Famous First Words: Strangers on a Train
The year was 1948, and Patricia Highsmith knew that she needed to get away. She was fully entrenched in the New York City art scene, forging professional alliances and regularly mingling with local celebrities of the day. It wasn’t an easy exercise. A seasoned socialite going back to her Barnard College days, Highsmith never really enjoyed the company of others, at least not in what might be considered the traditional sense. She enjoyed meeting new people, making connections, striking up affairs (sometimes with both halves of a couple), but it was the burdensome prospect of maintaining relationships that would inevitably ruin the experience. Highsmith favored a much more uncomplicated form of camaraderie, which tended to be limited to a succession of provisional lovers and the many snails that she had begun keeping as pets a couple of years before. The snails never disappointed her.
Having amassed a handful of short story credits up to this point, she now had about a third of a manuscript finished for a novel that she had started writing during the previous summer. It was still in a fairly raw state, but it exhibited a force and tenacity that her two earlier attempts had lacked. The premise this time was simple and compelling: two men of divergent circumstances meet while traveling by train from New York to Texas, and after learning that each has someone in his life whom he would like to be rid of, they propose to eliminate each other’s problem. Though Highsmith drew inspiration from the canon regulars that she was weaned on—Dostoevsky in particular—she studied pulp novels for reference, becoming acclimated to their techniques and adapting them for her own purposes. It was through them that she learned the economy of language that would propel her plot forward.
Highsmith was encouraged by the opinions of friends and associates who recognized the book’s potential, so she gave the unfinished manuscript to her agent, Margot Johnson, in order to test the market, and Johnson sent it to an editor at Dodd, Mead & Company named Marion Chamberlain for an assessment. While Chamberlain was confident that the manuscript could be built into an outstanding novel, she concluded that Highsmith wasn’t quite ready to be signed to a contract and advised her to spend some time reevaluating it and addressing some of the structural issues. As Chamberlain put it: “She has a bigger book on her hands than perhaps she conceived and it will take all she’s got.” Highsmith, deflated at first, embraced the advice, deciding to leave the city for a while to focus her energy on the task at hand.
To this end, she sought to utilize one of the more valuable connections that she had made among New York’s social aristocracy. Highsmith had met Truman Capote (whose work she had considered excellent on a technical level but somewhat shallow) at a party in February of 1948, and she was immediately drawn to him, attracted by the strength of his personality but also his refreshing candidness about his homosexuality—which had long been a source of anguish in her own life. Highsmith also knew that Capote had spent time at Yaddo, the artist’s colony in upstate New York where she wanted to go, and since she had already been turned down by another artist’s colony in New Hampshire, she decided that she was likely better off including the kind of names that might have some influence over the selection committee. Capote offered an exchange—he agreed to put in a good word for her at Yaddo if she would be willing to sublet her apartment to him. Highsmith took the deal.
She submitted the first part of her novel, a few of her published stories, and several endorsements (with Capote as the ringer) in March. The panel at Yaddo noted that Highsmith’s work, while not necessarily qualifying as “higher” literature, nevertheless demonstrated that she had a stronger command of craft than many other contemporary examples in that category—an especially commendable skill when considering the relative scarcity of competition from “extraordinary” applicants overall. However backhanded the praise may have been, it was enough to grant her admission. She spent two months there, from May to July, and her arrangement with Capote resulted in a productive stretch for both of them—Capote finished writing A Tree of Night in Highsmith’s apartment, while Highsmith came out of Yaddo with a full draft of her first completed novel, Strangers on a Train.
Highsmith also managed to leave Yaddo with an engagement to a British novelist in residence there, Marc Brandel, which she promptly regretted. In a last-ditch attempt at reconciling her sexuality and her ambivalence toward Brandel, she then spent six months in psychoanalysis with Dr. Eva Klein. Aside from some initial insight into the emotional turmoil of her past, Highsmith gradually came to resent the subtle but persistent remedy that her therapist was attempting to formulate over the course of their sessions. The breaking point finally came when Dr. Klein suggested a group therapy program for married women who had expressed latent homosexual tendencies. “Perhaps I shall amuse myself by seducing a couple of them,” Highsmith remarked. She never went back.
Strangers on a Train was released in March of 1950, and by June of the following year it was in theaters as an Alfred Hitchcock production, introducing Highsmith’s grim examination of our collective psyche to a significantly wider audience than she had expected (albeit with a slightly milder adaptation). She had five more novels published before the decade was done, including The Talented Mr. Ripley, which would expand that audience again with a film version in 1999, four years after her death. To the very end, Highsmith engaged herself without hesitation in a survey of some of the mind’s darkest impulses, and she spent her life grappling with demons of her own that continued to manifest themselves along the way: the fallouts with colleagues and publishers, the often disastrous affairs, the protracted disputes with tax authorities, the rancorous perspective on race that she developed later in life and the passionately anti-Semitic diatribes that she wrote under various pseudonyms, the struggles with alcoholism that she never overcame.
Perhaps predictably, she left the entirety of her assets and royalties to the sanctuary in upstate New York that gave her the moment of calm she needed to help her get started.