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

3.47 of 5 stars 3.47  ·  rating details  ·  383 ratings  ·  114 reviews
Patricia Highsmith, one of the great writers of 20th Century American fiction, had a life as darkly compelling as that of her favorite "hero-criminal", talented Tom Ripley. In this revolution ary biography, Joan Schenkar paints a riveting portrait— from Highsmith’s birth in Texas to Hitchcock's filming of her first novel, Strangers On a Train, to her long, strange, self-ex ...more
Hardcover, 704 pages
Published December 8th 2009 by St. Martin's Press (first published November 10th 2009)
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Community Reviews

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Jessica
Though initially (for at least the first half), Schenkar's tone grated on me, I did ultimately come to admire her work. She seemed kinder (less presumptuous) to Highsmith in her old age and self-imposed isolation in her fortress of a house in Switzerland. I think Schenkar felt sorry for her--one does--and her admiration comes through more. Still, Schenkar reminds me of the sort of person who'd drive you crazy if she were your friend: always presuming to know what you're thinking and what your mo ...more
Elaine
Dec 30, 2009 Elaine rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: masochists
This is maybe the worst biography I ever read. First of all, the woman can't write. Clunky, repetitive and inapt. Words like quondam and intermitted (as a verb) or the phrase avant la lettre which draw attention to themselves because of their oddness are used over and over again so that they start to seem like tics or vocabulary exercises (use "quondam" in 5 sentences).

Second, the conjecture and over-striving to make this something more dramatic than a biography of one of the foremost suspense/
...more
J.
Feb 19, 2010 J. rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: ... highsmith completists ...
Shelves: bio, highsmith

Strangely enough, I didn't love this. But I'm not sure I can say I've read every last bit of footnoted addendum, oblique reference, unattached factoid and free-floating nanobit, because of the way I read it -- and the way it was written.

Ms Shenkar seems to have had ample access to Highsmith in the very late years of the legendary mystery author's life; she certainly had near total access to the effects & papers of the estate. Odd & personal details -- a pair of 501 jeans given to Shenkar
...more
Talulah Mankiller
I have a confession to make: before I ever read Middlemarch, I devoured a biography of George Eliot. And although I’m not terribly enamored of her poetry (except for that one in the Sweet Valley High book where the girl tries coke and DIES) I’ve plowed through Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. I have biographies of George Sand and Collette sitting on my shelves; I’ve never read anything by either of them. I like reading about authors, even (sometimes especially) authors whose w ...more
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, 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.
...more
aya
May 03, 2010 aya rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to aya by: michelle gave it to me!
everything i've read about patricia highsmith before this bio highlights how much of a monster she is. things like she had no friends, she was barely human, etc. this bio did a wonderful job of showing this side of her as well as an incredibly insecure and tortured artist who had the capacity to be an incredibly sweet friend and a passionate lover.
though incredibly thorough and insightful, the author stretches coincidences and aha! moments too far sometimes. at times she seems to want everythin
...more
AJ
Unfortunately, I'm giving up on this book, 312 pages in. I never give up on a book lightly, but I've been struggling with this one for two months and it's distracting me from getting other reading done. I feel like the author wanted to write a massive tome, even if it meant filling it with pages and pages of boring gossip and who-did-Pat-Highsmith-sleep-with-tonight and repeating endlessly that she had a complicated relationship with her mother. There was a lot of interesting stuff packed in her ...more
Karen
I'd rate it a bit less than a 3. The wealth of material on Highsmith turns into overkill in the hands of author Schenkar. Yes, we are happy that Highsmith kept a diary for decades, but we don't need all the details unless they are essential to her life, and more importantly, relate to her writing. Once Schenkar reports about halfway through that Highsmith was rather blank about her own writing, we realize that a major reason for reading the book has just been squashed flat: we will not receive m ...more
Tony
Schenkar, Joan. THE TALENTED MISS HIGHSMITH: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith. (2009). ****. This is not an easy read, nor a short one. It took me a while to get through this 600-page epic on the life of Miss Highsmith. Highsmith was born in 1921 in Fort Worth, Texas, and died in 1995 in Locarno. In between, she managed to write an astounding number of books: novels, short stories, travel fiction, criticism, and scholarly books on writing. Her first book, “Strangers on a Tra ...more
Andy
Jul 21, 2011 Andy rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: No one
Recommended to Andy by: She who cannot be named
Shelves: gay-lesbian
It's nice to know that there's another Patricia Highsmith biography out there because this one's bad, very bad. Joan Schenkar's sloppy biography doesn't follow a linear timeline, so we're perpetually skating from the Forties to the Seventies to the Fifties and back. It's as if the biographer had a serious case of ADD. Consequently, the bio was very hard to follow.

There's also way too much to do about her lesbianism, i.e. there's more about that than her actual novels. Highsmith's attitude to le
...more
Ann
Thank you, Emmi, for alerting me to this book.

There have been many theories about Patricia Highsmith, i.e., that she had Asperger's Syndrome, etc. Allow me to add mine: could it have been possible that Pat Highsmith was transgendered?

This book adds valuable information about Highsmith and for reading Highsmith, and because the writer had access to thousands of pages of Pat's writing ideas and plans, and her diaries, it provides exciting information not available before now.

The bio is organized
...more
Jeffrey Round
How can you resist a biography that begins, "She wasn't nice. She was rarely polite."? Schenkar's book is not hagiography by any means, but it is one of the most incisive, gripping biographies you will read. She makes clear her dislike of her subject again and again: Highsmith was racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and just downright unpleasant whenever she could get away with it. She brought a lover to the brink of suicide then walked away with utter callousness. She was the type of person no ...more
T
Having read both this and Andrew Wilson's biography of Pat Highsmith, what I came away with was a great compassion for Highsmith.

Highsmith, at her core, was a broken person who allowed her demons to get the best of her. The "meanness", anti-social behaviors, alcholism, and odd quirks of her older years being nothing more than symptoms of the pain of self-loathing that Highsmith attributed to her mother's early rejection as well as the societally imposed moral constraints placed on homosexuality
...more
Gabriella
A brilliant 3-D biography of Highsmith, born Mary Patricia Plangman in Ft. Worth, Texas, made less effective by Joan Schenkar's obvious dislike and disapproval of her eclectic, possibly sociopathic subject. But she can't take away from Highsmith's brilliant decade as a writer and romantic adventurer in '40s NYC, which culminated in the publication of "Strangers on a Train" before Highsmith was 30.

I have never read a bio before where I got a niggling impression that the biographer had secretly be
...more
Lucia Olson

Good although I would also read Meaker's *Highsmith* as the two together provides more of a balanced perspective about Highsmith. Schenkar seems like she has one mission: to prove (over and over) that Highsmith was mentally disturbed and a horrible human being.
Mancall
I'm vacillating between a two and a three for this one. Wish there was two and a half.

I loved learning more about the weirdo that was Patricia Highsmith (ie snails as pets? So much so that she smuggled in her bra while traveling? And generally was a misanthrope who liked to make trouble amongst everyone she knew? Interesting. Freakish. I enjoy that. Not so much her anti-semitism...)

What I didn't enjoy was the author's increasingly judgmental opinion of her subject, especially as the book goes o
...more
Louise Chambers
The nasty dynamics between Patricia and her mother were just too grueling for me to continue reading.
Janet
I picked up this biography out of curiosity. The central tenet of mystery novels is morality. Someone violates decency and/or the law, they are caught, and balance is restored. Highsmith violated all of that. Her best known are Strangers on a Train, and the several books in The Talented Mr. Ripley series.[return][return]Surprise, surprise -- I found out that she was an unpleasant woman. Not as amoral as her characters, but she was not a comfortable person to know. I read the first hundred pages, ...more
Robert
The subject of this biography is Patricia Highsmith, the author of the "The Talented Mr. Ripley", "Strangers on a Train", and "The Price of Salt", all published before she was 35 years old. Joan Schenkar has done enormous research, and she's an astute reader of Highsmith's novels. Shenkar identifies the several themes that thread through Highsmith's novels -- the mirrored personalities of pairs of characters, same yet opposite; the barely suppressed homosexuality; the thin line between love and ...more
Jean
Big – near 700 pages counting the many pages of footnotes and index sort of things – and at times fascinating bio of writer Patricia Highsmith. Ms. Highsmith wrote in a (hard to easily categorize) suspense/psychological thriller/morbid vein. The author had access to some diaries and material others hadn’t, and interviewed dozens of friends and sources.

Although Ms. Schenkar did an admirable job unearthing and synthesizing info, she sometimes seems to have a vicariously possessive, or even rapaci
...more
Jamie
If you know me, or follow my reviews, you know that my #1 favorite kind of book is a juicy biography of the category "Smart Women, Foolish Choices."

I've never read any Highsmith, though I have seen Strangers on a Train, but I doubted that would make her any less interesting to me. And this tale is SORDID! Think: Lindsay Lohan, as Ms. Highsmith is basically a drunken slutty lesbian for most of her youth. However, much of this could also have been due to the time period, as it was impossible for p
...more
Ronald
I received this book as a gift for helping out as a volunteer at a Bookmooch booth during a library convention in Puerto Rico. I had no idea who Patricia Highsmith was, although I had seen the movie "The Talented Mr. Ripley," which I later discovered she wrote. Frankly, the book is so tedious that I could not finish it, a rare occurrence for me. I tend to read everything voraciously, a habit picked up in grad school when working on my Ph.D. I was always afraid I would miss something and that det ...more
Craig
Pernicious and nosey as it sounds the attraction of a writer's private life and potential revelations about the same, will induce me to, and others, I'm sure too, 'stretch the binding' on what is often mere titillation.
The writer flits through the decades of Ms. Highsmith's life with a total disregard for chronology. Some will have no problem with this, for me, it was irritatingly unconventional.
There is an immense amount of research on display and the reader is given a microscopic view of Patri
...more
Jody  Julian
“She wasn’t nice. She was rarely polite. And no one who knew her well
would have called her a generous woman.”—from ‘A Note on Biography’, The Talented Miss Highsmith

Where to start? I was consumed by Patricia Highsmith’s life for several days and feel like I can finally take a deep breath and collect my thoughts. I've never read about anyone remotely like her. She's a labyrinth of different traits on a spectrum from admirable to despicable. At her worst, she's a bigot and a misanthrope. At her
...more
Texbritreader
In this labyrinth and needlessly exhaustive biography, Joan Schenkar introduces us to the author Patricia Highsmith. Unfortunately, Highsmith is an extremely unsympathetic figure and her interesting but flawed body of work seems inadequate justification to suffer her company for so long.

The Texas born, New York City raised Highsmith seems like a good subject and drawing heavily on Highsmith's own lifelong diaries and journals Schenkar begins with a detailed examination of her youth and the compl
...more
Michelle
This is massive, epic tome of a biography. Though the writing was excellent and the research impeccable I can't imagine anyone who has just a passing interest in the life of Patricia Highsmith whipping through all 600 pages with glee. This is absolutely why I didn't rate this higher. I just don't care that hard about the woman - there was too much information for the casual admirer (if I could even consider myself that). The woman was weird, at best (kept pet snails) and deplorable in many insta ...more
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The Talented Miss Highsmith The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar




This is a very in depth biography of Patricia Highsmith. Joan Schenkar draws from interviews, books, and the 38 Cahiers (spiral bound notebooks) and 18 Diaries of Patricia Highsmith kept at the Swiss Literary Archives. The book itself is 683 pages long with notes, bibliography, index, a map of where she went in Manhattan, diagrams, a timeline of her life, and two extensive sections of black and whit
...more
Thomas Rose-Masters
The scope and the sheer volume of information in this biography/analysis is at times self-defeating. The author, Joan Schenkar, has decided on a very bold and fairly unusual approach: dispensing with the run-of-the-mill chronology of Patricia Highsmith's life and work (although offering a brief overview at the end of the book), she has attempted to tap into the core of Highsmith's being and her way of thinking and living, in order to understand her way of creating. In certain areas this makes fo ...more
Ana
Finally finished this tome. Sigh. What to say about this mess?

I'd read one of Miss Highsmith's books before and look forward to reading a few more that are on my shelf. So I came to this bio with very little knowledge about her beyond what might be mentioned in the 'About the Author' page in her books. Well, i know a lot about her now. Maybe too much. Unfortunately what i know is mostly disjointed, since that's how Schenkar decided to present her info. There was so much there to play with and ye
...more
Kara
I don't know what I expected.

I learned about Patricia Highsmith through the New York Times Book Review of this biography. In it, a portrait was painted of a woman writer in the 1940s and '50s whose actions seemed as sociopathic as that of one of her most famous characters, the talented Mr. Ripley. She was dark, dreamed up ugly murders for fun, wrote for comic books (though she denied it), hated her mother, and slept with women (and sometimes men) -- sometimes for love but often for sport.

I wan
...more
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JOAN SCHENKAR has been called "America's most original female contemporary playwright." TRULY WILDE, her biography of Oscar's interesting niece Dolly Wilde, was hailed as "a revelation, the great story of a life and of the creation of modern culture." THE TALENTED MISS HIGHSMITH has already been acclaimed as the "definitive" Highsmith biography.

As a child actor in Seattle, Schenkar made many telev
...more
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“When Pat gave her ‘criminal-hero’ Tom Ripley a charmed and parentless life, a wealthy, socially poised Alter Ego (Dickie Greenleaf), and a guilt-free modus operandi (after he kills Dickie, Tom murders only when necessary), she was doing just what her fellow comic book artists were doing with their Superheroes: allowing her fictional character to finesse situations she herself could only approach in wish fulfillment. And when she reimagined her own psychological split in Ripley’s character — endowing him with both her weakest traits (paralyzing self-consciousness and hero-worship) and her wildest dreams (murder and money) — she was turning the material of the ‘comic book’ upside down and making it into something very like a ‘tragic book.’ 'It is always so easy for me to see the world upside down,’ Pat wrote in her diary– and everywhere else.” 2 likes
“But in the first few hundred of the thousands of pages of plain prose and careful grammar that Patricia Highsmith plied in her thirty-eight journals and eighteen diaries, there are two words she continued to capitalize unnecessarily and more frequently than any others. “Martini” is one of those words and “Mother” is the other one, and she capitalized them both with intention. Certainly, her “Mother” and her “Martinis” (as well as her Manhattans, her ryes, her scotches, and her beers) marked her life, branded her work, and deeply affected her development.” 0 likes
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