Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Birthday: Mary McCarthy once quietly remarked, "People with bad consciences always fear the judgment of children."


Mary Therese McCarthy (1912-1989)
Author, critic

Once upon a time there were many magazines in the United States, and in them very intelligent people debated very important issues.

Mary McCarthy was one of them. She was born, this day in 1912, to well-off Catholic gentry who migrated from Minneapolis to Seattle. Until she was six life was an endless round of happy times and parties. The influenza epidemic of 1918 carried off both her parents, leaving her and her two brothers in the Dickensian care of their paternal grandparents and aunts and uncles.

Life, as the elders saw it, was about the mortification of the flesh and the cultivation of pure thoughts. Creative punishments were a house specialty: one popular one was making the kids stand outside in the Minnesota cold for three hours; when Mary came home with a school prize, she got a good sound stropping to keep her pride in check.

Her Seattle grandparents- he was founder of a powerhouse law firm that survives today- took Mary in, calmed her down, and sent her to Vassar, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

With a quick wit, surgical writing style, and a flat in Manhattan, McCarthy quickly became an atheist, a divorcee, and a well-regarded social critic in the magazines. She was a modern woman, enjoying sex far too much for a Catholic, and knew lots of communists.

Like many disillusioned by World War II and communism’s descent into horror and repression, McCarthy moved to the political right after divorcing her second husband, the critic Edmund Wilson. Perhaps to reduce the surfeit of opinions lying around the family home, Wilson pushed McCarthy to be become a novelist. This she did, with some considerable success, though she fond making things up out of whole cloth hard. Each of her books therefore offered her friends, past and present, the mixed blessing of expecting they’d be in one, and then finding out how badly they’d been mauled. Letters between lawyers usually followed.

At heart, McCarthy was a contrarian: she defended Hannah Arendt (later reviving Arendt’s standing has her literary executor) and William S Burroughs when everyone else was piling on, and found the flaws in Salinger, Tynan and Arthur Miller when they were being lionized. She was relentlessly self-critical in her memoirs, while puffing herself up a bit in her fiction. The New York Times summarized her:

The most tireless mythologizer of her life, however, remained Miss McCarthy herself. There were her memoirs: ''Memories of a Catholic Girlhood'' (1957), the beautifully observed portrait of her painful youth, and the later, more workmanlike ''How I Grew,'' published in 1987. In addition, the heroines in Miss McCarthy's fiction form a sort of continuing portrait of the author: Meg in ''The Company She Keeps'' (1942), the clever Vassar girl, ''a princess among the trolls''; Martha, ''the bohemian lady'' in ''A Charmed Life'' (1955), whose need to ''tell the truth'' continually gets her into trouble; Kay, the skeptical iconoclast in ''The Group'' (1963), and Rosamund, the esthetic mother figure in ''Birds of America'' (1971).

These novels also included sharp-edged portraits of many of Miss McCarthy's friends and lovers: her second husband, the critic Edmund Wilson, was portrayed as a loud, unappealing intellectual in ''A Charmed Life''; and Rahv, her roommate and mentor as editor of The Partisan Review, turned up in ''The Oasis'' (1949).

Yet if Miss McCarthy's novels often read like thinly disguised exercises in autobiography, they also attempted to provide an idiosyncratic chronicle of American life - at least within her own intellectual set - as it changed over some five decades. Sexual freedom in the 1930's, radicalism in the 40's and 50's, Vietnam and the social upheavals of the 60's, Watergate and terrorism in the 70's - these are the larger issues that flicker in the background of the novels.

There is a certain didacticism to these books, a feeling of willed creation, and Miss McCarthy herself acknowledged that she found it considerably more difficult to write fiction than essays or reviews.

Each novel, she once said, had its genesis with an idea. ''Birds of America,'' which chronicled the coming of age of a teen-age ornithologist, was meant to be ''a novel about the idea of equality and its relation to nature''. ''The Groves of Academe'' (1952), a satiric portrait of a scheming scholar and his colleagues, was intended to address the question ''Where is the justice for an impossible person?'' ''The Group,'' a chatty gossip sheet about the lives of eight Vassar women, was conceived as a study of the illusory idea of social and political progress that captivated so many young people in the 1930's.

That last novel, which brought Miss McCarthy both a popular audience and a movie sale, enhanced her almost legendary reputation for enraging old friends and acquaintances who thought they saw themselves as the thinly disguised and gleefully skewered characters in her fiction.

Once she set her mind on an issue, it was set for good. She detested abuses of power, and so railed against McCarthyism and communism alike in the 1950s; the Vietnam war in the 1960s; and Watergate in the 1970s.

McCarthy was a regular on The Dick Cavett Show, which aimed to be the late night show for people who thought Johnny Carson shallow. In late 1979, McCarthy made an appearance for a taping to be aired in the new year, and Franklin Foer has neatly described what came of it:

At the time, the intelligentsia might not have wished to be caught too loudly praising Cavett. But from the vantage of the present, his show looks like the televised version of Partisan Review. He didn’t just feature the likes of S.J. Perelman, Orson Welles, and John Updike, he also gave them the time to make robust arguments. Rather than trim his interview with McCarthy, he presented it over two evenings. Those were the days.

There were two sides to Cavett—a clever imp and a jovial bore. His open-ended questions, in that flattened prairie murmur, could act like a glass of warm milk on the way to bed. Indeed, on the night that the McCarthy interview aired, the ailing playwright Lillian Hellman had returned to her Upper East Side townhouse from dinner with her nurse and turned on Cavett, despite her creeping blindness, hoping that his voice would induce sleep.

But Cavett’s occasionally numbing manner masked a gift for instigating literary skirmishes that attracted tabloid attention. He seeded fights by orchestrating Dada pairings of guests (Truman Capote with the running back Jim Brown and the segregationist Lester Maddox) and by cajoling rivals to sit across from one another (most famously Norman Mailer’s berserk assault on Gore Vidal). Despite McCarthy’s advancing age, or perhaps because of it, Cavett knew she would be easy to bait into an outburst. And so he asked her to name “overrated” contemporary writers.

McCarthy gently deflected the troublemaking question, suggesting that over-praise was no longer a cultural plague. But Cavett persisted: “We don’t have the overpraised writer anymore?” “At least I’m not aware of it,” McCarthy replied. Since hedging was profoundly out of character for her, she proceeded to add, “The only one I can think of is a holdover like Lillian Hellman, who I think is tremendously overrated, a bad writer, and dishonest writer, but she really belongs to the past.” Cavett knew that he had stumbled onto good television. “What is dishonest about her?” he asked. “Everything,” McCarthy replied. “But I said once in some interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” When Lillian Hellman heard the quip in her bed, she laughed. By the time her assistant arrived for work the next morning, Hellman had called her lawyer, and set in motion a $2.25 million libel suit against McCarthy.

Cavett put his side in a 2002 New Yorker article:

My notes for the program that night read, “Miss McCarthy asked if you'd let her say a few words about a young writer she feels is underrated.” During the interview, in an attempt to be clever, I asked McCarthy to name some overrated writers, thinking that she would take that as her cue. Instead, she answered the question, mentioning John Steinbeck, Pearl Buck, and, finally, Lillian Hellman, “who I think is tremendously overrated, a bad writer, and a dishonest writer, but she really belongs to the past.”

“What's dishonest about her?” I asked.

“Everything,” McCarthy replied, smiling. “I said once in some interview that every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.' ” There was an “ooh” and a laugh from the audience, but otherwise the moment passed innocuously. After the taping, the network's lawyer—paid to anticipate litigation—did not utter even his occasional “Dick, we may have a problem.” Instead, he said, “Nice show.”

During breakfast the next morning, my assistant called. “Have you seen the papers?” she said. “Hellman is suing Mary McCarthy, PBS, and you for two and a quarter million.”

“And me?” I replied, in a prepubescent squeak. The other phone rang, and the familiar whiskey-and-cigarettes baritone rasped, “Why the hell didn't you defend me?”

“I guess I never thought of you as defenseless, Lillian,” I managed.

“That's bullshit. I'm suing the whole damn bunch of you.” In that, at least, she proved a woman of her word.

I had been to dinner at Lillian's, and she, too, had been on my show. She was a sharp and entertaining guest—an eager appearer, arriving early, looking as if she'd just stepped out of Elizabeth Arden. No one was neutral about Lillian. She had a famous friendship with Dorothy Parker, yet to Jean Stafford she was “Old Scaly Bird.”

A professional critic talking about a public figure is rarely the stuff of lawsuits. Incredibly, Hellman denied being a public figure, forgetting, perhaps, that she had recently appeared in a national advertising campaign for Blackglama furs, which used only women who were so identifiable that their names were omitted; the copy read “What becomes a legend most?”

Recalling that McCarthy had said she was quoting herself from an earlier print interview, I asked my lawyer why that didn't get her off the hook. “Simple reason,” he said. “Who reads?”

I gave my lawyer a bad moment during deposition. I was asked by the other side, “Mr. Cavett, do you have any reason to think that anything Miss Hellman wrote is . . . inaccurate?”

“Yes.” (Minor gasps)


“Well, here's one my wife and her Southern friends enjoy. In one of her stage directions, she has her characters relaxing out on the gallery, enjoying the odor of the azaleas. The garden azalea is one of the South's few odorless flowers.” (Mild laughter) “I'm told she makes the same mistake elsewhere with camellias.” (Minor admonishment)

The lawsuit dragged on for four years, aided by a judge who declined every attempt by the lawyers to find graceful climbdowns for their clients. Both litigant were in poor health, and when she died in 1984, Hellman was wheelchair-bound and nearly blind. McCarty, who was less well off financially, nearly bankrupted herself while suffering a series of debilitating illnesses (she never spoke to Cavett again).

The old order was passing, and the age of words and ideas was giving way to the new one of images and technology. Few remembered that, in the 1930s, capitalism was widely thought to have failed, and communism bid fair as an alternative; by the 1980s the former had triumphed in the form of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan; the latter had become all about power and oppression and was, in fact, in a death spiral. Aside from the titillating gossip and famous names that dropped regularly in the depositions, it- and its antagonists- just didn’t matter much any more.

Hellmann's estate dropped the suit, and McCarthy claimed bragging rights. By bringing the case, Hellman required McCarthy to prove Hellman was, in fact, a serial liar, and this McCarthy did in volumes. It was material Hellman biographers put to good use; her reputation tanked in the late Eighties and has never revived. McCarthy’s public comment was that she was disappointed: she had wanted Hellman to live to sit in the dock, and to see her lose, speculative and ignominiously.

McCarthy herself died in 1989. Such are the wages of celebrity that when he died, The New York Times headlined her last husband, a distinguished public servant, as “James R. West, 84, Diplomat Married to Mary McCarthy.”

Her two brothers survived her. One, the actor Kevin McCarthy, is immortalized in the 1956 sci fi film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the greatest of innumerable film and stage roles he inhabited in a 73-year career. He died in 2010 at the age of 96.

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