(1987). In its foreword Highsmith wrote: "I now have a different view
of Cornell Woolrich, thanks to the two pages on him here. Keating
describes The Bride Wore Black, and Woolrich's curious and
indirect methods of laying out his plot and his clues. A homosexual who
apparently lived in the closet, Woolrich shared a life in residential
hotels with a mother whom he both loved and hated. Could anything be
worse?" At the beginning of the story, Ripley is a small-time grifter
in New York, and in the end he is a double murderer. Ripley meets a
worried rich father, whose stay-away son, Richard, lives in Europe. He
is willing to finance Tom's trip to Europe to contact him. In Italy, he
ends up killing his rich friend in a boat at San Remo, and assumes his
identity. Then he kills one of Richard's friends.
Without conscience, Ripley is incapable of remorse. He survives against all odds, like a strange, new kind of creature. The book was first filmed in 1960 under the title Plein Soleil (Purple Noon), directed by René Clément, starring Alain Delon. The likeable amateur murderer Ripley inspired the Wim Wenders film The American Friend (1977), starring Dennis Hopper, Bruno Ganz, Samuel Fuller, and Nicholas Ray. In the story Ripley becomes involved with the Mafia and he uses a non-professional hit-man, whose fate is sealed.
In Anthony Minghella's film from 1999 Highsmith's homosexual subtext is not hidden. In the story a millionaire asks Ripley to track down his son, Dickie, who is living in Italy. The prodigal son and Ripley became friends, but when Dickie wants to get rid of his new associate, Ripley starts to lie and kill to continue the high life he has found so attractive. Dickie vanishes, and Ripley appropriates his identity for fun, to keep up his lifestyle and to fill the emptiness of his weak character.
Ripley became Highsmith's most enduring character, who could be a sadist and an understanding husband, a parody of
upper-class mentality and a criminal only by force of circumstances. "Murder, in Patricia Highsmith's hands, is
made to occur almost as casually as the bumping of a fender or a bout
of food poisoning," wrote Roberts Towers in The New York Review of Books.
The thrill of the novels is based on the problem, how Ripley is going to get away again with his crime. Like Dorian Gray,
he lives a double life, but
remains unpunished for his actions.
After The Talented Mr. Ripley the ambivalent hero appeared in several sequels, among them Ripley Under Ground (1970), in which he both masquerades as a dead painter and kills an art collector, Ripley's Game (1974), a story of revenge, in which Ripley is paired with a first-time murderer, The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), and Ripley Under Water (1991), the final Ripley adventure, in which Ripley is pursued by a sadistic American, who knows too much of his past. This time Ripley doesn't kill anybody. "The feeling of menace behind most Highsmith novels, the sense that ideas and attitudes alien to the reasonable everyday ordering of society are being suggested, has made many readers uneasy. One closes most of her books -- and her equally powerful and chilling short stories -- with a feeling that the world is more dangerous than one had imagined." (Julian Symons in The New York Times, October 18, 1992)
As a reclusive person, Highsmith spent most of her life alone, with only her cat, Charlotte, for company. "People forget that she was a very conservative person," said the American playwright Phyllis Nagy, "she wasn't bohemian like Jane Bowles and she did hold some very weird and contradictory views." The publisher Otto Penzler, who admired her work and brought her in the mid-1980s to New York, described her as the most unloving and unlovable person he have ever known.
In 1957, Highsmith won the French Grand Prix de Litterature
Policiere and the British Crime Writers Association awarded her in 1964
a Silver Dagger. In 1979, she received the Grand Master award by the
Swedish Academy of Detection. Although writing remained her true
passion, she also showed talent as an artist and sculptress. Highsmith
permanently to Europe in 1963, living in East Anglian and France. Her
final years Highsmith spent in an isolated house near Locarno on the
Swiss-Italian border. She never abandoned her Texan background,
dressing in 34-inch-waist Levis, sneakers and neckerchiefs. Highsmith
died in Switzerland on February 4, 1995. Highsmith left the bulk of her
estate to the Saratoga Springs writers' colony, Yaddo, where she had
first lived in 1948 while working on Strangers on a Train.
Highsmith's works outside mystery genre include a juvenile book, short
stories, and non-fiction. In Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction
(1966) she stated that "art has nothing to do with morality, convention
or moralizing." Several of Highsmith's works fall out from the mystery
genre and her crime novels often have more to do with psychology than
conventional plotting. "Her peculiar brand of horror comes less from
the inevitability of disaster, than from the ease with which it might
have been avoided. The evil of her agents is answered by the impotence
of her patients – this is not the attraction of opposites, but in some
subtle way the call of like to like. When they finally clash in the
climactic catastrophe, the reader's sense of satisfaction may derive
from sources as dark as those which motivate Patricia Highsmith's
destroyers and their fascinated victims." (Francis Wyndham in Lesbian and Bisexual Fiction Writers, ed. by Harold Bloom, 1997)
Harrison has argued that Highsmith's fiction demonstrates elements of
existentialism as linked to Sartre and Camus, and reflects
sociopolitical concerns to the gay and lesbian issues of 1980s and
1990s. Graham Greene has remarked that the world of a Patricia
Highsmith novel is "claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each
time with a sense of personal danger." A recurring theme is our distorted view of reality. Edith's Diary
(1977) dealt with a woman who creates in his diary an illusion of a
perfect world. Eventually the imaginary replaces the real. This novel,
which was a critical success, featured Highsmith's first female
protagonist since A Taste of Salt.