Patricia Highsmith wrote The Price of Salt, the novel that was rereleased as Carol decades later, in 1949 while undergoing intense psychoanalysis in an attempt to get herself into “a condition to be married.” Being gay was so socially unacceptable at that time that even a free-thinking, tradition-bucking, iconoclast like Highsmith temporarily bowed to the intense pressure to mold herself into who society thought she was supposed to be.
There was a curse attached to loving who she loved. Gay people, including a startling many of her former lovers and Highsmith herself, turned to despair. Highsmith’s biography is riddled with news of ex-girlfriends swallowing a bottle of pills, or in one terrible case, nitric acid. Everyone deals with struggles with identity, but being gay in 1940 and 50s America successfully severed a genuine part of the self from social identity.
The Price of Salt, her most overt book about homosexuality, was first published under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan, to avoid risk to her budding career as a suspense novelist. All the rest of her books dealt heavily with the struggles of being gay at that time, but mostly in tense subtext. Sexuality strained in the shadow subconscious of her murderous men who were always trying to physically step outside of themselves. Much of her fiction delved in the devilish studies of sincere attempts to manifest fantasies, to bring the wild lives of the imagination into the world through identity-shifting, through different names and costumes. Highsmith’s literary worlds, from Strangers on a Train to Ripley, are all about frustrating attempts to shape the physical, tangible world to meet the churning, disconnected internal worlds. They’re heightened dreams that turn to nightmares and thrill with their uncannily jarring familiarity. Monsters are mundane in Highsmith’s world, as all true monsters are.
Part of Highsmith’s magic comes from the fact that she loves some of her characters as if they were real people. In later years she came to love Mr. Ripley, to speak of him as if he were his own person. But before she loved Tom Ripley, Patricia loved Carol.
The beautiful, almost deified Carol from The Price of Salt, seems practically carved from marble in the Oscar nominated film adaptation starring Cate Blanchett. Like many of Highsmith’s characters, is based on an assortment of real people. The protagonist Therese is mostly Patricia herself, a younger version awakening to her true sexual identity with the help of an older married woman whose life has imploded because of her sexuality. Highsmith drew from lines of love from her own personal journals to inject Therese’s infatuation with pure, mad feeling. “Love is a monster between us, each of us caught in a fist,” she wrote about a short flirtation with a straight engaged woman. Much of Highsmith’s strange, invigorating language is missing from the film.
The first seed of Carol as we know her came from Highsmith’s stint working at Bloomingdale’s during a lull in her writing career. Just like Therese, she saw a striking blonde woman buying a doll, and kept her name and address from the purchase. Unlike Therese, she didn’t send her a note. Instead she used this glimpse of a woman as a canvas on which to project all her frustratingly unsatisfied desire.
As she worked on her new story, Highsmith increasingly became entangled in this character. The way she feverishly wrote about Carol in her journals made it sound like she was just as crazy about Carol as if she had been with anyone else in her life. In fact, falling in love with Carol was much easier than falling in love with another human because she had created Carol herself. Part of Patricia Highsmith’s problem with relationships was she seemed to want something from them that they could never deliver, a oneness, or completeness we simply can’t have. As much as we often want to break the bounds of our self and meld into another, that’s all an illusion, and when that breaks, it can break us apart. Carol, being truly part of Patricia’s self, could never betray her the way another consciousness could.
The woman Highsmith saw in Bloomingdale’s was a married mother named Kathleen Senn. The author of the engrossing and well-researched biography Beautiful Shadow Andrew Wilson, tracked down Mrs. Senn and learned from her children that she was a rich socialite who struggled with alcohol and mental health issues. In 1951, Kathleen Senn gassed herself in her garage.
At some point in her love affair with the Carol she created, Highsmith decided to track down Mrs. Senn. She still had her address from the card she filled out for the doll, and took a train to her house in New Jersey to spy on her. It looked to Highsmith like a house from a fairytale, and she would use this stalking experience, including the impression of the house, in later wrote. In her journals Highsmith even wrote of fantasies about putting her hands around this lovely stranger’s throat, but demurred that she really just wanted to kiss it.
She didn’t know Mrs. Senn at all beyond a stalking glance, but Highsmith had another, more personal love to fill out her sketch of Carol. Several years before she encountered Kathleen Senn, Highsmith fell for Virginia Kent Catherwood, a famous socialite who lost custody of her child in a divorce from a wealthy banker after he secretly recorded her in a hotel room with her lover. Highsmith later feared Virginia would see too much of her story in The Price of Salt, but noted that she knew of another married lesbian had endured a similar fate.
In their early stages of love, Virginia represented for Highsmith a hope of “oneness,” drunk on this enticing, yet deficient myth of love. She gushed in her journals about these intoxicating dreams, but got knocked back to reality when she found out an ex, artist Allela Cornell, drank a bottle of nitric acid over another spoiled love affair of her own. Because of the nature of this type of poisoning, she was hospitalized in time to be stabilized, but not in time to save her life. Allela thought she had recovered, and found her zest for life again, but it was too late.
Meanwhile, Highsmith’s darling Virginia proved to be an unfaithful lover, and scared Patricia, who was herself a heavy drinker, with her alcoholic tendencies. She witnessed Virginia suffer from alcoholic neuropathy, and sometimes Virginia was so drunk she’d physically attack Patricia. After the relationship ended, Patricia found herself tormented by heartache-induced insomnia. Even though the bad times, she still had held an idealized version of Virginia in her mind, a fantasy that would help shape Carol. “I know her so little, my conception of her is absolute, unchangeable,” Patricia noted in her diary.
The curious original title of Carol, The Price of Salt, isn’t really referenced in the book, but instead is a reference to the story of Lot’s wife in the Old Testament. The story is a metaphor for the price of looking back, of not being able to leave behind a lost past. Lot and his family are spared by angels from the destruction of Sodom, but instructed not to look back. Lot’s wife, however, simply can’t resist. When she does turn her head for one last glimpse, she’s transformed into a pillar of salt. In the context of Carol, the price of salt seems to be the price both Carol and Therese pay by choosing to be true to themselves and seek love with each other. Carol’s price is extremely high: she loses her daughter.
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