Essays

Crime Novelist Patricia Highsmith

by John I. Johnson

TEXAS-BORN NOVELIST Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) (born Mary Patricia Plangman), author of Strangers on a Train (1950) (adapted to the screen by director Alfred Hitchcock) and a series of crime novels starring psychopathic murderer Tom Ripley (The Talented Mr. Ripley [1955]), was a “racist” and “anti-Semite.” She was also a lesbian before lesbianism was cool.

The product of a broken home, her “father was of German descent and she did not meet him until she was twelve — the surname Highsmith was from her stepfather. For much of her early life she was cared for by her maternal grandmother. Her great-grandmother Willi Mae was ‘a Scot, very practical, though with a great sense of humor, and very lenient with me,’” Highsmith said. The author became an expatriate in 1963 and lived the rest of her life in Europe, dying in Switzerland.

A promiscuous lesbian, Highsmith wrote a novel, The Price of Salt (1953), under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, detailing the “love” affair between a married woman and a shop girl. It reportedly sold close to a million copies and was reissued under Highsmith’s own name, with an afterword, as Carol in 1991. Highsmith’s last novel, Small g: A Summer Idyll (1995), concerned lesbians, homosexuals and bisexuals interacting in a bar in Zurich. Her biographer Marijane Meaker (who otherwise writes under the pseudonym M. E. Kerr), author of Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s, was Highsmith’s lover from 1959 to 1961. Kera Bolonik says of Highsmith: “She was a refined, brooding butch lesbian who frequented the various West Village underground gay bars during the McCarthy era but favored the social company of men.”

Highsmith’s books were praised by Establishment critics on both sides of the Atlantic, though they rarely sold more than 9,000 copies apiece — indicative no doubt of a profound disjunction of values between representatives of the minority ruling class and the majority White populace. In the Tom Ripley novels, featuring a “charming” thief and murderer, killing is presented casually, and not condemned as morally wrong. “The thrill of the novels,” one writer said, “is based on the problem, how Ripley is going to get away again with his crime.” And Julian Symons (Jewish) admitted in the New York Times, “The feeling of menace behind most Highsmith novels, the sense that ideas and attitudes alien to the reasonable everyday ordering of society are being suggested, has made many readers uneasy.”

But Jewish and (evidently) lesbian reviewer Kera Bolonik (“Murder, She Wrote,” The Nation, December 8, 2003) gives voice to the prevailing elite view:

Her fiction features ordinary protagonists with whom one readily identifies, though they are often unlikable and elicit from readers (and from other characters within the narrative) a mixture of desire and repulsion. As we gain access to their psyches and get caught up in their extraordinarily hapless predicaments, we find the moral ground slowly shifting. Before we know it, we’re colluding with them, hoping they will get away with theft, deceit, even murder. Her most infamous creation is the slick, charismatic, insinuating and unconscionable Tom Ripley, who covets other people’s station in life, and kills to appropriate it for himself. In all five books in the Ripley series, you can’t help but root for the antihero as he lies, kills — and slips away without a trace.

Sounds suspiciously like real-life Jewish behavior-cum-idyllic fantasy, doesn’t it?

And yet, hand-in-hand with familiar traits like lesbianism and amorality that endeared her to Jews and others of our dissolute ruling class, Highsmith evinced attitudes the same people found profoundly disturbing. “People forget that she was a very conservative person,” declared playwright Phyllis Nagy. “She wasn’t bohemian like Jane Bowles.”

Although Highsmith opposed the Vietnam war and maintained close friendships with Jews like artist Lil Picard, columnist Ben Zion Goldberg, and author Arthur Koestler, she also voted for Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, and Ross Perot, deeply admired British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and rooted for the Palestinians instead of the Israelis. The only letter to the editor she ever wrote was “a response to William Safire’s attack on Gore Vidal’s 1986 Nation essay about Israel and the American right.” Bolonik asserts flatly: “She was an anti-Semite and a racist.”

Highsmith believed most of the publishing industry was Jewish. Highsmith railed against her American publisher Otto Penzler, who removed her dedication to the Palestinians in her novel People Who Knock on the Door, and even her first editor, Joan Kahn at Harper & Row. “Christ, what a little dictator she was! That whole family of Jews thought they were God’s gift to publishing . . . like so many of that tribe,” she said to Meaker on their last visit in 1988. Meaker . . . doesn’t shy away from depicting her former lover as a racist and anti-Semite. By contrast, [biographer Andrew] Wilson is more than halfway through his biography before delving into her virulent anti-Semitism. . . . Meaker became so exasperated with Highsmith’s merciless rants during their last encounter that she told her she sounded “like someone with an obsessive-compulsive disorder. You can’t go for long without bringing up the Jews, just as someone has to compulsively wash their hands, or go back three steps.”

In a way, Highsmith’s anti-Semitism is emblematic of everything that was at war within the mind of this extraordinarily conflicted woman. Many of the women she loved, the friends she cherished and the writers who inspired her art were Jewish. Yet her dislike of Jews dates as far back as her elementary school years in New York City, and as she got older and increasingly more paranoid, her anti-Semitism became more acute, possibly a symptom of her neurosis.

Note the familiar Jewish tactic of attributing mental illness to Whites repelled by Jewish behavior. Of course, Bolonik’s own anti-White racism is not a function of “paranoia” or “neurosis.”

Oh, no.

These well-known films were based on Highsmith’s novels:

Thanks to F.T. for directing my attention to Highsmith’s “anti-Semitism.”

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