Printer Friendly

Highsmith: another view.

Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s by Marijane Meaker. Cleis Press, San Francisco, 2003, 207 pp., $14.95 paper.

In 1959, when Patricia Highsmith and Marijane Meaker met at a dyke bar in Greenwich Village, they were already household names to lesbian readers under their respective noms de plume, Claire Morgan and Ann Aldrich. It would have shocked their contemporaries to find these two women, whose reputations were polar opposites, in bed together.

Much of Meaker's memoir of her relationship with novelist Patricia Highsmith reads like the lesbian pulp fiction she wrote during the post-World War II heyday of paperback originals. As Ann Aldrich, Meaker raised the ire of early lesbian feminists with a series of nonfiction titles that perpetuated negative stereotypes and took pot-shots at The Ladder, the nascent publication of the nation's first lesbian rights organization, the Daughters of Bilitis. Her work was referred to as "poisonous but entertaining," presenting lesbians as "disgusting or unnatural creatures." She was described as a "prolific and negative author ... her books hardly worth the time or price"; and accused of "running down her relatives." Meaker wrote genre pulps in the 1950s and 60s under another pseudonym, Vin Packer. As Packer, Meaker published Spring Fire, which Jeannette Howard Foster, in her pioneering opus Sex-Variant Women in Literature: A Historical and Quantitative Survey (1954), characterized as "a sympathetic treatment which bows to orthodox standards by ending tragically." (Foster understandably erred in identifying Packer as "an established male author.") It would be 1972 before lesbian reviewers would approve of Meaker's literary treatment of lesbians by acclaiming her humorous novel, Shockproof Sydney Skate. Meaker has gone on to receive dozens of awards as a writer of juvenile and young adult fiction under the names of M. E. Kerr and Mary James.

As Claire Morgan, Highsmith published her lesbian novel The Price of Salt in 1952 to good reviews. It had moderate success in hardcover, then skyrocketed in paperback sales. Valerie Taylor, whose first lesbian novel, Whisper Their Love, sold two million copies, described the impact of the book to the 1974 Lesbian Writers Conference in Chicago: Claire Morgan, she said, broke the mold of lesbian formula fiction, which until then had been armed at heterosexual males. Morgan's positive heroines, real women who overcame obstacles to their love, attracted a huge lesbian readership. Jeannette Foster further suggested that the arguments Morgan proposed for the validity of "variant love" presaged the swing of the literary pendulum toward "favorable treatments of variance" in fiction.

On re-reading, The Price of Salt holds up well. Nineteen-year-old salesclerk Therese is smitten by an elegant customer and contrives to meet her. Carol is in the process of seeking a divorce. Mutually impassioned, the women take off on a cross-country jaunt, followed closely by a detective hired by Carol's husband, who threatens to take sole custody of their daughter. When Carol returns to deal with her husband and his lawyers, Therese loses faith. She considers returning to her old boyfriend and finds a career in New York. But, as she is about to embark on an affair with a stage actress, she realizes "it was Carol she loved and would always love ... It would be Carol in a thousand cities." Carol sacrifices custody of her child. The lovers see each other across a crowded restaurant, and the book ends in a Hollywood fade as they move towards each other. A few things date the novel. The amount of copy devoted to smoking and drinking is about equal to that in a Hemingway novel or a Bette Davis movie. And as Taylor told the her audience in 1974, "Today, the wife would find a good feminist lawyer and win custody."

Despite this book's title, I learned more from it about Meaker than about Highsmith. When Meaker and Highsmith met, Mealier, already in a relationship, was smitten. They immediately began a two year horizontal tango that would last longer than their romantic feelings for each other: When they finally split, each woman found closure by brutally murdering the fictional counterpart of the other in respective novels. Mealier was closeted, jealous, possessive, and unfaithful. Dissembling to her then lover of eight years, she spirited Highsmith away to a farmhouse in Pennsylvania to isolate her from potential competition and social or business contacts who might claim her time. However, Meaker retained contact with her old lover and friends with whom she would confide and complain. In public she reacted furtively when Highsmith put her arm around her, wanted to walk down the street holding hands, or reached out to touch her across a restaurant table. Both left a posh restaurant without protest when they were refused service because they were wearing pants.

Meaker tantalizingly name-drops the subjects of Highsimth's conversations with her: Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Ned Rorem, Janet Flanner, Jean Cocteau; but then she tells nothing of what was said except, "It was a two bottle night." In fact, drinking probably accounts for a lot of lapses. Meaker says she gave up trying to keep up with Highsmith, and while not calling her an alcoholic, recounts her drinking in detail, including the time Meaker mistakenly took a hefty swallow of Highsmith's 80-proof morning orange juice.

Meaker's sources for several of her Vin Packer plots were contemporary murders, a New Zealand parricide, a notorious US matricide, even the Emmet Till case. Her method of writing differed from that of Highsmith, who drew her plots mostly from whole cloth, wrote on a rigid schedule, and did not discuss her work in progress. Meaker, although a commercial success, was envious of Highsmith's respectability as a well-reviewed mainstream hardcover author. In turn, Highsmith seemed envious of Meaker's mass-market sales and easy income: Hardcover authors were paid percentage royalties doled out annually on the sales of each copy; paperback writers received two cents a copy for each book printed regardless of sales. While they were together, Meaker received an $8,000 check from a reprint run. She notes, "I got twice what Pat did for one book."

Meaker describes Highsmith as "gentlemanly" in her manners and appearance: blazer, soft shirt, ascot, and slacks. Highsmith opened doors for Meaker, rose to meet a woman, and picked up her pants by their crease before sitting down. Highsmith preferred Europe to America and felt she was more highly regarded there. There are hints that Highsmith's Southern upbringing left her tinged with racism. When Lorraine Hansberry, whom Meaker had met at a party, invited Meaker to the opening of the film version of A Raisin in the Sun, Highsmith demurred saying: "I know the plot. Colored person thwarted, then colored person triumphant. It's not my concern."

Still, it is disconcerting, if Mealier is to be believed, to see the 70-year-old Highsmith portrayed as racist and and Semitic. In a bitter epilogue Meaker makes her case, summarizing some letters and a final visit Highsmith paid her a few years before her death. Mealier notes that the novel Ripley Under Water (1991) was dedicated to the Intifadeh and the Kurds and suggests that Highsmith's anti-Israeli stance was "a displacement, that her real anger might have been at American publishers who she felt were largely Jewish, and unappreciative of her work."

MARIE J. KUDA has been an independent scholar, free lance writer, and lecturer on lesbian history and culture since 1969. After 57 years in Chicago she now lives in Hemingway's boyhood home, Oak Park, Illinois, researching and lecturing on his extensive connection to lesbians in his life and art.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Old City Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s
Author:Kuda, Marie J.
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2003
Previous Article:Quintessentially noir.
Next Article:Philosophy of the heart.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters