Patricia Highsmith, author of several well-regarded books that have been turned into equally well-regarded films, was born and spent her early years in Fort Worth.
Not that you could tell that from reading her works. Highsmith guarded her privacy and concealed most biographical details so well that only now, nearly a quarter century after her death, are we getting some semblance of her life story and the inner thoughts that drove this intriguing, complex writer.
This weekend, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth is presenting “Loving Highsmith,” a documentary by Eva Vitija based on the author’s voluminous diaries and writing. And I’ll be among those looking to understand a little bit more about this writer who continues to remain relevant.
Highsmith, who died in 1995, can’t seem to stay out of the spotlight.
In 2015, her novel, “The Price of Salt,” was adapted into a film, “Carol.” The 1952 book is a romance novel about a love affair between a housewife and shopgirl. This being the straight-laced ’50s, the book was published under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan. The book was popular and, unlike most gay fiction at the time, had something of a (spoiler alert) happy ending.
The 2015 film, directed by Todd Haynes, starred Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and received several Academy Award nominations among other honors. Blanchett had also starred in the 1999 version of Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” probably the most popular film based on her work.
Before that, there were numerous versions of her Ripley novels, including “Purple Noon” (1960), a cinematic French film that is like a travelouge through the gorgeous Mediterranian coast with the occasional murder to break the monotony of beauty.
I had stumbled across Highsmith’s biographical details after seeing the Alfred Hitchcock film, “Strangers on a Train” and then reading the book of the same name. There was very little of Texas between the pages, although, perhaps ironically, the Bruno character murders the other main character’s mother, in the fictional Metcalf, Texas.
Unlike her contemporary, Larry McMurtry, whose works ooze Texas from every page, Highsmith’s early years and Lone Star roots are overshadowed by the European and East Coast locales where she spent the majority of her life.
As a young aspiring writer in Fort Worth, I was thrilled to learn that Highsmith also hailed from the same city. This was several years before Dan Jenkins coarsely put Fort Worth on the literary map with “Semi-Tough.”
Still, I soldiered on, reading Highsmith works such as “The Talented Mr. Riply,” “The Blunderer” and “The Animal Lovers Book for Beastly Murders.” The latter is a collection of short stories where various animals murder their caretakers. Yep, that’s the way she thought.
For some reason, I assumed that Highsmith must have grown up on the west side of town. I think I had discovered that Highsmith’s parents were artists of some sort and felt that was more a westside-type profession to me.
So I was surprised to learn a few years ago that Highsmith lived much of her Fort Worth years not far from where I grew up, on the south side of town. Still, I haven’t run across the scruffy locales of Hemphill Street or Lancaster Avenue in Highsmith’s works.
When Highsmith’s more biographical writings and diaries began coming out in the early part of this century, more about her early life became known.
It still didn’t provide many details of how Fort Worth or Texas impacted her life. It is somewhat entertaining to read about various writers traveling to Fort Worth to unlock Highsmith’s many mysteries.
The basic outline of her early life is this: She was born Mary Patricia Plangman in 1921. Her mother’s divorce from her father was finalized nine days before her birth. Her mother later married Stanley Highsmith three years later, thus providing a new last name.
The new family moved to New York, but Highsmith was sent back to Fort Worth to live with her maternal grandmother when she was 12. She eventually returned to New York and studied writing at Barnard College. For all intents and purposes, Fort Worth and Texas disappeared from her life.
She was a dedicated writer, as her dairies attest. In her first Ripley novel, she notes a character who fancies herself a writer spends half her day at the beach. Ripley comments that the character must not be a good writer because she isn’t committed to writing.
After graduating, Highsmith began selling short stories and then the first novel, “Strangers on a Train.” The novel is about two men, one a tennis pro, the other a psychopathic socialite, who casually meet on a train and fantasize about each one killing people that trouble them.
One of them carries out the deed and drama ensues. The book’s rights were acquired by Hitchcock, who made the film that starred Robert Walker and Farley Granger.
Highsmith was annoyed by the low amount she received for the rights, but the film made her career. Plenty of movies and TV series used her stories and plots over the years, and her novels were generally well-received.
Despite her success, she stayed in the background. During a rare visit back to Fort Worth in 1970, Highsmith was interviewed by Claire Eyrich of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. It was an interview that said a lot without saying anything. I felt for Eyrich reading the story. It couldn’t have been easy to write, trying to pry scintillating details from the reticent Highsmith.
One reason for her reticence was likely her sexual preference. Most of Highsmith’s relationships were with women and she had written under a pseudonym “The Price of Salt” about two women who fell in love. Even as gay rights advanced, Highsmith was unlikely to broadcast any portion of her personal life to the world.
Now, fans like me will get a glimpse of this writer who wrote mystery and suspense, but kept the biggest mystery – herself – well concealed. Do I think we’ll learn her secrets? Probably not, but we’ll remain intrigued by what we find.
Bob Francis is the business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.