Patricia Highsmith and the Italian inspiration of Mr Ripley

On January 19, 1921, the American modernist writer was born in Fort Worth, Texas Patricia Highsmith, considered the “Queen of Mystery”. Nonconformist and indefinable, Highsmith was a prolific author, but her fame for years was inextricably linked to a character: the serial killer Tom Ripleyknown as Mr Ripleythe charming and restless anti-hero created by his icy mind.

Tom Ripley’s first appearance took place in 1955, when the successful novel was printed Mr Ripley’s Talentwhich carried the eloquent subtitle A novel of suspenselater starring in various big-screen adaptations.

When he wrote his bestseller Patricia Highsmith he was thirty-four: he had already written several novels, including the famous one Strangers on the train (Strangers on a train, Ed) adapted by Hitchcock into a film, but with the cynical, deceitful and ruthless character of Mr Ripley he obtained his authentic literary consecration. In 1956 he won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for “Best Novel”. Four more novels would follow, always with the same protagonist.

Tom Ripley actually looked like her: they said she was the same as Ripley, a social climbers, a social climber; but without the same charm. It wasn’t exactly a compliment. The also reports the New York Timesin an article dedicated to the work:

Patricia was Tom Ripley without the charm.

What is certain – and they prove it as well his diaries and notebooks – is that Highsmith spoke of her Mr Ripley as if he were a real person, and not a fictional one. In the malevolent figure of Ripley all her nightmares reverberated, her anxieties and paranoias which, from time to time, changed face. Mr Ripley it was his double, his second personality: his own Mr Hyde.

But how did he get the inspiration for the creation of his character?

It seems that it happened during an Italian summer, in the sunny town of Positano on the Amalfi coast.

Let’s discover the story behind Patricia Highsmith’s most famous book.

The Talented Mr Ripley: The Origin of the Novel


The main setting of the novel Mr Ripley’s Talent it is the fictitious village of Mongibello. In reality, Highsmith was referring to Positano, the place where she got the inspiration for the story, which in fact was used by the director Anthony Minghella as a locationfor his famous film The talented Mr Ripley starring Matt Damon and Academy Award nominee Jude Law.

Patricia Highsmith reached sunny Positano in 1950, for a vacation. But she wasn’t alone: ​​she was with her Ellen Hill (whose maiden name was Ellen Blumenthal, Edlisten), a German Jewish immigrant who now held a senior role at the International Refugee Organization (IRO), and was his new mistress.

Before Ellen in Patricia’s life there had been Kathryn Hamill Cohenthe wife of her publisher, with whom the author established a toxic relationship: so much so that it is possible to see in Kathryn a reflection of Dickie GreenleafRipley’s intended victim.

But in every love affair Patricia seemed to repeat the same manipulative dynamic of overwhelm, a dichotomy of hate and love, desire and lie: now also with Ellen.

Years later, in 1989, Highsmith herself revealed in the magazine Granta how her stay in Italy with Ellen provided her inspiration for Tom Ripley.

The piece was eloquently entitled The crime scene and came out in February.

In the article the writer reported a singular testimony. She said that one morning she got up early, around six, she went to the balcony of the hotel room and it was at that point that she noticed in the distance a man who, according to her, would have provided her with inspiration for the story:

A lonely young man in shorts and sandals with a towel around his shoulders making his way to the beach… There was a thoughtful air about him, perhaps uneasiness. And why was he alone? Had he quarreled with someone? What was going through his head?.

Inexplicably, the young man disappears and Patricia swears she never saw him again. Now it is not difficult to imagine a vision in that figure, perhaps the author saw a projection of herself in it.

In the 1950s the town of Positano, as reported by Crime Readsbecame a popular tourist destination for Americans, following the praise article published by John Steinbeck on Harpeer’s Bazaar.

In the piece in question Steinbeck emphasized the contrast between the natural beauty of the place and its state of desolation. It almost seemed a reflection of a state of mind, or perhaps of Highsmith’s mind.

Writer Nobel prize he observed the stark contrast between the sumptuous hotels and bourgeois villas and the poverty of the fishermen and small traders who barely lived off their work.

Maybe the man Patricia spotted was one of them; always if he ever existed.

Did Mr Ripley really exist?

Many today say that the figure Highsmith saw on the beach was actually a projection of itself. When he wrote the article for Grantain 1989, Mr Ripley was already a well-known character, like the Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived a life of his own.

By portraying Mr Ripley as a real figure, Patricia Highsmith may have wanted to narrow the gap between fantasy and reality and thereby increase the book’s marketability. The murderous psychopath was no longer elusive and mysterious, but he had a face and was in a specific place, on that beach in Positano.

Or Patricia Highsmith with that umpteenth “novel” invention wanted to hide a truth that she denied even to herself, namely that the real Mr Ripley, in fact, was her.

In any case, after this umpteenth story by the queen of noir, I challenge anyone to walk on the beach of Positano without feeling, for a moment, a fleeting shiver of unease.

Patricia Highsmith and the Italian inspiration of Mr Ripley