The passions behind Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt.”
BY MARGARET TALBOT
One day, a woman in a mink coat drifted into the toy department. Highsmith later recalled, “Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone, or because a mink coat was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light.” Like Alfred Hitchcock, Highsmith was captivated by frosty blondes, all the more so if they were married and rich. The shopper, who slapped her gloves into one hand as she scanned the merchandise, made Highsmith feel “odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting yet at the same time uplifted.” With an abstracted air, the woman, Mrs. E. R. Senn, bought a doll from Highsmith.
That night, Highsmith wrote an eight-page outline for a novel: a love story about Therese Belivet, a diffident nineteen-year-old who lives on her own in New York City, and Carol Aird, a wealthy suburban wife and mother in her thirties. Highsmith conjured what Therese would feel upon catching her first glimpse of Carol: “I see her the same instant she sees me, and instantly, I love her. Instantly, I am terrified, because I know she knows I am terrified and that I love her. Though there are seven girls between us, I know, she knows, she will come to me and have me wait on her.”
Highsmith published the novel, “The Price of Salt,” in 1952, under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. She was understandably wary of derailing her career, but she also may have been uncomfortable with the book’s exaltation of love. Highsmith never wrote another book like it; indeed, her work became known for its ostentatious misanthropy. And for the next four decades she publicly dodged any connection to a book of which she had every right to be proud.
Highsmith was a pared-down, precise writer whose stories rarely strayed from the solipsistic minds of her protagonists—most of them killers (like the suave psychopath Tom Ripley) or would-be killers (like the unhappy husbands in several of her books). “The Price of Salt” is the only Highsmith novel in which no violent crime occurs.
Therese is not an eloquent or self-revealing character, and her dialogue with Carol is sometimes banal. Yet the novel is viscerally romantic. When Therese visits Carol’s home for the first time, Carol offers her a glass of warm milk that tastes of “bone and blood, of warm flesh, saltless as chalk yet alive as a growing embryo.” The two women embark on a road trip, and the descriptions of it read like a noirish dream—stiff drinks, wood-panelled motel rooms, a gun in a suitcase. A detective hired by Carol’s husband pursues the couple, and you can feel Highsmith’s thriller muscles twitching to life.
The love story is at once hijacked and heightened by the chase story. Therese’s feelings, massing at the edge of her perception like the storm clouds out the car window, are a mystery to her. The weight of what goes unsaid as she and Carol talk about the towns they pass or where they might stop for breakfast builds in an almost ominous way. Like a girl in a fairy tale who has been put under a spell, Therese falls silent on the open road: “She did not want to talk. Yet she felt there were thousands of words choking her throat, and perhaps only distance, thousands of miles, could straighten them out.”
When the women at last make love, Highsmith describes it with a sacramental intensity appropriate to the young Therese: “Her arms were tight around Carol, and she was conscious of Carol and nothing else, of Carol’s hand that slid along her ribs, Carol’s hair that brushed her bare breasts, and then her body too seemed to vanish in widening circles that leaped further and further, beyond where thought could follow.” It makes for a stark contrast with the way Highsmith once described an attempt to have sex with a man, which felt to her like “steel wool in the face, a sensation of being raped in the wrong place.”
This month, “Carol,” a film adaptation of “The Price of Salt,” directed by Todd Haynes, opens in theatres. Haynes is known for his meditations on lush mid-century genres: women’s pictures, Technicolor melodrama. Instead of treating such material as kitsch, he teases out emotions that were latent in the originals, showing what once could not be shown. Both “Carol” and “Far from Heaven”—his 2002 homage to the movies of Douglas Sirk—feel like fifties films that somehow eluded the Hays Code. Haynes’s direction largely hews to the conventions of old Hollywood: in “Carol,” there’s a sex scene between the two women, played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, but it’s more swoony than libidinous. The characters don’t use the word “lesbian”; the dialogue is mannered. Haynes’s approach suits the novel, which is neither prim nor explicit about the women’s affair.
Our image of the fifties still tends to be shaped by “Father Knows Best” clichés of contentedly conforming nuclear families. But the era offered some surprising freedoms. “The Price of Salt” depicts a world where a suburban matron could take a salesgirl she’s just met out for Old-Fashioneds in the middle of the day—and where two women in love might live together, hiding in plain sight as roommates, more easily than two gay men or an unmarried heterosexual couple might. In a recent interview with Film Comment, Haynes said that the “indecipherability” of lesbianism at the time—the “unimagined notions of what love between women might even look like”—is the engine of Highsmith’s plot.
Though homosexuality was invisible to most Americans at the time, it was increasingly discussed among intellectuals, many of whom were in the thrall of psychoanalysis. The question most often asked about same-sex attraction was still whether it could be overcome, but people were finally beginning to acknowledge the range of possible sexual identities and behaviors. By 1953, the Kinsey Reports, on male and female sexuality, had been published, broadening the discussion even further.
In 1955, Ann Aldrich, the pseudonymous author of the best-seller “We Walk Alone,” an informal ethnography of lesbian life, observed, “If homosexuality itself is not on the increase, mention of it among people today is far more prevalent than ever before.” Aldrich attributed this higher profile to a “climate of concern with all things psychological.” In her view, “intelligent people are preaching tolerance of inversion”—as homosexuality was sometimes called—even if they “are not regarding the invert as a healthy person.” Aldrich, who was gay, suggested that lesbianism was usually a case of arrested sexual development and an artifact of penis envy or a domineering mother. Psychoanalysts, Aldrich believed, could address the condition, though she acknowledged that “the ‘incurable’ lesbian as I have known her is not usually the tragic heroine of a lesbian novel who lives in abject misery, nor is she the psychotic case material in some psychiatrists’ files.” She added, “While I hesitate to say that she is a thoroughly happy person, at the same time I cannot in all honesty judge her to be an unhappy person.” Despite its carefully couched ambivalence, “We Walk Alone” brought its author hundreds of letters from American women who felt emboldened to ask her where lesbians could find jobs, bars, and other lesbians.
Many of Aldrich’s readers also bought cheap new paperback novels with titles like “Odd Girl Out,” “Dormitory Women,” and “I Prefer Girls.” If these books were partly created for the delectation of men—the cover art often featured smoldering babes in lingerie—they at least made it clear that lesbians existed. Such novels were often written by gay women, who tried to allow their heroines some honest enjoyment within the confines of the genre, which required its busty Sapphists to find real love with a man, go mad, or commit suicide. As Ann Bannon, a former pulp author, notes in her foreword to the 1999 book “Strange Sisters: The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction 1949-1969,” she and other writers spoke, in part, “to an audience of women who were starved for connections with others, who thought they were uniquely alone with emotions they couldn’t explain.”
Again and again in Highsmith’s fiction, one character develops a deadly obsession with another. In “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1955), Tom Ripley both desires and resents Dickie Greenleaf, a wealthy scapegrace who is gallivanting around Italy. Ripley bludgeons Dickie to death and—in the ultimate act of erotic ownership—assumes his identity. In “Strangers on a Train” (1950), the oleaginous Charles Anthony Bruno proposes a murder pact to someone he’s just met, then acts on it by killing the man’s adulterous wife, placing the two men in a queasy bond. Walter Stackhouse, the suburban husband at the center of “The Blunderer” (1954), contemplates killing his wife, then gets inescapably entangled with a man who has committed such a crime. The moral compass in Highsmith’s thrillers is always jittery, and passion repeatedly leads people to violence. Joan Schenkar, the author of the artful biography “The Talented Miss Highsmith” (2009), writes, “Pat thought about love the way she thought about murder: as an emotional urgency between two people, one of whom dies in the act.”
There’s nothing like reading the Freudians of the nineteen-fifties to make one wary of glib psychological claims, but it’s not a stretch to say that Highsmith had a terrible mother. Mary Coates Highsmith, a narcissistic beauty and a moderately successful illustrator, taunted and competed with Patricia, her only child. Highsmith loved and hated her mother as a result, and, when Mary divorced her husband and remarried, Patricia resented her stepfather for coming between them. At twenty, Highsmith wrote in her diary, “Could I possibly be in love with my own mother? Perhaps in some incredible way I am.” According to two biographies of Highsmith, her mother liked to tell people that she’d tried to abort Patricia by drinking turpentine. Once, while visiting Patricia in Paris, Mary Highsmith pretended to be her daughter and gave an interview to journalists. She called it a joke, but Highsmith, in a letter to a cousin, wrote, “I think a psychiatrist would put another meaning to it.”
Schenkar characterizes Highsmith’s relationship with her mother as a folie à deux: “They could not bear each other’s company, and they could not leave each other alone.” Surely that relationship contributed to Highsmith’s habit of seducing and philandering, to the conflation of obsessive love and homicidal ideation in so many of her characters, and to a particular strain of perversity in “The Price of Salt.” Carol tucks Therese into bed while giving her that warm, embryonic milk, and the gesture feels bizarrely maternal. (The scene, one of the novel’s best, has an almost witchy feel. Therese downs her drink with fatalistic obedience, and it affects her like a truth potion: her voice rises “suddenly in a babble” as she tells Carol about her secret loneliness.)
The day after Highsmith finished the manuscript of “The Price of Salt,” she decided to track down Mrs. Senn. She had memorized her address—315 Murray Avenue, Ridgewood, New Jersey—from the sales receipt. She took the Erie Railroad from Penn Station; before boarding a bus to Murray Avenue, she drank two ryes to get her courage up. In Senn’s residential neighborhood, Highsmith felt conspicuous, but, as she wrote in her diary, she lingered until she saw “a pale aqua automobile . . . driven by a woman with dark glasses and short blond hair, alone, and I think in a pale blue or aqua dress with short sleeves.” Maybe it was her quarry; maybe not.
If Mrs. Senn established the template for Carol Aird, Highsmith’s passionate affair with a woman named Virginia Kent Catherwood allowed her to fill in the lines. Catherwood was a sexual outlaw with a Main Line pedigree: she had been a Philadelphia débutante. By the time she took up with Highsmith, she was a wealthy divorcée who bore a resemblance to Katharine Hepburn (and, evidently, to Mrs. Senn). Virginia, the daughter of Arthur Atwater Kent, an inventor and the founder of a radio company, had married a banker named Cummins Catherwood, in a wedding that made the society pages. She met Highsmith at a party in New York, and in 1946 they became lovers. They were together for only a year—Highsmith’s affairs rarely lasted much longer than that—but Catherwood remained an ideal. In her diary, Highsmith rhapsodized, “My green and red goddess, my jade and garnet, my moss and hollyberry, my sea and sun, my marrow and my blood, my stop and go baby, I adore you, I worship you, I kiss you, I cherish you, I defend you, I defy you ever not to love me, I caress your nipples with my tongue.”
Highsmith and Catherwood never spoke again after the relationship ended, but Highsmith invoked her frequently in her writing, most notably in the posh, lightly sardonic Carol. Highsmith also stole a critical plot detail from Catherwood’s life for “The Price of Salt.” Catherwood’s husband had hired a detective who recorded his wife and a female lover in a hotel room; the tapes were played in court, and Catherwood, who had a daughter, lost custody. Carol, too, has a child who becomes the object of a custody struggle. Children rarely appear in Highsmith’s fiction, however, and in “The Price of Salt” Carol’s daughter, Rindy, remains an offstage presence. (The movie, which offers a warmer version of Carol, shows her interacting sweetly with her daughter.) Highsmith can’t seem to fully imagine a mother’s longing for her child, but since she’s writing from the perspective of Therese—who can’t quite empathize with motherhood, either—something touching comes through. Therese sees Carol’s melancholy as a mysterious veil that separates them, but readers can sense that it is a simpler, more devastating sorrow. Highsmith writes, “Therese watched Carol’s face as she looked at the picture of the little girl with the white-blonde hair and the serious face, with the taped white bandage on her knee. ‘It’s not a very good picture,’ Carol said, but her face had changed, grown softer.” It is one of the few poignant passages in Highsmith’s body of work.
In May, 1952, Coward-McCann published “The Price of Salt.” Harper & Bros., which had released “Strangers on a Train” two years earlier, turned it down, perhaps because it wasn’t another thriller. Highsmith said later that the novel’s title was a Biblical reference; Schenkar, her biographer, traces it to a fragment of Gospel text in André Gide’s “The Counterfeiters”: “If the salt have lost its flavor wherewith shall it be salted?—That is the tragedy with which I am concerned.” Highsmith was greatly relieved when her agent suggested that she could use a pseudonym. She was not ashamed of her sexuality, but she did not want to be known as a lesbian author. The novel was respectfully reviewed, though a critic at the Times seemed puzzled by its “low voltage” eroticism—possibly because it was more literary than most lesbian pulp. “The Price of Salt” sold exceptionally well—more than a million copies, after it came out as a twenty-five-cent Bantam paperback.
In “Beautiful Shadow,” a 2003 biography of Highsmith, the British journalist Andrew Wilson uncovered new details about Senn, whose first name was Kathleen. The self-possessed, athletic, charming wife of a wealthy businessman, she was also an alcoholic who had been in and out of psychiatric institutions. In 1951, unbeknownst to Highsmith, Senn killed herself in the garage of her Ridgewood home.
The other inspiration for Carol Aird, Virginia Kent Catherwood, made news in 1959, when a playboy named David Mdivani filed a million-dollar lawsuit against her, alleging that she had alienated the affections of his wife, Virginia Sinclair. One newspaper ran the headline “WOMAN TOOK HIS WIFE FROM HIM,” though it can safely be presumed that few readers understood the full import of this sentence. The media skirted the matter of homosexuality by stating that Catherwood had lured Sinclair away by giving her expensive gifts. (Sinclair was also an heiress.) At one point, a gossip column in the Los AngelesTimes described Sinclair and Catherwood arriving together in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel after a ski trip to Sun Valley. The reporter, noting that both women had a “deep ecru” tan, proclaimed, “Very striking—these two blondes!” Mdivani eventually dropped the lawsuit. Catherwood, an alcoholic, died in 1966, at the age of fifty-one.
After “The Price of Salt,” Highsmith published twenty more novels, many of which became movies, and nine short-story collections. She won several literary prizes and was heralded in France. Generally caustic, she made crude remarks about Jews and African-Americans. She continued to bed women and to worship some of them, but she described women in general—and feminists in particular—as “whining.” Her vitriol took eccentric forms: according to Wilson, she once declared that she was repelled by the idea of women reading in libraries while they were menstruating. She loved snails, which she kept by the hundred as pets and took to parties in a handbag, where they clung to a head of lettuce.
“The Price of Salt” was a unique expression of candor in a career built on artifice. In 1949, Highsmith, while working on the novel, wrote in her diary that she was “grateful” not to have to spoil “my best thematic material by transposing it” to a “false male-female relationship.” She tried a few times to write what she called a second “girls’ book,” but abandoned the effort. Perhaps it’s just as well: one of the plots she sketched out, “The Inhuman Ones,” was to be about “the types of female homosexuals who have something missing from their hearts, who really hate their own sex.” For decades, Highsmith denied rumors that she had written “The Price of Salt”; Schenkar reports that Highsmith called the novel a “stinking” book.
In 1990, Highsmith agreed to a new edition, without a pseudonym, and wrote an afterword in which she seemed shyly pleased with the novel’s devoted readership. But it was a youthful book, and a hopeful one, and she was now a sour and rancorous older woman. She spent her final years in a fortress-like house in Switzerland, and died in a hospital in Locarno in 1995, at the age of seventy-four. The last acquaintance to see her was her accountant.
One evening in 1959, a thirty-two-year-old writer named Marijane Meaker was having a drink at L’s, a lesbian bar in Greenwich Village. Meaker wrote lesbian pulp novels for the Gold Medal imprint; her first was “Spring Fire,” published in 1952, under the pseudonym Vin Packer. She had learned—because her editor had insisted on it—to make sure that these stories didn’t end well for their heroines. At the time, paperbacks were often sent to readers through the mail, making them subject to censorship by the postal authorities. Although the novels could depict “perverse” sexuality, they could not be seen to endorse it: those who indulged had to return to the straight and narrow or be punished. (At the conclusion of “Spring Fire,” about two lovers in a sorority house, one of the young women rediscovers her true heterosexuality and moves into a dorm; the other has a car accident and a nervous breakdown.) Meaker was a woman of multiple pseudonyms. She was also Ann Aldrich, the author of “We Walk Alone.”
At the bar, Meaker began talking to an attractive dark-haired woman in a trenchcoat who was drinking gin and smoking Gauloises. It was Highsmith, and to Meaker, who was six years younger, she “looked like a combination of Prince Valiant and Rudolf Nureyev.” By then, Highsmith was a celebrated author—she had won the Grand Prix de la Littérature Policière—and Meaker idolized her. She and the other customers at L’s knew that Highsmith had written “The Price of Salt,” and they loved it for one reason in particular. As Meaker notes, “It was for many years the only lesbian novel, in either hard or soft cover, with a happy ending.”
In the final pages of “The Price of Salt,” Carol has lost custody of her daughter, but nobody has died or been institutionalized. By modern standards, the book’s ending has the pat feel of a Sirk picture, abruptly reuniting lovers for whom the obstacles are enormous. Will Carol really get over relinquishing her daughter? Can the two women truly be left alone to make a life together? Highsmith almost circumvents those doubts; the novel’s last scene has the pull of a torch song. Therese finds Carol in a restaurant, where she’s dining with friends: “It was like meeting Carol all over again, but it was still Carol and no one else. It would be Carol, in a thousand cities, a thousand houses, in foreign lands where they would go together, in heaven and in hell.” Leave it to Highsmith to get hell in there, too. ♦
In December of 1948, Patricia Highsmith was a twenty-seven-year-old aspiring writer with a murderous imagination and an outsized talent for seducing women. Her first novel, “Strangers on a Train,” was complete, but it would be more than a year before it was published. A Texas native with thick black hair and feral good looks, Highsmith made a habit of standing at attention when a woman walked into the room. That Christmas season, she was working behind the toy counter at Bloomingdale’s, in Manhattan, in order to help pay for psychoanalysis. She wanted to explore the sharp ambivalence she felt about marrying her fiancé, a novelist named Marc Brandel. Highsmith was a Barnard graduate, and, like many sophisticates at the time, she viewed homosexuality as a psychological defect that could be fixed; yet she had enough self-respect and sexual appetite to reject any attempt to fix her own. When her analyst suggested that she join a therapy group of “married women who are latent homosexuals,” Highsmith wrote in her diary, “Perhaps I shall amuse myself by seducing a couple of them.” She never married Brandel—or anyone else.
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