Late in 1948, the author Patricia Highsmith took a job at the toy counter of Bloomingdale’s in Midtown Manhattan, in part to offset the cost of psychoanalysis. She didn’t like the job (“I saw no delighted child while I was there,” she wrote in a diary), but money was money and she needed the therapy, or at least thought she did. Her fiancé, an author named Marc Brandel, thought so too. A fictionalized version of Highsmith that appeared in his novel The Choice is described as a distant girl with big hands whose desires were like a wound in her soul. In other words, she liked women, and the therapy, she later wrote, was to “get myself into a condition to be married.”
One day, a woman came into Bloomingdale’s to order a doll to be sent back to New Jersey. She was beautiful and alone and wore a mink coat, and reminded Highsmith of an alcoholic debutante with whom she had recently ended a volcanic affair. That night, Highsmith, best known for writing thrillers like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, went home and sketched out what became her second novel, The Price of Salt, the story of a shopgirl named Therese Belivet who falls in tense, cautious love with a melancholy housewife named Carol Aird.
Highsmith published the book in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. It went on to sell something north of a million copies, and is considered the first love story between two women wherein neither ends up crazy or dead. Therese, stifled and bored, lives in a stark apartment with a phone in the hall; Carol, in the midst of a fractious divorce, lives in a castle in the woods. Together, the women leave their lives and drive across a snow-blanketed America at Christmastime. Neither seem to find their feelings particularly remarkable or worthy of investigation, and for the most part do what comes naturally, the way men might.
In diaries, Highsmith agonized that it was the most personal thing she ever wrote. It is a tight but dreamlike book that rumbles with emotional weather — her only major work that doesn’t contain actual murder, though the language is stained with violence. “The metaphors are killers,” says Joan Schenkar, who wrote a biography of Highsmith called The Talented Miss Highsmith. “There’s always a bit of blood at the corner of a smile, if you smoke a cigarette, it’s going to take a bit of the skin off your lips. Somebody is always bleeding in that book.”
It has now been adapted into a movie called Carol, starring Rooney Mara as Therese and Cate Blanchett as Carol, with direction from Todd Haynes. The script was written by Phyllis Nagy, a screenwriter and playwright who worked on Carol in start-stop fashion for about 15 years. Nagy had known Highsmith; the women were friends, but she hadn’t read The Price of Salt until Highsmith died in 1995. “I knew that it was so personal that it was probably better left unread,” she says. What she found surprised her. “It was absolutely unique in that everyone around them had a problem with how [Carol and Therese] felt about other women, but they did not,” she says. “It was as natural as breath. That’s the thing that excited me most during the adaptation: It was a chance to do something more subtle and interesting, where no one dies or contemplates suicide or even has an agonizing moment about what it means to be gay. And that still is radical I think, in the culture.”