Friday, June 17, 2016

Pride Month Profile: Patricia Highsmith

Mary Patricia Plangman, aka Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995)

You had to overlook a lot to be Patricia Highsmith’s friend. She was a world-class oddball, a venomous anti-Semite, a racist, and virulently anti-American. She drank and smoked as if liquor and cigs were about to go extinct, was terrible at emotional relationships, and had- in her heyday- a shocking turn of mind towards violence.

Yet, as Webster said of Dartmouth, there were those who loved her. One was Phyllis Nagy, who was a friend in the last decade of Highsmith’s life and, after twenty years’ effort, saw her screenplay of Highsmith’s novel, Carol, make a triumphant film debut early this year.

“Carol” inspired a Highsmith boomlet, though her name has rarely been out of currency since she died in 1995. Her 22 books and eight short story collections seem more and more relevant. Since her first, Strangers on a Train, came out in 1950, they have begged to be filmed; Hitchcock snapped up the rights and had it in theaters within a year. Her Tom Ripley stories have generated five movie adaptations, all considering her psychopathic masterwork from different angles. “Carol”  brought to the screen Highsmith’s sui generis romance novel.

Highsmith got a lot of ideas just working through her childhood. Her Fort Worth, Texas family was the Comstock Lode of cray-cray. Her artist parents divorced ten days after she was born; her mother told her she had tried to induce an abortion by drinking turpentine.

At six Patricia, her mother and her new stepfather moved to New York City, where the child resented the man for coming between her and her mother. Highsmith proved a hellish-enough teen to be sent back to Texas for a miserable year with her grandmother, and blamed her mother for abandoning her.

Always a voracious reader, by nine Patricia had found herself in a case study in one of the Freudian analyst Karl Menninger's books. As an adult, she won an Edgar nomination for a story about a small boy who murders his mother.

She graduated Barnard College, having studied writing there, and was promptly turned down for employment by all the leading New York magazines. She landed a job cranking out comic book stories- two a day, $55 a week. Her work alternated between graphic treatments of heroes like air ace Eddie Rickenbacker and the superhero Captain Midnight.

She went freelance and did well enough to live in Mexico for a time, with plenty of free time to pursue her own stories. She summed up her general view of the work by making one of Tom Ripley’s first victims a comic book artist.

In the late 1940s, Highsmith was engaged to a man she sort of liked, but hated having sexual relations with. Because in those days, it was what one did, she underwent a year of twice-weekly sessions with a psychiatrist to get into a fit state for marriage.

It didn’t work. When her analyst suggested that she join a therapy group of “married women who are latent homosexuals,” Highsmith wrote in her diary, “Perhaps I shall amuse myself by seducing a couple of them.” She never married.

After Strangers on a Train, Highsmith’s sophomore novel was a complete departure. The Price of Salt was a lesbian romance, based on her encounter, working in a New York department store, with a society wife. After she sold the woman a toy, and arranged for its delivery to her home, Highsmith went home and mapped out the novel in outline, in one evening. It appeared in 1952, under the Coward-McCann imprint; Harper’s- her regular publisher, turned it down, even though she wanted it issued under a pseudonym. They wanted another thriller, not a marketing headache.

It sold pretty well, and got good reviews, to the extent such books were reviewed at all in the early 1950s. Lesbianism barely existed in the oddly-blinkered public mind, where it was possible for two women to live together without a hint of the suspicion an unmarried couple, or two men, would have engendered. To the extent lesbians did exist, their lives were the province of pulp paperbacks. The novelist Jeanette Winterson says the niche was a narrow one:
Such novels were often written by gay women, who tried to allow their heroines some honest enjoyment within the confines of the genre, which required its busty Sapphists to find real love with a man, go mad, or commit suicide.
Despite being more literary than the average lesbian paperback, The Price of Salt enjoyed remarkable word of mouth, and when Bantam brought it out in paperback in 1953, it sold over a million copies at twenty-five cents each. For decades, it was the only “happy ending” lesbian novel in print. It was Highsmith’s only romance, and the only work of hers in which nobody died.

For her part, Highsmith, who was a wizard of seduction but could never close the deal on a long-term relationship, stiff-armed the book, dismissing it as the hackwork of an unknown writer. She wasn’t ashamed of being a lesbian, she just didn’t want to get pigeonholed as a lesbian writer. Come to that she wasn’t that keen on women, most of the time. One of her story collections was titled, Little Tales of Misogyny.

Highsmith wrote constantly- she left over eight thousand pages of diaries- and found a welcoming home for her stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for decades. After 1963 she lived in Europe, where her privacy was secure and her mother was an ocean away. The two loved and loathed each other; they couldn’t stand each other, yet longed for each other’s company. Mrs. Highsmith was jealous of her daughter’s success and found endless fault with her daughter’s every aspect. Armed with a mother’s deadly knowledge of striking where it would hurt most, she did- over, and over, and over- until she died, when Highsmith was seventy.

A year later, Highsmith penned the foreword to a new edition of The Price of Salt under her own name, and the title, Carol. After forty years, she relaxed, ever so slightly.

Highsmith cultivated her eccentricities with a will. She was a cat lady, and kept snails in her garden as pets. She was known for turning up at cocktail parties with a head of lettuce in her handbag, sustenance for a hundred or so of her preferred companions for the evening.

She won high literary awards in France, and three Edgar nominations in America. She appeared from time to time on the BBC, and one year chaired the jury of the Berlin Film Festival. In old age, her addictions left her looking, for all the world, like W.H Auden in drag, and she tended to hole up in a fortress-like house in Switzerland. The last person to see her alive was her accountant; no one attended her memorial service.

#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #Charlotte #PrideMonth #LGBTAuthors

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