In 1948, a 27-year-old recent graduate of Barnard College was accepted by the Yaddo artist’s retreat in Saratoga Springs, where she wrote her first novel. It was published in 1950, when the author was 29. A year after that, one of the most famous film directors of all time adapted it for the silver screen. That director was Alfred Hitchock, and the novel in question was Strangers on a Train, the haunting murder-swap thriller written by a young Patricia Highsmith.
Highsmith went on to achieve international acclaim for her 1955 psychological thriller, The Talented Mr. Ripley, which has been adapted for film numerous times, and the five book series it spurred. She was also acclaimed, albeit belatedly, for her love story The Price of Salt, which is considered one of the first lesbian novels to have a happy ending. She released the romance in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan; she didn’t take public ownership of the work until 1990, when it was republished with her name and a new title: Carol.
In addition to her reputation as an incredible, often unsettling writer, Highsmith earned herself the reputation of a grumpy misanthrope. Even her publisher Otto Penzler once described her as a “mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being,” per the Guardian, and he was speaking as a fan of hers.
Now, a new documentary, Loving Highsmith, aims to rewrite that narrative.
Director Eva Vitija’s interest in Highsmith began at a young age, she tells NBC News’ Elaina Patton. Her parents would tell her stories about the writer who lived alone in Tegna, the Swiss town Vitija’s family often visited in the summer. After the author died in 1995, at age 74, Vitija poured over her unpublished diaries, which the Swiss Literary Archives had acquired. In those entries, the filmmaker discovered a Highsmith very different from the cold-hearted recluse of her imagination.
“There appeared a woman I had absolutely not expected,” Vitija tells NBC News. “I discovered this woman who was so emotional and romantic. She was always falling in love.”
Inspired by those private accounts, Loving Highsmith explores aspects of the author’s life that she long kept hidden from the public: her family and her love affairs. The movie paints a picture of the author’s childhood in Fort Worth, Texas, and the years she spent living with her grandmother when her mother and stepfather moved to New York.
As a teenager, Highsmith joined her mother in New York, where she became “something of a playgirl,” writes Amy Nicholson for the New York Times. Evidence for this claim comes in the form of diary entries narrated by “Game of Thrones” actor Gwendoline Christie that detail nights of debauchery and whirlwind romances with numerous girlfriends, as well as interviews with three of Highsmith’s former lovers: lesbian pulp fiction writer Marijane Meaker, German actor Tabea Blumenschein and a woman named Monique Buffet. The film also speaks about a married woman Highsmith fell for, whose identity remains anonymous.
Stitched together, the tales of romance and diary excerpts that make up Loving Highsmith portray the author as a lustful romantic—and a queer woman who had to keep her late-night escapades to lesbian bars and drag shows (sometimes accompanied by David Bowie) hush-hush. In the eyes of some critics, though, the film shies away from exploring her darker tendencies, as well as as her anti-Semitic and racist beliefs.
Still, Loving Highsmith delivers an alternative approach to understanding Highsmith’s mysterious persona. Writing for Screen Slate, Karl McCool describes the film as a “useful document of the writer, her time and her milieu.”
Playing in theaters now, Loving Highsmith is a fresh look into a brilliant mind who has continued to shape popular culture long after her death: In 2015, The Price of Salt was adapted for the screen in Todd Haynes’ Carol. Starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, the film has been celebrated by critics and queer audiences alike as an unabashed mainstream depiction of lesbian romance.