June 21, 1912– Mary McCarthy:
”Liberty, as it is conceived by current opinion, has nothing inherent about it; it is a sort of gift or trust bestowed on the individual by the state pending good behavior.”
McCarthy had a long and prolific career as a novelist, memoirist, journalist and critic. She was known for her cool, analytic intelligence, with a literary style that moved easily from coquettish carelessness to full-throttled fury.
McCarthy’s barely disguised accounts of her sexual shenanigans in the novels The Man In The Brooks Brothers Shirt (1941) and The Group (1963) created quite the scandal when they were first published. But her notoriety stemmed less from the scandal quotient of her fiction than from her adversarial cultural and political positions. She had a celebrated public feud with Lillian Hellman; issued vitriolic pronouncements on Richard M. Nixon, Watergate and the Vietnam War, and became famous for the ferocity of her book and theater reviews.
McCarthy had a way with clever one-liners. Of Tennessee Williams‘ A Streetcar Named Desire she wrote:
”His work reeks of literary ambition as the apartment reeks of cheap perfume.”
A mythologizer of her own life, she published a pair of memoirs: Memories Of A Catholic Girlhood (1957), and How I Grew (1987), and the main characters in her fiction, especially the cynical Kay in The Group, are barely disguised versions of herself.
Her novels also included sharp portraits of many of her friends and lovers: her second husband, critic Edmund Wilson, was portrayed as a loud, unappealing intellectual in A Charmed Life (1955) and her lover Philip Rahv, who was also her editor, turns up in The Oasis (1949).
McCarthy’s novels were not just a reflection of her life, but also a chronicle of American life in her era: sexual freedom in the 1930s, political radicalism in the 1940s and 1950s, the Vietnam War and the social upheavals of the 1960s, Watergate and terrorism in the 1970s, are part of the background of her novels.
As a youngster, I was fascinated by my mother’s copy of The Group, a chatty gossip book about the lives of eight Vassar College women. I was drawn to it sitting in her bookshelf because I was forbidden to read it. I was intrigued by the sex scenes and the lesbian character, missing entirely that it was as a study of the social and political progress that captivated so many young people in the 1930s. It was also the first time that I had heard about a female orgasm. In Chapter Two, prudish Dottie, a virgin, goes home with handsome debauched Dick. He undresses her slowly, so that ”she was hardly trembling when she stood there in front of him with nothing on but her pearls”. Dick makes Dottie lie down on a towel, and after she experiences some ”rubbing and stroking and then some pushing and stabbing” she starts to get into it:
“All of a sudden, she seemed to explode in a series of long, uncontrollable contractions that embarrassed her, like the hiccups…“
It was a popular bestseller and was adapted to an equally popular 1966 film directed by Sidney Lumet starring Candice Bergen, Joan Hackett, Elizabeth Hartman, Shirley Knight, Jessica Walter and Joanna Pettet. The book and film enraged her old friends and acquaintances who thought they saw themselves as the thinly disguised and gleefully skewered characters.
The film version makes a nice bookend to The Women (1939), touching on everything from politics, birth control, lesbianism (Bergen!), marriage, mental illness, spousal abuse, adultery, alcoholism, and date-rape, all in the course of 2 ½ hours.
Throughout her career, McCarthy concentrated on two themes: what she called ”the idea of justice” and the concept of self-reliance.
McCarthy was born in Seattle, part of a prominent Roman Catholic family. McCarthy:
”Both my parents were handsome, winning and romantic. Their marriage was opposed by both families, partly for religious reasons, and partly because my father was an invalid, with an invalid’s febrile vitality. He had a bad heart, and it was prophesied, from the first, that he would die young and leave his wife with a pack of children.”
In fact, both her parents died in the great flu epidemic of 1918. At six-years-old, McCarthy and her three brothers were sent to live with relatives in Minneapolis, where they were abused.
When she was 11 years old, McCarthy was rescued by her maternal grandfather, who took her back to Seattle and gave her an education at a convent.
She was the perfect student who thought about becoming a nun, but she also wrote moody stories about suicide and prostitution and dreams of becoming an actor. Before she left for college in 1929, McCarthy took acting classes at the Cornish School for the Arts in Seattle, where she met the actor Harold Cooper Johnsrud, whom she married a week after her graduation from Vassar. She divorced him three years later.
By the time McCarthy graduated from Vassar in 1933, she had become what she called ”a wayward modern girl, holding her own with men – both intellectually and sexually.”
Rahv and Wilson had important roles in the shaping McCarthy’s career. She lived with Rahv during the 1930s and he helped her to get her first job writing theater reviews. She married Wilson in 1938; he persuaded her to try writing fiction. He put her in a room and told her to stay there until she finished a story. Their tempestuous marriage ended in divorce in 1946.
McCarthy used her satiric wit to skewer the pretensions and prejudices of her fellow intellectuals. Much of her writing was devoted to exposing the ignorance and bigotry of her set.
She championed Hannah Arendt, the political theorist who wrote about the Nazis and ”the banality of evil” and gay writer William Burroughs when it was popular to dismiss them, and she attacked J. D. Salinger and Arthur Miller when they were at their apex.
The litigious Lillian Hellman was so incensed, in 1980, by McCarthy’s description of her in an interview on the Dick Cavett Show as a ”dishonest writer” that she filed a $2.25 million defamation suit. The feud had simmered since the late 1930s over ideological differences, particularly the questions of Hellman’s support for the Communist Party. McCarthy famously said of Hellman:
“Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”
Hellman’s death in 1984 placed the lawsuit in limbo, making McCarthy feel somewhat put out. McCarthy:
“I still feel disgusted by the amount of lying that didn’t stop. I wanted it to go to trial, so I was disappointed when she died.“
She spent most of her later years in Paris and donated her papers and books to the library. McCarthy died in 1989 at 77 years old, taken by lung cancer. Near the end, McCarty wrote:
”I never woke up in the morning without a feeling of intense repentance and a resolve to be better. I have this idea of improvement, if not in one’s powers, at least in one’s vision, in one’s understanding. I suppose it’s all tied up with the American belief in progress. Not that I have that as an idea, but I certainly have it in my personal life. I couldn’t live without feeling I know more than I did yesterday.”
I thought about McCarthy for the first time in decades during the seven seasons of Mad Men (2007-2015) a story of men who tried to change and the women who actually did.
McCarthy was also a Fashion Icon. She shopped for leather goods at Mark Cross, and purchased cashmere at Brooks Brothers, suits at Bonwit Teller and gloves and scarves at Hermès. She was chic in her peter pan collars and pearls. She was sexy and tailored and cool in that Grace Kelly way.
McCarthy was a major literary figure, a political figure, an urbane figure, a very witty figure who had honesty and wasn’t shy about expressing her opinions. I think she deserves to be rediscovered and awarded Gay Icon status. She was probably one of the first female intellectuals I was aware of.
”It was the idea of being noticed that consumed all my attention. The rest, it seemed to me, would come of itself.”
The cover drawing of the 1955 paperback version of The Company She Keeps was based on a nude photograph of the writer.
She refused to label herself a feminist, which she was in everything but name, dismissing the movement as whiny, greedy and shrill. As made evident by her notorious fight with Hellman, she loved a good fight. Norman Mailer once challenged her to a boxing match.
She felt that to be as a good as a man didn’t mean she had to dress like a man. She visited Vietnam several times during the Vietnam War, always traveling with eight suitcases.
Cavett played himself in Brian Richard Mori‘s 2014 play, Hellman V McCarthy about the feud between Hellman and McCarthy. McCarthy was played by Marcia Rodd, and Hellman by the late Roberta Maxwell. In the film Hannah Arendt (2012) McCarthy is portrayed by Janet McTeer. In the compilation film Women And Men: Stories Of Seduction (1990), one of the three segments is based on McCarthy’s The Man In A Brooks Brothers Suit, where a 40-year-old businessman (Beau Bridges) plies a younger Leftist women (Elizabeth McGovern) with liquor aboard a train. They spend the night together, and he decides he’s in love with her; she plays along. Imaginary Friends (2002) is a play by Nora Ephron about the famous feud. It played on Broadway starring on out actor Cherry Jones as McCarthy and Swoosie Kurtz as Hellman