9 Facts About Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith poses at home in Locarno, Switzerland in 1987.
Patricia Highsmith poses at home in Locarno, Switzerland in 1987. / Ulf Andersen/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Author Patricia Highsmith, who was known for her psychological thrillers including 1950's Strangers on a Train and the Tom Ripley series, believed that life “didn’t make sense without crime in it.” Throughout her career, she published nearly two dozen novels and several short stories, many of which have been adapted for other mediums. Highsmith's works are still widely read and appreciated today because of their uniquely “modern feel,” making other writers’ works appear dated in comparison. Here are a few interesting facts about Patricia Highsmith, who was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on January 19, 1921.

1. Patricia Highsmith was rejected by many prominent publications.

Highsmith studied at Barnard College, a private women’s college in New York City. After graduating in 1942, she hoped to write for big magazines and applied to publications like Vogue, Fortune, Harper’s Bazaar, Good Housekeeping, TIME, and The New Yorker. Though she had some “impressive recommendations,” she didn’t have much success with landing a full-time job.

2. Patricia Highsmith was one of the most in-demand female comic book writers during the medium's "golden age."

Patricia Highsmith poses on a train from Locarno to Zurich in Switzerland in 1987.
Patricia Highsmith poses on a train from Locarno to Zurich in Switzerland in 1987. / Ulf Andersen/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Highsmith’s seven-year freelance career as a comic book scriptwriter began when she answered an ad for a "research/rewrite job" at a Manhattan comic book publisher. She had a drive for perfection, according to Everett Kinstler, who was a penciler for Cinema Comics at the time (and would later go on to paint the official presidential portraits of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan). Highsmith wrote stories for comic books such as The Destroyer, Black Terror, Fighting Yank, and more.

3. Patricia Highsmith was a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In 1991, Highsmith was a nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was a strong candidate with several other awards and prize nominations to her name. However, the Nobel Prize was awarded to Nadine Gordimer, "who through her magnificent epic writing has—in the words of Alfred Nobel—been of very great benefit to humanity."

4. Many of Patricia Highsmith’s novels have been adapted for film, TV, theater, and radio.

Over the past 70 years, Highsmith’s novels and short stories have regularly been adapted for various mediums in many different languages. She was initially pleased with Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation of her first novel, Strangers on a Train, but changed her mind later on regarding the differences from the original material. An adaptation of her 1957 psychological thriller Deep Water, directed by Adrian Lyne and starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, is scheduled for release in August 2021.

5. Showtime's upcoming series Ripley is based on Patricia Highsmith’s bestselling Tom Ripley books.

Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999).
Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). / Warner Home Video

Highsmith wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1955, which told the story of a con artist and serial killer named Tom Ripley. It went on to win the 1957 Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, a prestigious French literary award for crime and detective fiction [PDF]. The novel was then followed by four more books, completing what is sometimes called the “Ripliad” series (some contend that it was actually Highsmith who gave it this name, somewhat jokingly). Showtime is currently prepping its own adaptation of the series titled Ripley; the eight-episode first season is scheduled for release in 2021 and will star Fleabag's "Hot Priest" Andrew Scott in the role of Ripley.

6. Patricia Highsmith used the pseudonym "Claire Morgan" for her second novel, The Price of Salt.

For some time, 1952's The Price of Salt was the only novel about a lesbian relationship that had a happy ending. Highsmith's real-life department store interaction with a blonde woman in a mink coat inspired her to write the story as soon as she got home. She only acknowledged her authorship about four decades later, when Bloomsbury Publishing republished the book and retitled it Carol. Todd Haynes's 2015 film adaptation of the book, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, was highly acclaimed at the Cannes Film Festival and went on to earn six Oscar nominations.

7. Patricia Highsmith suffered from chronic alcoholism.

Much like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many other prolific writers, Highsmith was a chronic alcoholic. Some suspected that alcohol played a part in the many illnesses Highsmith suffered over her lifetime, including female hormone deficiency, anorexia nervosa, Buerger's disease, and lung cancer. Alcohol also seemed to serve as a coping mechanism for the author. She believed that drinking helped her see the truth and often depicted alcoholism in her works, including The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train.

8. Patricia Highsmith preferred the company of animals to people.

Patricia Highsmith poses in her garden during a portrait session held on April 21, 1978 in Grez sur Loing, France.
Patricia Highsmith poses in her garden during a portrait session held on April 21, 1978 in Grez sur Loing, France. / Ulf Andersen/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In addition to her chronic alcoholism, Highsmith was known to regularly suffer bouts of clinical depression to the point that she could be quite hostile to her peers and had trouble establishing any long-term relationships. In a 1970 diary entry, Highsmith wrote that, "I am now cynical, fairly rich ... lonely, depressed, and totally pessimistic." She did find joy in one place, however: animals. In addition to a deep love of cats, Highsmith bred snails in her home garden. Of the 300 snails she kept as pets, she once brought about 100 of them—along with a piece of lettuce—to a party in her handbag.

9. Liveright Publishing is set to publish excerpts of Patricia Highsmith’s diaries in 2021.

Highsmith maintained a thorough record of her life by keeping two sets of journals, separating her personal musings from her professional ideas. After Highsmith died in 1995, her longtime editor Anna von Planta and Daniel Keel, the executor of her will, found 56 spiral-bound notebooks that totaled about 8000 pages worth of handwritten documents. Highsmith's journal excerpts will soon be published as a book.