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Entries in mary mccarthy (4)


In Which God Knows Whatever Possessed Hannah Arendt And Mary McCarthy

Thank You For Everything You Did

When we last left off with the correspondence of Hannah Arendt & Mary McCarthy, Mary was pursuing a divorce with her soon-to-be ex-husband, socialite Bowden Broadwater. The brief impasse between the two friends was mended, but medical problems for both — McCarthy would develop hepatitis after Arendt spent a few months in the hospital because of a taxi accident — brought them closer together again. In these letters they attempt to inch nearer to each other without ever having the advantage of standing in the same room.

Dearest Hannah:

This is going to be a hasty letter and written under the somewhat depressant influence of penicillin and sulfa, so if it sounds strange don’t mind.

Your letter came shortly after I got back from Bocca di Magra, and I was just recovering from the flue, which I’d caught at Bocca, in the damps of the last evenings. Hence its news came to me as from a remote distance.

The other day, though, Carmen at lunch in her gloomy, Spanish-style villa embellished with roses from her rejected suitors and huge oil paintings of wild goats, treated me to some rather shivery prophecies of what Bowden was going to do (or not do). After seeing her, I had a relapse (no connection) and have just got up again today. And meanwhile I’ve bene talking to Reuel on the telephone, he has been in Warsaw, staying with Jim.

Reuel’s advice is that I must take immediate action to get a divorce. That if I don’t, Bowden will become fixed in his ideas and attitudes toward me and it. He says Bowden knows very well that I shall never come back to him, but that if I don’t show him that I mean business about the divorce and will get it in spite of him at any cost, he will keep us all in the present limbo forever.

It was after this that I saw Carmen. Her warnings were not to expect a favorable reply, that the figure of two years had been flourished in Bowden’s conversation, that his dominating idea was revenge, on Jim primarily and incidentally on me. That he no longer loved me but wished someone to pay for his sufferings. That his attitude towards me was malicious. (This I can well believe from the single letter I had from him this summer; it was not, by the way, Hannah, who stopped writing, it was he. For more than a month I did not even have an address for him.) She also told anecdotes of Bowden serving dinner to guests in New York and saying, as he invited them to table, “Sorry, the Mrs has run off with the silver.” This, perhaps unfairly, made me absolutely furious.

I do not agree with you at all that he loves me. If he did, he would not have sat in Venice all summer making spiteful remarks about me and drinking cocktails and leading a bravura social life; he would have tried, I think, to see me, which would not have been hard. Or written me in a friendly way. At least to find out how I was. Certainly, he’s been very much hurt, and his behavior is compatible with that. And he finds it less painful and more dignified, as a role, to say that he loves me than to say that he has been hurt.

He has entered the love-competition and is playing a solo part in it — the man who loves alone, all alone on the stage. The fact is, I am not necessary to the performance, hence there was no reason to seek me.


Mary, darling —

The scarf is so breathtakingly beautiful that I don’t even know how to tell you that you should not. Which nevertheless is the naked truth! Oh Mary, how I wish you were here and how tired I am of this letter writing. I somehow had the feeling during the last week or so that you would suddenly stand in the door. Then your gift arrived and I changed dresses to try it out. It is simply marvellous, almost too beautiful to become a use-object. But still it would have been better if you would have stood in the door.

This time of year is hectic as usual. Even I have to give a dinner party — you can see how bad it is. For Auden and the Lowells and Rich Heller. They probably all hate each other. I hope not, but if they do, I can’t help it. I saw Lowell several times and we talked at great length. He somehow intrigues me and I think I like him. By the way, he really loves you. I don’t think he pretended for my sake. His mental health seems to be perfect.

Despite all this, I have worked rather well. But everything takes so much more time than one hopes it will. I am in the midst of the last section of the Revolution book and I hate to interrupt it again. But I think I shall finish it in Northwestern where I have only a seminar once a week and lectures twice a week. Since I leave so early, I had to give extra session here in Columbia which I did not mind because the class is so very good. We meet once a week and read Plato together by now have become like old friends.

Love, dearest Mary, and all the wishes in the world.


Dearest Hannah,

In the last two weeks I've been frightfully busy, otherwise I’d have answered sooner. My spirits have risen, I'm glad to say, and I've suddenly done some writing. Just reviews, one a long one of Vladimir Nabokov’s new book, Pale Fire, that’s coming out in this week’s New Republic and shorter one of Salinger for The Observer. The last I did in two days and it is very viperish and mean and gave me no pleasure, except to get it out of the way, but I really fell in love with the Nabokov book and worked very hard on it, with pure joy. I'm very curious to know what you'll think of the book if you read it, to me it's one of the gems of this century, absolutely new, though there are flashes of Lolita, Pnin, and all his other books in it. Among other things, it is terribly funny, about academic life, and terribly sad too.

It seems to me to have more of America and of the "new" civilization in it than anything I've ever read, and it's the first book I know to turn this weird new civilization into a work of art, as thought he'd engraved it all on the head of a pin, like the Lord's Prayer. It's a terrific puzzle or game and requires several players to work it out. I ran around Paris, to the library, to friends who knew Russian, to friends who knew German, to friends who knew chess, and enlisted, miraculously, their interest, as though they caught fire from the book too, at secondhand. This contagiousness is one of its qualities. And it's all quite different from working on Finnegans Wake, say, because when you look all the references there you're simply back with the text, but with the Nabokov book everything you're led to is beautiful in itself — rare birds and butterflies, the movement of the stars, curious chess situations, certain passages from Pope and Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle, Goethe…. I'm far from having elucidated all of it and am dying to hear what other people will find that I've missed. So far, the few reviews I've seen have been absolutely stupid and missed just about everything — in the most predictable way, as though Nabokov, laughing, had written the reviewers' reviews. Well, enough of that.

Otherwise there's nothing specially new. Except a story about Aron that is circulating. It seems he is a Don Juan with his girl students and has been inducing them to grant him their favors with all sorts of promises, which naturally he hasn't kept. But one of these girls has drawn up a bill of charges against him and has sent it, mimeographed, to the principal editors of Paris and to all the professors of the Sorbonne. One of his promises, textually quoted, is that if she will go to bed with him he will "take her on his arm to official dinners." Thwarted of this, she has taken her revenge. Some friends of mine say this is the second mad girl he has been involved with; the first tried to commit suicide to embarrass him or rather staged a suicide.

Oh, I do miss you, Hannah, and wish you were coming here soon.

They hanged Eichmann yesterday; my reaction was curious, rather shrugging. "Well, one more life — what difference does it make?" This cannot be the reaction the Israelis desired, yet short of rejoicing at his death, on the one hand, or being angry at it on the other, what else can the ordinary person feel?

I must stop and start cooking a dinner. I am so glad, Hannah, that you're almost over the effects of the accident, and you were fortunate in misfortune.


Dearest Mary,

I was just on the point of writing anyway when your letter arrived. I read the Macbeth piece and immediately thereafter the Nabokov review in the New Republic. I fell greatly and enthusiastically in love with the Macbeth article, and Heinrich was even more enthusiastic than I — if possible. You are so entirely and absolutely right and said it all so beautifully! When did you write it and why did you not let me know? It was almost by accident that I saw it in Harper's.

The Nabokov article — very very good, excellent as a matter of fact, very ingenious and puzzling — but I have not read the book. I am going to get it soon, but shall hardly have the time to read it. There is something in Nabokov which I greatly dislike. As though he wanted to show you all the time how intelligent he is. And as though he thinks of himself in terms of "more intelligent than." There is something vulgar in his refinement, and I am a bit allergic against this kind of vulgarity because I know it so well, know so many people cursed with it. But perhaps this is no longer true here. Let me see. I know only one book of his which I truly admire, and that is the long essay on Gogol.

Last Year at Marienbad — I saw it and thought it a bore. But have a look, it is interesting from a technical point of view.

I am glad they hanged Eichmann. Not that it mattered. But they would have made themselves utterly ridiculous, I feel, if they had not pushed the thing to its only logical conclusion. I know I am in the minority with this feeling. One reform rabbi came out for mercy and criticized the Israel execution as "unimaginative"! Isn't that marvellous?

How do you two like Paris? I mean living in the city. When I was there last summer I thought again it is the only place entirely fit to live in. Because it is like a house, the whole city really is, with many many rooms, but you feel never exposed, you are always "housed," protected, an entirely different spatial feeling from all other big cities I know.

Love and yours,


Dearest Hannah:

It has reached the point where I feel if I don't write you in the next five minutes I never will — I'll be too ashamed. I don't know exactly what has caused this silence. Lack of time to write a long letter, unwillingness to write a short one. Or you fell off my invalid list. Nicola says he observed that I wrote him as long as he was a classified invalid; after that, silence.

The Conference was bizarre enough. People jumping up to confess they were homosexuals or heterosexuals; a Registered Heroin Addict leading the young Scottish opposition to the literary tyranny of the Communist Hugh Macdiarmid, the Yugoslav group in schism and their ambassador threatening to pull the Belgrade Opera and Ballet out of the Festival because the non-official delegate had been allowed to speak before the official delegate; an English woman novelist describing her communications with her dead daughter; a Dutch homosexual, a former male nurse, now a Catholic convert, seeking someone to baptize him, a bearded Sikh with hair down to his waist declaring on the platform that homosexuals were incapable of love, just as (he said) hermaphrodites were incapable of orgasm (Stephen Spender, in the chair, murmured that he should have thought they could have two). And all this before an audience of over two thousand people per day, mostly, I suppose, Scottish Presbyterians. The most striking fact was the number of lunatics both on the platform and in the public. One young woman novelist was released temporarily from a mental hospital in order to attend the Conference, and she was one of the milder cases. I confess I enjoyed it enormously.

Enough of that. Nicholas Nabokov, on the telephone last night, told me that Cal Lowell was in a mental ward in Buenos Aires and that Marilyn Monroe committed suicide because she had been having an affair with Bobby Kenedy and the White House had intervened. Our age begins to sound like some awful colossal movie about the late Roman Emperors and their Messalinas and Poppaeas. The Bobby Kennedy swimming pool being the bath with asses' milk.

Did you see the Esquire piece on me?


Dearest Mary:

I know it is terrible to dictate a letter and not to write it but I don't know how long I would postpone answering yours otherwise. Please forgive me. I was so happy with your letter. Everything sounds so good and you yourself sound in high spirits. I enjoyed the Edinburgh bit. I think I read something about it. I knew that Tucci is a hypochondriac. He goes for a complete checkup twice a year to the hospital, each time in perfect health, but a broken arm is, of course, something new.

I am very sorry about Lowell. I hadn't head form him but I was so little at home that I didn't find it strange. Will they be back in New York?

Esquire piece: The less said about it the better, I suppose.

The Tin Drum: I read it in German years ago and I think it is an artificial tour de force — as thought he had read all of modern literature and had then decided to borrow and to do something of his own.

What do you say, since we are on literature, about the Nobel Prize going to Steinbeck? Rather surprising! Have you any idea who the alternatives were?

The Revolution book is finished and will appear in January. The Eichmann article has also become a book, and to everybody's surprise, has been accepted by The New Yorker almost in its entirety. They are starting the series of articles end of January, which reminds me that Harold has now become their art critic and the first article appeared in the current issue. Just in case you should have missed it, I wanted to quote once sentence: "In our time, those who are content merely to paint pictures or to contemplate them are out of touch, either through choice or through ignorance, with the dynamics of creation in the arts; their norm is to be found in the canvases and picture gazers at the outdoor shows in Washington Square. Art, including its appreciation, has become an arena of conflicting powers." Isn't this marvelous? God knows whatever possessed him.

Yours, H

"Nightsea Wind" - Xiu Xiu (mp3)

"Laura Palmer's Theme" - Xiu Xiu (mp3)


In Which Hannah Arendt Explains The Nature Of Love To Mary McCarthy At Her Leisure

This is a first in the series about the correspondence between Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt.

To Receive One

The letters of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy only become heated in one moment. It is a conflict completely defused by Arendt, whose combination of empathy and logical thought remains unparalleled among those of her generation. McCarthy started wondering openly if Arendt's sympathies towards McCarthy's soon-to-be ex-husband Bowden Broadwater were actively sabotaging her plan to remarry. She had fled her marriage for a relationship with a diplomat in the U.S. foreign service named James West. (He was also married, with three kids.) In order to start her new life, she had Arendt persuad Broadwater to grant her the divorce she needed. But she could not be sure the reticence of Broadwater to grant her the divorce was not in some way being caused by Hannah.

In reality, McCarthy was paranoid and Arendt was just trying to help the situation along by offering Broadwater the kindness he required to let go. "I talked to him without any threats or even implications of an 'or else,'" Arendt writes to her friend.

I talked to him as a friend and did not lie. For to me that fact is that you brought him into my life, that without you he never would have become — not a personal friend which, of course, he is not — but a friend of the house, so to speak. But once you placed him there, you cannot simply take him away from where he is now. As long as he does not do something really outrageous which he has not done so far and really turns against you which he has not done either, I am not going to sit in judgment. That his life is in ruins is quite obvious to anybody who is willing to have a look at him and his situation. I am quite convinced this was inevitable, and if he were to commit suicide which, I think is not probable but not altogether impossible either, I would be the first to tell you that you are not to blame. But it is not exactly when one feels like adding insult to injury. I never believed that you would or could or should go back to him.

McCarthy does not only accept Hannah's explanation, but she seems to take it to heart as a credo. They exchange much other advice profitable to both in the abridged versions of the letters that follow.

Dear Hannah,

Your letter was a telepathic answer to mine, evidently. Yes, I should love to be in Paris October 1, and I shall keep in touch. What will your return address be? I shall probably go to Montalembert, if I can get a room there.

Thank you for what you say about the Venice piece. Yes, the New Yorker cut it severely. The two pieces, I think, are only about half or even less of the book as it will appear. This way it goes too fast, I agree, like an express train hurtling by the person who doesn't know Venice, I fear.

I wish I were doing something similar. But I can't seem to fasten on another entity that would hold together like Venice. Florence is a possibility, but one would have, again, to spend several months there. And I wonder whether modern Florence has much to do with Florentine history. Florentine history, so far as I can make out, stopped such a long time ago, while the city continued developing along normal modern lines. Just the opposite of Venice, which keeps reenacting its story in a sort of frozen form.

As for the smaller places — Parma, Bergamo, Padua, Mantua — I hoped to find something there but I did not. Of course, I didn't stay long enough, but nothing really tempted me to. Bologna, perhaps. It's the only one that seems to have a mysterious life of its own that bears some relation, even if an inverse one, to its past. Red Bologna.

Bowden pointed out that the scale of the buildings — which I'd never noticed before, the proportions being so good — must have something to do with Papal rule there. The arcades draw your eye onward, horizontally, but if you stop to look up, the buildings are staggering.

Do you have any ideas?

We've moved into our apartment, which is pleasant and cool, and we can stand like two Veronese people on separate balconies looking out on the Grand Canal. But there are too many people I know in Venice at this season. Americans, most of whom I wish I didn't know. Example: Johnnie Myers. One feels one has not ever come to Venice to see such acquaintances, but it is unavoidable. Nancy Macdonald is back and I'm having her and the two boys, Mike and Nicky, to dinner tonight. I might as well be in New York. And Dwight and his family arrive Saturday. My curse is trying, unsucessfully, to be nice.

See you October 1.


Dearest Mary,

I trust Bowden wrote you how much I liked the Memories. Of all your books, I feel this is most as you are yourself — which is not a 'value-judgment'. Technically as well as artistically, the pieces are bound together by the comments in italics, there is a cheerfulness in the very relentlessness with which you separate factual truth from the distortions of memory. It is much more than mere absence of self-pity — most writers apparently being quite incapable of even mentioning their childhood without bursting into tears. It is really gallantry and fairness from which the cheerfulness springs. I did not read the reviews and I don't know how it is selling.

I meant to write immediately when I got your letter, and then got wrapped up in reflections until I did no longer know what to write. Mary, dear, I am afraid you came into too close a contact with the English variety of the "lost generation" — which apart from being a cliche is a reality. They are always the best and the worst, but in such a way that every single one of them is both at the same time. The lying is pseudologia phantastica with the emphasis on phantastic, and to lie about one's origin and to play the aristocrat in England is, it seems to me, as much satire on the English and amusement about their standards as it perhaps is also the attempt to lie yourself into something you are not.

In a sense, they all appeared with a "Here you have somebody upon whom you cannot rely" (as Brecht once put it). Their charm is that they with all their lies are somehow more truthful than all the philistines who don't lie.

I think what belongs to this charm is that their lies usually concern only facts — which will come out and show them to be liars not what they do. (Whereas if one lies about his "feelings," he is really safe, who can find out?)

There is some supreme defiance in this, and what one falls for is among other things this defiance. You know I believe that one ought to trust one's senses, and I don't think, therefore, that you have been wrong. Even the boasting about you must be seen in this light, since he was known to be a liar and knew this, he could really afford it — trusting that nobody would believe him to begin with. And you are completely free to say that he lied — I think without being really false to him. When an acknowledged liar speaks the truth, he does not want to be believed. But certainly, he did not want to be saved by you either. And this is the reason why I think you were right not to see him.

The worst part of it is the bottle. But even apart from that: there are two things which could "save" him: either a woman, but then saved for what? Evidently for some form of respectability. Or more than talents, namely almost genius, or a talent so compelling that it will overrule everything else. (This is of course the case of people like Brecht or Heidegger.) But if this Who they are is not matched by qualities and gifts, what can there remain to do? And then life becomes a very long and rather boring business, for the Who as such is nowhere recognized in our society, there is no place for it. Under such circumstances, to destroy oneself and become "self-destructive"; can be a time-consuming and rather honorable job. More honorable and probably less boring than to save oneself. The only thing which is really not permissible is to drag other people into one's own amusements.

So, you had to be frightened away, and he must have known that it would take rather drastic measures to achieve this. Certainly, there is a great deal of cruelty in all this, but then you can't expect somebody who loves you to treat you less cruelly than he would treat himself. The equality of love is always pretty awful.

Write me and let me know how you are.



Dearest Mary,

I do not want to bother you with questions before I read the whole, but I think I shall even agree with your treatment of Michaelangelo — you are much more careful than I expected, by the way. I want to take the articles with me when I go to Florence, and I hope the New Yorker will send me the two missing copies. The rigmarole the fact-checking department put you through is terrible, this phony scientificality is no help and I think those who cooperate simply don't understand what it is all about. It is one of the many forms in which the would-be writers persecute the writer. And since this is nicely combined with job-holding and job-justification this kind of torture has become an institution.

Jerusalem will be an altogether different proposition, and probably much less rewarding for than Florence or Venice. On the other hand, there is no book on Jerusalem and the market possibilities are certainly very high. Also, and more important, Jerusalem is the only city I know that gives you an idea what a city in antiquity was like. It has been frozen through religion, and though I would not know what exactly to do with this, I have always been impressed by the enormous quiet significance that is present in every stone. But leave the ant and grasshopper considerations out of the decision-making. You have plenty of time to become an ant if you ever want to be one, which I doubt. And anyhow, don't think of precedents, they are always wrong.

Love, Mary, and drop me a line, and many greetings to Bowden!


Dearest Hannah,

Vienna at Easter was alternately sultry and icy, with rain, we went Easter morning, under an umbrella, to hear a Schubert mass at the Hofburg Cappelle, every bien pensant Viennese was there in tweeds and mufflers, I was the only person in a light spring dress. Almost everything was either closed or sold out because of the long Easter holidays. We couldn't get seats to The Magic Flute but managed to get into the Albertina (drawings) and the Kunshistorisches Museum during the three hours they were open from Good Friday through Easter Monday. The Albertina drawings were marvelous, and there was a huge Rouault graphic show there, which was interesting as a study of progressive deterioration — a plentifully illustrated case history.

I want to tell you this much about Jim. It was a somber time (ours), in part, or chequered like the Vienna weather. He has been through a sort of hell in Warsaw (which he hadn't told me) with that woman and the sight of the children. Coming home at night for their bedtime, then going back to the Embassy to work till midnight or one; working in the same way weekends and having a sandwich and a whiskey and soda or a coffee for dinner, so as not be at home with her. Or, when she was out, eating alone in the dining room. Sleeping on the divan. Because she will not have the furniture moved around, so that the little girl could sleep in her room and he in the little girl's, it would cause talk among the Embassy servants, she says. In the mornings, he and the children tiptoe around in the dark, so as not to disturb mamma, who is sleeping.

When he got to Vienna, he suddenly discovered he was totally exhausted by this daily torture — all nerves, the second morning he abruptly wept for a minute or two. This doesn't mean a lessening of love, on the contrary, a hardening of determination. What he has been doing, in Warsaw, is confront, very grimly, the price, and the price is the children, whom he loves. He insists on seeing this clearly, without softening it. ("You will have them for the summer anyway," or "Maybe we can take all three of them, in time, or one at least," these assurances, from me, don't palliate anything for him.)

On the other hand, he will not live with her, the damage to children, some of it, has already been done or was done at their birth. "I keep reminding myself," he says, sadly laughing, "that I asked that girl to marry me."

Anyway, dear Hannah, I love him, more than before. He's the most wholly serious person I've ever known, anywhere, I don't mean lacking in gayety or wild high spirits. It is way beyond thinking about the pros and cons or having doubts, it's simply a fact. And I'm glad. But I'm alarmed, for him, for his nerves and stamina.

I must stop. Forgive what must be a tedious letter for you. And thank you, for everything you did. Jim wants me thank you for him again too, he has been reading The Human Condition with delighted excitement and quoting from it — the last time, I think, on forgiveness!

How is the translation going? Love and kisses to you,


Dearest Hannah,

The next mail leaves in forty-five minutes, and I'm writing you this note for purely selfish reasons: because my heart is full of emotion and I want to talk. As if I were in your apartment. Bowden wrote me about his visit to you, in her version, the conversation seems to have been chiefly about Reuel. He has written three times in response to my last letter, and so I've purposely slowed down a little on answering, not to keep up a fevered correspondence with him, which would awaken all sorts of hopes. Indeed, they are awake. And it's so sad, because I grow fonder of him as he recedes a little into the distance and all the memories become good ones, the thought of his suffering, moreover, makes me want to scream aloud. He writes that he is not sorry, in a way, that this happened because it made him realize what he wanted or loved, and that he never knew he wanted or loved anything before.

But now he knows that there is just one thing: me. I realize that there's an element of dramatization in this and even (perhaps?) of calculated play on my feelings. And yet I am so troubled for him. And this picture of a morally re-educated, redeemed, christened, so to speak, Bowden makes me smile as one would at a dear child.

Keep an eye on him, won't you?

I've finally written to him this afternoon — a long letter but designed to keep hope to a minimum. Or so I delude myself.

Meanwhile, and as a strange soaring trumpet-music to this growing tenderness I feel for Bowden, 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 partially paralyzed. And I've become conscious in myself of certain shrunken or withered character-traits that I never reckoned with before. Quite unpleasant they are too. You remember my telling you once that my marriage to Bowden was just two people playing house, like congenial children? Well, I slowly realize that all my love affairs and marriages have been little games like that — and snug, sheltered games. And that all this should happen with a U.S. government official seems utterly bizarre in a way.

Perhaps I too am sounding like the redeemed, christened Bowden, and these things are almost incommunicable, except to the two people concerned. So I shall stop and run for the mail and only end by sending you much, much love and winged thoughts.


My dearest Mary,

I am writing not to write a letter but to do everything required to receive one.

Much more serious is that I have not the slightest idea where you are and if this letter will reach you. Is the divorce business still on for September? Dear, please let me know. You know I worry and I also have somehow the firm conviction that as long as I keep worrying, things will straighten out. As though this is my way of keeping my fingers crossed.

I saw Harold Rosenberg and it was again very nice. Except that May Rosenberg published her masterpiece, But Not For Love, and sent it to me and it is simply lousy. And there I am, caught, because I must say something nice. And the book is not only devoid of talent, it is also rather nasty and unpleasant.

I am half toying with the idea to get some magazine to send me to cover the Eichmann trial. Am very tempted. He used to be one of the most intelligent of the lot. It could be interesting — apart from being horrible.

Here in New York is again a certain mood among intellectuals for Adlai Stevenson, and that precisely when Schlesinger et al. decided to switch for Kennedy. It looks like either Kennedy or Nixon. It is rather nauseating.

Much love and yours,


"Chemical Switches" - Andrew Bird (mp3)

"Left Handed Kisses" - Andrew Bird (mp3)


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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"Stuck" - Lauren Pritchard (mp3)

"Not the Drinking" - Lauren Pritchard (mp3)

"Hanging Up" - Lauren Pritchard (mp3)