The Price of Salt
In Carol—a film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt—Todd Haynes serves up a demure set of heroines, lovers who are as refined as their cashmere sweater sets, coolly principled in the face of a condemning world. Haynes saturates Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel in golden hues punctuated with Max Factor reds, and keeps to the dignified tone of her only lesbian novel. But the love life of the author herself was hardly so tasteful—and certainly less restrained. At a time when women were pathologized for falling in love with women, Highsmith pursued her female lovers with a fierce confidence, alternately loving and vicious. In her biography, The Talented Miss Highsmith, Joan Schenkar includes an appendix that feels like a piece of state’s evidence in the case against the Texas-born Highsmith, a chart she’d compiled during the 1940s that rates her many lovers. In her tight scrawl, the writer dryly dissected each of them: body type (slim, sturdy); psychology (neurotic, extroverted); and reason for breakup (boredom, cruelty). For that last, the chart does not make clear whose cruelty provoked the breakup, but Highsmith was never one for niceties. When crushing on girls later in life, she would, according to a friend, “put her foot up on the bench next to them with her hair coming down over her face,” and “look at them in a deeply disapproving fashion.” As any Highsmith reader knows, her novels—much like the author herself—are bursting at the seams with fury and obsession. This dark and twisted figure, who seemed to so easily elude all the obstacles to gay love but may have been psychically shattered by them, provided the groundwork for Haynes’s empowering film.
Highsmith got the initial idea for the novel while briefly employed at Bloomingdale’s. She became entranced with a mink coat-wearing customer and with her patented passion and violence, she stalked the woman to her castle-like New Jersey home, writing in in one of her cahiers that she “felt quite close to murder.” But in the movie and novel, ingenuous young Therese simply sends a note to the customer’s address, which leads to a meeting and an agonizingly romantic road trip. Therese (Rooney Mara) and the glamorous older Carol (Cate Blanchett) head west from New York, making love in Waterloo, Iowa in a scene that recalls the novel: “Carol’s hair […] ] brushed her bare breasts, and then her body seemed to vanish in widening circles that leaped further and further, beyond where thought could follow.”
“We’re not ugly people,” Carol tells her husband after a violent outburst and that’s certainly how Haynes sees her heroines—decent at heart, far afield from Highsmith’s dark universe. Haynes leaves them catching each other’s eyes in the Oak Room at the Plaza. At some point, they may split. Eventually, of course, they will die, but more peacefully than the two real women who inspired them.
In 1951 just before the release of the novel, the Bloomingdale’s customer Kathleen Senn, ragingly alcoholic, often institutionalized, closed her garage doors, turned on her car’s ignition and died of carbon monoxide poisoning. While Philadelphia heiress, Ginny Catherwood, the other model for Carol, was with Highsmith, alcoholism took her voice, her ex-husband took her child, and the sexually prolific thriller writer raged about her infidelity: “There is nothing I would not do, murder, destruction, vile sexual practices.
What vitriol wasn’t directed at her lovers Highsmith spent on a bigotry notably absent from The Price of Salt. All blacks and Puerto-Ricans stand accused of ruining New York by the sympathetic protagonists of A Dog’s Ransom, and when an Arab gets killed by a flying typewriter in Tunisia (The Tremor of Forgery), we forgive the American thrower as animal-like Arabs swarm around him. Some of her worst words were reserved for Jews and their “Holocaust Inc.,” as she called it or “semicaust,” as it left so many standing.
Highsmith wasn’t much fond of gay people either. Phyllis Nagy, Carol’s screenwriter, has to make up a new scene in order to put powerful words about sexual freedom into Cate Blanchett’s mouth. It was only in her 1989 forward that Highsmith admitted to empowering ’50s gay readers by not having her heroines “pay for their deviation by drowning themselves in a swimming pool or switching to heterosexuality.
Highsmith died twenty years ago, but I wonder what she would have made of Todd Haynes and his poetic film. Another Highsmith adapter, Wim Wenders did meet her. After he decided to film one of her novels and was told by her publisher that his three favorites were optioned, he received a note from Highsmith demanding that he stop “writing those letters” and come for tea. He visited her outside of Paris, observed her “lonesome life with lots of cats,” and realized that he was “on a test,” that unfathomably (as she’d not seen his films) he passed. She opened up her desk, handed him the manuscript of Ripley’s Game, which neither her agent nor publisher had seen, and told him it was his to option. “She was very nice and very sweet,” Wenders told Leonard Lopate in August, “and had pity on this young director.”
Wenders may have miscast Dennis Hopper as Ripley but did not commit the cardinal Highsmith error: She couldn’t stand the thought of her most famous character seeming queer “I’m not saying he’s very strong in the sex department,” she insisted of Ripley, “but he makes it in bed with his wife.”
David Winner's novel, Tyler's Last, an homage to Patricia Highsmith and Tom Ripley, was released by Outpost19 this October. His first novel, The Cannibal of Guadalajara, won the 2009 Gival Press Novel Award and was nominated for the National Book Award. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Village Voice, the Iowa Review, the Kenyon Review, Fiction, Confrontation, Joyland, Bookforum, Dream Catcher, among others, as well as being included in Novel Strategies, a Pearson/Prentice Hall anthology for college students. He is the fiction editor of the American (www.theamericanmag.com), a monthly magazine based in Rome.