The recently released Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, explores the illicit romance between a female department store clerk and an older, married woman. The film is based on The Price of Salt, a 1952 novel by Patricia Highsmith, who was otherwise known for her crime fiction (like The Talented Mr. Ripley, for example). Writing in The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot relates the secret passions that inspired Highsmith’s novel. Like Carol’s Therese Belivet, Highsmith once worked in the toy department at Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan. One afternoon, a blonde woman in a mink coat came to the toy counter and, as Highsmith later wrote in her diary, made the author feel “odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting yet at the same time uplifted.” Highsmith memorized the woman’s name — Mrs. E.T. Senn — and address from her sales receipt, and even traveled to Mrs. Senn’s neighborhood to watch for her.
That relationship never progressed beyond Highsmith’s fantasies, but it seems that the character of Carol is also based upon one of the author’s real paramours, a woman named Virginia Kent Catherwood. Catherwood was a wealthy, married woman, and for a brief period in 1946, she became romantically involved with Highsmith. Just like Carol in The Price of Salt, Catherwood lost custody of her daughter after evidence of her homosexual inclinations surfaced in court; Catherwood’s husband had hired a detective to record her interacting with a female lover.
Read the full story in The New Yorker.