Frank Rich on Patricia Highsmith’s Carol and the Enduring Invisibility of Lesbian Culture in America

By
Illustration: Detail of Barye Phillips illustration for 1956 paperback cover of The Price of Salt
Loving
Carol
Even today, Todd Haynes’s mesmerizing adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s classic novel comes as a shock—mostly for how much lesbian culture remains invisible to America at large.
Detail of Barye Phillips illustration for 1953 paperback cover of The Price of Salt.

In early December 1948, Patricia Highsmith took a Christmas-season temp job as a shopgirl in the children’s toy department at Bloomingdale’s. Highsmith, a 27-year-old native of Fort Worth, Texas, and a 1942 Barnard graduate, was a budding novelist who had been supporting herself for five years as a freelance action-comic-book writer, concocting stories for lesser superheroes like Spy Smasher and Black Terror — a rare gig for a woman in the golden age of comics. But her average weekly income of $55 no longer ­sufficed now that she had started shelling out $30 a week for psychoanalysis. Highsmith had sought a shrink’s help to deal with her qualms about her pending marriage to a British novelist named Marc Brandel. Up until then, her prolific love life had been defined by a string of affairs with women.

The therapy didn’t take, and the marriage never happened. The Bloomingdale’s job, which she loathed, expired in two weeks. But there was an incident in the toy department lasting a mere two or three minutes that would haunt Highsmith for life. As she would recount it publicly for the first time more than four decades later, “a routine transaction,” the sale of a doll to a suburban “blondish woman in a fur coat” seeking a gift for her daughter, had left Highsmith “odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.” Back in her apartment after work, she feverishly plotted out a story inspired by her experience. As her first novel, Strangers on a Train, was being published in 1950, she retrieved the story as the basis for what would be her second, The Price of Salt. Still possessed by her “vision,” she took the train from Pennsylvania Station to Ridgewood, New Jersey, where the “blondish woman” lived — ­Highsmith had held on to her name and address from the Bloomingdale’s transaction — and spied on her. “The curious thing,” she wrote in her journal afterward, was that the experience “felt quite close to murder.” Murder, she mused, “is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing.” She fantasized about putting “my hands upon her throat (which I should really like to kiss).”

Strangers on a Train, in which two men, one a psychopath and the other a straight arrow, meet by happenstance and decide to swap murders of relatives they respectively despise, was well received and snapped up for the movies by Alfred Hitchcock. But ­Highsmith’s publisher, Harper & Brothers, rejected The Price of Salt, with its tale of the obsessive love of a 19-year-old department-store shopgirl, Therese Belivet, for a married, 30-something customer, Carol Aird. Coward-McCann published it instead, in 1952, under the pseudonym Claire ­Morgan. The next year, Bantam brought out a 35-cent paperback edition with leering cover art (one woman seductively touches another’s shoulder as the discarded man looks on helplessly from afar) and lurid ad copy (“The Novel of a Love Society Forbids”). It sold nearly a million copies. But Highsmith, who bridled that her first novel had been pigeonholed by Harper as a “novel of suspense,” didn’t want to be known as the author of a “lesbian book” either. She didn’t acknowledge Salt as her own for more than a quarter-century. She didn’t open up about its history until five years before her death, when she wrote an afterword for a 1990 British reissue that credited her as the author and retitled the book Carol.

Now Carol Aird may become more widely known than ever, in the form of yet another of the extraordinary performances we have come to expect from Cate Blanchett, who is paired with the no less impressive Rooney Mara as Therese in the director Todd Haynes and the writer ­Phyllis Nagy’s mesmerizing and moving film adaptation of Highsmith’s anxiety-laced romance. Since Strangers on a Train, there have been several screen treatments of Highsmith’s work — including three drawn from her best-known book, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), or one of its sequels, variously directed by René Clément (in 1960), Wim Wenders (1977), and Anthony Minghella (1999). (Blanchett appeared in Minghella’s, which starred Matt Damon as Ripley.) But none of these movies has burrowed into the heart of Highsmith as uncompromisingly as Carol, which is unfailingly true to the only explicitly personal novel among the 22 she wrote.

That the film happens to land in this particular historical moment adds another dimension to its fascination. It was during the long period of its gestation — Nagy was first approached about writing the screenplay at the end of the last century — that the tipping point arrived for gay rights in America. While those rights have not been firmly secured even in the wake of the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage — witness Houston’s revoking of its anti-discrimination ordinance this month — few would deny that a legal, political, and cultural transformation has occurred in straight America’s relationship to gay America.

Once America turns a corner like that, it tends to move on. We don’t make a habit of looking back at our history if a social injustice is thought to have been fixed. In 1977, well after the African-American civil-rights movement was celebrated as a done deal, executives at ABC were floored to find that 130 million Americans, representing some 85 percent of the nation’s television households, would watch the mini-series Roots; even at that late date, the history of slavery and its legacy turned out to be a revelation to much of that audience. (As we learned in this year’s Confederate-flag debate, that history is still murky to many.) Basking in the warm glow of America’s spate of gay-civil-rights victories, Hollywood can tell itself its work is done. Larry Kramer’s landmark 1985 play of the AIDS era, The Normal Heart, finally became a television film (almost 30 years after its theatrical premiere), after all, and movies like The Imitation Game and Dallas Buyers Club are routinely celebrated at the Oscars. Now that Modern Family is borderline retro, transgender characters are having a belated television moment, too.

But then you look at a film like Carol, and peer through the windows it opens onto both cultural history and actual history, and you realize how much we don’t know about a past that unfolded in the shadows until not very long ago. You also start to wonder how many cultural treasures and figures are buried in that antiquity, invisible to most of heterosexual America and perhaps to much of younger gay America, too. Highsmith’s “lesbian book,” its million paperback copies of six decades ago notwithstanding, is just such a case.

Even now, let alone in the past, lesbians rarely receive the same measure of attention as gay men in our culture, pop culture included. There are some obvious reasons for this beyond a misogynistic strain in America so durable that it’s still front and center in presidential campaigns. In the entertainment industry, men, straight and gay, hold many more positions of power than straight and gay women do, and those men, whatever their sexual orientation, are going to favor their own stories. Another factor is the overwhelming tragedy of the AIDS epidemic. It inevitably and properly pushed gay men to the fore once mainstream Hollywood (in 1993, with Tom Hanks taking the plunge in Philadelphia) at last mustered the will to address AIDS and its shunned victims head-on.

Yet gay women often had to settle for the crumbs of mainstream culture both before and after the AIDS crisis. Ellen DeGeneres broke a barrier when she came out in the fourth of her original sitcom’s five seasons, and there have been recurring lesbian characters in other network series, but there was no prime-time broadcast phenomenon for gay women as sustained as, say, Will & Grace. Once major Hollywood studios, for better and (often) worse, started to regularly turn out glossy entertainments with gay-male protagonists like In & Out and The Birdcage in the mid-’90s, most films with three-dimensional lesbian characters, from Desert Hearts and Go Fish to Heavenly Creatures, remained relatively ghettoized as low-­budget indies, imports, or box-office also-rans. Big-budget Hollywood was more likely to exploit a lesbian or bisexual female character — e.g., Sharon Stone’s star turn in Basic Instinct — as a soft-porn sex toy for straight men.

Carol is an Anglo-American indie collaboration that took a decade to get made. Haynes signed on late in the process, after a previous director, John Crowley, dropped out. It was a natural assignment for Haynes, who had previously collaborated with Blanchett on her gender-bending turn in I’m Not There, his 2007 cinematic meditation on Bob Dylan. Haynes has often put women in crisis at the center of his films, starting with the legendary 1987 short he made while studying for his M.F.A. at Bard, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, in which the anorexic pop singer and other characters were played by Barbie dolls. (It exists now only as a bootleg because of a successful copyright-infringement action brought by Carpenter’s brother, Richard.) The obvious direct antecedent of Carol in Haynes’s filmography is Far From Heaven (2002), set later in the 1950s than Highsmith’s story. An homage to both the texts and subtexts of the director Douglas Sirk’s Hollywood melodramas of that decade, Heaven tells of a Connecticut wife and mother (Julianne Moore) coming to terms with both her husband’s closeted homosexuality and her own runaway passion for the African-American gardener performing day labor in her white, upper-middle-class enclave. Haynes is a gay man, but his greatest empathy was reserved for Moore’s trapped wife. As he has said, the closeted husband, “a white man in hiding,” still had more freedom to maneuver and get what he wanted than either a black man or a white woman in America before the dawn of the modern civil-rights and feminist movements.

That wider point of view kept Far From Heaven from being the gay-rights polemic its plot might suggest. With Carol, both Haynes and Nagy were similarly determined not to make what Nagy calls “an agenda film” and Haynes a “look how far we’ve come” film. The movie alters only a few details of the novel (most notably making Therese an aspiring photographer instead of an apprentice theatrical-set designer). Haynes shot the film in Super 16-mm. and draws on the collective iconography of mid-century American urban photographers like Ruth Orkin, Saul Leiter, and Vivian Maier to capture the grain and soot of a postwar Manhattan in transition to the booming Mad Men era soon to come. It’s a wintry city of lonely, Edward Hopper–esque spaces that, in Highsmith’s description, was marked by “that reddish-brown confusion of the side street” with its “familiar hodgepodge of restaurant and bar signs, awnings, front steps and windows.”

Most of all, Carol upholds Highsmith’s vision of her characters. “What still strikes me now,” Nagy says of the novel, “is how radical it was in terms of its overall conception — two central figures not giving a rat’s ass about sexual identity. No one frets about being gay; others fret on their behalf.” The men who do fret (or worse) — Carol’s husband (Kyle Chandler) and Therese’s intended (Jake Lacy) — are not presented as arch-villains; they are men of their time, as much baffled as judgmental and punitive. This is not their story, in any case. We see everything from the two women’s points of view.

Throughout, Haynes’s direction translates Highsmith’s hushed, spare, unnerving narrative voice into visual terms reminiscent of James Stewart’s feverish fixation on Kim Novak in Vertigo. Therese’s monomaniacal passion for Carol is a kind of stalking, not unlike that of the male (and often implicitly gay) stalkers who commit murder in other Highsmith works. When Therese and Carol go on the lam — in a cross-country road trip that strikes some contemporary readers of Highsmith’s novel as the immediate precursor of those in Lolita and On the Road — one of them packs a gun. But it is the crime of same-sex love, not murder, that has turned them into unlikely outlaws, and their sotto voce criminality is not to be confused with Thelma & Louise. Society dictates that Therese and Carol must act in code, much of it wordless, as they traipse across a barren swath of the Midwest. Which in turn means that Carol could not exist as a film without two actors capable of conveying so much intimacy with so little dialogue. By the end, we are locked into the delicate nuances of the couple’s own private language to such a degree that Blanchett can move an audience to tears with nothing more than an enigmatic half-formed smile that is the movie’s final, indelible image.

It’s hard to appreciate now the impact Highsmith’s book had on gay women when it was first published. “It was for many years the only lesbian novel, in either hard or soft cover, with a happy ending,” wrote Marijane Meaker in a wry 2003 memoir about her romance with Highsmith circa 1960. Under the pseudonym Vin Packer, Meaker herself wrote a lesbian pulp novel, Spring Fire, published the same year as The Price of Salt, in which one woman ends up returning to heterosexuality and another ends up in a mental institution, because an editor instructed her that only an unhappy ending could protect the book from being seized by the postal authorities as “obscene.”

Ellen Violett, now 90 and married to her partner of nearly 45 years, is a fabled television dramatist whose career began in the early 1950s and who traveled in some of Highsmith’s New York circles. She recalls how joyous it was to have a first gay affair and discover that you “didn’t die.” But she adds that “once you broke up, you had no one to talk to except a Freudian analyst or a priest.” For many isolated gay women and some gay men as well, Salt was a lifeline that helped fill that void. After it was published, “Claire Morgan,” via her publisher, was inundated by letters from readers eager to converse with the writer who had told them that they were not alone and all was not lost. As Fran Lebowitz points out, in the decades of the closet, at least gay boys discovering their sexuality knew there were others like them — if only because of the negative indicators of bullying and the ubiquity of slurs like “faggot.” For lesbians, invisibility was its own kind of torment. “I read every possible thing that had any possible allusion to homosexuality because that’s where you find yourself,” Lebowitz says. The letters Highsmith received from readers were alternately appreciative that her characters didn’t end up committing suicide and suffused with the loneliness of not being able to talk to anyone else who was gay, particularly if the correspondent lived in a small town. Highsmith would suggest moving to a larger town, but she knew that was no panacea. “Those were the days,” she later wrote, “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 be suspected of being homosexual.”

Highsmith at 21. Photo: Courtesy of the Swiss Literary Archives

If judged by contemporary dictates of political correctness, Highsmith is about the last poster woman for gay fiction and gay rights anyone would choose, and she’s all the more compelling and challenging for that reason. She has been the subject of two fat and captivating (if tonally anti­thetical) posthumous biographies, Andrew Wilson’s Beautiful Shadow (2003) and Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith (2009). Highsmith is almost impossible to shoehorn into any category — political, literary, or psychological. She was an anti-Semite who revered Saul Bellow over all contemporary American authors. She was a fearless and independent woman who had no use for feminists. (As indeed some feminists had no use for lesbians: The historian Lillian Faderman writes in her authoritative new book, The Gay Revolution, of how Betty Friedan complained that the so-called Lavender Menace “was warping the image of the woman’s movement.”) As a young woman, Highsmith was moved by the Spanish Civil War to join the Young Communist League; she was antiwar in the Vietnam era and an environmentalist. But her views on race were anything but progressive. In New York in the late ’50s, Meaker knew the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, a closeted lesbian, but Highsmith spurned an invitation to attend an early screening of the film version of A Raisin in the Sun. “I know the plot,” Highsmith explained to Meaker. “Colored person thwarted, then colored person triumphant. It’s not my concern.”

The only consistent things about Highsmith are her tumultuous love affairs, which were nonstop from her teens until a few years before her death at age 74, her unchecked alcoholism, her tireless work ethic, and her misanthropic take on the human race. The misanthropy was well earned. Her mother, a commercial illustrator who divorced Pat’s father nine days before her birth and married a stepfather she hated three years later, took it upon herself to inform her daughter that she had tried to abort her mid-pregnancy by drinking turpentine. “It’s funny, you adore the smell of turpentine, Pat,” she added.

“Work is the only thing of importance or joy in life,” Highsmith wrote in a notebook in 1972. But her writing career was far from easy. Early on, she met with William Shawn at The New Yorker and wrote some “Talk of the Town” pieces on spec, but nothing came of it, and despite her efforts thereafter, no Highsmith story was published in the magazine until seven years after her death. (During her lifetime, her stories frequently found a home in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.) Her reviews were often favorable, and she had a few prominent literary champions, including Graham Greene. The film adaptations of her work gave her a slight celebrity and some subsidiary income (though she always complained of how Hitchcock secured the rights to her first novel in perpetuity for $7,500). But while her books had a loyal following in Europe, in the estimate of her longtime editor Larry Ashmead, she never sold more than 8,000 copies of a novel in hardcover at home.

Highsmith was about the work, not self-promotion, and her gruff personality was anything but user-friendly. Short of J. D. Salinger, she was probably the least likely author to sit for a magazine profile or exchange quips on television with Dick Cavett. Her one major television interview, with Melvyn Bragg on London Weekend Television’s prestigious South Bank Show in the early ’80s, was laconic and dour. It didn’t help her career with American readers, either, that she moved to Europe for good in 1963, bouncing around England, France, and Italy before finally ending up in the tiny town of Tegna in Switzerland. She retained her American citizenship but was periodically dropped by her American publishers. When her final novel was rejected by her last imprint, Knopf, she died, in 1995, without one.

Not all of Highsmith’s books are equal, but she has a disorienting voice that’s all its own: stripped of literary ornamentation, devoid of sentimentality, and lacking a moral compass, no matter how horrific the behavior of her characters or the suffering of their victims. Almost every film adaptation of her work before Carol, starting with Hitchcock’s first, has bowdlerized her endings, whether by excising a final murder or insisting that a killer be brought to justice. That’s not Highsmith. “I find the public passion for justice quite boring and artificial, for neither life nor nature cares if justice is ever done or not,” she explained in her 1966 book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. Told at one point by an agent that her books don’t sell in America because the people in them are unlikable, she responded that “perhaps it is because I don’t like anyone” and proposed that in the future she write about animals. Indeed, her 1975 story collection, The Animal-Lovers’ Book of Beastly Murder, is about pets that kill their human masters. (Her own favorite animals were snails, which she smuggled through customs by hiding a half-dozen or so under each of her breasts.) In truth she often identified with her most amoral human protagonists, from the psychopathic Bruno of Strangers on a Train (“I love him!”) to Tom Ripley. In the early 1970s Highsmith contemplated writing a novel, as her biographer Wilson describes it, about a character obsessed with “the detritus of modern living—waste material including abortions, the contents of toilets, bedpans, diapers, hysterectomies.” And who might that character be? She answered the question in her diary—“myself.”

As a person, Highsmith was no less original and no less thorny. One of her last American publishers, Otto Penzler of Mysterious Press, who published seven of her books in the ’80s, told Schenkar that while he was a fan of Highsmith’s work, he found her “a horrible human being” consistent with her characters, whom he described as “mean-spirited people” with “no humanity, no spirit of shared experience.” Nagy, not yet a screenwriter but a young researcher at The New York Times Magazine when she met Highsmith in New York in the late ’80s, came away with a kinder judgment. Nagy had been assigned to be Highsmith’s companion on a walking tour of the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn for a feature that was never published. (Highsmith was the magazine’s second choice, after Ruth Rendell declined.) When Nagy picked the novelist up at the Gramercy Park Hotel, she found a “little crumpled woman in the corner, who looked sort of like Jimmy Durante in a trench coat — scary, formidable.” In a brief exchange about the theater — Nagy was an aspiring playwright—Highsmith allowed that she had seen and liked Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, then fell into silence for 90 minutes. She was scarcely more communicative during the graveyard tour, but once it was over that morning, she told Nagy, “I don’t need you, but I need a drink,” and offered her Scotch from her hip flask “as a challenge.” Then Highsmith invited her to lunch, “which consisted of beers in her hotel room.” A warm friendship and correspondence ensued. “She’d come to New York every so often,” Nagy recalls. “Every time she came she wanted to be taken to one of the old gay bars of her youth, but they were different in her dotage.”

They remained in touch until Highsmith took ill the year before she died. To the surprise of many, she left her entire estate and future royalties to Yaddo, the writers’ and artists’ colony in upstate New York where she’d spent part of the summer of 1948 working on Strangers on a Train, just a few months before she would meet her “Carol” at Bloomingdale’s. That residency had been secured largely through the intercession of Truman Capote, a friend at the time, and it had not been repeated in the nearly half-century since. Nonetheless, “she felt Yaddo was the only place that really nurtured her,” Nagy says.

“I never think about my ‘place’ in literature, and perhaps I have none,” Highsmith once said. Her work, while respected, is usually relegated to a rung below those who wrote in roughly her sphere like James M. Cain (whom she admired, rightly, as “a kind of genius”) and Jim Thompson. Do the travails of both her life and career have anything to do with the fact that her sex life was condemned as a perversion and punishable as a crime in the country of her birth? Highsmith was not prone to self-pity or self-martyrdom, and it’s hard to imagine that she would say so. In any case, it’s a question that can never be definitively answered. The question that can be answered is what other writers and artists and cultural treasures might have fallen through the cracks in the pre-Stonewall era. Carol is certain to bring new readers to Highsmith, and once they dig in, they will be ravenous for more.