Patricia Highsmith Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Patricia Highsmith (née Mary Patricia Plangman) was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on January 19, 1921, to Jay Plangman and Mary Coates. Highsmith’s parents separated five months prior to her birth, and in interviews Highsmith has revealed that her mother tried to terminate her pregnancy by drinking turpentine.

Highsmith was initially raised by her maternal grandmother. She moved to New York in 1927 when her mother wed Stanley Highsmith. Their tempestuous marriage involved multiple separations. At age ten, Patricia learned Stanley was not her biological father, and at twelve she met her biological father for the first time. Although Stanley eventually adopted Patricia in 1944, the girl’s early life was characterized by feelings of abandonment and alienation.

After graduating from New York’s Julia Richman High, Highsmith attended Barnard College, earning a B.A. in English, Latin, and Greek in 1942. Highsmith began her literary career writing story lines for comic books. In 1945 she published “The Heroine” in Harper’s Bazaar—the story was included in the O. Henry Prize Stories of 1946. Highsmith’s early success (and the help of Truman Capote) won her acceptance into the Yaddo Artists’ Colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, where she wrote most of her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950).

Highsmith discovered her authorial voice and genre of choice with a series of successful suspense...

(The entire section is 534 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Suspense literature has often been dismissed as “popular” fiction and, as a result, has not received the serious consideration it deserves. However, Highsmith’s Cold War novels demand a reconsideration of suspense fiction’s place in American letters. Highsmith’s fiction provides a snapshot of the postwar United States and Americans’ attempts to comprehend loss, fear, and change, while traveling through uncharted cultural, political, and social territory. As such, her texts are significant cultural artifacts that help one better to understand how political and social uncertainties filtered into everyday American life.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Born on January 19, 1921, the daughter of Jay Bernard Plangman and Mary (Coates) Plangman Highsmith, Mary Patricia Highsmith was reared by her grandmother for the first six years of her life. Her parents (both commercial artists) had separated over her mother’s relationship with Stanley Highsmith. When her mother remarried, Highsmith rejoined her in New York City, a time she recalled as “hell” because of constant conflicts and arguments.

Highsmith began writing at the age of seventeen. She was the editor of the Julia Richman High School newspaper and received a B.A. from Barnard College in 1942. For a brief interval after graduation she made her living writing scenarios for comic books. Her first story, “The Heroine,” was published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1945 and selected for inclusion in the collection O. Henry Prize Stories of 1946. With the help of writer Truman Capote, she was admitted into the Yaddo artists’ colony in 1948, where she completed Strangers on a Train. The novel, her third written but first published, did not see print until two years later, but the 1951 film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock and the subsequent sale of its stage rights helped launch her career.

Highsmith traveled extensively in the United States, Mexico, and Europe in 1940’s and 1950’s, before moving to England in 1963. She lived a solitary life in France from 1967 to 1982, then in Switzerland, where she died in 1995 from a combination of lung cancer and aplastic anemia. She never married, and she left a bequest valued at $3 million to Yaddo.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Patricia Highsmith’s mother, father, and stepfather were all commercial artists. She was born Mary Patricia Plangman a few months after her mother, Mary Coates, and father, Jay Bernard Plangman, were divorced, and she lived the first six years of her life with her grandmother in the house where she was born, in Fort Worth, Texas.

At the age of six, she went to New York City to join her mother and stepfather in a small apartment in Greenwich Village. She later went to high school in New York and on to Barnard College. Life with quarreling parents made her unhappy, but she did inherit from them a love of painting, and she considered it as a vocation. She ultimately decided to be a writer because she could explore moral and intellectual questions in more depth by writing novels than by painting. Highsmith enjoyed early success with a short story she wrote in college that was later published in Harper’s Bazaar and included in the O. Henry Prize Stories of 1946.

Attracted to travel early, Highsmith set out for Mexico in 1943 to write a book. With only part of it written, she ran out of money and returned to New York, where she continued living with her parents and writing comics in the day and fiction at night and on the weekends to save enough money for a trip to Europe. She left for Europe in 1949, after finishing her first novel, Strangers on a Train, which was bought and made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock.

The next few years saw Highsmith traveling between Europe and New York and writing novels and short stories that found publishers in New York and throughout Europe. After several visits, she moved permanently to Europe, first to England for four years, then to France (to a small town near Fontainebleau, which became the setting for later Ripley stories), and finally to Switzerland in 1982. When she died in a hospital in Locarno in 1995, she left an estate of more than five million dollars. Highsmith was a solitary figure, shunning reporters and publicity. She lived alone with her favorite cat, Charlotte, working in her garden and painting. She revisited the United States but never returned to live.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Patricia Highsmith was born on January 19, 1921, in Fort Worth, Texas, the daughter of Jay Bernard Plangman and Mary Coates Plangman, later Highsmith. By the time she was born, her mother had left her father and started a relationship with a man who would become her stepfather, Stanley Highsmith, an illustrator for telephone directory advertisements. Her mother, also a commercial artist, was quite talented. Highsmith was reared by her beloved grandparents until the age of six, when she joined her mother in New York City. Highsmith recalled her childhood years with her mother and stepfather as a kind of hell, in part because of their ever-increasing arguments. She never had a close relationship with her mother.

While attending Julia Richman High School, Highsmith was the editor of the school newspaper and went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from Barnard College in 1942. She began writing at seventeen and published her first short story, “The Heroine,” in Harper’s Bazaar. To a remarkable degree, Highsmith’s first stories set the pattern for her career. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), was made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock. In the late 1940’s, she was also involved in political activism, not unlike the female protagonist of her novel Edith’s Diary (1977). Her popular novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) was nominated for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1956 and received the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in 1957. In 1964, The Two Faces of January received the Crime Writers’ Association’s Silver Dagger Award for the best foreign crime novel of the year. Although Highsmith was highly lauded in her native country, Europeans took her work even more seriously, as evidenced by a greater number of interviews and critical studies as well as by sales figures.

After 1963, Highsmith lived in Europe. Although she was engaged to be married at one time, she was a lesbian and preferred to live alone most of her adult life. She enjoyed cats, gardening, carpentry, and travel and resided in many European countries. Highsmith painted, sculpted, daydreamed, and above all wrote: She tried to write eight pages daily, and her prose bears witness to a fine craftsmanship. She died in Switzerland in 1995.