Monday, January 11, 2010

Highsmith + Meaker

Today’s post is not the first mention of writer Patricia Highsmith in this blog, and because her novels and stories are among my favorites, it may not be the last. Though you will find little or nothing here about her novels, for anyone who has not had the pleasure of meeting Highsmith’s signature character, Tom Ripley, I strongly urge a trip to the bookstore or the library. (The Talented Mr Ripley makes a terrific start.)

Probably no great secret that Patricia Highsmith was what some might euphemistically describe as a ‘daughter of Sappho,’ but more realistic descriptions would paint her as a dedicated lesbian. Writer and one-time lover of Highsmith, Marijane Meaker published in 2003 a memoir of their two years together, one titled, Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s. This is by no means a detailed biography, nor an account of the literary nuts and bolts in Highsmith’s writing. We get instead a partial glimpse of this well-known writer’s psychological world, much of it as it related to Meaker’s love affair with her.

The book is an up-close look at Highsmith’s alcoholism, and the lover’s jealousy that so often weighed on Meaker. Their time together is set against a backdrop of Greenwich Village, circa 1950s, moving to Fire Island and later to Bucks County, Pennsylvania among a circle of literary friends. The reader is given clear illustration of Highsmith’s racism and anti-Semitism at age 37, evolving over the years from slight to almost rabid in her later years. (Meaker’s final sketches of her former lover as she was in 1992 at age 71 are not in any sense flattering.) But there are wonderful physical descriptions of Highsmith chain-smoking Gauloises and knocking back bottles of wine in her nightly ensemble of black slacks, crisply ironed white shirt with ascot and blazer, on her feet the ever present freshly polished penny loafers.

Meaker is especially skillful in her colorful portrait of the life of urbane lesbians in Greenwich Village of the time. There is something almost historical about her rendering of Greenwich Village streets and restaurants of the period, almost like the uncovering of a time capsule, revealing not only a map of village streets and Fire Island haunts, but also an unclouded view of social mores that characterized the 1950s. Meaker is at her best in these pages.

Reading this book, I felt a resonance with Virginia Woolf’s long 1928 essay, A Room of One’s Own, in which she details what it was like for a woman writer of early twentieth century England. In similar fashion, Meaker describes the constraints a lesbian writer—or just plain lesbian—in New York of the 1950s experienced.

For my money, a very interesting memoir.

Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s by Marijane Meaker

Cleis Press 2003

Photo: Patricia Highsmith 1977 in her Paris apartment.


  1. I haven't read this memoir, and I only know Highsmith through the movies that have been made from her books. But there's something that's intriguing me, for instance this comment: "The reader is given clear illustration of Highsmith’s racism and anti-Semitism at age 37, evolving over the years from slight to almost rabid in her later years."
    Highsmith's racism towards "blacks" has been invoked quite a few times on the web... But I still don't know what were Highsmith's manifestations of racism and exclusion. Could you please tell me? Actually what were her views of "black" people?

    Maria Serban

  2. Highsmith's life was a tortured one that had its beginnings in Fort Worth, Texas. While it is true that her mother and stepfather took her to New York at the age of six, the early years of life in Texas left a vivid mark on the writer. In a 1942 journal she wrote concerning problems traced to childhood, '…some little thing will be the cause…a multitude of tiny things contribute like sand grains to a dune.' One biographer aptly titled a chapter on her childhood, "Born Under a Sickly Star." Highsmith had throughout her life an unreasonable opinion of Jews, Blacks and people she referred to as "morons" or the unintelligent. There were a few who described the writer as a misanthrope and I might agree with them, despite my great fondness for her writing. But she was a deeply disturbed and unhappy woman constantly at war with her mother. Age and ongoing bitterness were ingredients that only exacerbated her prejudices. Extremely intelligent, Highsmith lived her life with an unfortunate intolerance of people. It was no doubt the reason she lived most of her years alone reclusively.

  3. Thank you!



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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America