OUT ON THE BAYOU
JANUARY 7, 2000 • HOUSTON VOICE
>• Continued from page 15
phobic of writers," says Barbara Greer,
president of Naiad Press, who worked with
the late author.
Highsmith's fears produced a disturbing
series of novels that were published to
wide acclaim. But success apparently
never healed the scars of her life.
According to Russell Harrison, in a critical
biographical study he wrote about
Highsmith in 1997, the author was born Mary
Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth, Texas, in
1921. Her parents had separated before she
was bom, and Highsmith took the name of
her stepfather, Stanley Highsmith.
She suffered her parents' bitter quarrels,
separations, and cruelties. Her mother
once told her she tried to abort her by
"She made my childhood a little hell,"
Highsmith said in an interview quoted by
Harrison. "She never loved anyone, neither my father, my stepfather, nor me."
Adult life brought Highsmith success as
a writer, beginning with the publication of
"Strangers on a Train" in 1950. "The
Talented Mr. Ripley" appeared in 1955.
Four sequels followed, including "Ripley
Under Ground" and "Ripley's Game."
Readers savored Ripley's impersonations,
forgeries and murders.
But tucked among Highsmith's thrillers
was a curiosity.
"After Strangers on a Train," Highsmith
wrote "The Price of Salt," a novel about a
woman who falls in love with a married
woman. The two become a couple, and the
married woman sacrifices custody of her
child to remain with her partner.
Highsmith describes the women's sexual
relationship explicitly, their happiness contrasting sharply with the misery most of
the author's other characters feel.
But Highsmith did not sign her name
to the book when it was published in
1955. Instead, she used the pseudonym
"Harper and Brothers, who had published 'Strangers on a Train,' was embarrassed by the lesbian content, especially
since Hitchcock's film version of 'Strangers'
was a big success," Greer says. "They
arranged for Coward McCann to publish
'The Price of Salt' under a pseudonym.
[Highsmith] was scared shitless thatpeople
would identify her as a 'lesbian writer.'"
The book became a perennial favorite,
eventually selling over a million copies. In
1984, Naiad reissued the book under
Highsmith's real name. In an afterward in
that edition, Highsmith explained that
because "Strangers" had resulted in her
being mislabeled as a suspense writer, she
once feared "The Price of Salt" would lead
to her being labeled a lesbian writer.
Grier believes Highsmith had several
relationships with women over the
course of her life, spent mostly in
Switzerland. In an interview Harrison
borrows from, however, Highsmith
acknowledged only one such relationship, describing it as "catastrophic."
"She was a dear person, but she was shy,
private, self-hating," Greer says of Highsmith.
Others offer less tempered opinions.
"She was the most odious human being
I've ever met," says Otto Penzler, who edited
and published several of Highsmith's works.
"I never heard her speak warmly of anybody.
She was full of hatred for men and women."
Yet Penzler, like most critics, is unstinting in his praise of Highsmith's writing.
"She's an absolute original," he says.
"It's hard to find a mystery-suspense
writer who's better. There's a sense of disquiet and unease about her books. I don't
know anybody else who writes like that."
In 1995, the year Highsmith died, film
director Anthony Minghella began the first
draft of a screenplay of "The Talented Mr.
Ripley." Like other readers, Minghella
admired Highsmith's work, yet sensed the
darkness in her personality.
"She had the most amazing conceptual
mind," Minghella says. "She always started with a thrilling idea. I also think she
was misanthropic. I think she had a dim
view of the majority of her characters. They
always feel like if you ordered the wrong
martini you could be in great danger."
Mingella's worldview is, he says, "quite
the reverse." And that has influenced how
he adapted the book for the big screen.
"The film is a series of love stories,"
Matt Damon and Jude Law in 'The Talented
Mr. Ripley/ a screen adaptation of Patricia
Highsmith's 1955 book.
Minghella says. "Ripley is looking for love
wherever he can find it. He meets somebody
who embraces him for all the things that
Tom Ripley is, but at a point when he doesn't think he can be Tom Ripley any longer."
Epithets like "sissy" and "queer" that
were hurled at Ripley in the original novel
are gone from Minghella's film version.
When Ripley kills, he does so partly in self-
defense, and Ripley's pathology is no
longer connected to his sexuality.
"I'm nervous of reducing the film to a story
about a man in a closet," Minghella says.
"Ripley's biggest fears are with rejection on
ail terms—in terms of his class, his tastes, his
own identify, with which he has such a mysterious relationship. Anything which makes
him different troubles him. 1 think that is
something that is absolutely universal."
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