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In Which Mary McCarthy Was A Legend In Her Own Time

You can read the first part of this series here.

Our Mary, Right or Wrong


Meeting the great influx of immigrants from Western Europe during and after the war changed Mary McCarthy's mind about American involvement in the conflict. She found herself in a new circle of intellectuals, many of whom were Jewish and had faced the horrors of fascism and communism firsthand. She began teaching at Bard College to support herself when checks from The New Yorker proved insufficient. She fell in with a New Yorker grunt, the twenty-five year old Bowden Broadwater, who was eight years Mary's junior, and he began visiting her at Bard on weekends. They eloped a year later — his first, and her third. As Gore Vidal once snidely put it, "Women like Mary marry for a purpose."

with bowden broadwaterFor the first time in her life, Mary was both stable and happy. But her writing was soon to cause the trouble in her public life that has dissipated from her private one. Her take on the Partisan Review crowd, a novella titled The Oasis, incensed Saul Bellow and fellow Partisan Review contributor Harold Kaplan, who wrote that

Bellow and I spent half the night talking about Mary McCarthy's alleged story. Perhaps there is something an outraged masculine reaction involved (as I believe there was in much of the critical reaction to her first book) but we believe this thing is so vile, so perfect an example of everything that is nasty in New York and everything that is sterile in recent American writing, that we came to the conclusion that something should be done about it.

As usual, the males in her crowd proved to be the truly humorless ones, but that didn't account for the response to McCarthy's short novel completely. It was primarily that she had no problem with putting the people in her life in her writing, and that they were never flattered by her portraits of them. One person, however, called McCarthy's novel a gem. That was Hannah Arendt.

with arendt, dwight macdonald and robert lowell (not pictured)

The two had met earlier, but Arendt had been shocked by what she perceived as sympathy for Hitler's desperate desire to be loved by the French during his occupation of Paris. After the publication of The Oasis, the two began a lifelong friendship. Although Arendt was mostly unknown at this time, the publication of her The Origins of Totalitarianism launched her into prominence in 1951 at the age of 45. A sexual relationship with Martin Heidegger was already in Hannah's past, and McCarthy was drawn to her worldliness and the fact that they seemed to agree on everything.


Mary experimented with more journalistic writing, penning a series about the homosexual underbelly of Greenwich Village that ran in the New York Post. She was paid $800, and it attracted publishers to a collection of her essays, which Robert Giroux would eventually publish. Her college novel The Groves of Academe was published in 1952, a stinging satire of both Joseph McCarthy-era politics and the insulated liberalism that indoctrinated college students. As usual, men found the work incomprehensible, with Dwight MacDonald writing, "Why does she have to be so goddamned snooty, is she god or something?" The problem with writing about how boorish some men are is that they will be writing the reviews of the book where you are saying that.

Upset with the disopprobrium from the Partisan Review crowd, McCarthy planned to start her own magazine. Before the founding of Critic (which never published an issue) she wrote that, "The truth, at its simplest is that people, not just liberal intellectuals but ordinary liberal people, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and so on, are made restless at seeing their own opinions mirrored week after week in the journals that are written for them. What they object to is not lack of agreement with their own political conclusions but the sense of mechanical repetition that drones from these familiar pages." Her criticism of how liberal magazines took on Joseph McCarthy himself was the source of her anxiety. Instead of simply tearing down a conservative icon, she thought they should try to understand his appeal among the populace.

Her failure with Critic paralled her failing marriage. Most people never saw Broadwater and McCarthy as something that would work long term. McCarthy always said exactly what she was thinking, and Broadwater was very much the same. The two were a fearsome sight at parties and events. Her next novel, A Charmed Life, did the work of breaking up the marriage, because after its publication Broadwater suggested it would be impossible to return to their home in Cape Cod after what Mary had written about the people there. (The women of Wellfleet stopped going barefoot to the supermarket because of A Charmed Life.)

During a trip to Europe, Mary stayed behind in Venice to research the book that would become Venice Observed. While Broadwater holed up in a fleabag motel in New York, a succession of friends visited her. Once back in the U.S., she longed to return to Italy, and eventually, accompanied by a black Chevy, went to Naples. In Rome she began sleeping with the English critic John Davenport until her husband arrived on the scene. This time of personal turmoil was also the moment of her finest artistic success, as her collection of memoirs Memories of a Catholic Girlhood received the best notices of her career.

with her brother Kevin

When she met the man who would become her fourth husband James West, she was still married to Broadwater. The forty-six year old West was the public affairs officer for the American Embassy in Warsaw, with a young wife and three young children himself. Getting away from their respective spouses was tricky business, but as usual, McCarthy could talk a man who was captivated by her into most anything. When Broadwater phoned the Paris hotel where she was shacking up with West, the older man answered the phone. Mary came clean and asked for a divorce just minutes later.

Although her soon-to-be ex-husband was aware of his wife's previous dalliances, he found himself shocked into a weird kind of submission — the nasty Harvard man was turned into a meek puppy. Hannah Arendt wrote Mary to say, "He never was so nice before, never." West found obtaining his divorce more problematic, and he convinced McCarthy to sequester herself in Warsaw during a time of upheaval in that city.

It is ironic that under such dramatic circumstances that she began work on The Group, for as worldly as her current love affair was, it is a most domestic novel. Following the lives of a number of Vassar women, the novel reads like a strained picaresque today, more like warped Jane Austen than worldly Emily Gould. Its simple pleasures were perhaps fueled by her love affair with West, with whom she rarely argued as she did with her previous husbands.

To Arendt she wrote, "My love for Jim is increasing till I am quite dizzy. I find myself changing or perhaps that is not the right word, coming to life in a new way, like somebody who has been partly paralyzed. And I've become conscious in myself of a certain shrunken or withered character-traits that I never reckoned with before. Quite unpleasant they are too. You remember me telling you that my marriage to Bowden was just two people playing, like congenial children? Well, I slowly realize that all my love affairs and marriages have been little games like that — and snug, sheltered games."

With her private life more in order, The Group appeared in August of 1963. Her most readable, accessible novel, it was a sensation for the general public and was turned into a film by Sidney Lumet. She was invited on The Tonight Show. The upscale, WASP subjects of her satire were as per usual, not as amused, but Mary could care less. (Once, at a party on West End Avenue while she was at Vassar, one particularly snobby gentile had entered into a laughing fit at the idea of socializing with an Irish woman.) If her novelistic writing wasn't overly artistic, the deftness of her satire was. Everyone wanted to know what Vassar girls really did think about, how they experienced the rigeurs of sex and even marriage for the first time — and Mary spared no one.

Yet she was not as tough as she required her friends to be. When Robert Lowell's wife Elizabeth Hardwick penned a savage parody of the book in a piece titled "The Gang" that appeared under the byline Xavier Prynne in The New York Review of Books. Mary sent off an angry letter to Lowell:

I think it's easier to forgive your enemies than to forgive your friends, and that is not just a remark. With your enemies you don't feel a sense of betrayal, and what is at the bottom of a sense of betrayal but bewilderment a loss of your bearings? I would not know how to act with Elizabeth yet; that is, I feel I would start acting falsely....

from the 'How I Grew' typeYou can forgive an enemy because that immediately puts you on a fresh basis with him; the slate is wiped clean. But with a friend, you can't wipe out the past because the past includes your friendship as well as the injury you felt you've been dealt. So you have no basis on which to start again, neither the old one or a brand-new one. The practical way of coping with this is to revise your opinion of the friend, in a downward direction. In this way you have a new friend. But I don't want to do this with Elizabeth.

in north vietnam in 1968Among critics with integrity, some of those writers imagine the public forum as a place where anything can be said and then subsequently forgiven. But for McCarthy, her ideas about other people's writing were from a rigorous place, not from a spirit of open and fun inquiry. She took criticism extremely seriously whether she was dealing it out or taking it in. In the case of The Group, the real judge was the marketplace: the book sold over five million copies around the world.

mary smoked her entire life. Arendt's influence pushed McCarthy towards more political topics. Her forays into the political issues of the day, Vietnam and Watergate, were not as well received. In the first case, her hagiographic portraits of the North Vietnamese didn't age particularly well; in the second, the story was already obvious and no one really needed to read Watergate Portraits. When Arendt died of a heart attack after executing the estate of Karl Jasper in 1975, McCarthy flew to New York to execute her will.

In 1980, during a televised interview with Dick Cavett, she made her infamous statement about Lillian Hellman: "that every word she writes is a lie including 'and' and 'the'." Despite the fact that Hellman was the textbook definition of a pathological liar, she sued McCarthy and CBS for libel. Hellman, a devoted Stalinist and professional fabricator, was more damaged by the resulting lawsuit — most people never took her seriously again, and a litany of non-admirers came out of the woodwork to prove McCarthy right. But it also had, as Hellman perhaps intended, a negative financial effect on the defendant.

Mary never thought of herself as a feminist. Her time in various socialist and political groups had made her jaded about belonging to such an association, and on a personal level, she took equality with men as something of an absolute. As an ultimate outsider who reversed the polarity of her life completely, she proved by her simple existence that it was possible for an outspoken woman to survive, even thrive, in a men's world.

As McCarthy and West entered into a comfortable lifestyle, they took up residence at James Merrill's apartment in Stonington, CT, and then began alternating between homes in Maine and Paris. Mary continued to teach at Bard. West's income allowed her to continue her free-spending ways. Her publisher William Jovanovich recalled booking her onto a flight out of Paris, and watching her upgrade herself to first class with cash: "Out of her capacious handbag came fifty-dollar bills, splaying onto the linoleum. She turned to me and said, 'Don't look.'"

from the typescript to 'How I Grew'Her lawsuit with Hellman took its toll. She suffered headaches and sleeplessness, but resisted going to the hospital because of her desire to outlive Hellman. When her enemy finally died in June of 1984, she had an operation to relieve the pressure on her brain from ataxia. As West put it, "I had encouraged her to pay more attention to her health and of course she tried as hard as she could, but she was more interested in ideas than in her health." In 1989, she died of lung cancer, survived by her husband.

When we remember how far American letters has come, it is easy to forget the people who brought it there. Saul Bellow once recalled Mary ticking off a list of names of people she planned to go after in reviews while dressed to the nines at a downtown party. He thought it indecent, but because McCarthy said exactly what she thought, we do not have to suffer from the poverty that public acclamation of sexists and bigots provides us.

You can find the first part of this series here.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about his time at summer camp. You can find an archive of his writing here.

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In Which Mary McCarthy Is The Woman Of The Period

This is the first of a two part series on the venerable American author Mary McCarthy. You can read the second part of the series here.

  Our Mary, Right or Wrong


The two men Mary McCarthy was most famous for excoriating were Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill. She thought both of them terrible writers; it is only time that has proved her right. For what some now see as a timeless characterization of an older America, she saw as a theatrical attack on women. She described A Streetcar Named Desire as a play about a man who was angry because his sister-in-law was occupying his only bathroom; of O'Neill she said that he "belonged to a group of American authors whose choice of vocation was a kind of triumphant catastrophe; none of these men possessed even the slightest ear for the word, the sentence, the paragraph; all of them, however, have, so to speak, enforced the career they decreed for themselves by a relentless policing of the beat."

Her essays and novels usually set the world she lived in right, but her timeliness has been her curse. McCarthy's writing was so consistently autobiographical that it seems more historical than current, although her portraits of the time and places in which she lived survive as both entertaining chronicles of the intellectual world that existed, and incredibly devastating satires of liars and sycophants. For her outspokenness she was denigrated, for her truth-telling she was made by many of her peers and enemies into something other than what she was. Her friend Hannah Arendt, wrote McCarthy's biographer Carol Gelderman, told her that "the discrepancy between public image and actual person is greater in your case than in any other I know of."

mccarthy (center) on her seventh birthdayThe first tragedy that shaped McCarthy's life is forgotten by most of us. The killing flu that took the life of both of her parents eradicated over 50 million lives around the world, including Roy McCarthy and his 29 year old wife Tess. Her grandfather Harry sent her to the Sacred Heart Convent in Seattle. She was 11, and was totally unlike the other girls in her class — she had never even seen a movie. She was determined to be a star, and eventually through the magic of literature she made herself the center of attention in her classic Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.

In her high school, Annie Wright Seminary, McCarthy got a lot of mileage out of shocking her classmates with sexual stories, most of which were invented. To make them come true, she lost her virginity to a man nearly twice her age in the backseat of his car. She looked old for fourteen, and even her female classmates found her stunning. She was totally unlike anything they had ever seen before.

When she met the older painter Kenneth Callahan in her teens she continued her experimentation. In her memoir How I Grew, she wrote

He did not invite me to pose nude, but naturally we "went to the limit" when he set down his brushes. Some of the things he did in bed made me cringe with shame to think of afterwards. It was those sexual practices of his now common, cf. John Updike that taught me...how to deal with shame and guilt. When you have committed an action that you cannot bear to think about, that causes you to writhe in retrospect, do not seek to evade the memory: make yourself relive it, confront it repeatedly over and over till finally, you will discover through sheer repetition it loses its power to pain you.

At the age of seventeen her grandfather and one of his friends both wrote to Vassar on her behalf, and she headed east. She made frequent trips into New York, where she met her first husband, the balding playwright Harold Johnsrud. He was nine years her senior and played a fatherly role to Mary. He escorted her to various New York tourist traps she'd never seen. For house parties they'd show up with dual typewriters. Her frank style of reviewing got her attention from the tender age of 22: his first three reviews were published by Malcolm Cowley in The New Republic. After he lost interest McCarthy soon found work at The Nation, where she didn't hesitate to attack the critical establishment in her classic series "Our Critics, Right or Wrong."

The literary establishment today is even more back-patting and incestuous than the literary establishment of McCarthy's time. The crucial difference was in mainstream critics, who put aside legends like Joyce and Dos Passos in favorite of whatever comfortable and banal mainstream crap sat on their doorstep. Then there were the political critics who read every novel in terms of what benefit it provided to the socialist movement. McCarthy abhorred them both, and said so, and it made her name.

with Johnsrud on her wedding dayShe married Johnsrud in 1933. The marriage lasted for three years, which is probably three years longer than it should have. When Johnsrud hit the road to star with a touring company, she met the slim and single boy John Porter at Webster Hall. Later she would characterize her first infidelity in the marvelous essay "Cruel and Barborous Treatment," where she noted that "private cohabitation, long continued, was, she concluded, a bore....She was now ready, indeed hungry to hear What People Would Say." She grew just as tired of Porter, who she had rashly promised to marry. He saved her from having to break the news by dying of diptheria in the clutches of an older woman in Mexico.

Now a single girl in New York, she found an apartment in Greenwich Village that shared a landlord with Elizabeth Bishop. Her friends and colleagues were self-identified communists, and she willingly fell into the movement (much to her grandparents' consternation) until the novelist James T. Farrell used her name without her permission to help constitute the so-called American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky. Her communist friends were disgusted with her lack of faith in Stalinism, and the debate over which Russian to fetishize began in earnest. McCarthy probably would have gravitated towards Trotsky regardless, but the reaction of the Stalinists to Trotsky's exile put her firmly in their camp.

Although The Nation was seriously pro-Stalin, the books editor was a friend of McCarthy's and permit her to write from time to time. Soon enough, though, anti-Stalin critics began to unite around the revival of the Partisan Review after the Moscow Trials. She was the only female of the group, and was assigned the theatre column, the lowest position on the totem pole. As with her first reviews in The Nation, she took the smallest of spaces and turned it into something memorable.

with edmund wilson in the early 1940sIt was through her work with the male-dominated Partisan Review that Edmund Wilson began to take an interest in her. He was a solid Communist and regarded her as the same; he was also one of the most influential critics of the period. While living with Review editor Philip Rahv, she began to fuck Wilson on the side at his home in Stamford. After one such liasion, she wrote him to say:

Here is something funny. You remember my telling you in the taxi on the way out that I was supposed to be at the fight? Well, the taxi-driver, it seems, was a man of heart. As soon as I got in the cab at your house, he said without any preliminaries: "I suppose you'd like to hear more about the fight." Then he went on to give me a round-by-round description of it. I thanked him at the station, got out...and didn't even need to buy a morning tabloid in the station to have a picturesque account of the fight at my fingertips. My dear, I miss you so much. I hope you will come to New York. I had a lovely time with you last night.

The two married in 1938 in Red Bank, New Jersey, Wilson's hometown. Rahv had no idea that McCarthy had even been cheating on him. A tongue-in-cheek wedding announcement in a New York paper read: "Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy are to be married in New Jersey Thursday and will make their home near Stamford, Connecticut. Miss McCarthy was at one time associated with Covici-Friede and is an editor of the Partisan Review, to which Mr. Wilson contributes. She is best known as one of the authors of the "Our Critics, Right or Wrong" series in The Nation a few years ago, which concluded that the only living American critic of importance was Edmund Wilson."

wilson at 16, and eager for his third marriage

Though she was consistently impressed by Wilson, she did not really love him, and the marriage was his idea. She was Wilson's third wife, and he was already a depressive, angry drinker. He was also physically abusive with McCarthy, perhaps even especially so during her first pregnancy. He thought nothing of punching his wife in the face, or even in her pregnant stomach. Once Wilson beat her so heavily that he had her committed to a Manhattan mental hospital under the premise that she had done it to herself. (It is no surprise that a monster like Wilson should have been so impressed with Stalin in retrospect.) The couple had one son, Reuel, born on Christmas in 1938.

with Reuel outside Paris in 1961After a sojourn in Chicago, the Wilsons based themselves in Cape Cod while keeping a place in Stamford. Edmund took a job at The New Republic, which he promptly quit because the editors were in favor of entering World War II. The one decent thing Wilson did in his marriage to McCarthy was encourage her to write. The two were most prolific up until their split in 1945, with Wilson writing his typically mediocre essays on modern authors and McCarthy continuing to pen her classic reviews. After giving a negative note to a Dos Passos novel, Wilson mailed his friend a letter saying that "Mary has written about your book in Partisan Review; so that if you don't know how to write the next one, it won't be our fault."

from one cover of 'The Company She Keeps'It was under Wilson's shadow that she wrote her first novel, The Company She Keeps, an autobiographical jaunt about her first years as a New York intellectual. Wilson loved the book, and so did Vladimir Nabokov, but it met with a more grudging response from Mary's former colleagues, who seemed to resent her gossipy style. (Malcolm Cowley called it "a not very likeable book, nor is it very well put together.") She was also screwed out of money due to her from publisher Simon & Schuster. At least one good thing did come of the book's publication at the time, however: New Yorker editor William Maxwell was so captivated by the novel he asked her to submit the first of her many pieces for the magazine.

showing her bare back to photographer Sylvia SalmiShe finally broke free of Wilson, who she would later hilariously characterize as a minotaur, in 1944. Carol Gelderman got McCarthy to recall the precipitating incident:

We had about eighteen people at the party. Everybody had gone home and I was washing dishes. I asked him if he would empty the garbage. He said, "Empty it yourself." I started carrying out two large cans of garbage. As I went through the screen door, he made an ironical bow, repeating, "Empty it yourself." I slapped him, not terribly hard, went out and emptied the cans, then went upstairs. He called me and I came down. He got up from the sofa and took a terrible swing and hit me in the face and all over. He said, "You think you're unhappy with me. Well, I'll give you something to be unhappy about." I ran out of the house and jumped in my car.

It was probably for this very reason that Wilson rued the day his wife had learned to drive in Stamford at the age of 25. She returned that day, but by the next year she had taken her son and moved into the Stanhope Hotel at 81st and Fifth Avenue, across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The concluding part of this series can be read here.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about his time at summer camp. You can find an archive of his writing here.

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In Which We Return To The Scene of The Crime

The Other Side of Your Wall


You never forget your childhood next door neighbors. I have a strange metaphor for mine: the buns of my family sandwich. There they were, always on either side, listening to us or ignoring us, bringing over tins of Christmas popcorn or never bringing over anything, waving at me and my sister Vanessa, or writing complaint letters to our parents. The Jennings and the Spellmans were our unessential constants.

Mr. and Mrs. Jennings were an older couple whose children had grown and gone. Mrs. Jennings was quiet and wore large thick-rimmed glasses and took evening walks. Mr. Jennings is an unforgettable, almost magnificent figure in my mind. He had a balding round-as-a-pumpkin head and stood probably six feet tall on the skinniest legs I’d seen on a man, legs which hung loose and marionette-like from his extraordinarily narrow pot belly. Mr. Jennings was from the front a slim man who wore plaid shirts and who cinched his polyester pants far below his belly button. From the side, Mr. Jennings was a man who cinched his pants far below his belly button because his middle protruded three feet from his body. He smoked Virginia Slims and often stood at the end of his driveway with his skinny cigarette and taking in the scene.

Mr. Jennings was a grump who delighted in being grumpy, and to his surprise I imagine, was most benevolent at his grumpiest. He caught me and Vanessa writing our initials in a square of wet sidewalk and made us smooth it out, but a few days later brought each of us a handmade wet stepping stone, which we imprinted with our hands and the paws of our cats. He enjoyed when our cat Muffy slept on his sprinkler heads, because then he could turn the water on and scare the hell out of her. This was upsetting to our mother.

The Jennings’ front door was mossy green. Their living room was beige and thickly carpeted. They only drove Buicks. It was on Mr. Jennings' sedan that I discovered the keyhole to the trunk of a Buick is hidden beneath the logo. Our relations with the Jennings were mostly cordial, even friendly, except when Mr. Jennings tired of our rooster. He threatened to report our backyard menagerie to the community police, and so we took Sam White to live on a farm.

The Spellmans were a more complex case. The problems began when Vanessa and I were little girls, and decided, with our friend Margaret who lived on the other side of the Spellmans, to have a tea party on the flat rock in their front yard. I don’t remember the day, but the story goes that Mrs. Spellman bitterly cast us away, despite our being harmless and most likely adorable. The Spellmans then forbade us from even crossing their yard to get to Margaret’s house, which meant we had to walk on the street and this worried our mother. No one liked the Spellmans.

I have little physical memory of them, because in my memory they never left their house. Even now, I’m not sure how many Spellmans there were. When we threw our frisbee into their backyard and called to retrieve it, Mrs. Spellman was cold and cryptic: What. Goes. In. Our. Yard. Stays. In. Our. Yard., she said, and hung up. There would be no sneaking around because the Spellmans had a pet hyena that snarled and snapped at even an eyeball pressed to the fence boards, thus we never saw the frisbee again.

As the years went on we convinced ourselves that the Spellmans had an underground dungeon beneath their house where they stored bodies and worshipped the devil. I found this more fascinating than scary, and spent many hours hiding in the pittosporum bushes across the street from the Spellman’s house, deciphering messages out of the mortar in their bricks. I was certain, for example, that the flaws in the mortar below their front window spelled Satan. I’m not sure if I actually saw this, I only know that I very badly wanted it to be true.

All our young mysteries were attributed to the Spellmans. When our Fisher-Price cassette player broke down we stomped fearlessly to their house. I was probably 7, Vanessa 9. Grandma Spellman opened the door — just a crack — and Vanessa ruffled her feathers and announced herself. “Excuse me,” she said, deftly presenting the evidence like the lawyer she became, “but do you know anything about this?” She pressed the play button, and the Fisher-Price cassette player proceeded to sputter the low, warped song of Michael Jackson, and my memory stops there. I can’t imagine how outrageous we must have looked to Grandma Spellman, righteous little princesses that we were, standing on her doorstep, accusing her of sabotaging our beloved plastic tape player.

Our parents prohibited all interaction with the Spellmans when we were in junior high, after we threw pinecones at their windows in an attempt to goad them into revealing their evilness once and for all. They called the police, we got in trouble, Mrs. Spellman sent my parents a scolding, lawyerly letter, and we didn’t bother them after that. We did, however, bury a quarter in their front yard. According to some legend I’d heard at a slumber party, doing this would make objectionable neighbors move away within a year. The Spellmans didn’t move away until many years later, and we never knew what became of them.

Who were your childhood next door neighbors?

Yvonne Georgina Puig is the senior contributor to This Recording. She tumbls here. You can find more of her work in these pages here.

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