Patricia Highsmith’s Carol and the Enduring Legacy of Lesbian Culture in America


Screenshot from the film
Screenshot from the film “Carol,” an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt” (later published under the title “Carol”). (photo: Flim4)

 

Frank Rich | New York Magazine | Reader Supported News | November 18, 2015

n early December 1948, Patricia Highsmith took a Christmas-season temp job as a shopgirl in the children’s toy department at Bloomingdale’s. Highsmith, a 27-year-old native of Fort Worth, Texas, and a 1942 Barnard graduate, was a budding novelist who had been supporting herself for five years as a freelance action-comic-book writer, concocting stories for lesser superheroes like Spy Smasher and Black Terror — a rare gig for a woman in the golden age of comics. But her average weekly income of $55 no longer ­sufficed now that she had started shelling out $30 a week for psychoanalysis. Highsmith had sought a shrink’s help to deal with her qualms about her pending marriage to a British novelist named Marc Brandel. Up until then, her prolific love life had been defined by a string of affairs with women.

The therapy didn’t take, and the marriage never happened. The Bloomingdale’s job, which she loathed, expired in two weeks. But there was an incident in the toy department lasting a mere two or three minutes that would haunt Highsmith for life. As she would recount it publicly for the first time more than four decades later, “a routine transaction,” the sale of a doll to a suburban “blondish woman in a fur coat” seeking a gift for her daughter, had left Highsmith “odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.” Back in her apartment after work, she feverishly plotted out a story inspired by her experience. As her first novel, Strangers on a Train, was being published in 1950, she retrieved the story as the basis for what would be her second, The Price of Salt. Still possessed by her “vision,” she took the train from Pennsylvania Station to Ridgewood, New Jersey, where the “blondish woman” lived — ­Highsmith had held on to her name and address from the Bloomingdale’s transaction — and spied on her. “The curious thing,” she wrote in her journal afterward, was that the experience “felt quite close to murder.” Murder, she mused, “is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing.” She fantasized about putting “my hands upon her throat (which I should really like to kiss).”

Strangers on a Train, in which two men, one a psychopath and the other a straight arrow, meet by happenstance and decide to swap murders of relatives they respectively despise, was well received and snapped up for the movies by Alfred Hitchcock. But ­Highsmith’s publisher, Harper & Brothers, rejected The Price of Salt, with its tale of the obsessive love of a 19-year-old department-store shopgirl, Therese Belivet, for a married, 30-something customer, Carol Aird. Coward-McCann published it instead, in 1952, under the pseudonym Claire ­Morgan. The next year, Bantam brought out a 35-cent paperback edition with leering cover art (one woman seductively touches another’s shoulder as the discarded man looks on helplessly from afar) and lurid ad copy (“The Novel of a Love Society Forbids”). It sold nearly a million copies. But Highsmith, who bridled that her first novel had been pigeonholed by Harper as a “novel of suspense,” didn’t want to be known as the author of a “lesbian book” either. She didn’t acknowledge Salt as her own for more than a quarter-century. She didn’t open up about its history until five years before her death, when she wrote an afterword for a 1990 British reissue that credited her as the author and retitled the book Carol.

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