How ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ Foretold Our Era of Grifting

Ripley oscillates between obsession and repulsion when it comes to other people but believes unwaveringly in the transcendence found in good style — the best food, clothes and interiors. (The real romance, in Highsmith, is always with the finer things in life.) Both the novel and Minghella’s film turn on a scene in which Greenleaf catches Ripley trying on his clothes and mannerisms. After assuming Greenleaf’s identity, he decorates a palazzo in Venice for himself, hiring a pair of servants who “knew the difference between a Bloody Mary and a crême de menthe frappe.” Ripley likes to spend whole “evenings looking at his clothes — his clothes and Dickie’s — and feeling Dickie’s rings between his palms and running his fingers over the antelope suitcase he had bought at Gucci’s [sic]. He loved possessions, not masses of them, but a select few. … They gave a man self-respect.” The art of imposture isn’t only about getting the forged signatures on the letters and bank checks right; it’s about the mood, the tone, the attitude, much as a novelist creates a fictional character. (In a later Ripley book he becomes an art forger.) The most heartbreaking moment in the novel is when he’s forced to put on his own shabby coat and return to himself. It isn’t Dickie Greenleaf, but Tom Ripley, he’d wanted to leave at the bottom of the sea.

ONE WAY TO escape from the person you are is, of course, to become the others in your imagination: Just ask any fiction writer. “Impersonation, the substitution of one identity for another, the forgery of personality and the fluidity of character, were all native states for Patricia Highsmith,” wrote Joan Schenkar in her 2009 biography of the author, “The Talented Miss Highsmith,” which traces the furnishings of Highsmith’s imagination to her childhood reading (Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries and the Freudian analyst Karl Menninger’s case histories) and to her relationship with her narcissistic, competitive mother, an artist who, according to biographers, liked to joke that she’d tried to abort Highsmith by drinking turpentine. Highsmith’s parents divorced before she was born, in Fort Worth, Texas; she took the name of her stepfather, Stanley Highsmith, and grew up in Texas and in New York City. At 24, the Barnard College graduate was earning her living by writing scripts for comic books, with their secret identities and clothes with special powers. She was also keeping a diary, in which she noted, “There is an ever more acute difference — and an intolerableness — between my inner self, which I know is the real me, and various faces of the outside world.” At 27, she underwent psychoanalysis, and her doctor suggested that she join group therapy with some “married women who are latent homosexuals.” She remarked in her notebook, “Perhaps I shall amuse myself by seducing a couple of them.” Like Alfred Hitchcock, who adapted her first novel, “Strangers on a Train,” for his 1951 noir, she had a thing for elegant blondes.

Fiction became a way to bridge the distance between those public and private selves; living abroad, too, seemed to grant her a sense of clarity and liberation while affirming her separateness. Just before writing the first “Ripley” novel, Highsmith read the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” (1835-40), trying to gain perspective on her own countrymen and women, refining her understanding of hypocrisy and perversity at the heart of American identity. Like Ripley — and like Henry James, whose 1903 novel, “The Ambassadors,” in which an American man in Paris finds himself awakening to the charms of another way of being, is a model for the first “Ripley” novel — Highsmith preferred to live in Europe, residing for many years in England and France before eventually settling in Switzerland. “No book,” she said, “was easier for me to write, and I often had the feeling Ripley was writing it and I was merely typing.”

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