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

3.64  ·  Rating details ·  581 Ratings  ·  133 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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Dec 22, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
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
Dec 22, 2009 rated it did not like it
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/
Talulah Mankiller
Apr 22, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Dec 04, 2009 rated it it was ok
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
Carl Rollyson
Oct 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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.
"Fear of loss, instigated by a world of people and objects out of her control, was a constant theme in Pat's life. It put its unmistakable patina on much of her work - that long, slow crawl over the surface of things that can be counted, described and handled..." p. 453

"She was only comfortable when she was uncomfortable. Discomfort - the condition with which he was most at home and least at ease - was a productive state for her; it usually kept her writing." p. 463.

This biography took me three
Jeffrey Round
Oct 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 04, 2011 rated it it was ok
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
Dec 29, 2009 rated it liked it
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
Apr 25, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
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
Feb 06, 2010 rated it liked it
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
Jan 13, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
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
Jenny Yates
Sep 30, 2015 rated it it was ok
By turns, this biography of Patricia Highsmith is fascinating and irritating. Highsmith was a true eccentric – impulsive, passionate, odd, and changeable - and the book is full of intriguing details. Her multiple lovers, her jealous relationships with her lovers’ pets, the inspirations for her macabre plots, her constant travels, her alcoholism, her shifting connection with the lesbian community, her tense relationship with her mother and stepfather, her pet snails, her paranoia about money, her ...more
Dec 13, 2015 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
*Did Not Finish*


Author Patricia Highsmith is a favorite author - her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, was the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 thriller.

Ms. Highsmith also authored the noir Tom Ripley series (five books). This superb psychological thriller was made into a feature film, the first starring Matt Damon, the second, John Malkovich, and the third, Barry Pepper.

This is a rare Did Not Finish book. I tried reading it two years ago, and just couldn't bear to continue. The
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.
Louise Chambers
Jun 03, 2010 rated it did not like it
Shelves: abandoned
The nasty dynamics between Patricia and her mother were just too grueling for me to continue reading.
Benjamin Robinson
Jul 31, 2017 rated it liked it
The only reason this book gets three stars is because of all the independent research done by the author. This resulted in a wealth of information that was previously unavailable.

The book was fine as long as the author stuck to the facts. As soon as she tried to be coy, interpret the motives behind Patricia Highsmith's actions, or even give much of an interpretation of Highsmith's works, the book became an incredibly frustrating read. I get the impression that the author decided who Patricia Hi
Jul 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Tremendously insightful and detailed analysis of the life and work of Highsmith, which shows how her personal 'damage' created artful work and fraught relationships throughout her career.
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Feb 20, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Cheryl Lassiter
Mar 03, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: biographies
A 600 page, factoid-filled description of an insane asylum, written by an author who no doubt needed counseling and/or medication during/after the research and writing.

Sep 28, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: biography
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
Jan 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
A really good biography of Patricia Highsmith. Although not constructed in a chronological or historical manner, the book focuses on a collection of themes, the style helps Schenkar to recreate some of the frenetic energy that drove Highsmith's life and writing. Highsmith is a disturbing subject, not only because of her work, but because of how she related to the world. Living forty years later she would probably have availed herself of the category of transgendered. At times the non-linear stru ...more
Jul 24, 2010 rated it it was ok
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
“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
Jul 03, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: biography, writers
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
Thomas Rose-Masters
Jul 02, 2013 rated it liked it
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
Dec 02, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: bios-and-memoirs
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
Ronald Flores-Gunkle
Mar 23, 2012 rated it it was ok
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
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
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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 about Joan Schenkar...

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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
“She wasn’t nice. She was rarely polite. And no one who knew her well would have called her a generous woman.” 1 likes
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