FFB: Highsmith – A Romance of the 1950s

Marijane Meaker’s memoir of her romance with Patricia Highsmith reads like one of her novels. Racy, pacy, fun – with characters larger than life. At times it’s hard to remember they’re real people. While Joan Schenkar’s fat biography covers a whole lot more, Meaker’s book offers the first hand insight and anecdotes that makes it sing.

Not that she spares herself: who but a real neurotic could make a go of things with the singular Highsmith? At times Meaker almost outpaces Ripley’s creator in the crazy stakes: obsessing madly and far too quick to start snooping and drawing wild assumptions. She admits that before they even met ‘Pat had become my idol’ so she worked up the courage to go across the bar and introduce herself to the woman who ‘looked like a combination of Prince Valiant and Rudolph Nureyev.’

Meaker doesn’t mention that she’s living with someone and quickly the two become mutually infatuated, soon living a folie à deux like…well, like two characters in a Highsmith novel. It’s clear Meaker is as much enamoured of the writer as the woman. She knows the restaurant where O. Henry wrote his stories, envies Highsmith’s literary friends, stalks some of her exes, and longs to write a hardcover book to get a little more literary credit. ‘It didn’t occur to me that I would lose Kit,’ Meaker writes, ‘I would lie, talk myself out of blame, something.’

But Highsmith was so open about her affection, it wasn’t something that could be hidden long — especially with all the drinking. While Pat cooked, Meaker would make her a “cooking drink” but mentions she also had her “dressing drinks” and “argument drinks” and “sleepless night drinks” as well. The drinking didn’t help. Nor did the fact that Meaker in her own words ‘let it all hang out’ which Highsmith found wounding at times.

Far too soon they decided not only to move in together, but to do so out in the wilds of the Pennsylvania countryside. There were the usual negotiations of living together with the added strangeness of country life after Manhattan’s swirl. They find ways to order their very different work habits but there are lots of little things:

‘I think it was also why she often left things unsaid: She didn’t want her mind cluttered with bad feelings. She knew anything she brought up…would be endlessly defended by me, with my working it around somehow so that Pat was to blame for whatever we were discussing. She would not have made a good debater. I was a champion.’

Or when discussing why only Highsmith’s cat Spider and not Meaker’s five brought rabbit carcasses to the door: ‘”Because Spider’s a natural killer. He’s a Highsmith.” It was supposed to be a joke.’ Ouch!

Not that Pat was any picnic: her drinking and her racism (and anti-Semitism seemed to take off to higher levels, slowly at first but then sharply as she seemed to feel trapped. The images of her sneering at Lorraine Hansberry and walking around the house trimming the plants with a switchblade while she grumbled. Meaker refuses to consider traveling abroad, but complains that ‘Pat always made me feel that I was holding her back.’

They almost break up several times, then cancel even as the movers fill the vans (rather comically, they have to keep looking for movers ever further away because they cannot face the same ones for yet another aborted move). Almost 30 years later they get together for a short visit. Highsmith has ossified in both her drinking and her misanthropy to a level that shocks Meaker despite what she’d heard.

This is a fun and interesting read, if more than a little cringe inducing at times because Meaker really does let it all hang out and two neurotic creators have some very creative madness. Oh, I didn’t even mention the letters from Highsmith’s mother — wow.  Fascinating!

Read all the overlooked gems at Patti’s blog.

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2 thoughts on “FFB: Highsmith – A Romance of the 1950s

  1. I knew nothing of this book: what a stupendous account, K. It sounds like a must-read. *Off to his library catalog he plods*

    who but a real neurotic could make a go of things with the singular Highsmith?

    You had me laughing out loud with this line! I imagine living with Highsmith might be one of those fates sane people would avoid.

    Sorry we didn’t make it to WFC, by the way. More on this later . . .

    1. Well, it would have been great if you could have made it. Soon? Albacon in March? And yeah, the book is well worth a read. Highly entertaining if painfully cringeworthy too.

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