The Haunts of Miss Highsmith - Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith wrote 22 novels, many of them set in Greenwich Village, where she lived. But the landscape of Highsmith Country consists not only of the physical Village neighborhood, but also the dark and desperate territory of Highsmith’s psyche.

 “She is our most Freudian novelist,” said Joan Schenkar, whose biography of Highsmith was released this week by St. Martin’s Press. Having spent nearly eight years on the book, “The Talented Miss Highsmith,” Ms. Schenkar is the perfect tour guide for this novelist’s world. Standing in front of the red-brick building at 35 Morton Street where the 19-year-old Highsmith took a summer sublet in 1940 to escape her mother and stepfather, Ms. Schenkar continued: “To her, love and death are closely related. She tends to murder people in her novels where she made love in real life.”

Morton Street was where Highsmith “started her lifelong career of aggressive seduction,” Ms. Schenkar explained. It is also where Kenneth Rowajinski, the psychopathic dog killer, is murdered in her 1972 novel “A Dog’s Ransom.” (The unlucky poodle, Tina, bears the name of a dog owned by one of her amours.) “She kills so many dogs,” Ms. Schenkar said of Highsmith. “She hated dogs. She couldn’t bear sharing attention.”

On this steel gray, rainy day — “perfect Highsmith weather” — Ms. Schenkar was dressed in black. Her corkscrew-curled hair formed a circular bonnet around her face and matched the shape of her wire-rimmed glasses.

Highsmith is best known for “Strangers on a Train,” which Alfred Hitchcock made into a movie in 1951, and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” made into a film with Matt Damon and Jude Law in 1999. Both novels feature sociopaths and murder. (Perhaps you are beginning to see a pattern.)

Ms. Schenkar is convinced that if Highsmith had not become a writer, she would have been a murderer. “From age 8 she wanted to kill her stepfather,” she said, strolling north toward Grove Street, “She was born to murder. She had the mind of a criminal genius.”

In her 1969 novel, “The Tremor of Forgery,” Highsmith aptly turned her coffee-colored Olympia portable typewriter on which she banged out her fiction into a murder weapon in the hands of a writer named Howard Ingham. (He hurls it at a thieving intruder, smashing him in the head.)

Whatever innate characteristics she might have been born with, the circumstances that tortured Highsmith through her life included: a self-loathing of her lesbianism; resentment that she didn’t gain entry to New York’s highest social stratum; and a destructive love-hate relationship with her mother, Mary, who, when Patricia was 12, left the heartbroken child to live in Fort Worth with her grandmother for a year.

“It’s never a good idea to fall in love with your mother,” Ms. Schenkar commented dryly. Despite their volatile and venomous relationship, she could never be very far from her. Even that first sublet was only a couple of blocks away from her parents’ one-bedroom apartment at 48 Grove Street, where she slept on a pull-out couch in the living room. Sidney Hook, the radical leftist philosopher, lived downstairs.

Ms. Schenkar stopped in front of the building, took a small thin cigar out of a metal case and lighted it.

We were engaging in ambulomancy or “divination by walking,” Ms. Schenkar explained, stepping through Highsmith country in order to understand the writer herself. “Every physical location is also an emotional location,” Ms. Schenkar noted.

She pointed across the street to a Federal mansion: “John Wilkes Booth supposedly plotted the assassination of Lincoln there.”

Throughout Highsmith’s more than four-decade career, her fictional world was often inspired by the curving, crooked streets of Greenwich Village, where she lived in the late 1930s and ’40s. “It was her creative store,” Ms. Schenkar said, “her little museum of America” that she took with her to Europe when she moved there in the 1960s. Her novel “Found in the Street” takes place in the late 1980s, yet the details are from an earlier era; “the canapés are from the 1950s,” Ms. Schenkar said with a laugh.

That novel’s wealthy, sexually obsessed couple, the Sutherlands, live on Grove Street; the object of their attention and their murder victim, Elsie Tyler, is killed a few blocks away, in her apartment at 102 Greene Street, where Highsmith’s ex-lover, the painter Buffie Johnson, owned a loft.

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