8 Facts About Patricia Highsmith's 'The Price of Salt'
When The Price of Salt was first published, it gave LGBTQ+ readers something they had never encountered before: a novel that didn’t punish its main characters for being gay and allowed them at least the possibility of a Happily Ever After.
The book was released in 1952—the same year the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a mental illness in its first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. There had been gay and lesbian novels before, but there were usually only three options available to the main character by the end of the book: death, madness, or a life of repression and denial. As The Price of Salt author Patricia Highsmith recounted in an afterword to Bloomsbury’s 1990 reissue, gay and lesbian characters usually “had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing—alone and miserable and shunned—into a depression equal to hell.”
No such fate awaits Therese Belivet and Carol Aird, the Manhattan shop girl and glamorous socialite whose swoony, steamy romance plays out in The Price of Salt (and later in Todd Haynes’s exquisite film adaptation, Carol). According to The New Republic, thousands of readers wrote to Highsmith—or, more accurately, to her pseudonym, “Claire Morgan”—to thank her for offering them a love story with a hopeful ending. They might have been surprised to learn they were actually writing to the talented young psychological suspense author whose debut novel, Strangers on a Train, had been adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951.
Seventy years after its publication, here are eight things you should know about Highsmith’s groundbreaking romance novel.
1. The Price of Salt was intensely personal.
According to Joan Schenkar’s 2011 biography The Talented Miss Highsmith, The Price of Salt was largely inspired by Highsmith’s stint in the Bloomingdale’s toy department during the 1948 Christmas shopping season. (She wanted the money to pay for psychoanalysis, partly in hopes she could “regularize herself sexually.”) It was there that Highsmith briefly encountered Kathleen Wiggins Senn, a married New Jersey woman whom the novelist would later describe as “blondish and elegant.” The details of the meeting will be familiar to anyone who has read the book or seen Haynes’s 2015 film adaptation: Senn, wrapped in a fur coat and fiddling with her gloves, approached the counter to buy a doll for her daughter, and Highsmith was smitten. She went home that evening and, in about two hours, sketched out the plot of The Price of Salt.
Besides Senn, Highsmith also drew on her doomed love affair with Philadelphia socialite Ginnie Catherwood to flesh out the character of Carol Aird and her steamy romance with Therese Belivet, the young woman she meets in a New York department store. “Oh God,” Highsmith would write in her diary, “how this story emerges from my own bones!”
2. Highsmith considered several different titles.
Before she settled on The Price of Salt, Highsmith tried out a number of titles ranging from the obvious to the esoteric. The Bloomingdale Story is self-explanatory, while The Argument of Tantalus must have referred to a mythic Greek king who was condemned to spend eternity standing in a pool of water he couldn’t drink, beneath a tree bearing fruit that was forever out of his reach. Blasphemy of Laughter would have been a shout-out to Virginia Woolf’s 1931 experimental novel The Waves, but Highsmith biographies are silent on what Paths of Lightening might have meant.
3. She published The Price of Salt under a pseudonym.
When Highsmith began writing The Price of Salt in earnest in 1949, her publisher and agent were encouraging her to write another book in the vein of Strangers on a Train to “strengthen [her] reputation” as an author of suspense. Highsmith claimed she hadn’t set out to write a suspense novel, and she seemed wary of being pigeonholed. According to an afterword Highsmith wrote, she had similar concerns that she would be “labelled a lesbian-book writer,” so she decided to “offer [The Price of Salt] under another name.” She chose “Claire Morgan” as her pseudonym.
According to Andrew Wilson’s 2003 biography Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, there was one other concern that weighed heavily on the author’s mind and persuaded her to publish under a pen name: She didn’t want to upset her 84-year-old grandmother. It would be nearly 40 years before she finally claimed credit for her groundbreaking novel—in 1990, The Price of Salt was re-released with a new title, Carol, under Highsmith’s own name.
4. Highsmith (sort of) stalked the woman who inspired one of The Price of Salt’s main characters.
According to Highsmith’s diaries, the writer was so infatuated with Kathleen Senn, the woman who bought a doll from her Bloomingdale’s counter in 1948, that on two occasions, Highsmith made the journey to Senn’s hometown of Ridgewood, New Jersey, to find Senn’s house. (She had memorized the woman’s address from the Bloomingdale’s receipt a year and a half earlier.)
Highsmith made her first expedition to Ridgewood on June 30, 1950—the day after she finished her first draft of The Price of Salt. “[L]ike a murderer in a novel, I boarded the train for Ridgewood, New Jersey,” she wrote of the journey, which made her so nervous that she had to drink two whiskeys just to work up her courage. It wasn’t the first time Highsmith had secretly pursued a woman who intrigued her; in an article she titled “My Life with Greta Garbo,” Highsmith wrote about following the reclusive actress on the streets of New York.
But as stalkers go, Highsmith didn’t turn out to be a very good one. At one point during her first trip to Senn’s home, she boarded the wrong bus and ended up with an entire busload of passengers shouting directions at her as she tried to make her way to Senn’s street. Highsmith didn’t find Senn during that excursion, and when she returned six months later, Senn’s home was empty.
While Highsmith hinted at a happy ending for Carol Aird, the real-life Senn wasn’t as fortunate. She died by suicide in October 1951, about seven months before The Price of Salt was published. Highsmith never found out.
5. Highsmith originally conceived a darker ending.
The Price of Salt became a landmark of queer literature in part for its happy ending, but Highsmith’s first instinct was less sunny. She originally intended for Carol and Therese to split up at the end, but she presented her agent, Margot Johnson, with two versions: one where her lovers part ways, and one that saw them reunited. Johnson convinced Highsmith to go with the more upbeat ending.
6. The Price of Salt was rejected by Highsmith’s publisher.
According to Schenkar, Highsmith was traveling in Europe during the summer of 1951 when her agent contacted her with unfortunate news: Harper, which had published Highsmith’s debut novel Strangers on a Train, had rejected The Price of Salt. According to Highsmith’s diary, Harper had claimed there was “not enough enthusiasm from the editorial board” and that the author hadn’t taken “the ‘mature approach’” to the subject matter.
Less than three weeks after Harper turned it down, The Price of Salt was accepted for publication by Coward-McCann, with the promise of a $500 advance. Coward-McCann would also publish Highsmith’s 1955 psychological suspense masterpiece The Talented Mr. Ripley and the Highsmith-illustrated 1958 children’s book Miranda the Panda Is on the Veranda.
7. It was marketed as a seedy lesbian pulp novel—to great success.
The Price of Salt first appeared in hardcover in 1952, but, according to The New Republic, it wasn’t until a paperback edition was released the following year that the book found an enthusiastic readership. The Bantam Books edition, with a cover price of 35 cents, billed The Price of Salt as “the novel of a love society forbids” and featured an illustration of a predatory-looking woman getting handsy with her younger girlfriend while a threatening male figure looms in the background. The paperback came with a blurb from The New York Times promising that the book “[handles] explosive material … with sincerity and good taste,” but readers who were drawn to its salacious cover probably hoped not.
The timing of the paperback release couldn’t have been better. In 1950, Tereska Torrès’s Women’s Barracks had helped kick off a spate of lesbian dime-store novels whose lurid covers often didn’t match their relatively tame content. Two years later, Marijane Meaker’s Spring Fire reportedly sold 1.5 million copies. Sales figures for The Price of Salt have been notoriously tough to nail down, with estimates ranging from hundreds of thousands of copies to upward of a million. But even with the more conservative numbers, Highsmith’s novel was a hit.
8. There’s some disagreement about the meaning of the title.
Most sources agree that the title has its roots in the Bible, which Highsmith often spent mornings reading. According to Schenkar, Highsmith identified the title as a biblical reference but didn’t specify which passage inspired it. Phyllis Nagy, who adapted the book for the 2015 film Carol, reportedly said that the title is a nod to the story of Lot’s wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt after defying an angel’s orders to flee the destruction of Sodom without looking back. Schenkar, though, speculated that the title might have come from a 1925 French novel called The Counterfeiters by André Gide. She cites this passage as the likely inspiration for Highsmith’s cryptic title: “If the salt have lost its flavor wherewith shall it be salted?” It’s probably a reference to Matthew 5:13, which concerns Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.
A close reading of the book seems to back up Schenkar’s theory. While Therese is separated from Carol, she wonders “how would the world come back to life? How would its salt come back?”