This week the long awaited film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian classic, ‘Carol’ AKA ‘The Price of Salt’ will be released in movie theaters across the US. Starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara the film is already receiving wonderful accolades from critics. This is not the first Highsmith novel to be adapted to the big screen. In fact Highsmith’s first novel ‘Strangers on a Train’ would go on to become a classic Hitchcock movie. There have been over 11 films and tv projects based on her novels. Her third book, ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ and the other Ripley books in the series alone have been adapted to the screen five times including the 1960 ‘Purple Noon’ with Alain Delon, ‘The American Friend’ directed by Wim Wenders in 1977, and of course in 1999 ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ starring Matt Damon. Fascinated by the nature of evil all of her novels and short stories are thrillers whose protagonist is usually a seemingly ordinary individual who is also a highly intelligent sociopath. All except one novel, ‘Carol’.
Her second novel, written in 1952 was published as ‘The Price of Salt’ under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. The book was an unapologetic lesbian romance between a young department store salesgirl and an older, married woman. Her publisher considered it too risqué at the time and Highsmith had it published by a smaller press. The book was an instant success selling over 1 million copies when it was released in paperback, but it would be 40 years before Patricia Highsmith would publicly acknowledge that she was the author. The novel was then renamed ‘Carol’ and is now considered a 20th century LGBT classic. Patricia Highsmith had affairs with many women as well as a few men and the inspiration for ‘Carol’ came to her when she briefly worked as a saleswoman at Macy’s. She became infatuated with a beautiful, blonde woman wearing a fur coat who came into the store one day shopping for a doll. The woman was a complete stranger of course and nothing came of that brief encounter except the inspiration for a beautiful story of two women who fall in love with one another at a time when it was social suicide to be open about such a relationship. That very night Highsmith wrote the outline of the story in two hours while battling the onset of a fever from chicken pox.
Born Mary Patricia Plangman on January 19, 1921 in Fort Worth, Texas to artistic parents 10 days after their divorce Patricia would later use her adoptive step-father’s surname, Highsmith. She would move to New York with her parents and graduate from Barnard College, where she studied English composition, playwriting and short story. Upon graduation from college she was unable to obtain work from the various magazines she applied to such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, The New Yorker, etc . She ended up working for comic book publishers such as the Marvel Comics precursors Timely Comics and Atlas Comics before she published her first novel.
Even as a child Patricia Highsmith had a fascination with the perverse, inventing macabre stories about her neighbors. Her mother’s confession to her that she had tried to abort her didn’t help their life-long love/hate relationship either. For most of her adult life Patricia was an alcoholic and her relationships never lasted more than a couple of years. According to several of her peers she was cruel, misanthropic, racist and an anti-semite who preferred the company of cats and snails to that of humans. Unrepentantly anti-American as well she moved to Europe permanently in 1963. However, the more one learns of this complex and troubled individual the more we discover that she was a study of contradictions. In spite of this unflattering personal portrait the literary output of the talented Ms. Highsmith remains, even 20 years after her death, among the most cunning and entertaining psychological thrillers.