Longtime friends, colleagues, and admirers of author Mary McCarthy ’33 and the author’s granddaughter, Sophia Wilson ’03, assembled at the Liederkranz Foundation on Manhattan’s Upper East Side on January 16. They continued the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the writer’s birth in 1912 and the 50th anniversary of the publication of her novel The Group in 1963.
At the event, sponsored and organized by the New York Society Library, Vassar Professor Emeritus of Classics Robert Pounder, who also serves as special assistant to the president at the college and as emcee for the event, stated: “There can be no denying the influence of Mary McCarthy on the cultural and political climate of this country in the 20th century.” He noted not only the number of her publications but their “astonishing variety, subtlety, sophistication, erudition, precision, and scope.”
McCarthy wrote about literature, theatre, politics, history, the social scene, art, and architecture for such publications as Harper’s magazine, the New Republic, the Nation, the New York Review of Books, and Partisan Review (for which she also served as an editor), even as she composed what Pounder called “short stories and novels of engaging humor, satirical verve, and psychological insight.” Some might say foresight, as The Group is said to have influenced such contemporary fare as Sex and the City.
Feminist film critic Molly Haskell spoke about the novel and its film adaptation by Sidney Lumet, reflecting on how influential (and controversial) the film—and the bestselling book—was at the time. There had been many depictions of men’s rites of passage, she noted, but “The Group was remarkable in that it showed women’s rites of passage. It was even viewed among some young women as a manual for how to get contraception.” [One passage described a character’s efforts to obtain a diaphragm.]
Haskell also noted that “The Group was one of the first vehicles to show the disconnect between men and women after sex.” She argued one would have to look to the present-day HBO hit Girls for anything comparable.
Most presenters had known McCarthy personally and reminisced about the woman herself—her formidable intelligence, style, wit, and, not least, her “famous Mary McCarthy smile.” They spoke about the innumerable ways in which she enriched their lives.
Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books and longtime friend of McCarthy, recounted the breadth of assignments he had given her over the years—from a review of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch to a story about America’s involvement in Vietnam. According to Silvers, she agreed to the latter only on the condition that she fly first class.
New Yorker columnist Jane Kramer ’59, who has written the “Letter from Europe” column for the New Yorker since 1981, had known McCarthy since the 1960s. They had become close friends when they lived as neighbors in Paris. Kramer spoke of McCarthy’s “generosity of heart and mind,” which made her an excellent mentor. “If you were a writer and you were her friend, she wanted you to know how a sentence worked,” she recalled.
Thomas Mallon, who taught in Vassar’s English Department from 1979 to 1991, experienced McCarthy’s magnanimity while he was in college. “With what can only be described as the ‘innocence of the very young,’ I sent my 154-page thesis on Mary McCarthy to Mary McCarthy,” Mallon explained. “She was very kind about it.”
But he noted that she inspired jealously and envy even among the most admired women. He recounted an entry from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s collected journals, in which the presidential historian said that one night, a group of friends had been listening to music at the White House, when Jackie Kennedy got up to do the twist, remarking rather pointedly, “I bet Mary McCarthy can’t do this!”
Indeed, “Mary had been the subject of much campus gossip,” when she came to teach English at Bard in 1946, noted Eve Stwertka, McCarthy’s student at the time. “All the women were convinced that their husbands or boyfriends would be stolen away; still, everyone wanted to please her. She gave the most wonderful parties!” [Stwertka later became McCarthy’s editorial assistant at Partisan Review and served as the author’s literary executor for more than two decades.]
Friends also spoke of McCarthy’s infamous candor. Pounder read a passage from Dorothy Gallagher’s biography Lillian Hellman: An Imperious Life, recounting Hellman’s now-infamous row with McCarthy.
In October 1979, Mary McCarthy appeared on The Dick Cavett Show to promote her new novel Cannibals and Missionaries. In answer to a question about overrated writers, McCarthy said that she could think of only one: “Lillian Hellman, who I think is terribly overrated, a bad writer, and a dishonest writer.”
“What is dishonest about her?” Cavett asked.
“Everything ... every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”
The incident led to a $2 million defamation lawsuit brought by Hellman against McCarthy that ended only when Hellman died in 1984. McCarthy was disappointed, Pounder reported—she had been looking forward to her day in court.
Pounder had met McCarthy through the writer’s stepdaughter only 12 years before the writer died, and said his bond with her was strengthened when she returned to campus in 1982 for a weeklong visit as Vassar’s inaugural Distinguished Visitor.
Frances Kiernan, author of Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy and a principal organizer of the event, said she frequently had encountered McCarthy at the New Yorker—mostly in the 20th-floor bathroom—when Kiernan was just a young editor. “She could be acerbic, a bit difficult,” Kiernan said. “But she was worth knowing.”
McCarthy had homes, at various times, in Paris; New York City; Castine, Maine; and Annandale-on-Hudson, New York—and many expressed their enjoyment in spending time with her wherever she perched.
Sophia Wilson ’03, granddaughter of McCarthy and writer and critic Edmund Wilson, spoke about having two categories of memories about her grandmother. The first is visiting her as a child. Another way of relating to her grandmother is through her writings. Wilson, who is completing a PhD in French Studies at New York University, said she had become intrigued by McCarthy’s work while an undergraduate at Vassar. “The fact that we can draw parallels between her work and what happens today speaks well of it,” she reasoned.
Many expressed how much they missed McCarthy’s presence, including longtime friend Kramer, who recalled: “One of the last times I saw Mary, she looked beautiful, but she wasn’t doing well at that point and was near death. She told me, ‘I’m not frightened about dying—what enrages me is the injustice of it. I’ve spent my whole life gathering wisdom and knowledge and just as I’m getting there, it’ll all be gone.’”
But many have taken care to see that McCarthy’s accumulation of “wisdom and knowledge” will live on. Ron Patkus, head of Special Collections and adjunct associate professor of history at Vassar, spoke about the Mary McCarthy Papers, which came to the college in 1985. They comprise manuscripts of most of her works and the various drafts, which, Patkus said, confirm “her sense of literary precision”; her correspondence with literary intellectuals; and her professional papers from which we can glean clues about McCarthy as a social and political person. The collection now stands at more than 400 items and is growing every year.
In addition, Wilson, literary executor of McCarthy’s estate, announced a plan to assure that her grandmother’s “intelligence and wit be preserved.” McCarthy’s out-of-print works soon will be available again—reissued in e-book form by Open Road Integrated Media.
McCarthy’s admirers and generations of new readers surely will applaud.
Photos © Vassar College-Samuel Stuart