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.
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.
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