“Schenkar’s writing is witty, sharp and light-handed, a considerable achievement given the immense detail of this biography,” the novelist Jeanette Winterson wrote in a review in The New York Times. “Highsmith was a detail junkie. Schenkar’s nonlinear organizing method was a brilliant idea to save herself — and the reader — from data overload.”
Joan Marlene Schenkar was born on Aug. 15, 1942, in Seattle to Maurice and Marlene (von Neumann) Schenkar. Linda Gaboriau, a close friend for many years, said Wikipedia and other online sources list her as having been quite a bit younger, by Ms. Schenkar’s own design — about the time of the Highsmith biography, Ms. Gaboriau said, Ms. Schenkar set about tweaking her age because of the way people over 65, especially women, were often marginalized.
“What she had decided to do,” Ms. Gaboriau said in a phone interview, “was take a neat 10 years off her life.”
Her father was in real estate, and Ms. Gaboriau said Ms. Schenkar may have picked up some of his skills — wise real estate investments over the years gave her financial security. She received a degree in literature at Bennington College in Vermont, where she studied under Stanley Edgar Hyman, the literary critic and writer for The New Yorker, and was friends with his wife, the horror and mystery writer Shirley Jackson.
Ms. Schenkar acquired a farm in Vermont, alternating between living there and in New York, and began writing plays, experimental works built on absurdity and out-there humor. She used the phrase “a Comedy of Menace” as a subtitle for many of them.
“Signs of Life,” staged at the American Place Theater in Manhattan in 1979, involved an imagined P.T. Barnum attraction named Elephant Woman, a gynecologist partial to an instrument called the uterine guillotine, and the author Henry James. “Cabin Fever” featured three characters who sit on a porch and talk about the harsh winter and the neighbors’ apparent resort to cannibalism. “The Universal Wolf” upended the Red Riding Hood story, with the Grandma character a retired butcher looking for an opportunity to dust off her old skills.