Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

Marijane Meaker, Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s (San Francisco, CA: Cleis Press, 2003, $14.95, 207 pages, ISBN 1-57344-171-6)Donald P. Gagnon, Western Connecticut State University

 

According to Marijane Meaker's memoir, Patricia Highsmith was a difficult woman. However, whatever challenges Highsmith seemed to present to those closest to her, Meaker manages to spin them into a welcoming portrait of a master wordsmith whose personal and professional interests reflected themselves clearly in her work and her era. The memoir is as much an evocation of the zeitgeist of post-war paranoia and inertia as it is a study of how a talented free spirit found ways to challenge that paranoia and counter a cultural and spiritual stagnancy that seemed designed to drain the vitality from a unique and insightful literary voice.

Meaker herself is a significant literary voice of the period. While much less known, though perhaps more commercially successful than her subject at the time, she published almost two dozen popular and juvenile novels. In addition, she authored seventeen popular paperback crime novels under a pseudonym, novels that found some degree of respect even for the somewhat transgressive mass-market literature in the 1950s.

The carefully chosen term "romance" applies in many ways to Meaker's evocative book. In the broadest sense, it is a fond recollection of a period filtered through pastel shades that tint even the most unjust social inequities of gay and lesbian life in a melancholic nostalgia:

It was the beginning of graciousness in the lesbian bar world. There was no evidence of Mafia ownership, no men in baggy double-breasted suits sporting pinkie rings guarding the door. In fact, no men were allowed. The bathroom was clean. The customers didn't seem to be divided so much into butch and femme []. The women behind the bar and at the door were welcoming.

Into this cozy setting comes Highsmith, a "handsome, dark-haired woman in a trench coat, drinking gin" [1], and thus begins the romance between Highsmith, a chronicler of the psychopaths and killers lurking under the deceptive surface of 1950s American self-indulgence, and Meaker, a writer of commercial detective fiction better known by her pseudonym of Vin Packer, whose own life and career would soon be alternately enriched and upset by the arrival of the misanthropic Highsmith.

For the most part, Meaker's memoir details their two-year affair, with a coda that details Highsmith's forcible return to Meaker's life in later years, carrying along with her the same dark view of the world and its inhabitants, a view colored by alcohol and delineated most clearly through her diatribes against the lower classes, and especially black and Jewish people. Meaker quotes Highsmith:

When I was six in 1927 I started school in New York City public schools. I was delighted to see a few blacks in my class. We had the same accent because I'd lived in Texas. We were pals on the playing field. Is it Old Whitey's faulty if they don't stay in school? [196]

While Highsmith's personality may be complex, Meaker's treatment is deceptively simple in structure. After a very brief introduction that does little more than to establish setting and mood, there is Highsmith, already the romantic literary figure in the author's eyes, a disruptive figure whose physiognomy is as much at odds with the conventions of the time as was her literary focus on tortured psyches representing the detritus of the United States' baby boom. Within a handful of pages, Meaker is leaving her own partner and beginning the intense affair with Highsmith, the details of which comprise the relatively brief narrative. Then again, this is not a diary purporting to depict fully what can (and should) only be sketched. Rather it is a romance that succeeds in creating a tone, an air of the ineffability of a relationship built on attraction, deception and a sense that reality is a concept best dealt with in private.

The anecdotes of Highsmith and Meaker's social lives are particularly vivid and telling, highlighting the reasons for their mutual attraction and eventual separation. From binges with mutual friends to individual forays outside of the relationship, the book's foundation is the daily dialectic that describes the intensity of attraction and resentment between these two women. Meaker's friend Polly Cameron is particularly keen-sighted in an exchange with the author: "Pat's right about one thing []. You made her up. Then you nagged her for not being the person you made up" [166].

But Meaker's perspective from five decades later creates a strong sense that while the Pat Highsmith of the memoir may indeed be a romantic vision, it is a vision that is not clouded by romantic sentiment. As the events of the two years careen toward the eventual destruction of the relationship, Meaker maintains a controlled perspective that avoids criticism in favor of acceptance, even resignation, to that idea that, while two years of her life may have been devoted to a woman who never seemed as devoted to her, the time and energy produced quantifiable dividends more than even qualified resentment. The restrained description of their final parting aches with silences unchallenged: "I went down and helped Pat with her luggage: a garment bag, a shoulder bag, and a large canvas bag. There was an awkward embrace, and mumbled 'Take care of yourself' and 'good-byes'" [204]. From initial attraction to final embrace, the book chronicles the rise and fall of a relationship that seemed destined to only flare and sputter, reflecting the intense, self-serving and trapped characters inhabiting Highsmith's best work, from The Price of Salt to Strangers on a Train, and to the spiraling intricate personal traps littering the life of the title character in The Talented Mr. Ripley.

In fact, it is precisely Meaker's ability to limn the dark corners of her subject's life while providing her a sense of insight and empathy that gives life to the romance. In describing how Highsmith's cat, Spider, brought home a dead rabbit one day, Highsmith says, "He can't help it. He's a natural killer," to which Meaker replies, "Spider's a natural killer. He's a Highsmith" [117]. According to the book, Highsmith was by nature mistrustful and contrary, refusing to make concessions to the marketability of her writing yet rewriting almost obsessively to please and editor and gain publication. It is this ability to portray Highsmith's Janus-like selfhood, her self-awareness as well as her willingness to accept blame that fleshes out a book that by any measure could have simply been a tell-all. Rather, this memoir functions most successfully when it is not telling all though still revealing much via Meaker's lively prose and concise storytelling.

An astute reader may find Meaker's book even more telling if one is familiar with the characteristics of Highsmith's work. Not only are her characters frequently transgressive in behavioral and social attitudes, but she often eschews traditional concepts of character development, action, plot and resolution. Meaker's vivid recounting of their relationship brings such characteristics into higher relief when one reads of Highsmith's seemingly unmotivated changes of attitude or choices of action. Reading the texts of Highsmith's fiction as a function of the narrative of her life would clearly illuminate the text of the memoir. However, Meaker wisely avoids literary analysis, choosing to spend her time portraying the events of their mutual experience, especially Highsmith's persistently icy relationship with her hypercritical mother, allowing the reader to draw conclusions about how Highsmith's life affected her work and vice versa. Strangers on a Train, perhaps Highsmith's most successful work until the recent popularization of Tom Ripley via his Hollywood incarnation, is already a fact of history by the time the two meet, and while the memoir does address some details in Highsmith's efforts to complete and publish Janus, this is not a literary biography.

Though Meaker refers to her subject as her "idol" in a literary sense, she clearly illustrates how and why Highsmith so successfully existed not necessarily as a public figure but rather as both a literary and social outsider. Navigating a cultural underground that limited and enriched the lives of both authors, Meaker's memoir of shared intimacies and public acts reveals the inner workings of a literary pioneer whose own frontiers were only beginning to be explored in the daily events of their lives and eventually, in the pages of their own literary creations.

Cercles2005
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.