Today in Literary History – January 19, 1921 – novelist Patricia Highsmith is born

The great mystery and suspence writer Patricia Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas on January 19, 1921. Her parents divorced just ten days before her birth and Highsmith claimed that her mother later told her that she had tried to have her aborted.

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Highsmith continued to have a strained relationship with her mother and her stepfather for the rest of their lives. In the case of Highsmith’s mother this was a long time. She lived to be 95, dying just four years before Highsmith’s own death in 1995 at the age of seventy-four.

Highsmith completed her first novel, Strangers on a Train, in 1951 during a two month stay at the Yaddo writers retreat, an opportunity arranged by her friend Truman Capote.

The book — about two strangers who meet on a train and decide on the perfect crime, each man carrying out a murder for the other with air-tight alibis on both sides — was an immediate hit and was made into a movie the following year by Alfred Hitchcock. In her will Highsmith left her $3 million estate and all future royalties to Yaddo.

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Her second novel was partly based on her own experience of working in a New York department store as a struggling writer and falling in love with a glamorous older married women with whom she began a passionate affair.

Highsmith worried that publishing an openly lesbian-themed novel would hurt her career, so she released the book, The Price of Salt, under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. The novel sold over a million copies in paperback before Highsmith finally allowed an edition to be published under her own name in 1990, with the title Carol. In 2015 Todd Haynes directed the movie version, also called Carol, which was nominated for six Academy Awards.

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In all, Highsmith wrote 22 novels and many short stories. Her most famous book is The Talented Mr. Ripley, about a conman who murders an old college acquaintence in Europe and takes on his identity. It too was filmed several times, most notably the 1999 version starring Matt Damon. Highsmith wrote four more novels about Tom Ripley. Together they are known to fans as The Ripliad.

Highsmith suffered from depression and alcoholism most of her life and led a solitary, even reclusive existence. Her love affairs were mostly with married women and rarely lasted for long. She told an interviewer late in her life, “I choose to live alone because my imagination functions better when I don’t have to speak with people.” She did have a life-long affinity for cats, though.

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She was considered to be misanthropic and mean spirited by many who knew her, but others said they enjoyed her company and her dark humour.

I don’t know if I would have liked to have spent any time with her in person but I have spent many pleasurable hours with her in her sinister and charming novels.

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