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Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy

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A revealing portrait of the dramatic life of writer and intellectual Mary McCarthy. From her Partisan Review days to her controversial success as the author of The Group, to an epic libel battle with Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy brought a nineteenth-century scope and drama to her emblematic twentieth-century life. Dubbed by Time as "quite possibly the cleverest woman America has ever produced," McCarthy moved in a circle of ferociously sharp-tongued intellectuals—all of whom had plenty to say about this diamond...
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Overview

A revealing portrait of the dramatic life of writer and intellectual Mary McCarthy. From her Partisan Review days to her controversial success as the author of The Group, to an epic libel battle with Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy brought a nineteenth-century scope and drama to her emblematic twentieth-century life. Dubbed by Time as "quite possibly the cleverest woman America has ever produced," McCarthy moved in a circle of ferociously sharp-tongued intellectuals—all of whom had plenty to say about this diamond in their midst. Frances Kiernan's biography does justice to one of the most controversial American intellectuals of the twentieth century. With interviews from dozens of McCarthy's friends, former lovers, literary and political comrades-in-arms, awestruck admirers, amused observers, and bitter adversaries, Seeing Mary Plain is rich in ironic judgment and eloquent testimony. A Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2000 and a Washington Post Book World "Rave". 20 pages of b/w photographs.

Author Biography: Frances Kiernan was a fiction editor for The New Yorker for fifteen years, and has worked as a book editor. She lives in New York.

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Editorial Reviews

Christian Science Monitor
A compelling life story: richly detailed, vibrant and revealing.
Carolyn See
Frances Kiernan's Seeing Mary Plain is a biography that fully acknowledges the breadth and depth of its subject but is absolutely enchanting to read in its own right.
Washington Post
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In an autobiographical short story by McCarthy, a psychiatrist tells the heroine, "Let me suggest to you... that this ordeal of your childhood has been the controlling factor of your life." In 1918, when she was six, McCarthy's parents died in the flu epidemic then sweeping the U.S. With her siblings, she was raised by a loveless aunt and uncle; these interconnected events became the core of her remarkable Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. The brilliant savagery of her best criticism and fiction has its roots in that defining experience, prodigiously recreated by Kiernan, a former fiction editor at the New Yorker. After Vassar and the Depression (both figure in her notorious novel The Group), McCarthy joined what Kiernan calls "the increasingly acrimonious and contentious world of New York intellectuals," writing for the new Partisan Review and sleeping with its editors and writers. She had four marriages (with Edmund Wilson, among others) and many affairs, and, as a diplomat's wife, lived abroad, largely self-exiled from the milieu that fed her mordant satire. Kiernan uses a biographical device of setting off from her narrative blocks of quotation from interviewees so that in many places the book reads like oral history, a technique that sometimes works, but adds hundreds of loosely integrated pages. How McCarthy used real life in her fiction, she once explained, was to "take real plums and put them in an imaginary cake." Kiernan applies the method too generously, overstocking her book with myriad details. Yet it evokes a fascinating portrait of a woman with "great personal glamour" and "ferocious intelligence." 16 pages of photos not seen by PW. (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
This massive biography of novelist and essayist McCarthy (1912-89) has a unique format. In addition to Kiernan's traditional narrative, the volume also reprints extensive excerpts from McCarthy's writings, quotations from book reviews and books about McCarthy, and the comments of hundreds of people who knew her. This makes for a complex portrait of an American writer who inspired both love and dislike from the individuals who were a part of her fascinating and controversial life. The book, in fact, functions somewhat like the written equivalent of a public television documentary, with both a narrator and witnesses to McCarthy's life taking turns speaking. Occasionally, Kiernan--an editor and longtime McCarthy fan--is repetitious and provides too much extraneous detail. But because of its scope, this biography will replace existing treatments of McCarthy's life. Recommended for larger public library and undergraduate collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/99.]--Morris Hounion, New York Technical Coll., Brooklyn Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Larissa MacFarquhar
Kiernan has proved that, in the unlikely event that McCarthy's writing should be forgotten, if there is a question as to whether the story of her life will continue to be engrossing, the answer is yes.
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393038019
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/1/2000
  • Pages: 768
  • Product dimensions: 6.45 (w) x 9.48 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Frances Kiernan

A former editor at The New Yorker, Frances Kiernan is the author of Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy. She lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


MacDowell


On August 15, 1984, one month after a delicate operation to relieve the pressure of water on her brain, Mary McCarthy wrote her old friend Carmen Angleton. She had every reason to be pleased. Not only had her ataxia and headaches responded to surgery, but after four years of combating a punitive and highly publicized libel action mounted by the playwright Lillian Hellman, she was free to get on with her life. On June 30, Hellman had died, old, blind, and confined to a wheelchair. On August 10, at the behest of Hellman's executors, the $2.25 million suit had been dropped.

    For speaking her mind McCarthy had suffered physically and financially. If at this point she had begun to temper her words, it would not have been surprising. "I went swimming the day before yesterday, and the incapacitating headaches have greatly diminished," she wrote from the lovely old house in Maine, where she and her husband, Jim West, now lived half the year, dividing their time between Castine and Paris. Then she moved on to her big news: "It looks as if we would surely be able to drive to Peterborough, New Hampshire, to get the MacDowell Colony award. I don't know whether I told you about that, but it's another medal for literary good behavior, unfortunately with no money attached. The honor, however, is supposed to be considerable; I'd be more sensitive to that if, back in the sixties, Hellman had not been given it."

    Although Hellman's lawsuit had been dropped, Mary McCarthy was not about to forgive and forget. After watching theplaywright, who had achieved fame decades earlier for such Broadway hits as The Little Foxes, attract legions of new admirers with three volumes of memoirs glossing over her years as a defender of Stalin and playing up her refusal to name names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, McCarthy had finally erupted. In a taped interview with Dick Cavett first aired in January 1980, she had proclaimed, "[E]very word she [Hellman] writes is a lie, including `and' and `the.'" For four years, all the while McCarthy had been working on book reviews and essays and starting her own memoir, she had lived with the prospect of being stripped of every cent.

    Lillian Hellman had, in fact, been given the MacDowell Medal for excellence in the seventies, not the sixties—1976, to be exact. McCarthy would be the tenth writer to receive the award, which was accompanied by no money but possessed an undeniable luster—in large part owing to the reputation of the colony, which had been founded in 1906 as a retreat for writers, artists, and musicians, freeing them to work without interruption for weeks at a time. In 1960 the first medal had been awarded to the playwright Thornton Wilder, who had written Our Town during a long stay at the colony. Since then, twenty-four painters, composers, sculptors, and writers—among them, Georgia O'Keeffe, Aaron Copland, Isamu Noguchi, and McCarthy's second husband, the critic Edmund Wilson—had made the journey to New Hampshire to receive the award.

    For all her offhand manner, Mary McCarthy, at seventy-two, was hardly accustomed to such honors. Over five decades she had published more than twenty books of fiction, essays, and criticism. There had been respectful and admiring reviews from critics known to be fastidious. Her short story collection The Company She Keeps had broken ground for young women who came after her. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, her account of her orphaned childhood, was regarded by many as a masterpiece. Her Vietnam reporting was regarded as articulate and uncompromising even by those who did not agree with it. The Group, her best-seller, had sold millions of copies. The Stones of Florence and Venice Observed remained perpetually in print. Nonetheless, there had been little recognition from the literary establishment. At an age when she might expect to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she remained in the larger and less august chamber of the National Institute. Although she had sat on—and influenced—a fair number of prize juries, for her own work there had been no National Book Award, no citation from the National Book Critics Circle, no Pulitzer.

    By never hesitating to speak harsh truths, she had made enemies less litigious than Lillian Hellman but no more forgiving. Only recently had she received any serious institutional recognition. On May 3, at the New York Public Library she had been awarded the National Medal for Literature, a bronze medal accompanied by a check for $15,000, to honor a lifetime's achievement. Robert Silvers, her editor at The New York Review of Books, had been chairman of the nominating committee. While there had been friends of Hellman on the committee, the critic and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick, an old friend and Castine neighbor, had been there to plead her cause. Hardwick, as it happened, was also on the MacDowell Board.

    Mary McCarthy was to be awarded her medal on Sunday, August 26. The drive from Castine to Peterborough could take as long as six hours. Saturday night, she and Elizabeth Hardwick, who had been chosen to present the award, had to attend a dinner for colony patrons and board members. Sunday, before an audience of several hundred listeners, each woman would have to stand up and deliver a prepared speech.

    Beginning with a painful eruption of shingles in 1980, McCarthy had been suffering from one debilitating ailment after another. The shingles had subsided, to be followed by a new neurological disorder—an impairment of voluntary muscular control, which at one point was diagnosed as Parkinson's disease and then as possibly the effects of juvenile alcoholism. In July, at New York Hospital, a neurosurgeon had drilled a hole in her skull and inserted a plastic tube to serve as a drain, or shunt, to siphon fluid off to her leg. She had been home from the hospital barely three weeks. After everything she had been through, she could be forgiven a lack of enthusiasm. Indeed, she could be forgiven for not making the trip to Peterborough at all.


Sally Austin Before Mary had the brain shunt, Jim told me that in Paris he would watch her walk across the street and find that she was absolutely stuck in the middle, paralyzed, with cars coming. That was one of the things that was happening to her. She couldn't make her legs move. The most awful things were happening, and Mary just simply never let you know. She just put it aside.


James West 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.


Eleanor Perényi Until Mary's health began to fail, I never knew anyone so tireless. It was only after she got shingles that I could keep up with her. Up at dawn when we traveled together, ready to explore every inch of whatever town we were in. And no naps. I think it was all part of being brave about life, facing everything head-on, good or bad. The Hellman lawsuit, for instance, that would have terrified me.


James West Mary hated anything that was lying. Mary would say that Lillian Hellman's political history had a lot to do with lying—her testimony that she had nothing to do with the Soviets, when she had plenty to do with them. Mary thought that most of Hellman's so-called mature work was a history of a deception, among other things. Lillian wanted her blood. She wanted Mary to say, "I'm sorry I said that." And Mary wouldn't.


Elizabeth Hardwick Once that thing had started, to my horror Mary didn't say, "Oh, I didn't mean that," and let it drop. She wasn't about to. Which was what the rest of us would do. No, she had this idea of her own truthfulness. She would have bankrupted herself for that. It was terrible. I don't know what would have happened, had Lillian not died.


Only after Hellman's death did she feel free to check into the hospital and attend to the condition some doctors believed would end by confining her to a wheelchair. The operation performed at New York Hospital was regarded by her surgeons as delicate, though not especially difficult. She herself was famously difficult, but as a patient she proved to be remarkably undemanding—eating the hospital food without complaint and making no fuss when a floor nurse was late with her medication. She also proved to be remarkably resilient.


Susan Anderson When I first met Mary McCarthy, she had just come back from surgery. I had been assigned as her special duty nurse. When I went into the room, she was lying flat, because that was the doctor's orders, and she had prism glasses on to try and read a book. Her head had been shaved for the surgery and was bandaged. There were about six or eight of her friends around the bed. They were sitting there and talking to her and joking with her, concerned about how she was. I had to climb over people to take her blood pressure. She made suffering look easy. Other people didn't have the sense of how much she suffered. She would be witty and entertaining for people. But she knew that I knew it was very hard.


Eleanor Perényi One thing she couldn't tolerate was commiseration, being fussed over. I went down to New York to see her after the first brain operation. She lay there with her head bandaged, looking awful. But she hadn't a word to say about the operation. I had brought her a bucketful of lilies from my garden, and as I recall it, they were the sole topic of conversation.


From Mary Mccarthy's Letter to Frani Blough Muser, August 15, 1984

The operation worked, and I am now recuperating—more time to read than I've had since adolescence, for, like an adolescent, I lie flat on a bed or sofa most of the time. Unluckily half my hair was shaved off, and I would look like the Last of the Mohicans if I weren't wearing little Directoire-style caps that Maria has been knitting for me.


James West Her recovery surprised me. It was very steady and quicker than one would suppose. Of course one tends to think that tampering with the head or brain is terribly critical. Well, some of that work is and some of it ain't. Some of it is sculpture. With the installation of the shunt you have to know where you're going, but when you know, it's not too bad. Her ability to approach things really made me wonder. But there were times when she was a bit low that summer. After that suit's going on all that time, there was a little letdown when the suit got dropped.


    She was to be honored at MacDowell and there was to be no begging off at the last minute. A long announcement had been printed in the colony's spring newsletter and mention had been made of the award in The New York Times.

    Fortunately, the medal ceremony began to take on something of the aspect of a holiday outing, thanks to two summer visitors of Elizabeth Hardwick's—Esther and Peter Brooks, who had a sprawling summer cottage with spectacular views of Mt. Monadnock, in Dublin, New Hampshire, just down the road from Peterborough. An invitation was extended one night when Mary McCarthy and Jim West were over at Hardwick's for dinner. Esther Brooks proposed that everyone at the table come stay for Medal Day weekend. The Wests would spend their first night at the director's house at MacDowell, but Elizabeth Hardwick—as well as Sally Austin and Jon Jewett, two young Castine friends—would stay with the Brookses both nights.

The morning of Saturday, August 25, Jon Jewett picked up the Wests promptly at eight. Journeys by car were a great thing in the West marriage. But this was unlike any such journey they had made in the past.


James West Sometimes on one of the long car trips Mary and I used to take—in the Black Forest or on the way to Rome—when I was driving and I felt I was beginning to get a little tired, Mary would risk singing, and she'd hum a little bit. And it was very pleasant. Then she'd stop because she was bashful, I guess, about her singing. Hers was a very deep voice and it was hardly the tune involved, but nonetheless it was very pleasant. She sang old Irish ballads and occasional Scottish ballads. She knew what the tune was, but the voice control was not there. As with everything, she aimed at perfection, and she got so that finally she sang those ballads as they were written to be sung. Oh, she loved the words.


Jon Jewett We had just typical light gossip in the car, but I was sort of tense, which I'm usually not. I was worried about getting Mary there. Jim didn't have a lot to say. It was terribly hot. Lizzie and Mary just chatted on the way they always did. It wasn't until we were well into New Hampshire that Mary just sort of groaned and started to collapse. We had hospital pillows and she curled up and rested her head on Lizzie. Lizzie claimed to know where the colony was, but in Peterborough we got lost.


    Hillcrest, where Mary McCarthy and Jim West were staying, was the oldest building at the colony. At one time it had been the home of the colony's founders, the composer Edward MacDowell and his wife, Marian. Now it housed the resident director. Built as a plain eighteenth-century farmhouse, it was enlarged in 1896 and then embellished with gables, balustrades, porches, and a verandah. A beautiful music room was added on. In this music room, with its pine wainscotting, exposed beams built-in window seats, and gold embossed Japanese wallpaper, sits Edward MacDowell's piano. Waiting for McCarthy at Hillcrest were Chris Barnes, the colony's resident director, Margaret Carson, the colony's publicist, and Samuel G. Freedman, a reporter from The New York Times.


Margaret Carson When I learned that Mary McCarthy was to receive the MacDowell Colony Medal, I telephoned The New York Times and asked if they were interested in doing a story. They were, and they assigned one of their best reporters, Samuel G. Freedman, to interview Ms. McCarthy at the colony. I knew she had been ill, so I suggested we schedule the interview for late afternoon and that would give her a chance to rest before seeing Mr. Freedman. That seemed agreeable to her and arrangements were made. She was pleased about The New York Times. The next day, however, when I asked her to talk to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, her hometown paper, she snapped, "How much will they pay me to do it?" I pointed out that she had not asked me to request payment from The New York Times. "That's different," she said. I told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer what she had said. The answer to me was "Forget it." I did not forget it, and I did not dismiss it. From then on, I did not arrange any more interviews with Mary McCarthy. There's nothing in the book that says you have to be an easy person to get along with. There's only something that says if you're going to be an artist, be a damn good one. When she came down that afternoon, she didn't seem frail—not a bit. I saw to it that she got together with Sam Freedman and then I left.


Samuel G. Freedman For my generation, the feud with Lillian Hellman was the only thing that brought Mary McCarthy into public consciousness—except for a handful of women I knew, who found Mary McCarthy through Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. I expected a literary lioness, and she was feisty and opinionated. She certainly hadn't been brought low by either illness or the formality of the occasion. Liking did not enter into our relations that much. I admired the zest and fierce intellect—especially from someone at that age.


    Dinner was a sit-down buffet at the director's house. Some fifty guests were invited and tables were set up in the living room, the back hall, and the music room. Virtually all of the colony's board members were there, and at least two had met the guest of honor in the past—the writer Brendan Gill, who had reviewed two of her early novels for The New Yorker, and Lael Wertenbaker, who had enjoyed a distinguished career as a journalist and written one highly regarded memoir that told of her husband's harrowing death from cancer. After dinner some of the heartier dinner guests went on to join the colonists, who were holding a dance in the tent set up for the ceremony on the lawn behind Colony Hall.


Brendan Gill At MacDowell dinner is an especially pretty occasion because Hillcrest is so nice and old-fashioned and everybody always feels good and excited about the affirmative nature of things. That night, everybody was startled by Mary's wearing a knit cap. There was a sense of not being sure what it meant. She and I just chatted a little bit. I think she was glad to see somebody she'd known for a long time. Then I introduced her to a couple of people. There are always people who are hovering about, hoping to meet the great person.


Lael Wertenbaker At Hillcrest I felt like I was going to swim into those sweetly smiling jaws and be chewed up. I had known her before. I'd met her at least three times. I met her in Paris at one point. It was in the late forties and my husband and I were living in Paris and she was visiting. I dislike her writing intensely. She certainly was a good stylist, which I admire, but I disapprove of the way she uses real people in her fiction. She invades other people's privacy. I didn't go up to her. I sat across the room, terrified.


James West She seemed to me that first night a tiny bit weak and a tiny bit tired. Frail is not a word I would use for her. She got around—not quite as fast as usual—but she did talk with a number of people and did seem to enjoy it. And then she wore out a little faster than usual. The two of us went down to the tent after dinner. At MacDowell, after all her troubles with Hellman and with her health, she was out and in public and she was like herself. People. Fun. Music. Do you think she'd miss that? We had one little dance.


    Sunday morning, while the heat was still bearable, a handful of workmen were busy tidying up the green-and-white tent, where the dance had been held the night before. Hundreds of folding chairs were set up in long rows. Wooden armchairs for all the speakers were placed at the rear of a raised platform, and a podium, equipped with a microphone, was set up at the front. The morning was glorious, but promised to be sultry. George Kendall, resident director of the colony from 1951 to 1970, was looking forward to watching the ceremony from the first row.


George Kendall When Edmund Wilson got the award he had just turned down a similar award from one of the New York organizations—I think it was the Century Club. But he accepted the MacDowell award because he felt it really represented something from the artists themselves, sweating away. I think there's a little bit of a fraternal link there. That's what makes it particularly moving for an artist to receive the medal.


James West It was Mary's day and like a good photographer I stayed out of the way. I made sure as much as I could that everything was okay for Mary. She was having a tiny bit of trouble walking after the operation. But it was not nearly as bad as it had been.


    The Colony Newsletter would later report that it was the most beautiful day of the summer. In spite of the heat, more than seven hundred people crowded into the tent. Although most of McCarthy's friends were tied up with summer vacation plans, the poet James Merrill was able to make it to Peterborough, as did Arthur Schlesinger's first wife, Marian, who had a house in the area. Among the colonists there were no close friends. However, taking a special interest in the proceedings were the poet Jane Cooper, who had run into McCarthy over the years, and the novelist Meg Wolitzer, who had written her to say how much she loved Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and then received two notes back.

    William Banks, the colony's vice chairman, opened the Medal Day ceremony by announcing a bequest from the daughter of Dubose Heyward, colyricist of the opera Porgy and Bess. The soprano Nora Bostaph sang two songs from Porgy and Bess and then Trevor Cushman, the colony's president, introduced Elizabeth Hardwick, who was to make the "presentation address." Hardwick had been Mary McCarthy's friend for over three decades. In that time she had been called to speak and write about her more than once. While her prepared talk drew on observations that had been made in the past, it was put together with considerable care.

    In the limited time she was allotted, Elizabeth Hardwick did her best to cover all bases—to suggest the special nature of Mary McCarthy's achievements, while placing them in a larger historical context. She began with the writing. After doing justice to the "purity of the diction," the "classical sonority of [the] balanced clauses," and the "mastery of prose composition," Hardwick went on to say that the writing was never an end in itself but always "in the service of striking ideas."

    In discussing the writing Hardwick tended to concentrate on the fiction. She made much of the fact that even though a major theme of McCarthy's fiction had been ideological follies now long forgotten, her stories and novels had not dated in the slightest. As Hardwick saw it, the reason for this was simple enough: "The conflict between abstract ideas and self-advancement, between probity and the wish to embrace the new and clamorously fashionable is an enduring historical theme."

    Next Hardwick went on to speak of the woman herself. After making much of McCarthy's "dashing, slashing and puncturing wit," Hardwick spoke of her character. She spoke of her refusal to let pass anything she believed was wrong. And she spoke of the fundamental conservatism underlying her liberal politics. "The technological utopia is not to this author's taste," she announced.

    But Hardwick did not leave it at that. She went so far as to assert that McCarthy's rejection of the fruits of modern technology was no crank prejudice. "There is the suggestion of the lost ideal America," Hardwick said, "the America of enlightened self-respect and self-reliance, of truthfulness, decent education and moral courage at home and in defense of the Bill of Rights." Finally, Hardwick declared that with both her life and her writing the author being honored that day belonged to a long-standing and honorable American tradition.


From Elizabeth Hardwick's Presentation Address

[I]f Mary McCarthy is a scourge she is a very cheerful one, light-hearted and even optimistic. I do not see in any of her work a trace of despair or alienation but instead rather romantic expectation. She always expects better of persons and of the nation. She seems to believe in love and her heroines are ready to rush out to it again and again. To me this writer from Seattle, New York, Paris and Maine belongs in the line of cranky, idealistic American genius [....] There is something of Henry James in her and more of William James; you can find Emerson and Margaret Fuller and even the deflating slyness of Mark Twain.


Jane Cooper Elizabeth touched on so much and with such delicacy. And to do that for an old and dear friend is the hardest thing. It's much easier to do it for a stranger.


James Merrill I always have an impression of Lizzie's presence. She's a very vivid presence. I remember the tone of voice and the kind of sweetness that came through at MacDowell. She seemed very pleased to be doing this. I think Lizzie was always rather insecure vis-à-vis Mary. She probably spent a lot of energy trying to cover it up.


    Elizabeth Hardwick's presentation address was all that it should be. The decorum of the occasion demanded that she restrict herself to wholehearted celebration. To smile at her friend's domestic conservatism was the most she could permit herself.

    For Mary McCarthy, on the other hand, decorum was less compelling than a chance to express exactly how she felt. The speech she gave that morning was not like any she had ever delivered. But before she had even opened her mouth to speak, she had departed from MacDowell custom by delivering her written talk from a chair. (The Times the following day would ascribe this to the fact that she was recovering from surgery on her "scalp.")

    Seated at a small wooden table with a microphone and a water pitcher, Mary McCarthy began by letting her listeners know that for her this was hardly an occasion for celebration. "Ladies and gentlemen," she announced, "in accepting this award I've been driven to review my career, a somewhat saddening business, for I, as person and writer, seem to have had little effect, in the sense of improving the world I came into or even of maintaining a previous standard." The only improvement she could see was in the proliferation of labor-saving devices, which she saw as no real progress at all.

    "I like labor-intensive implements and practices," she informed her listeners and went on to explain why: "The amount of labor that goes into a human manufacture determines the success of the enterprise." As examples she gave "cranking by hand an ice cream freezer" or "pushing a fruit or vegetable through a sieve," and then went on to invoke Michelangelo, who had spoken "of leaving some mark of the tools on the marble rather than have a smooth, polished surface." "I think it has something to do with truth," she said.

    She told of how she had fought off the electric typewriter, the Cuisinart, and credit cards, only to find the electric typewriter itself was fast becoming "obsolescent". She acknowledged that her objection to many of these technological advances was perhaps nothing more than "prejudice," but she made it clear that she objected to credit cards on "political" grounds. "I am against the forced registration of citizens," she explained.

    Although the greater part of her talk was devoted to the sorry state of a world that was less and less to her liking, her failure to have any lasting effect on that world was never far from her mind. Toward the end of her talk, trying to leaven her words with such humor as she could muster, she returned to this theme.


From Mary Mccarthy's Acceptance Speech

[W]hy should I care that I have lived my life as a person and writer in vain? We all live our lives more or less in vain. That is the normal common fate, and the fact of having a small name should not make us hope to be exceptions, to count for something or other. At best, we writers, artists in general, give pleasure to some, and the pleasure we have offered our readers comes to seem a sort of bribe that will persuade them to listen to us when no pleasure is involved [....] But I wonder, will anyone listen if I make a pitch, here, for Mondale?


James Merrill Mary gave a very touching reply to Lizzie's presentation, stressing all the things that we loved and sometimes deplored about her. Her reluctance to join the modern world. Her boycotting of mechanical kitchen appliances and electric typewriters and credit cards. She came through as a very crusty survivor, full of charm.


Jane Cooper I thought it took tremendous courage to appear as she appeared and to give this speech sitting down. And when she said, I feel sad because my work never changed the world, I thought, You're one of the few people who meant your work to change the world.


Meg Wolitzer The main thing I remember is her railing against credit cards. I gave it a lot of thought because I was really broke. I was subletting my apartment so that I could go to MacDowell. I didn't have a credit card. It was the one thing about which I felt, Oh, good, she'd approve of me. But what does it mean, not wanting credit cards? It seemed that there was a conspiracy-theory quality to her speech.


George Kendall That day she seemed charged with intellectual and physical energy, although she wore a bonnet on her head that looked like a nightcap. I know she'd just had surgery. I don't know how old she was. I assumed she was in her sixties. She was very dynamic. She was courageous and sparkling. She came across as someone you would be delighted to sit next to at a dinner. You would hope to run across her again later.


James Merrill This was the only medal ceremony I'd ever been to. It's not the sort of experience I really go in search of. It's sad, because in the nicest possible way the person being honored is being kicked upstairs.


Samuel G. Freedman People like her were becoming marginal, through no fault of their own. First, she was seeing the death of intellectual life in this country. The culture had moved away from ideas and words to images. Second, during the Reagan era anyone from the Left who was old or dying—whether he was a Stalinist, Trotskyite, Lovestoneite, social democrat, or anarchist—would have to feel that it was all a failure. If you had fought battles on the Left for social democracy and an enlightened kind of welfare state and racial equality and at the end of all your fighting what you were left with was Reagan, it would make you want to hit your head against the wall.


James West When Mary said her actions hadn't counted for much it was heartbreaking. She had been low that summer, but it hurt me when she said things like that. But the talk ended on a much brighter note. The audience really went for her Mondale pitch. She'd said her say and she must have been pleased that she could do that after all she'd been through.


    As always on Medal Day, tables were set up outside the tent for the box lunches. Samuel Freedman did not stay on for the picnic, and Esther Brooks was in a hurry to get back to her house in Dublin and start dinner. Although Mary McCarthy was beginning to tire, she kept smiling and shaking hands and posing for photographs. She and Elizabeth Hardwick were walking down an alley of trees, on their way back to the car, when Nancy Crampton, the photographer there to cover the ceremony for the colony, snapped one last picture.

    Although the guest of honor got to bed before midnight, it had been a long, demanding, and by no means carefree day. Monday morning, three of the travelers from Maine were up early, eager to get on the road. However, no one was surprised to see that the Wests were still in their room. At the Brookses', with Mt. Monadnock in the distance and no other house in sight, the real world can seem continents away.


Jon Jewett Around eight thirty I went up to Mary and Jim's room and listened and I could hear someone was in the shower. I went downstairs, and Lizzie said, "Hurry up and get the trays." Esther and I fixed up two trays with a poached egg, an English muffin, and an old-fashioned coffee thermos for each. We didn't need Lizzie—we had two trays and two people—but Lizzie was like a schoolgirl going up the stairs ahead of us. Mary and Jim were propped up on their pillows waiting. Jim looked at his watch. In Castine, I guess Maria brought them their breakfast promptly at eight thirty.


Esther Brooks Elizabeth left with Sally around nine. Afterward the rest of us all had a great breakfast on the screened porch behind the dining room. It took about an hour to get that organized and Peter, Jon, and I had just started our breakfast, when Mary and Jim came downstairs fully dressed and sat down with us and ate all over again. They took a helping of everything. The phone rang, and I said, "Mary, it's a newspaperman on the phone, do you want to speak to him?" Jim said, "Perhaps I'd better take it, Mary." He was still trying to protect her. She went out and took the call and came back looking very pleased with herself. The reporter had wanted to know about how she felt now that the Hellman suit had been dropped. She'd told him she'd really been looking forward to the lawsuit, and Jim said, "You could have said something better than that, dear."


    As it happened Mary McCarthy had already said "something better"—or if not better, then more elaborate—to Samuel G. Freedman whose piece ran that morning in the Times. To ensure that readers did not miss it, the piece was cited in a boxed index on the front page. In addition, the opening sentence to her MacDowell speech was quoted in the paper's "Quote of the Day."


From "Mccarthy Is Recipient of Macdowell Medal,"
The New York Times, August 27, 1984

Mary McCarthy, literary lioness, received the Edward MacDowell Medal here today for her career as an author. She proceeded to show that, at the age of 72, she still has her growl and her claws [....] Miss McCarthy assailed J. D. Salinger when he was at his height and defended James Farrell when it was chic to dismiss him. She was a stout anti-Stalinist from the time of the Moscow purge trials, yet she remains far to the left in American politics and visited North Vietnam during the war.
And in the incident that brought her perhaps more fame than her books, Miss McCarthy was sued for libel by Lillian Hellman in 1980 [....] "I'm absolutely unregenerate," Miss McCarthy said [....] "I didn't want her to die. I wanted her to lose in court. I wanted her around for that."


James West I regretted her public statement that she was sorry that Lillian died because she would have liked to have taken her to the mat and won the case. I thought that was a bit gross myself. A little too much. After all, that's almost cannibalistic.


Esther Brooks I just thought, This is going to be very bad publicity for Mary. I knew Lillian much better than I knew Mary. What Mary said about Lillian is true, but I don't think you can say those things. And what does it mean to say that the "ands" and the "buts" are a lie. In the end it wasn't pretty and it wasn't funny. It was appalling.


Samuel G. Freedman I thought in terms of historical context. I mean, here was somebody who has been fighting the same political battle—the Stalinist Left vs. the non-Stalinist Left—for fifty years. I think she probably felt the way Muhammad Ali felt when Joe Frazier retired. You've lost your best and longest antagonist. What's life going to be like if you have no one to hate?


Esther Brooks After they left, I came into the living room to find the plaster was falling down from one corner of the ceiling. There was an old claw-footed tub in the bathroom Mary and Jim were using. The tub has a shower curtain attachment, and you have to tuck the curtain inside the bathtub. That's fairly rudimentary. Well, Mary didn't. She flooded the bathroom floor and never told anybody. You know the way water goes through old houses. We had to have the ceiling redone.


    Samuel Freedman's piece in the Times ended on a note of triumph, with her making her pitch for Mondale and receiving "raucous applause" from her listeners. Her head in a little knit cap, unable to stand at the podium, she was no longer an object of pity. The speech was a success. If all went well, she would soon be hard at work on her own memoirs. Yet the opening words of her speech, when highlighted in the Times's "Quotation of the Day," sounded an undeniably plaintive note: "As a person and a writer, I seem to have had little effect on improving the world I came into." This air of sorrow, or regret, did not go unremarked on Monday morning by at least one Times reader, who sat at the desk of his Wall Street law office with a pen and a long yellow legal pad and wrote out a detailed memorandum:


Memo: From Louis Auchincloss
Re: Mary McCarthy's having lived her life in vain
To: Mary McCarthy
Facts: I have considered Mary McCarthy's effect on my life, and I discover the following:
1) As a reporter she convinced me, a Republican desperately seeking to believe in this party that:
a) R. Nixon was the arch villain of Watergate.
b) [The war in] Viet Nam was an unjustified moral and tactical disaster.
2) As a critic she introduced me to the delights of Compton-Burnett and Sarraute, two authors I had not previously known how to enjoy. And she reintroduced me to Dickens.
3) As a travel writer, she immensely intensified my love of Florence, revisited twice, her book in hand.
4) As a novelist she gave me reassurance that form, plot, character delineation and intelligence are still as vital to fiction as a "bleeding heart" and that fiction still has a great role to play in our society.
5) As a religious writer she opened my eyes as none other to the reality of Catholicism in America—what it is really like.
Conclusion: Multiply me by thousands, and it will appear that McC's life has been lived in vain only if all lives are lived in vain.


    Louis Auchincloss was not a close friend. They had met over the years at dinners in New York and at literary gatherings, and in 1965 Auchincloss had included an admiring chapter on her fiction in Pioneers and Caretakers: A Study of Nine American Women Novelists. His memo was sent off in the morning mail with a scribbled note. Later, Mary confided to her friend Cleo Paturis that his words had meant a good deal to her, but seeing her response you might not necessarily know this. On September 5, she sent Louis Auchincloss a brief typed letter. She said that while his words had had a "cheering effect," she did not want him to think she was "fishing." To repay him for his "testimonial" and his "kindness" she recommended he read the second volume of Hilary Spurling's biography of Ivy Compton-Burnett, which had just come out. But to his memo's conclusion, she offered a mild demurral. Not quite ready to accept his tightly reasoned argument, she wrote, "Maybe I really feel, though, that all lives are lived somehow in vain."

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Table of Contents

Preface 9
1. MacDowell 15
2. Minneapolis 29
3. Seattle 44
4. Vassar 61
5. Mrs. Harold Johnsrud 87
6. Partisan Review 110
7. Edmund Wilson 134
8. The Minotaur 166
9. The Summer of `45 212
10. Bard 235
11. Mrs. Bowden Broadwater 261
12. The Oasis 286
13. Newport 315
14. New York 342
15. The Cape 365
16. Venice 388
17. B.B. and J.D 424
18. Jim West 455
19. Lady of Letters 482
20. The Group 509
21.Fame 542
22. Vietnam 573
23. Castine 610
24. Death of Old Friends 639
25. The Hellman Suit 670
26. A Full Life 704
Epilogue 743
Cast of Characters 751
Notes 769
Bibliography 805
Acknowledgments 809
Sources 811
Index 815
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