The Real Women Behind Highsmith’s Carol

Jill Dawson (The Guardian) on the influences and inspirations behind Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt
Patricia Highsmith was in love many times and with many women – “more times than rats have orgasms”, to use one of her own more disquieting similes. She plundered these objects of her desire extravagantly in her 22 novels and hundreds of short stories. Not one glance, not one feminine gesture or foible of any one of her many girlfriends was ever wasted, but only once – and spectacularly – did she write openly about lesbianism. This was her second novel, Carol, first published as The Price of Salt in 1952, with Highsmith using the pseudonym Claire Morgan, and now adapted into a Todd Haynes film starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (star of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and just about to premiere at Cannes.

patricia-highsmith-carol-the-price-of-saltIn 1952 Highsmith, barely 30, perhaps startled by the wayward success of her first novel Strangers on a Train (conferring instant stardom when the Hitchcock movie followed a year later), had good reason to be edgy about the reception The Price of Salt would receive. “Those were the days when gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan, where people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway a station before or after the convenient one, lest they were suspected of being homosexual,” she wrote, in a postscript to the novel, many years later.

She showed some early extracts to her favourite teacher from Barnard College, Ethel Sturtevant, whose excited reply – “Now this packs a wallop!” – probably alarmed and reassured the former student in equal measure. Highsmith’s own publisher Harper & Brothers rejected it, so it was published first by a small press, and the solution of the pseudonym Claire Morgan was decided on.

“It flowed from the end of my pen as if from nowhere,” Highsmith wrote. She also admitted a specific inspiration: a “blondish woman in a fur coat”, who wafted into Macy’s in New York to buy her daughter a doll. Highsmith was working there as a sales-girl during the Christmas rush. On her day off she took a bus to New Jersey, found the woman’s house (from the address on the sales slip) and simply walked by it. [Read More]

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