DID YOU KNOW? This Prolific Mystery Writer Was Born 100 Years Ago This Month. Her First Novel Was Adapted Into Various Productions for Stage and Screen, Including the Alfred Hitchcock Classic STRANGERS ON A TRAIN
In addition to creating fictional—and cinematic—serial killers such as Tom Ripley, she wrote the lesbian opus The Price of Salt, which provided the source material for Todd Haynes’ 2015 hit CAROL.
Patricia Highsmith was born on January 19, 1921, to a mother who later claimed she tried to abort the pregnancy and to parents that divorced ten days before her birth. Perhaps this imminent threat of demise contributed to Highsmith’s 22 psychological thrillers written during her 40-plus-year career.
Though Highsmith is known for her mysteries, she started earning money as a professional writer by composing comic books. After graduating from Barnard College, Highsmith was rejected by the major magazines of the day, but with a reference from Truman Capote, she was invited to spend the summer of 1948 at the Yaddo artists colony in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she wrote her first novel, Strangers on a Train. Published in 1950, the book’s screen rights were quickly acquired by Alfred Hitchcock and the adaptation was co-written by the iconic detective novelist Raymond Chandler; the film marked his final screenplay before his death in 1959.
Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt, was published in 1952 under a pseudonym due to its openly lesbian subject matter. Known for its groundbreakingly optimistic happy ending, The Price of Salt had remarkable success for its time and was unique in Highsmith’s career as the only novel in which no one dies from violent crime. It sold roughly 1 million copies before being reissued with the title Carol in 1990, with Highsmith’s real name restored, though she had spent years denying her association with the book. In 2015, Todd Haynes directed Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation of Highsmith’s novel in CAROL, which was honored with an AFI AWARD.
Three years after The Price of Salt, Highsmith published the first in her series of five Tom Ripley novels, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), which provided the literary source for various screen adaptations including the French film PURPLE MOON (1960), THE AMERICAN FRIEND (1977) directed by Wim Wenders and the eponymous American production THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY (1999) starring Matt Damon as the amicable serial killer. A television series based on the Ripley novels is currently in the works at Showtime. In addition to the Ripley “Ripliad,” there have been at least 15 screen adaptations of other Highsmith novels including DEEP WATER, which is scheduled for release in 2021 to celebrate Highsmith’s centennial.
Despite her successful career, Patricia Highsmith suffered mental illness and alcoholism, which was detailed in her prolific journal writing. Highsmith also accounted for her numerous love affairs, mainly with women, particularly those who were from an elite pedigree such as the character “Carol” in The Price of Salt. Highsmith passed away at age 74 in 1995, just four years after the death of her own mother, whom she described in diaries as the source of much of her misery and inspiration. Without family to survive her, Highsmith left her estate to the Yaddo artists colony where she composed Strangers on a Train, acknowledging her personal legacy that started at the institute. At the time of Highsmith’s death, her final novel Small g: A Summer Idyll had been refused by her American publisher, but it was released posthumously in Britain.
Learn more at the AFI Catalog.