Ariel Schrag is the author of the graphic novels “Awkward,” “Definition,” “Potential,” and “Likewise.” She is currently a writer for the HBO series “How To Make It In America” and was a writer for the Showtime series “The L Word.”
If anything, a biography should reveal some good secrets. The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith, Joan Schenkar’s near 700-page account of the suspense writer’s life, delivers as promised. Highsmith – most known for her novels Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley – had two profound parts of her life that she kept “secret” and which Schenkar covers in vigorous detail. One: that Highsmith was gay. Two: that she wrote for comic books.
During the 1940s and ‘50s, when Highsmith was in her twenties and thirties and her rampant lesbian affairs (and good god were there a lot) were at their peak, most everyone’s homosexuality was “secret.” Being “out” was not a thing that one was. Highsmith rarely acknowledged her sexuality publicly, although it consumed her. She insisted that her second novel, the lesbian love story The Price of Salt be published under a pseudonym (it was, from 1952 until 1990) and even entered into psychoanalysis in 1948 to “regularize herself sexually” (she left, six months later, remarking at her analysts suggestion that she join group therapy for married, latent homosexual women, “perhaps I will amuse myself by seducing a couple of them”).
I went to high school in Berkeley, California in the late ‘90s, where being gay was socially accepted and quite common, but Schenkar’s biography made me jealous for Highsmith’s 1940s New York. Despite the underground nature of being gay, Schenkar presents Highsmith’s life as so steamy, so teeming with hot lesbians around every corner for Highsmith to entangle in obsessive triangulations, it’s like a fantasy noir L Word. Highsmith even considered making her own L Word-esque “chart,” which she describes as: “a family tree, a diagrammatic view of affairs and duration among les girls. From one individual radiate twenty lines, crossing those of their other partners, coming full circle again … Everybody has been with everybody else.”
But while dyke drama thrilled Highsmith, comics were the bane of her existence. Before she was able to support herself as a novelist, Highsmith made money as a reluctant scriptwriter for comic books. Between 1942 and 1949, she worked on all different genres of comics — silly animals, historical, romance, but primarily superhero stories, including titles for Timely Comics (now the behemoth Marvel). In a bizarre scenario, Highsmith was even set up on a date with a young Stan Lee (who had not yet co-created Spiderman). A mutual friend thought Lee and Highsmith might “make a good match.” They did not.