The secret (and sometimes gay) identities of female writers


When The Price of Salt was published in 1952, the byline read Claire Morgan. But now if you buy a copy from your local bookstore, it’ll likely read Patricia Highsmith. Don’t get confused — they’re the same person.

The lesbian-themed novel (which is one of my favorites) was based on much of Pat’s own life in New York City, where she was a shop girl who became obsessed with an older, married woman. But because she was a little scared to put herself out there as a gay woman, Pat used “Claire Morgan” for the book, and stuck with her real name for her mystery work.

Tidbits like this are included in Carmela Ciuraru‘s new book Nom De Plume: A Secret History of Pseudonyms. Ciuracu said of Pat’s choosing to use a fake name:

…let’s keep in mind that she wrote the first successful, positive story of lesbian love, which was a very brave thing to do in the mid-twentieth century. She did not attempt to pathologize the relationship portrayed in the novel. People wrote her letters to say how grateful they were to have found this book. So perhaps she wasn’t all bad. And in some ways, one could admire her. Highsmith had a very difficult time dealing with other people, and with managing most of her personal relationships. She knew that. In that regard I find her a sympathetic figure. She had suffered so much cruelty from her own mother, which partly explained her treatment of others later in life. I mean, when her mother was pregnant with her, she attempted to abort the fetus by ingesting turpentine. That will not do wonders for your child’s self-esteem later on.

But some women took on masculine names so that they would be taken more seriously. French novelist/memoirist George Sand, for example, was really Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin. She also enjoyed wearing men’s clothes and smoking tobacco, which was pretty unheard of in the 1800s. “George” also had a romantic relationship with actress Marie Dorval.

George was a popular name to steal, apparently, as Mary Anne Evans also borrowed it for her byline, George Eliot. Mary Anne wanted to be taken seriously as a novelist, and also had an affair with a married man she didn’t want coming out.

Dominique Aury/Pauline Réage (nee Anne Desclos) wrote an erotic S&M novel called The Story of O, which included some lesbian lovemaking scenes. It was published in 1955 and in Nom De Plume, Ciuraru writes:

Those encounters seemed genuine rather than forced, contrary to accusations that the author had written such scenes to satisfy the “male gaze.” Aury considered herself bisexual and admitted her preference for the female body. Describing her first real-life exposure to male anatomy, she said, “I found that stiffly saluting member, of which he was so proud, rather frightening, and to tell the truth I found his pride slightly comical. I thought that that must be embarrassing for him, and thought how much more pleasant it was to be a girl. That, by the way, is an opinion I still hold today.”

Obviously pen names hold relevancy today, too, as we’ve seen with the straight, married men taking on lesbian identities on the web as of late. You can be anyone you want on the internet, but, as Ciuraru says, it’s easier to track you down.

“Obviously there are writers using pseudonyms today, but for the most part no, it’s not possible. In the 19th century writers weren’t having their photographs taken, they weren’t writing e-mails. The guy who wrote the Gay Girl in Damascus blog (Tom MacMaster) had his IP addresses traced back to him,” she said. “So I think it’s very hard today. On the one hand it’s impossible to keep up a pseudonym because everything is done via email, but on the other hand there’s more pseudonyms than ever before because of people online. However, they do tend to get found out. The people featured in my book weren’t looking for publicity, they were simply trying to do their work. But now on the Internet [pseudonyms are] more an expression of our narcissistic culture than they are for producing serious work. It was a much different enterprise before.”

So, women of today, we’re probably just as scandalous, but way more public about it. You can’t hide behind your IP address!

Nom De Plume is available now.

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