Documentary filmmaker Eva Vitija remembers being struck by the idea of Patricia Highsmith when Vitija’s parents described the famous writer who lived alone with her cats in Tegna, the Swiss town where the family spent their summers. And her fascination with the notoriously reclusive, misanthropic author only grew when, after Highsmith’s death in 1995, she began reading her unpublished diaries, which had been left to the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern. In them, she discovered a Highsmith still unknown to most of the world, and one very different from the person she imagined had written dark thrillers like “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Strangers on a Train.”
“There appeared a woman I had absolutely not expected,” Vitija told NBC News. “I discovered this woman who was so emotional and romantic. She was always falling in love.”
Eventually, the 8,000 pages of entries, which Highsmith wrote from 1941 until her death, were organized into an almost 1,000-page volume: “Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks.” When the volume was published last year, Vitija was already years into the making of a documentary inspired by the author’s accounts, which describe debaucherous, sex-filled evenings, whirlwind romances and a series of defining, though short-lived, relationships with other women.
The documentary, “Loving Highsmith,” which was released Friday in U.S. theaters, features conversations with Highsmith’s family and former lovers, a selection of illustrative diary entries read by actor Gwendoline Christie (“Game of Thrones”) and archival material, including interviews with the writer. With the help of a soundtrack featuring jazz guitarists Mary Halvorson and Bill Frisell, Vitija crafts an atmospheric tribute to Highsmith’s romantic streak and a generation of women who had to love in secret.
Whereas the volume of diaries is largely limited by the time frame in which Highsmith was actively recording her life — something that fell off in her later years, when she retreated socially and was known to espouse racist and antisemitic sentiments — the documentary spends a significant amount of time exploring the impact of her early childhood in Texas. Vitija said that, as she began to do more research, she realized how formative this period was, when the infant Highsmith was abandoned by her mother and her brand-new stepfather who went to live in New York, where she would later join them as an adolescent.
“She has this quote — and it’s not the only one — that says, ‘My personality was somehow made during the first six years,’” Vitija said, paraphrasing a diary passage that’s highlighted in the film. “Those were the years she lived with her grandmother, who was the most positive person of her family life — much more positive than her mother.”
“New York also marked her,” Vitija added, referring to Highsmith’s coming of age in Manhattan. “But she was very much influenced by those Texas years and by her grandmother.”
Vitija went to Highsmith’s ancestral home of Fort Worth to interview the writer’s younger cousins, who had known her mostly in passing when they were children and she was an adult. Although Highsmith repeatedly returned to Texas after moving to New York, her extended family had known little about her personal life, which she hid out of perceived necessity. But, Vitija discovered, even in the present day, they weren’t aware of the extent of her celebrity — or her romantic endeavors.
“They didn’t really know how famous she was. They knew the film adaptations. They had also read some of the novels. But it was not clear to them that she was such a star in Europe and the rest of the world,” Vitija said. “They didn’t even think she had a love life. They just thought she was single all her life.”
As the diaries relay, for much of her life Highsmith was in fact hardly ever single. In her late teens and early 20s, when she was a student at Barnard and then an emerging writer living in Manhattan, her reputation as a notorious alcoholic and womanizer preceded her. And her first big success, the Hitchcock-adapted 1950 novel “Strangers on a Train,” only increased her popularity in underground queer society — where she was also rightly thought to be the author of the 1952 lesbian novel “The Price of Salt,” later republished as “Carol” (and then made into a 2015 feature film starring Cate Blanchett).
For years, Highsmith enjoyed a roster of influential bed mates that would have a significant impact on her career and life trajectory, as well as on the content of her works. While many of these former friends and conquests had already died, Vitija managed to track down and interview a handful that she identified through the writer’s diaries.
One of the women featured in the documentary is the American writer Marijane Meaker, who had a successful career authoring works under multiple pseudonyms, including a founding text of lesbian pulp fiction: Vin Packer’s “Spring Fire.” Highsmith and Meaker met at the end of the 1950s, when Highsmith was very much established in her career and was perhaps beginning to slow the spin of her revolving door of lovers, if only just slightly. The two novelists, who were romantically intertwined for just two years, moved to New Hope, Pennsylvania, where they shared an often tumultuous domestic life, which Meaker would later write about in her memoir “Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s.”
Meaker gave only one interview for the film, but in that short conversation she provides its most valuable insights — and most searing critiques. (At one point, she offers a concise characterization of Highsmith's mother, Mary Coates Plangman, saying, “Her mother was a bitch.”) She also sheds light on the more sympathetic side of her ex-lover, from her attempts at conversion therapy to her propensity for self-destruction.
“I didn’t think somebody who wrote so well could put themselves in such a vulnerable position,” Meaker says at one point, referring to Highsmith’s habit of drinking large glasses of gin mixed with orange juice in the mornings while she worked.
The other two women that Vitija interviews onscreen, Monique Buffet and Tabea Blumenschein, knew Highsmith in the 1970s and ‘80s, which the writer spent primarily in Europe. Buffet, who worked as an English teacher and translator, was several years younger than the writer when they met in 1978. And, although Buffet was in a committed relationship, the two shared a close bond that inspired the famous, older writer to confess her love to the Frenchwoman — and to dedicate “The Boy Who Followed Ripley” to her.
Blumenschein, a German artist who rose to fame in the film and art scene of West Berlin before retreating from public view in the late ‘80s, was at the height of her career when she met Highsmith at the Berlin International Film Festival. In the documentary, Blumenschein, who was also a source of inspiration for the fourth Ripley novel, talks about exposing Highsmith to a world of late-night gender-bending and drag kings, as a frequenter of the West Berlin bar scene made famous by David Bowie.
Although very different, the three ex-lovers — as well as a mysterious, married woman whose identity is kept secret by the others and only appears in blurred photographs — collectively represent how Highsmith’s love affairs, and double life, deeply shaped her works. Vitija drives home these connections through curated scenes from adaptations of the novelist’s most famous works, including “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Ripley’s Game.” In addition to providing insights into Highsmith’s personality, these scenes involving murder and madness point to the darkness of her writing, which the documentary seems to suggest is what, along with being a lesbian, made the prolific author untenable in her era.
“She was always asked why she lived alone, as a recluse in the countryside. In each and every interview, she’s asked that. And she always says, ‘I don’t live alone. I have neighbors. I have friends.’ But somehow it sticks to her — that image,” Vitija said.