“Loving Highsmith” in the cinema: How does love life affect art? – Culture

Young Patricia Highsmith had a very active love life. It was not easy for a lesbian woman in post-war New York. Gay nightlife was limited to a few relevant bars, all in the same corner of town. And those who visited these pubs in secret were better placed to get off the subway sooner or later so as not to arouse suspicion. For Highsmith, a native Texan with a Protestant upbringing, the discovery of the big city and his own sexual orientation was an exciting but often painful adventure.

With her novel “Two Strangers on a Train” (1950), which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock shortly after its release, she had already become a star in the literary world in her late twenties. But it also led to fears of social exclusion. A lesbian writer would have quickly been dropped by major publishers, though Highsmith quickly established himself as a prolific, best-selling author who made big money. But even her mother, with whom she had a difficult relationship throughout her life, demanded that she live the “right” sexuality – that is, please find a man and marry her. Highsmith nevertheless continued to sleep with women and had many partners, especially as a young man. Just in the secrecy of the lesbian subculture of the 1950s.

“Writing is the only way to feel respectable,” said prolific writer Patricia Highsmith

(Photo: Ellen Rifkin Hill / Swiss Social Archives / Salzgeber Edition)

In her documentary “Loving Highsmith”, the Swiss filmmaker Eva Vitija examines the influence this double life had on her work. At the age of seven, the director spent the summer holidays with his family in the village of Tegna on Ticino. Highsmith had emigrated there towards the end of his life, built a bunker-like house, and withdrew almost entirely from the public eye. The parents told the director that a famous writer lived in this village, alone with his cats. It sounded “exciting and a little scary” to the little girl and sparked a lifelong interest in the author who died in 1995.

Highsmith documented her love life at length in her “Cahiers,” as she called the collection of diaries and notebooks found in a linen closet in her Swiss home after her death. The director uses these texts, which were first published last year on the occasion of the author’s 100th birthday, as a basis for research into her films and quotes them extensively. “Writing,” Highsmith remarked, “is, of course, a substitute for the life I can not live, which is denied me.”

Highsmith moved through the West Berlin transvestite clubs that David Bowie also liked to visit

The instructor has also spoken to Highsmith relatives in Fort Worth, Texas, as well as three ex-girlfriends. The three women are the American author Marijane Meaker, French translator and teacher Monique Buffet and the German actress and artist Tabea Blumenschein. Highsmith met the latter when she sat on the Berlinale jury in the late 1970s (she of all people hated the film adaptations of her books and therefore tended to think of Hitchcock and Chabrol as idiots) and roamed around West Berlin transvestite clubs at night, which also included David Bowie liked to visit.

The picture is of a woman who developed her “creepy ideas”, which she liked to call her book ideas, not only, but also from her sexuality, which she never lived out completely freely: stories of obsession, anxiety, madness, but also secret attempts at liberation in a fictional cloak. It’s probably no coincidence that her most famous creature, the talented Mr. Ripley, murders and plans his way through five novels with almost never showing signs of remorse or guilt in the traditional sense. A representative figure liberated from most social shackles, which she repeatedly characterizes as homosexual in subtle allusions.

Highsmith also wrote a novel about lesbian love early in her career. “Salt and its Price” (filmed decades later with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara under the title “Carol”) was released in 1952 – albeit under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. The book was considered pure provocation. Less because of the affair between two women described in it, than because of the happy ending: The two women get away with their relationship without being punished in any way.

It was such a taboo in post-war America that Highsmith did not publicly acknowledge the book until late in his life. But it must have given her, at least quietly, immense satisfaction in writing the story. Because writing, Highsmith admitted, “is the only way to feel respectable.”


Because writing was not enough for her intoxication, Highsmith drank to dampen her inner tensions. Her lover Marijane Meaker tells in the film how it took her some time to realize that the orange juice that her friend always drank for breakfast before she sat down at the typewriter was primarily gin with a touch of fruit juice.

Of course, none of these anecdotes are entirely new. And the film does not come close to Joan Schenkar’s (2015) excellent 1,000-page biography of Highsmith, which already contained most of the stories. But it gives a very precise sense of Highsmith’s primal conflict, which should not only sound familiar to her, but also to many other people (and whose literary treatment must have made her so successful). As Highsmith put it in his journals: “The most painful feeling is your own weakness.”

Loving carpenter, Switzerland 2021 – Instructor: Eva Vitija. Camera: Siri Smart. Edition Salzgeber, 83 minutes. Cinema premiere: April 7, 2022.

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