Texas writer gets his due in ‘Loving Highsmith’ movie at MFAH

AuthorPatricia Highsmith

Photo: Courtesy of Keith DeLellis

Before Patricia Highsmith walked out of the literary door with the indelible “Strangers on a Train,” or became an international traveler and girlfriend collector, she was a little Fort Worth girl from a family of ranchers and of rodeos. Highsmith’s mother divorced her nine days before Highsmith was born, leaving her daughter for long periods in Fort Worth before taking her to live in New York. Highsmith would return to Fort Worth, against his wishes, for one more year at the age of 12.

As we see in the new documentary “Loving Highsmith,” screened Sept. 16-18 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, she’s spent much of her life getting as far away from Cowtown as possible. She also spent many years craving her mother’s love, which never really came. Highsmith wrote her first lesbian novel, The Price of Salt, under a pseudonym; her mother cruelly revealed her to her grandmother. (Many years later it was republished with Highsmith’s name on it and with a new title, “Carol”; it was made into a terrific movie starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in 2015).

As Highsmith wrote in a verse early in his life, “I’m married to my mother / I’ll never marry another.” It was a complicated relationship that hung over Highsmith until the day he died.

“Love Highsmith”

Unclassified

When: 7 p.m. Sept. 16-17, 5 p.m. Sept. 18

Where: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet

Details: $9; mfah.org

**** (out of 5)

“A lady was supposed to act like a lady, and you didn’t turn away from that,” a Fort Worth relative says in the film.

Highsmith was only too happy to deviate. In her work, she has written about debonair psychopaths: Bruno Antony, the patricidal mama’s boy immortalized by Robert Walker in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 adaptation of “Strangers on a Train”, and Tom Ripley, the chameleon assassin at the heart of five Highsmith novels (and several films). She spent most of her life in Europe, notably in Locarno, Switzerland, where she died in 1995 at the age of 74.

As for the title of the film? Loving Highsmith was certainly not easy, although the former lovers gathered here were very fond of her. “She had a weirdness about her,” says writer Marijane Meeker, who met Highsmith in New York. “She was not a forward person at all.”

But Meeker also insists that Highsmith was easy to like. German artist and filmmaker Tabea Blumenschein recalls that they wanted to make a film with Blumenschein playing a Ripley woman. Highsmith was something of a serial monogamist, an alcoholic more sensitive to his gin and pet snails than to any kind of permanent human relationship. Later in life, she was subject to bizarre racist rants.

“Loving Highsmith” takes a lyrical approach that includes frequent slow-motion forays into Fort Worth stockyards, where bronco riding and calf-roping represent various moods and moments in Highsmith’s life. There’s plenty of home movie footage of Highsmith, often smoking, smiling when she lets her guard down.

Actress Gwendoline Christie reads Highsmith newspapers. And of course there are the movies: Walker’s Bruno pitching his idea for a murder swap to Farley Granger’s Guy Haines; Matt Damon’s sexually ambiguous Ripley, committing murder in the name of love and his long game of con; and, most satisfying, “Carol”, with its portrayal of two women head over heels in love.

When “The Price of Salt” was first published in 1952, it was the first lesbian novel to have a happy ending. It was radical at the time, so radical that Highsmith didn’t put her name on the book (she used the pseudonym Claire Morgan). One wonders what Highsmith’s life would have been like had she grown up in a world that accepted her. We still have the books and the movies. And now, this beautiful documentary.

Chris Vognar is a Houston-based writer.





  • Chris Vognar

    Chris Vognar is a reporter for the Houston Chronicle.