The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar

The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith BY Joan Schenkar. St. Martin's Press. Hardcover, 704 pages. $40.
The cover of The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith

Did Patricia Highsmith and Susan Sontag ever meet? According to Joan Schenkar’s lively biography of the suspense writer, it seems the closest encounter the two ever had was in 1976, during Highsmith’s second visit to Berlin, where she heard Allen Ginsberg read his poetry and Sontag present a thirty-page paper about a recent trip to China: “Pat carried away with approval only Sontag’s firm declaration that she didn’t and wouldn’t belong to any writers’ group.” (Well, at least until Sontag became president of PEN American Center in 1989.) Had they actually met, these two women—whose (open) secret lives have become highly public since their deaths—surely would have complimented the other on her prodigious output during the months, years, and decades of dyke drama.

Unlike Andrew Wilson’s dutiful, nonjudgmental, occasionally dull 2003 study, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith (part of a burst of Highsmithiana in 2002–03 that also includes ex-girlfriend Marijane Meaker’s memoir Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s and Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith), Schenkar boldly forgoes tedious chronology, organizing Highsmith’s life by themes, or more accurately, obsession: “the obsessions that governed her life and inspired her writing.” No wonder the section entitled “Les Girls” encompasses fourteen chapters (and almost two hundred pages of the book). Those who insist on a Highsmith précis will be pleased with “Just the Facts,” a twenty-six-page appendix.

Yet by dispensing with traditional chronological structure, Schenkar is prone to repetition—and often rehashing marginalia, which may explain why her Highsmith biography is almost twice as long as Wilson’s. Schenkar twice describes both the specific kind of Barnard College (Highsmith’s alma mater) or Columbia University notebook the writer favored and the moment when Highsmith could only truly mourn her beloved maternal grandmother.

Schenkar, a playwright and the author of a biography of Dolly Wilde (Oscar’s niece), writes with force and passion, if occasionally tipping over into the ridiculous: “For Pat, Mars would always be in bed with Venus—and making war was the natural concomitant to making love.” Pat was in many beds, with many different women, particularly in the ’40s and ’50s, when she excelled at triangulation. She pleasured the ladies, broke hearts, threw punches, settled down, freaked out, drank, drank, and then drank some more. But no matter how chaotic her love life, Highsmith wrote five to eight pages every day—pages that would become Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Blunderer, and may other great works during her fifty-year career. Schenkar may cast an unsparing eye on Highsmith’s operatic personal affairs, but she knows that Pat the assiduous writer thrived on them.

Melissa Anderson is a frequent contributor to the Village Voice and is currently at work on a monograph of Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort for BFI Film Classics.