Oct/Nov 2020 Nonfiction

Mary McCarthy Performs Mary McCarthy

by Kat Meads

You know, I think she's never felt very real, and that's been her trouble. She's always pretending to be something-or-other and never quite convincing herself or other people.
        —Elizabeth Bishop in a letter to Pearl Kazin, February 22, 1954, on the subject of Mary McCarthy

Fact: Mary McCarthy was born in Seattle in 1912.

Fact: A lifelong smoker, she died of lung cancer in New York, age 77.

Fact: At age six, she lost her parents, both victims of the 1918 flu pandemic.

Raised thereafter by relatives, the first set of substitute guardians making short work of destroying what previously had been an idyllic childhood, Mary McCarthy quick-learned to take care of Mary. In the process, she became a determined, ambitious, acerbic, scrappy combatant who relished attention and prided herself on rising to a challenge; a woman who, refreshingly, neither disguised nor distrusted her own formidable intellect and tough-nut will; an eviscerating, provocative critic, reporter, bestselling novelist and three-time memoirist, two of those memoirs composed in the last decade of her life.

"A noted autobiographer whose autobiographical work is riddled with fiction, and a fiction writer who leans heavily... upon autobiography," summarized Doris Grumbach in The Company She Kept—A Revealing Portrait of Mary McCarthy (1967), a biographical project originally supported by its subject—then not.

Not fact, but odds-on conjecture: Mary McCarthy preferred to tell her story herself.


In the early stages of her career, McCarthy distinguished herself from the pack with slash and gut theatre reviews, "debunking anything that others applauded," in journalist Midge Decter's description. Among the playwrights and plays on McCarthy's takedown list: Tennessee Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire. A card-carrying member of the Partisan Review crowd, McCarthy speedily expanded her critical coverage to include prose and politics. Although she disliked being described by Time as "quite possibly the cleverest writer the US has ever produced," her writing—critical and creative—is clever. Also bracing and snidely funny.

From the essay "Naming Names: The Arthur Miller Case":

When Arthur Miller... was indicted for contempt of Congress this February, the American liberal public was not aroused... This may be attributed to apathy... or, in this particular instance, to a sense that nothing bad can really happen to the husband of Marilyn Monroe.

From the unfinished novella, Lost Week:

"The salient feature of this community of writers and artists was that most of the writers did not write and most of the painters did not paint."

McCarthy's essay "The Fact in Fiction" (1960) offers a crash course in her critical writing M.O., a network of sweeping pronouncements delivered forcefully, stylishly and with unshakable confidence in the accuracy of a superior judgment. A novel is/must contain a "heavy dosage" of "fact." A novel must be "touched" by "the breath of scandal." A novel that contains talking beasts, the supernatural, occurs in the future, or contains miracles is not a novel. Those so-called "historical novels"? Merely "romances." The "last great creator of character in the English novel"? James Joyce. The author "who may have killed the novel"? Henry James. The problem with Virginia Woolf's fiction? It does "not stoop to gossip."

Critics of McCarthy's own novels object to abrupt endings and an absence of plot. The author who argued that "the chapters on the whale and on whiteness" in Melville's Moby Dick could not be "taken away... without damaging the novel," herself came under fire for including "boring expository pages" on the "structure and function of a 'progressive college'" in The Groves of Academe (Helen Vendler) and for dwelling on the "varieties of helicopter landing gear" in Cannibals and Missionaries (Pearl Bell). Even McCarthy's pal Nicola Chiaromonte bemoaned McCarthy's inability to "to stick to some line of consistent development, instead of showing off in all directions." Outgunning naysayers of her fiction in a 1961 Paris Review interview, McCarthy questioned her engagement with the genre altogether, not "sure," she said, that any of her "books are novels. Maybe none of them are."

In the "Fact and Fiction" essay, elaborating on the point that an "air of veracity is very important to the novel," McCarthy contends: "The presence of a narrator, writing in the first person, is another guarantee of veracity." Unreliable narrators are not discussed. In her own writing, McCarthy saved the first-person approach for her memoirs. That she, herself, could be unreliable in the narrating she revealed in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957), a collection of eight autobiographical essays published individually in The New Yorker and Harper's Bazaar. McCarthy's ingenious and, for the era, arresting method of exposing textual inaccuracies was to cross-examine herself, exposing the "highly fictionalized" nature of the "The Blackguard" chapter and copping to other inventions elsewhere. If Mary McCarthy needed calling out, she'd handle the job herself, thank you very much.

McCarthy prided herself on truth telling—first time out, or second—a stance that led her to "imagine and deceive herself into a kind of exemplary figure of virtue" in the view of cultural critic Lee Siegel. As McCarthy's idol, mentor and beloved friend Hannah Arendt wrote: "No factual statement can ever be beyond doubt—as secure and shielded against attack as, for instance, the statement that two and two make four." Did no friend to Mary, sharing a smoke break or preprandial martini, suggest the obvious? "Humans lie, Mary. Get over it." Judging by McCarthy's last two memoirs, no such intervention (successfully) took place.


In the PBS series The Brain, host David Eagleman discusses the limited shelf life, scientifically speaking, of memories: "Our memories fade because our brain has only a finite number of neurons, which then get used for other memories." In essence, the past is rolling invention. Make of it what you will. Pair that physiology-based license to invent with the impossibility of any insider "I" having full access to the external view and the question becomes: why read memoirs? One draw: to peek at how the author perceives herself and how that self-awareness will be revealed and constructed on the page. To the memoirs of successful, famous folk, we readers bring an extra layer of expectation in the form of preconceptions. Will our preconceptions be ratified or dispelled?

In Frances Kiernan's biography/oral history, Seeing Mary Plain, we learn that McCarthy's editor, William Jovanovich, had long been agitating for a follow-up to Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and was willing to pay handsomely for its delivery. How I Grew (1987) kicks off with an announcement of McCarthy's 1925 birth "as a mind," age 13, and finales with her having "done the wrong thing" (her italics) in marrying Harold Johnsrud "exactly one week" after her graduation from Vassar. Intellectual Memoirs, a slimmer, posthumous volume containing the chapters McCarthy completed before her death in 1989, covers the beginnings of her career in New York and also finales with a marriage that "was a mistake," her second, to Edmund Wilson.

Assessing McCarthy's canon in the author's New York Times obituary, Michiko Kakutani differentiated between the "beautifully observed" Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and the "more workmanlike" How I Grew. The second and third volumes of McCarthy's memoirs resemble each other more than either resembles the first. Chunks of both How I Grew and Intellectual Memoirs come off dictated, as opposed to written, "talked" rather than composed. "But wait! Now that I think of it..." "All of a sudden it strikes me..." "Hold on!" "Have I written this?" Both are chatty books relying on the charm of a chatty performance. (McCarthy once aspired to the stage.) How I Grew also details the books McCarthy read (lists provided), drinks she downed, and persons named and unnamed who fell for her charms. Seattle bohemian Czerna Wilson, she of the "slow, lazy movements" ("Could she have been an octoroon?"), took a fancy to the young McCarthy—an attraction unreciprocated, we're told, because "having been groped more than once by hairy girls who had asked (her) to spend the night," McCarthy "was not interested in being a lesbian." Among those McCarthy was interested in bedding: a "little Communist actor who wore lifts in his shoes" and once "three different men" in "twenty-four hours. It was getting rather alarming."

Sex, the comedy, was trademark McCarthy. From her first semi-fictional outing, The Company She Keeps, McCarthy refused to present screwing through the soft focus lens of romanticism. One of the funnier lines in How I Grew is McCarthy's description of penetration the "first" time she lost her virginity as "perhaps a slight sense of being stuffed." And yet, in the closing pages of Intellectual Memoirs, we are asked to accept that she, who had by then taken up and discarded scores of lovers, married Edmund Wilson in part as "punishment" for having "gone to bed with him." A more plausible explanation lurks in memoir number two: "Although a rebel, I did not care to picture authority as weak, putty in my hands... For self-realization, a rebel demands a strong authority, a worthy opponent." Whatever might be said of the McCarthy/Wilson union, Mary McCarthy found a worthy opponent in Edmund Wilson.

Another wobble in McCarthy's otherwise cavalier-about-sex attitude occurs when she references "some of the things" she, as a high school senior, did "in bed" with older fellow Kenneth Callahan. Those unspecified "things" made her "cringe with shame" and taught her "how to deal with shame and guilt. When you have committed an action that you cannot bear to think about... make yourself relive it, confront it repeatedly... through sheer repetition it loses its power to pain you." A rare admission of vulnerability and upset, a brief break in pattern. And then the pattern resumes. "I learned the trick of it. Nobody told me; I found out the recipe for myself."

A whiz at the scathing thumbnail in any genre, McCarthy, in her last two memoirs, doles out dozens: "soap and water Christian" Hope Slade; Kay Dana, the "yellow-eyed lynxlike blonde given to stretching herself like the cats she fancied"; George Guttormsen, that "freak case of a football star who was Phi Beta Kappa"; Edmund Wilson's "stumpy downright old lady with an ear trumpet and a loud, deaf voice" mother. Wilson himself, first eyeballed by McCarthy when he guest-lectured at Vassar, gets this flash portrait: "heavy, puffy, nervous... a terrible speaker, the worst" McCarthy "ever heard." Keen to establish in How I Grew that "sticking labels on things" was "not a Vassar habit," McCarthy declared that such a practice had "never been one of my own faults, congenital or acquired." "Monster" Edmund Wilson in Intellectual Memoirs might agree to disagree.

With the exception of select Vassar professors, McCarthy isn't overly kind to her gender. Dumpiness, in particular, offends her sensibilities. The "only time" she "saw "Dorothy Parker close up," McCarthy tells us in Intellectual Memoirs," she was quite "disappointed" by Parker's "dumpy appearance." Writer and editor Margaret Marshall compounds the dumpy offense by, to McCarthy's "horror," still managing to consider herself a "seductive" woman. (Marshall also gets black marks for never "cooking a meal" and failing to display "much energy." Laziness in any human, male or female, appalled McCarthy.)

Repaying the compliment of McCarthy's snootiness about physical beauty, biographer Kiernan jumpstarts her 845-page Seeing Mary Plain describing a chance encounter with her subject in The New Yorker's "ladies room" in the 1970s, at which time the "glamorous dark lady of letters" Kiernan recalled "from photographs" appears in the flesh as a woman with "enough gray strands to make her seem pale and washed out and even a bit dowdy." Other less than flattering evaluations of McCarthy's looks, from other observers, follow. Author Mary Gordon reports "shock" at "how provincial" McCarthy appeared: "like a banker's wife." Vassar classmate Eleanor Gray Cheney supposes McCarthy, as a college gal, "might have been pretty," if only she "had stood up straight and washed her face." Successor to the title of New York's leading female intellectual, the beautiful Susan Sontag judges McCarthy "attention grabbing" rather than "beautiful." Partisan Review co-founder William Phillips splits the difference: "Her legs weren't good, but the upper part was."

Interviewed by CBS's Faith Daniels in 1985, McCarthy assured both interviewer and the viewing public that in her heyday she had been "really quite good-looking." Near the end of How I Grew, describing herself on the cusp of her first marriage, McCarthy writes: "I was and always would be a flat-chested, wide-hipped girl"—a frank and forthright assessment, it would seem. Then comes the McCarthy shuffle: "It was a matter of bone structure, everyone said." Irony or excuse?


Comparatively speaking, in the truth-amended Memories of a Catholic Girlhood McCarthy builds the case for her specialness with a fairly light touch, going about her task in cheeky, entertaining fashion, acknowledging when she began "to play, deliberately, to the gallery," wittily offering a run-on, overload list of early accomplishments in the manner of "I stood at the head of my class and I was also the best runner and the best performer on the turning poles in the schoolyard, I was the best actress and elocutionist and the second most devout."

As a memoirist 25-plus years later, McCarthy is cattier, more imperious, harder on others and more lenient with herself. Regarding deceptions, the candor devotee indulges in some hair splitting. "Through fear of a monstrous guardian, I had become a terrible liar... yet lying to parents and teachers is a quite different thing from lying to oneself." "Induced to sneak out" of school with a "delinquent boy" who "had been sent to the reformatory after losing a leg in a hunting accident—perhaps he had got the drug habit," McCarthy demands credit for transparency in the retelling, reminding readers that she has "described how I lied—or at any rate practiced suppressio veri" about the "induced" sneak-outs. One of McCarthy's more absolutist claims in How I Grew: "In all honesty, I don't recall lying to myself, ever." "Self-deception always chilled me," she elaborates in Intellectual Memoirs. Deceiving lovers apparently didn't arouse the same chill. In a relationship with Philip Rahv when she began the affair with Wilson, McCarthy admits in passing that she "did not confess to Philip" that "a relationship with Wilson was beginning." Skipping on, she restates the situation thus: "The two of us" (she and Wilson) "had a secret between us, and Philip became the outsider."


Over the course of her career, McCarthy appeared to have great fun answering questions about which of her fictional creatures were straight fictions and which were not, treating those queries with the amusement they deserved. Of course there were similarities between Macdougal Macdermott and Dwight Macdonald, Will Taub and Philip Rahv in The Oasis, she told Doris Grumbach. The characters in that work (published as a novel, though McCarthy preferred to call it a conte philosophique) were "all, more or less, straight portraits, not even composites." On the subject of fictional/nonfictional mergers, she commented and contradicted herself as the mood struck. To Grumbach, she claimed to perceive "no resemblance whatever" between herself and character Martha Sinnott in A Charmed Life, adding that Martha "was modeled after a girl she knew in her youth." In Intellectual Memoirs, she takes another line. "Martha, I admit, is a bit like me—I tried to change her and failed."

In basing a character on herself, McCarthy was spared the apologies. Explaining—or denying—other "impersonations" in her fiction required outreach. Although Vassar classmate Elizabeth Bishop didn't initially link herself with McCarthy's Elinor Eastlake in The Group—nor did she consider her lover, Lota de Macedo Soares, the model for the baroness—friends of Bishop thought differently. Eventually, so did Bishop. In How I Grew, McCarthy offers this convoluted account of the rift:

Years later, I learned, she believed that I had put one of her own Boston marriages into The Group. I had not, but since she never told me of that unshakable conviction of hers, I could not deny it... I only learned of it—from Robert Lowell—not long before her death. I did not try to disabuse her mind in a letter and waited till I would see her, which never happened... The day she died I had just mailed a letter to her, but on a purely literary subject—no reference, no hint of the "bone" lying between us.

The contents of the letter, dated October 28, 1979 and reprinted in Kiernan's biography, do not match McCarthy's recollection. To Bishop, McCarthy writes:

Lying is not one of my faults, and I promise you that no thought of you, or of Lotta [sic], even grazed my mind when I was writing The Group... I can see how someone could imagine that you, as a Vassar contemporary, might be expected to figure in The Group. It's perhaps even strange that you didn't, but that is the fact.

Fact, truth, the collision of. Did McCarthy honestly misremember? Or did McCarthy convince herself a denial unread amounted to a denial unexpressed?

Once The Group accelerated her fame and celebrity, and long before the 1979 "Dick Cavett Show" appearance that sparked Lillian Hellman's lawsuit, McCarthy became a talk show regular, gamely sparring with William F. Buckley on "Firing Line," showing up for the "Jack Paar Show" in 1963 in chic attire, carrying, Queen of England style, a small dark purse to her on-set seat. In addition to sticking to her guns that sex was, indeed, comic—not to those "participating" but to "others"—she smilingly contradicted Paar's assumption that the point of The Group was to show that women were an untapped "resource." Then McCarthy hit her stride, proclaiming men "were more sensitive than women" and sharing that, unlike their American counterparts, "professional women" in Poland and Yugoslavia "didn't talk all the time"; rather, they let "the men talk"—behavior, McCarthy said, that "impressed her quite favorably."

Outspoken Mary McCarthy perched next to a talk show host known for on-air weeping, advocating that men do all the talking.

Quite the performance.


Previous Piece Next Piece