Patricia Highsmith worked temporarily at Bloomingdale’s, 770 Lexington Avenue, during the Christmas rush in 1948. Her crush on an attractive patrician woman customer inspired Highsmith to write The Price of Salt, her one and only pulp romance novel. Its suggestion of a happy ending for a lesbian love affair was an unprecedented scandal for the time.
Highsmith’s provocative book was adapted into the film Carol starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. This single frame from Carol is a microcosm of the entire story. In fur and leather, Carol is animalistic. The bag in her manicured hands looks like goosebumps. And doesn’t Therese’s Santa hat look like a saintly halo?
Many of Patricia Highsmith’s books have been adapted into movies. The Talented Mr. Ripley takes place partly on Ischia, where part of my family is originally from and where many scenes from the book I’ve been writing for seven years take place. Later in life, Highsmith alienated a lot of the people in her life. This literary map is filled with problematic personalities.
One of the reasons I’m doing this project, investigating the stories of other writers in my city, is because I’m waiting to find out what’s going to happen to my own book. So I look for connections between the story on the map and my own writing life. In this case, it’s Ischia. When I went to Ischia seven years ago to get my great-grandfather’s birth certificate, the concierge at the hotel told me we’re related and asked me if I know our family history. No. He ripped a paper map off the stack with a flourish and circled a castle.
“Go and learn,” he said.
I did. It took a really long time. Somehow those seven long years feel shorter than waiting to find out what someone who isn’t me thinks of my manuscript.
My friend Cassie met me for the walk to Bloomingdale’s, where Highsmith once worked during the Christmas rush of 1948. Before Covid, I would have gone in to visit the makeup counter to discover remnants of Highsmith’s inspiration. Now, we only window shopped.
The landscape of the city is always around me as I walk to these locations, but this time I had another world in my mind. I had called my teenage nephew to congratulate him on passing his driving test and he told me about a trip he took before the pandemic to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Sharing this information here now might seem off topic, but bear with me.
My nephew told me about the founder, Dr. David Pilgrim, and how he began his collection. (I highly recommend watching this video and learning the story for yourself). As a child in Mobile, Alabama, Dr. Pilgrim went to a flea market and saw someone selling “what we would today call a mammy cookie jar and salt and pepper shakers.”
My nephew prefaced his story by telling me he was repeating what Dr. Pilgrim, a brilliant leader in the anti-racism movement, said, in context.
Dr. Pilgrim bought the shakers with what little money he had, and broke them on the spot. He wasn’t trying to make a philosophical or ideological statement. He just didn’t like them. My nephew told me about his own journey through the museum, learning about race laws, seeing a tree with a noose, lawn jockeys and other “real world items reflective of the normalization of violence.”
“Then you see the people forgotten to history,” my nephew said. “Then the African American achievements and the civil rights heroes who lost their lives fighting racism. And you think, it’s a happy conclusion. We beat it. No. The next part of the exhibit shows modern racism including so much racist memorabilia created around President Barack Obama using the old racist tropes. At the end, you are meant to reflect with your fellow museum-goers about what you experienced.”
“Dr. Pilgrim said people often find ways to justify which things they saw that they don’t think are racist,” my nephew said. “The whole point is to confront racism in the US and have a meaningful conversation. The museum is a showcase of how it really was and is in the US. It is a way of confronting what racism really is, a way to sit back and think to yourself, I can’t believe this is real. The museum includes things you won’t find in the Smithsonian. And I have looked. Postcards that were sent through the US postal system that show lynchings and lashings.”
Dr. Pilgrim’s collection is augmented by that of a gay couple, my nephew said, who started collecting for the same reason, to educate people about reality. Here is where it all connects. Highsmith had already sold the rights to one of her books to Alfred Hitchcock for a film adaptation when she couldn’t sell The Price of Salt because of bigotry against lesbian content. We have made many strides that are now in peril again, and always. We have to fight for the human condition, not just for a few, but for us all, or we aren’t fully human.
PS. On my walk I passed reopened Argosy book store, the oldest bookstore in Manhattan, as far as I know!