Patricia Highsmith

Feature | Patricia Highsmith

Before you see Joanna Murray-Smith’s acclaimed tale of cat and mouse, read about the infamous author Patricia Highsmith, the central character in the thrilling new play Switzerland.

She was fond of cats, but her favourite animal was the snail. At one stage, when she was living in England in the sixties, the writer Patricia Highsmith kept three hundred of them. She told people she enjoyed watching them mate, which they did with a typical snail-like languor. She also liked the fact they were hermaphrodites; she felt a bit that way herself. But among the many fine qualities that snails have as pets, the one that gave her greatest pleasure was their ability to create a shocked, disgusted response in fellow diners when she pulled them out of her handbag and let them loose on the table.

Patricia Highsmith had a great deal of snail in her character: her hard shell covered an unpleasant creature. Even those who liked her – and there were surprisingly many – had trouble accounting for their affection and each found it easier to reel off a list of her vices than her virtues. She was a neurotic, alcoholic, workaholic shit-stirrer; one who ate very little, preferring to take her nourishment in booze, cigarettes and vituperation; a womaniser (if such a term describes her Don Juan-ish lesbianism) yet prone to frequent and disastrous infatuations; a ranting racist and anti-Semite; a millionaire skinflint obsessed with taxation, even after she moved to Switzerland; a morose loner; an obsessive hand-washer, clothes ironer and list-maker; a negligent host, an untrustworthy confidant and a quarrelsome dinner guest. It’s a cliché in magazine profiles of female crime and horror writers for the interviewer to express surprise that the creator of so much malevolence appears so sweet and civilised in real life. But those who got to know Pat Highsmith were never surprised that her stories dealt with psychopathy, morbidity and fear.

She was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1921, a few days after her parents divorced. Her mother, an illustrator, soon moved to New York and married Stanley Highsmith, who the young Patricia always hated, though she preferred his surname to Plangman, the one she was born with. She was a good student, went to Barnard College and became editor of the Barnard Quarterly in her senior year, supplying it with some of her earliest short-stories. After college, she took a job writing comic books, which was her main source of income until she broke through with her novel Strangers on a Train in 1950.

While she was growing up, her mother, Mary, with whom she always had a close, belligerent relationship, was always moving house, and Highsmith inherited her restlessness. In her hard-scrabble years, the moment she earned a little money she was off on a trip. She said the boredom of travel prompted her to make up stories and the places she visited often turned up in them. Later, she lived an ex-patriot life in England, France, and finally Switzerland, though she seemed never to have been content anywhere. In her emotional life, she was similarly both fancy-free and unhappy. A sultry and charismatic beauty in her youth, she picked up lovers like trinkets and could conduct a number of affairs at the one time, but she fell in love hard and often. The more she loved the more impossible she was to be with, a pull-push dynamic she probably learnt in her relationship with her mother.

Although her closest relationships were with women, the lead characters of her suspense novels were usually men, generally murderers whose impulses tended as much to the homoerotic as the homicidal. At the moment in The Talented Mr Ripley that Tom Ripley kills his first victim, Dickie Greenleaf, his feelings are bizarrely mixed: ‘He could have hit Dickie, sprung on him, or kissed him, or thrown him overboard.’ Highsmith had a creepy ability to inhabit the mind of her fictional psychopaths and take her readers fascinated to where they would rather not go. Her preferred element of suspense, her books’ driving tension, was the fear of being found out, understandable for a lesbian in the fifties. Highsmith, herself, remained closeted long after it was safe to come out. She wrote about lesbians only once, in her second novel, The Price of Salt (1952; recently adapted to film as Carol), and it’s as instructive to Highsmith’s character as to her plotting methods that the affair between a shopgirl and a sophisticated older woman is presented as an audacious crime, with the criminal heroines fleeing cross country pursued by a detective. Not wanting to be discovered herself, she published the novel under a pseudonym and denied authorship until very late in her life.

It was a highly productive life. She wrote twenty-five novels and published hundreds of short stories. Another two hundred and fifty unpublished manuscripts found after her death in 1995. These, as well as dozens of diaries and notebooks and thousands of letters (friends who had developed a low tolerance for her in the flesh still loved receiving her witty, civilised letters) attest to Highsmith’s fifty-year routine of getting up early and plying her craft until her target of eight typed pages was reached. Her earliest work, from the fifties and sixties, was her best. Alcoholism eventually flattened the prose and dulled the invention, just as it destroyed the charismatic beauty that made her such a femme fatale in her twenties and thirties. Cigarettes and self-starvation combined with the booze to contribute to two lethal diseases, lung cancer and aplastic anaemia, which competed to kill her in her final years. She died alone in a hospital bed in Locarno, Switzerland. Her only visitor, the day before she died, was her accountant.

Switzerland plays at Southbank Theatre 17 September-29 October. Book now.
A Sydney Theatre Company Production.

This is an excerpt from the Switzerland programme. For more features, interviews and cast information, you can purchase a programme from our friendly theatre staff at your next performance. Photo of Patricia Highsmith appearing on television program After Dark on 18 June 1988 by Open Media Ltd 1988.

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