The award-winning dramatist (Signs of Life: Six Comedies of Menace ) looks to the Texas roots of novelist Patricia Highsmith to explain the traits and compulsions that informed her life. In The Talented Miss Highsmith, she explores the crime writer’s journals and love letters to reveal a complex and erratic individual who created brilliantly suspenseful fiction but was never comfortable in her own skin. Schenkar lives and writes in Paris and New York.
Tell us about the birth and childhood of Patricia Highsmith. Like everything else about Pat, her birth, on January 19, 1921, in her grandmother’s boardinghouse in Fort Worth, was unusual. As Pat liked to say, she was “born out of wedlock but legitimate”: Her mother, Mary Coates, had divorced her father, Jay B. Plangman, nine days before she was born. Mary, a flamboyant artist and illustrator, then took off for Chicago to look for work. Pat’s grandmother, Willie Mae Stewart Coates, cared for the infant, and her ironclad Southern Calvinist principles found expression in the spiritual rebellions and odd, intense pieties that would trouble Pat the rest of her life. When Pat was four, Mary married Stanley Highsmith, and Pat was devastated: She never forgave the man who was her rival for Mary’s affections. Mary and Stanley went to Manhattan to seek their fortunes, and Pat remained with Willie Mae until she was six—and she always said that by that age most things about her had been decided.
How had she changed by the time she graduated from Barnard College, in 1942? Pat went to Barnard with the determination to be a writer. It was there that she started her writer’s notebooks and the astonishingly frank diaries she kept all her life, and she wrote short stories so extreme that the best one, “The Heroine,” was rejected by Barnard’s literary magazine as too disturbing. By her junior year, affairs—platonic and otherwise—with older women who introduced her into the publishing and art worlds of Manhattan proliferated, and she began her lifelong habit of drinking heavily. But by the time she graduated, her essential strangeness had put off all the upscale magazines she’d hoped to write for. She took a job she would later refuse to admit to: a seven-year secret career as the most frequently employed female scriptwriter for comics during