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Patricia Highsmith (January 19, 1921 - February 4, 1995) was an American novelist who is known mainly for her psychological crime thrillers which have led to more than two dozen film adaptations. Strangers on a Train has been adapted to the screen three times, notably by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951. In addition to her acclaimed series about murderer Thomas Ripley, she wrote many short stories, often macabre, satirical or tinged with black humor.
Born Mary Patricia Plangman just outside Fort Worth, Texas, she was raised first by her maternal grandmother and later by her mother and stepfather, who were both commercial artists.
Highsmith's mother Mary divorced her father five months before her birth. According to Highsmith, her mother once told her that she had tried to abort her by drinking turpentine. Highsmith never resolved this love-hate relationship, which haunted her for the rest of her life, and which she fictionalized in her short story "The Terrapin," in which a young boy stabs his mother to death.
Highsmith's grandmother taught her to read at an early age. Highsmith made good use of the extensive library of her mother and stepfather. At the age of eight, she discovered Karl Menninger's The Human Mind and was fascinated by the case studies of patients afflicted with mental disorders such as pyromania and schizophrenia.
In 1942, Highsmith graduated from Barnard College, where she studied English composition, playwriting and the short story. Living in New York City and Mexico between 1942 and 1948, she wrote for comic book publishers.
At the suggestion of Truman Capote, she rewrote her first novel, Strangers on a Train. The book proved modestly successful when it was published in 1950. However, it was due to Hitchcock and his 1951 film adaptation of the novel that Highsmith's career and reputation catapulted. Soon she became known as a writer of ironic, disturbing psychological mysteries highlighted by stark, startling prose. Other filmmakers — primarily European — followed suit as several Highsmith novels, including The Blunderer (1954), This Sweet Sickness (1960), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) and Ripley's Game (1974) were adapted for films.
She was a lifelong diarist, and developed her writing style as a child writing entries in which she fantasized that her neighbours had psychological problems and murderous personalities behind their facades of normality, a theme she would explore extensively in her novels.
Highsmith included homosexual overtones in many of her novels and addressed the theme directly in The Price of Salt and the posthumous Small g: a Summer Idyll. The Price is known for its happy ending, the first of its kind in homosexual/lesbian fiction. Published in 1953 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, it sold almost a million copies.
Highsmith's personal life was a troubled one; she was an alcoholic who never had a relationship that lasted for more than a few years, and was seen by some of her contemporaries and acquaintances as misanthropic and cruel.
Highsmith had a number of affairs with both men and women. In 1949 she became close to the novelist Marc Brandel. Between 1959 and 1961, she had a relationship with Marijane Meaker, who wrote under the pseudonym M.E. Kerr. In 1963 she moved to Europe, where she spent the rest of her life.
Her recurring character Tom Ripley, an amoral, sexually ambiguous multiple murderer, was featured in a total of five novels, known to fans as the Ripliad, written between 1955 and 1991. He was first introduced in The Talented Mr. Ripley (Coward-McCann, 1955). After a January 9, 1956 TV adaptation on Studio One, it was filmed by René Clément as Plein Soleil (1960, aka Purple Noon and Blazing Sun) with Alain Delon, whom Highsmith praised as the ideal Ripley. The novel was adapted under its original title as a 1999 film by Anthony Minghella, starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Cate Blanchett. A later Ripley novel, Ripley's Game, was filmed by Wim Wenders as The American Friend (1977). Under its original title, it was filmed again in 2002, directed by Liliana Cavani with John Malkovich in the title role. Ripley Under Ground (2005), starring Barry Pepper as Ripley was shown at the 2005 AFI Film Festival but has not had a general release.
Highsmith died of leukemia in 1995 in Locarno, Switzerland, aged 74. In gratitude to the place that helped inspire her writing career, she left her estate, worth an estimated $3 million, to the Yaddo colony. Her last novel, Small g: a Summer Idyll, was published posthumously a month later.