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

by Joan Schenkar

Hardcover, 2009




St. Martin's Press (2009), Edition: First Edition, 704 pages


Reveals the dark private life of the successful twentieth-century writer, chronicling her Texas origins through her self-exile in Europe and offering insight into the influence of Tom Ripley and the Hitchcock film inspired by her first novel.


½ (32 ratings; 3.7)

Media reviews

Schenkar’s writing is witty, sharp and light-handed, a considerable achievement given the immense detail of this ­biography. Highsmith was a detail junkie. Schenkar’s nonlinear organizing method was a brilliant idea to save herself — and the reader — from data overload. This is a
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biography of clarity and style. A model of its kind.
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In addition to its impressive sweep, this biography also values minutiae. An exacting inventory of the contents of Highsmith’s office captures every mundane object, right down to the goat’s bell and the Wite-Out pencil. Highsmith loved details like that. And Ms. Schenkar shows an uncannily keen
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grasp of Highsmith’s spirit.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member corinneblackmer
In order to enter into the dark, duplicitous, driven, and, in several respects, admirably disciplined life of her subject, Patricia Highsmith, the biographer, Joan Schenkar, uses an unusual, semi-non-chronological form that continues to tell the story of Highsmith's life. The chapters are like
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facets in a jewel rather than installments in a chronological account, This makes this book ideal for browsing about it, for it is long, and it also makes the subject infinitely more interesting, for when I reconsidered the matter I realized that I would have found Highsmith's obsessive repetitiveness wearisome. I wish there had been more about the artistic achievements of what I consider her greatest works, including _Strangers on a Train_, _The Price of Salt_ and _The Talented Mr. Ripley. But the lengthy discussion of Highsmith's work in the comics (which she hid in shame) and the long disquisitions on Highsmith's wretched anti-Jewish animus were fascinating and bleak.
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LibraryThing member carl.rollyson
Patricia Highsmith is best known for her "Ripliad" -- five novels featuring an engaging murderer, Tom Ripley. This criminally attractive man is the enemy of all things conventional, as was his creator.

Moments before her death, Highsmith urged a visiting friend to leave, repeating, "Don't stay,
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don't stay." Highsmith wanted nothing more than to die alone, according to her biographer, who concludes, "Everything human was alien to her."

Highsmith, a native Texan, was born restless, her mother said. The novelist kept moving to new venues all over Europe, acquiring and discarding female lovers and denouncing all of them. They were poor substitutes for the mother she loved and hated.

This mother fixation was just one of the Highsmith passions that provoke biographer Joan Schenkar to eschew a chronological narrative. Instead, the chapters in "The Talented Miss Highsmith" (St. Martin's Press, $35) are organized around Highsmith's obsessions.

The result of this unorthodox approach is an intricate, novel-like structure that suits Schenkar's own wit. Highsmith's mother, Mary, makes several entertaining entrances -- for example, arriving in London to see her daughter "with rather less warning than the Blitz."

"Miss Highsmith" is full of wonderfully realized scenes, like the opening chapter describing with mesmerizing, miraculous detail exactly how Highsmith composed her work. She gripped her "favorite Parker fountain pen, hunched her shoulders over her roll-top desk -- her oddly jointed arms and enormous hands were long enough to reach the back of the roll while she was still seated."

Highsmith's love life is described with loving specificity garnered from sources who do not wish to be identified by their real names.

"In the delicate balance of competing truths that biography is always on the verge of upsetting, both the living and dead deserve a little protection from each other," Schenkar writes.

This panoply of lovers is new material not to be found in other books, which also failed to unearth Highsmith's surprising seven-year career writing for comic books.

For those who want the straight dope, there is a substantial appendix titled "Just the Facts." But Schenkar is at pains to reiterate that Highsmith did not develop over time; indeed, the biographer notes that Highsmith "forged chronologies to give order to her life, altering the record of her life and the purport of her writing to do so."

You don't have to buy Schenkar's thesis. In "Beautiful Shadow," Andrew Wilson produced a rather good chronological biography of Highsmith.

Nevertheless, Schenkar's methods and deep research into Highsmith's deceptive practices have yielded one of the year's best literary lives, which is also a bracing rebuke to the usual way we read biography.
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LibraryThing member la.grisette
Much like (I imagine) Patricia Highsmith herself, this biography is best consumed in binge doses, set down for long periods of time, dabbled in, put down again, binged on, repeat...

The chapters are organized thematically instead of chronologically, which saves Schenkar (and the reader) the chore of
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reiterating uninteresting details in order to draw connections.

For the die-hard Highsmith fan--maybe 70/30 salacious gossip/cultural & literary context.
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LibraryThing member SigmundFraud
I think that Highsmith complicated the story more than was necessary which detracted from the work. It is overwritten but a compelling story. I watched the two movies based on this book. I thought the American film was better than the French film and more true to the book. This is the first
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Highsmith I have read so I have no basis for comparison to her other works. I ordered THE BLUNDERER from Amazon bc a friend told me that it was very good and less complicated. but I don't want to discourage you to read the work bc it is worth the effort.
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Lambda Literary Award (Finalist — Lesbian Memoir/Biography — 2010)
Edgar Award (Nominee — Critical/Biographical Work — 2010)
Anthony Award (Nominee — 2010)
Publishing Triangle Awards (Finalist — Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction — 2010)
Agatha Award (Nominee — Non-Fiction — 2009)
ALA Over the Rainbow Book List (Selection — Memoir/Biography — 2011)


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Physical description

704 p.; 6.73 inches


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