Home » Patricia Highsmith’s Pseudonym

Patricia Highsmith’s Pseudonym

Patricia Highsmith’s 39 Year Stint as Claire Morgan in Lesbian Pulp Fiction

By Chloe Freitas (2024)


Bestselling author Patricia Highsmith published her novel, The Price of Salt, under the pseudonym, Claire Morgan, until finally deciding to reveal her true name after almost 40 years in 1991. In this industry report, I argue that Patricia Highsmith chose to keep her name a secret because she feared the social and professional ramifications of publishing a boundary-pushing lesbian romance despite her previous success in publishing. Most essential to my argument will be the four published versions of The Price of Salt, spanning from 1952 to 1991 with a specific emphasis on the 1953 edition.[1] The 1953 pulp novel was widely successful but categorized the story as a typical lesbian pulp novel despite its original release and uncommon happy ending. Contrasting with the pulp version, the original version is a high-quality product which reveals that the novel was not a stereotypical lesbian pulp story. The later 1984 publication includes an afterword by Claire Morgan in which she speaks about the reception of the story and the many thankful letters she received. Finally, the 1991 edition when she drops the use of her pseudonym ends the 39 years of secrecy. To begin, I discuss the phenomena of the lesbian pulp novel and how such stories were received by the mainstream. Next, I investigate Patricia’s Highsmith life and discuss her struggle with depression and life in the closet as motivations for using a pseudonym. Additionally, I will compare The Price of Salt with her other wildly successful novel Strangers on a Train.  I will close my argument by examining the external pressure she received to keep her name a secret.

Section I:

When The Price of Salt was first published in 1952 as an expensive hardback, Claire Morgan received mixed reviews. Presented as a serious novel with a cover that more closely resembled a thriller rather than a romance, reviewers from the New York Times were incredibly underwhelmed by the plot and characters. New York Times book reviewer wrote: “the novel as a whole—in spite of its high voltage subject—is of decidedly low voltage: a somewhat disjointed accumulation of incident, too much of which is pretty unexciting as story-telling and does little to deepen insight into the characters.”[2] The reviewer’s opinion is mediocre at best. Most notably, Rolo describes the subject matter as high voltage, reinforcing the claim that homosexuality was a controversial subject. In a similar review, Elizabeth Nichols offers an overall positive opinion. However, she includes the disclaimer: “Recommended for readers who do not find the homosexual theme unpleasant reading.”[3] Nichols takes Rolo’s claim of controversy one step further by insinuating that homosexuality in literature would be a topic that some find unpleasant. The same year Patricia Highsmith released The Price of Salt as Claire Morgan, the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a personality disorder in the subcategory of sociopathic personality disturbance. Homosexuality was grouped with fetishism, sexual sadism, and even pedophilia[4]. Thus, writing a novel about homosexual women with a happy ending went against the grain in mainstream society.

In 1953, when Bantam Books republished the novel as a cheap pulp novel, The Price of Salt reached far more people than it previously had, based on the constant stream of letters Highsmith received.[5] Lesbian pulp novels skyrocketed in sales in the 1950’s, often featuring racy cover art and explicit lesbian themes.[6] Lillian Faderman, a lesbian woman in 1956, recounts: “I looked around for literary representations that would help explain me to myself. I did not have far to look, because the pulp book racks at the local drugstore exhibited a dizzying array of titles like Odd Girl, Twisted Sisters, Twilight Lovers, We Walk in Shadows, and Whisper Their Love.”[7] Despite the large selection of titles, they were not in the mainstream and generally considered pornography. As described in Keller’s article, the genre had two main audiences: straight men searching for pornography and lesbian women looking for themselves in literature. However, Highsmith changed the genre of lesbian pulp by giving her characters a happy ending. Neither of the heroines, Carol and Therese, were subject to death or marrying a man. Instead, the pair ends the novel together, despite Carol losing custody of her daughter. During the custody battle, Carol’s husband uses the women’s lesbian relationship as evidence that Carol is unfit to raise a child. Although Carol loses her child, The Price of Salt has an extremely uplifting ending in comparison to other lesbian pulps. This break in the pattern was revolutionary. For example, other widely-known lesbian pulp novels like Women’s Barracks and Spring Fire end in suicide and insanity, respectively.[8] In sharp contrast to the original hardback edition, which had a serious black-and-white cover, the Bantam Books version fit the mold of most lesbian pulp novels: bright colors, scantily clad women, and cheap paper. The edition boasts the price on the front cover as a mere 25 cents.[9] Pulp novels were made out of cheap wood pulp. The paperbacks were small with dense text to minimize page count. Both materials and printing style resulted in novels that can be purchased with little money and shared discreetly.

The 1953 pulp version changes advertising tactics compared to the original release. Bantam Books embraced the controversial nature of the storyline to draw in their audience. The front cover art is cheery, sensual depiction of Carol and Therese in the foreground, with Carols husband lurking in the background, casting a long shadow. The colors are very bright and the characters are hand drawn. The subtitle reads, “The novel of a love society forbids.”[10] The cover’s blatant declaration of a forbidden love combined with the homoerotic cover art automatically lets the reader know what they are about to read. However, it is important to note that Bantam Books is calling relationship between Carol and Therese love rather than just sexual attraction or perversion. Compared to Coward-McCann’s 1952 cover, devoid of any color or hints of the plot, Bantam Books makes a splashy and bold statement.[11]

The back cover of the 1953 edition gives a possible explanation for why Patricia Highsmith decided to use the pen name Claire Morgan, specifically in the reviews. Bantam Books repeatedly tells the prospective owner that The Price of Salt is revolutionary in both subject matter and plot. Explaining that Morgan “deals with a subject until recently considered taboo” and “writes of unsanctioned love” shows that Highsmith wrote a story considered controversial in mainstream American society. Bantam Books used the homosexual themes of the book as a selling point rather than a disclaimer. By using a pseudonym, Highsmith detached her public image, that of a thriller author, from her novel featuring two lesbians falling in love.

The back cover includes a review from the Louisville Times which delves deeper into exactly why the book is unusual. The review reads: “Claire Morgan is completely natural. She has a story to tell and she tells it with an almost conversation [sic] ease. Her people are neither degenerate monsters nor fragile victims of the social order,” Unlike previous reviews, that of the Louisville Times is far more positive[12]. The excerpt details how Highsmith doesn’t write her characters as monsters or victims, implying that, normally, two women in love with each other are portrayed negatively, even going so far as to paint them as villains. Most importantly, the reviewer uses the phrase “her people,” which accidentally or purposefully groups her as a writer in with her characters. With a pen name, it is Claire Morgan that is tied to Carol and Therese rather than Patricia Highsmith. Additionally, the review goes on to say that: “ They must—and do—pay a price for thinking, feeling and loving ‘differently.’ ” The Louisville times establishes lesbians as “different from the rest of the world in the way they exist.” In a society where homosexuality is an illness in the APA’s diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders using a fake name to publish a lesbian love story mitigates the possibility of the writer facing real-life social ramifications due to the audience’s inability to separate author and character.

Section II:

Highsmith struggled throughout her life with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.[13] Her deep anxiety and dread stemmed from an inner shame of her homosexuality. Before she published The Price of Salt, Highsmith was engaged to writer Marc Brandel in the late 1940s.[14] While she enjoyed his company, she knew she felt no sexual attraction towards men and decided to see a psychoanalyst to rid herself of her homosexuality in September of 1948[15]. Ironically, it was in Bloomingdale’s just two months later where she worked to pay for conversion therapy when she saw the woman, Kathleen Senn, who would inspire her most personal novel[16].

Patricia Highsmith was encouraged by those around her to use a pseudonym and she agreed. Literary agent Margot Johnson suggested that she write the novel under a different name. In October 1950, she writes in her diary, “I don’t mind. Temporary, partial relief from shame,” implying she was ashamed of her novel which was so deeply personal[17]. Notably it was her agent who had the original idea of keeping Highsmith anonymous, rather than Highsmith herself. Later, Johnson also came up with the name Claire Morgan. Later, in January of 1951, Patricia Highsmith wrote, “What a hell of a shame I can’t have my name on this one instead of the first,” showing that she had mixed feelings about her decision[18]. She, however, was not the only lesbian author using a pseudonym at the time. Author and later Highsmith’s partner Marijane Meaker wrote Spring Fire in 1952 using the name Vin Packer.[19] Harper & Brothers, who published Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, in 1950, rejected The Price of Salt. At the time, in the summer of 1951, Margot Johnson was convinced Highsmith was rejected due to the lesbian content and unorthodox happy ending.[20] While Highsmith never explicitly agrees with Johnson in her diary entries, she writes in her 1989 afterword that she believes the book was not picked up to “Make sure the publisher wouldn’t give himself a black eye by seeming to condone homosexuality.”[21] Additionally, her agent warned her that publishing such a story would be terrible for her career as a writer since she was already established as an author of thrillers.[22] Patricia Highsmith received both internal and external pressure to keep her identity a secret with The Price of Salt, stemming from personal shame and career risk.

Patricia Highsmith allowed her novel The Price of Salt to be published under the name Claire Morgan for almost forty years and through multiple publishers. Even though the content was highly controversial at the time due to the fact that homosexuality was labeled a mental illness[23], Highsmith received letters from readers for decades. She remarks in her diary in October of 1953 that “almost everyday she gets a letter,” and reiterates this phenomenon in her 1989 afterword when Bloomsbury republished novel as Carol[24]. The affordable 1953 version was the edition that most people read. Highsmith claimed in 1991 that The Price of Salt became widely successful when the paperback version was released. Her assertion is substantiated by the 1958 edition of The Price of Salt published by Bantam Books. The 1958 cover states that over half a million copies were in print at the time. In 1991, Highsmith released her novel under her real name, just four years before her death. Her use of a pseudonym was the result of multiple factors including advice from agents, internal shame, and mainstream disapproval of homosexuality.

  1. Morgan, The Price of Salt 1952; Morgan, The Price of Salt 1953; Morgan, The Price of Salt 1984; Highsmith, The Price of Salt 1991
  2. Rolo 1952
  3. Nichols 1952
  4. American Psychiatric Association 1952
  5. Highsmith, The Price of Salt 1991, Highsmith, Patricia Highsmith: her diaries and notebooks, 1941-1995 2021, 614
  6. Keller 2005
  7. Faderman 1994
  8. Torres 1950; Packer 1952
  9. Morgan, The Price of Salt 1953
  10. Morgan, The Price of Salt 1953
  11. Morgan, The Price of Salt 1952
  12. Louisville Times 1952-1953
  13. Highsmith, Patricia Highsmith: her diaries and notebooks, 1941-1995 2021, 497
  14. Wilson 2003
  15. Highsmith, Patricia Highsmith: her diaries and notebooks, 1941-1995 2021, 434
  16. Highsmith, Patricia Highsmith: her diaries and notebooks, 1941-1995 2021, 435; Highsmith, Patricia Highsmith: her diaries and notebooks, 1941-1995 2021, 436
  17. Highsmith, Patricia Highsmith: her diaries and notebooks, 1941-1995 2021, 496
  18. Highsmith, Patricia Highsmith: her diaries and notebooks, 1941-1995 2021, 507
  19. Genzlinger 2022
  20. Highsmith, Patricia Highsmith: her diaries and notebooks, 1941-1995 2021, 521
  21. Highsmith, The Price of Salt 1991
  22. Highsmith, Patricia Highsmith: her diaries and notebooks, 1941-1995 2021, 495
  23. American Psychiatric Association 1952
  24. Highsmith, Patricia Highsmith: her diaries and notebooks, 1941-1995 2021, 614; Highsmith, Carol 1990


Notes and Bibliography

American Psychiatric Association. 1952. “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”

Faderman, Lillian. 1994. Chloe Plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian Literature from the Seventeenth Century to the Present. New York: Viking Penguin.

Foote, Stephanie. 2005. “Deviant Classics: Pulps and the Making of Lesbian Print Culture.” Signs 31, no.1.

Genzlinger, Neil. 2022. “Marijane Meaker, 95, Who Took Lesbian Pulp Fiction Mainstream, Dies.” The New York Times, December 11.

Highsmith, Patricia. 1990. Carol. London: Bloomsbury.

Highsmith, Patricia. 2021. Patricia Highsmith: her diaries and notebooks, 1941-1995. Edited by Anna Von Planta. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

—. 1950. Strangers on a Train. New York: Harper and Brothers.

—. 1991. The Price of Salt. Tallahassee: Naiad Press.

Keller, Yvonne. 2005. “”Was It Right to Love Her Brother’s Wife so Passionately?”: Lesbian Pulp Novels and U.S. Lesbian Identity, 1950-1965.” American Quarterly 385-410.

Kelly, Alice M. 2020. “‘Lots of Us Are Doing Fine’: Femslash Fan Fiction, Happy Endings, and the Archontic Expansions of the Price of Salt Archive.” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory 31, no. 1. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/10436928.2020.1712791.

Louisville Times. 1952-1953. “The Price of Salt Review.” Louiville Times.

Meaker, Marijane. 2003. Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950’s. San Francisco: Cleis Press.

Morgan, Claire. 1984. The Price of Salt. Tallahassee: Naiad Press.

—. 1953. The Price of Salt. Bantam Books: New York.

—. 1952. The Price of Salt. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc.

Nichols, Elizabeth. 1952. “Price of Salt (Book Review).” Ebsco Host. May. Accessed April 12, 2024.

Packer, Vin. 1952. Spring Fire. New York City: Gold Medal Books.

Rolo, C. J. 1952. “Price of Salt (Book Review).” Ebsco Host. May 23. Accessed April 12, 2024.

Schenkar, Joan. 2009. The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious art of Patricia Highsmith. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Torres, Tereska. 1950. Women’s Barracks. New York City: Gold Medal Books.

Wilson, Andrew. 2003. Beautiful Shadow: A life of Patricia Highsmith. London: Bloomsbury.

Receive New Blog Posts via Email