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Who the F Is … Author Patricia Highsmith?

Who the F Is … Author Patricia Highsmith?

Who the F Is … Author Patricia Highsmith?

This week, in our series on women you should know, we feature the author of the groundbreaking lesbian romance The Price of Salt.

Who she was: The acclaimed author of novels including The Talented Mr. Ripley, Strangers on a Train, and the lesbian classic The Price of Salt as well as many short stories.

What she accomplished: Highsmith (1921-1995) was “America’s great expatriate noir novelist,” according to biographer Joan Schenkar. Those noir novels include the various tales of the deadly Tom Ripley and the murder-swapping story Strangers on a Train.Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt, and The Talented Mr. Ripley are hypnotic and amoral novels, pushing past any genre, unsettling the reader and using the limitations of her prose style — her karate-chop syntax — to create a powerful effect,” Jeanette Winterson observed in a New York Times review of Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith. Some of her works were groundbreaking as well. The Price of Salt, published in 1952, was a lesbian romance with a (relatively) happy ending, quite rare for the time. Highsmith originally published it under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan.

In her own life, Highsmith had many lesbian romances, plus a few affairs with men. She was a gifted writer but in some ways an unpleasant, prejudiced, and often deceptive person, the latter undoubtedly due at least in part to the need to conceal her sexuality. “Concealment was her game, and her way of life,” Winterson wrote. “Dating three women at a time was not difficult for her.” Bookseller Otto Penzler called Highsmith “a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being,” although he thought her books were “brilliant.” Publishing executive Gary Fisketjon was a bit more positive about her. “She was very rough, very difficult,” he once told Entertainment Weekly. “But she was also plainspoken, dryly funny, and great fun to be around.” In Winterson’s opinion, “Her emotional shaping came from her sexuality and from her turbulent relations with her mother and stepfather.” Highsmith, born in Texas, eventually escaped her family for New York and then England, France, and finally Switzerland, where she died in 1995.

Highsmith’s works have been much adapted for film. Best known are the 1999 version of The Talented Mr. Ripley and its French predecessor, 1960’s Purple Noon, and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film of Strangers on a Train. Screenwriter Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove) is making his directorial debut with an adaptation of The Two Faces of January, starring Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortensen, due out next year. Also due next year, and doubtlessly eagerly awaited by SheWired readers, is Carol, based on The Price of Salt and using the book’s alternate title. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara star, under Todd Haynes’s direction.

Many of Highsmith’s books are still in print, and to find out more about her life, check out Schenkar’s well-received 2009 biography.

Choice quote: “I learned to live with a grievous and murderous hatred very early on. And learned to stifle also my more positive emotions.”

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