Rowena Morcom, Editor of gr, takes a look into the life of thriller-writing legend Patricia Highsmith, who loved snails – and not much else. She was a cantankerous genius with a black humour that wove its way into 22 novels, most notably ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’.
I have just discovered Patricia Highsmith. I am her new best fan (although she died in 1995). I recently saw a play, Switzerland, which was loosely based on the last days of Highsmith’s life. She is a novelist who I had never read, so before the play I did some research on her. would have loved to have met her. She would have been captivating company– although maybe not particularly pleasant.
Patricia Highsmith was renowned for her harsh humour that cut to the bone. She was destructive – even cruel – fearless, and a beer-drinking alcoholic. She could sometimes be funny, had a mind like a steel trap, and she could be purposefully provocative. She has been called a ‘cultured eccentric’, and for good reason. She loved woodworking and made many pieces of furniture. She also loved snails. Yes, snails. She had ginormous terrariums in her yard where they lived and bred. One night she carried about 100 of the slippery molluscs on a lettuce head that she kept in her handbag. Their stalked eyes would wave around, ogling at guests during a cocktail party while they happily munched on the lettuce leaves.
She came from tough beginnings. Her father and mother separated before she was born. Highsmith apparently said that her mother told her that she drank turpentine to bring on an abortion. Another story had her father encouraging her mother to have an abortion. Her grandmother had taught her to read, and when Highsmith was12 her mother sent her to live with the grandmother, who had a huge library. A world of books opened up to her, and she became fascinated by case studies of people with psychiatric conditions. But being sent to live with her grandmother left her with a terrible sense of abandonment, which must have destined her to struggle emotionally as an adult.
She kept a diary throughout her life. In her childhood diaries she wrote amusingly about her neighbours, imagining that they had psychological problems and harboured secret intentions to murder behind their veneer of normal behaviour.
Whatever her other shortcomings were, she was a good writer. She started as a comic book writer and would go on to write 22 novels as well as eight books of short stories that were marked by her black humour and a macabre undertone. Alfred Hitchcock made a classic film from her 1950 book, Strangers on a Train and her ‘Ripley’ series is still widely read today. She was loved in Europe but dismissively tagged in the US as ‘just a crime writer’, a term that she hated and which excluded her from the literary set. This lack of respect from the publishing world tormented her.
I find it so sad that as she became older she seemed to shut out the world and grow more embittered. Fellow crime writer Otto Penzler said of her, ‘I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly.’
She suffered with her sexuality, feeling like a man trapped in a woman’s body at a time when being a lesbian led to ostracism. Dressing mostly in jeans and loafers, she had a tough exterior and had large hands and feet. She didn’t like eating – beer and soup were the staples of her diet – and she much preferred the company of her cats and snails to that of people. Friends called her ‘needy’, ‘unlovable’ and ‘tormented’.
She burnt so many friendships throughout her life and ended up isolated and lonely. In 1995 she died at the age of 74 and left her $3 million dollar estate to an artists’ colony in New York called Yaddo, which still exists today.
It was clearly a difficult life, but what good writing it produced!