Just Words: Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, and the Failure of Public Conversation in America

Just Words: Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, and the Failure of Public Conversation in America

by Alan Ackerman


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In an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in 1980, the critic Mary McCarthy glibly remarked that every word author Lillian Hellman wrote was a lie, "including 'and' and 'the.'" Hellman immediately filed a libel suit, charging that McCarthy's comment was not a legitimate conversation on public issues but an attack on her reputation. This intriguing book offers a many-faceted examination of Hellman's infamous suit and explores what it tells us about tensions between privacy and self-expression, freedom and restraint in public language, and what can and cannot be said in public in America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300191967
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 03/29/2013
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 7.80(w) x 5.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Alan Ackerman is professor of English, University of Toronto. His books include Seeing Things, from Shakespeare to Pixar and The Portable Theater: American Literature and the Nineteenth-Century Stage, and he is editor of the journal Modern Drama.

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Just Words

Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, and the Failure of Public Conversation in America


Copyright © 2011 Alan Ackerman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-17180-8

Chapter One

Libel and Life-Writing

One need only pick up any newspaper or magazine to comprehend the vast range of published matter which exposes persons to public view, both private citizens and public officials. Exposure of the self to others in varying degrees is a concomitant of life in a civilized community. The risk of this exposure is an essential incident of life in a society which places a primary value on freedom of speech and press. —Justice William Brennan, Time, Inc. v. Hill, 1967

I feel enraged at this drunken, foul-mouthed, degenerate bitch and I think of letters to write and things to say denouncing her. —Arthur Kober, commenting on Tallulah Bankhead, Kober's diary, 1940

Libel is woven into our everyday language. It springs from a complicated set of motivations: vanity, envy, and resentment. Although many of us utter actionable slanders every day, libel suits are relatively rare because they require a huge investment of energy, time, and money. In general, you have to be rich to protect your reputation through litigation, and you need to be prepared to expose your private life to public scrutiny. As writers, publishers, broadcasters, and ordinary citizens increasingly discovered in the 1970s and 1980s, it is hard to know when the telling of stories will have legal consequences.

In 1980, Dick Cavett and the Educational Broadcasting Corporation (hereafter PBS) were listed as codefendants with Mary McCarthy in a libel suit brought by Lillian Hellman in the state of New York. Cavett, the son of an English teacher, long had a reputation as America's most literate talk-show host. He remains best known as the host of the late-night show on ABC, which ran from 1968 to 1975, opposite Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. But Cavett never matched Carson's mainstream appeal, and he moved to PBS in the fall of 1977. Like Carson, Cavett was raised in Nebraska and was interested in magic. After graduating from Yale in 1958, he moved to New York, where he hoped to find a job as a writer; he was hired at NBC after waiting in a corridor and thrusting some of his work into the hands of Jack Paar (Carson's predecessor). Mary McCarthy appeared on Paar's Tonight Show in 1963 to pitch her novel The Group. In 1961 Paar needed a translator for one of his guests, the German Miss Universe. With his college German, the slender, twenty-six-year-old Cavett got big laughs; it was his first network television appearance. As his former Yale roommate and PBS producer Christopher Porterfield says, "The literary, the dramatic, the philosophical and psychological—these pretty well defined Dick's academic orbit. But his greatest facility was in languages."

Witty and urbane, Cavett hosted John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Groucho Marx, and Katharine Hepburn. But he also had a gift for interviewing writers. From 1968 through the 1980s, his guests included Tennessee Williams, New Yorker humorist S. J. Perelman, the poet Richard Wilbur, critic Stanley Kauffmann, the mutually admiring John Cheever and John Updike, and, in a notorious episode, the feuding Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. A Life review of late-night television in 1972 described Cavett's work as a "continuing moral inquiry almost unique on commercial television and certainly unique among TV talk shows." Cavett often handled provocative combinations, though he rarely booked guests himself. Georgia governor and white supremacist Lester Maddox stormed off the set after a conversation about segregation with novelist Truman Capote and football star Jim Brown in 1970. Brown had asked Maddox if he had had any trouble "with the white bigots because of all the things you did for blacks." After a commercial break Cavett rephrased Brown's question: "Mr. Brown asked if you had any trouble with your white admirers." Maddox shot back, "He did not say admirers!" "No," agreed Cavett, "he said bigots." Maddox angrily said that this was "another example of how words are twisted against me," demanded an apology, and then walked out. During the next break, Cavett ran after him into the street, but the governor would not return. As the Life reviewer commented, Cavett "follows and develops a conversation rather than driving it, like a dune buggy on an ego trip, into pits stops for a cheap laugh or a snide comment.... As a result the Cavett show has become almost a form of diplomacy, an open negotiation among acts, ideals, and attitudes, a nightly witness." On PBS, in a half-hour format, he returned to his strong suit: one-guest interviews.

On October 18, 1979, McCarthy had gone to the WNETTV studio in New York to which Cavett had moved in 1977. Hellman herself had appeared on Cavett's PBS show with Richard Wilbur in 1977. Unlike Hellman, whose late career writing personal histories of herself and others in An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, and Scoundrel Time had brought her critical acclaim, new invitations for public appearances, and considerable new wealth, McCarthy, who had been editing the letters of her dear friend Hannah Arendt, had been largely out of the public eye for the past decade. She told Cavett that the loss of Arendt in 1975 made it hard to know whom to talk to anymore. Cavett repeatedly emphasized that her visit to his show was a rare television appearance. As Hellman's secretary Rita Wade archly put it, McCarthy "was a hasbeen." But McCarthy continued to produce not only political journalism on subjects ranging from Vietnam to school bussing but also novels and literary criticism. Although her writings on Vietnam, collected in The Seventeenth Degree (1974), scarcely made a dent, she also covered the Watergate hearings for the Observer of London and published The Mask of State: Watergate Portraits in 1974. She went to Cavett's studio that autumn morning to pitch her new book Cannibals and Missionaries, a novel about the psychology of terrorism, for an episode that would air three months later. Cavett had first encountered her in the 1950s at Yale as a guest lecturer who "managed to seem entirely charming while wickedly making fools of the academics who questioned her from the floor." That was the Mary McCarthy he wanted for his show.

No longer slim, increasingly gap-toothed, McCarthy had cut the hair she once wore long. When she entered Cavett's studio in a pleated green wool dress, stepping gingerly in new pumps, she showed the signs of age. She had been treated for breast cancer in the mid-1970s, and the hands with which she gestured as she talked were gnarled and white. However, though she acknowledged that the "decay of the organism is not pleasant," she rarely complained of her health. Her hair, pulled to the right by a tortoiseshell barrette, gleamed silver beneath the klieg lights. When Cavett asked her why, as she had earlier claimed, she did not like being old, she replied simply: "I don't like the way I look any more, and I used to like the way I looked." She added, however, that if as a result of age her writing had slowed, it was only due to a more strenuous perfectionism, and the conversation turned to American culture's lost facility with language or, as McCarthy put it, the inability to "find the word that fits."

Two days before taping the interview, McCarthy had met with a member of Cavett's staff in New York to discuss topics of conversation. She was game for a lively interview, but her answers also indicate the naïveté with which she entered the talk-show forum. McCarthy did not have a television in her Paris flat. Though she had always enjoyed the verbal jousting of public discussion, she eyed newer media with a mixture of irony and skepticism, even distaste, as recorded by a Cavett show staffer:

[My] first few questions got a simple "yes" or "no." But when I asked if she'd like to discuss which writers are overrated and which are underrated and suggested that it could be like a game, she was delighted and asked, "Who'll go first?" ... She stopped me at the word women, saying, "Don't ask me about women." It seems that people are always asking her about women and she is bored by them.... The only other topic she does not want to discuss on the show is the Pope's visit to America. First of all she wasn't here for it, and second she became "turned off" by him last January or February when she was in Rome. She thinks he has become innocently obsessed with the power of the media.... She seems to be genuinely fond of you [Cavett] and has refused to do any other T.V. interview. She told me about a wonderful lunch she and her husband had with you in Washington when she was covering the Watergate hearings for the Observer.

The patronizing staffer noted that McCarthy got "corny" when talking about love and marriage. She also gave Cavett a reading list, which included an unsympathetic Paris Metro interview of McCarthy. It begins with a pointed contrast between the iconic Lillian Hellman, as portrayed by Jane Fonda in Julia, and the dowdy McCarthy, dressed in pearl gray like a widow. When asked pointedly about Hellman in that interview, McCarthy replied, "I can't stand her. I think every word she writes is false, including 'and' and 'but.'" As she made the remark, the interviewer reported, a "full grin" spread across her face. Cavett had been briefed on other current aversions, and in his introduction he listed the three intellectual traits that McCarthy herself had cited as her touchstones: wit, lucidity, and indignation.

After Cavett's introduction to the first part of the two-episode conversation and McCarthy's slow entrance, they took their positions on an elevated stage decorated in muted colors with a Persian carpet, potted plants, and leather armchairs. With the cameras rolling, Cavett posed leading questions, his fingertips pressed together before his sharp-featured smile, and McCarthy kept up the pleasant banter on verbal usage errors with words such as "ilk" and "eke" and the failures of reviewers of her books to check the facts. She twirled her right hand in the air for emphasis. The conversation proved unexceptionable. Opening the second episode—a continuation of the single taping session—Cavett referred again to the rarity of McCarthy's appearance on television and noted that "truth-telling like hers can sometimes make one uneasy." He proceeded to question her about religion and about the sincerity of those who claimed to be "born-again," and then turned to the Kennedys, Ted Kennedy having recently launched a bid for the presidency. She said that they were "typical U.S. Catholics." They were great "P.R. people," extremely ruthless, a Tammany clan, but in her opinion they were not Christians. Cavett said, "Now this is a provocative statement," and McCarthy cheerfully interrupted, "Do you think it's libelous?" The audience laughed, as Cavett replied, scratching his head and smiling, "Let's see, I don't know who the burden of proof is on in this case.... No, no, I don't think it is." He asked her about a negative review she had written of John Hersey's Pulitzer Prize–winning book Hiroshima and whether she might have a tendency to be contrary simply because she liked to be adversarial. McCarthy carefully explained her judgment of Hersey's take on the atom bomb and graciously allowed that she might have been wrong; she acknowledged too a tendency to be contrary in her younger days but hoped that her reason and judgment were stronger than anything contrary in her nature. When the conversation shifted to her criticism of US policy in Vietnam, she added, "I hate to talk on the television." Then he asked her what contemporary writers she thought were "overrated, and we could do without, given a limited amount of time."

On January 25, 1980, shortly after 8:30 p.m., Lillian Hellman, nearly blinded by glaucoma and partially paralyzed by multiple strokes, with emphysema, arthritis, an enlarged heart, and a voice deepened by decades of whiskey and cigarettes, watched or listened to the television in her Manhattan apartment at the fashionable East Side address of 66th Street and Park Avenue. It was a cold, clear night. Hellman was tiny, deeply wrinkled, and frail. Yet she too remained a formidable figure. Her former friend Diana Trilling, no slouch at literary infighting, commented that Hellman was "the most powerful woman I've ever known, maybe the most powerful person I've ever known." She had nurses around the clock but went to dinner almost every night either to a restaurant or to someone's house. That evening she had been out to dinner with her nurse. She never allowed her health to interfere with her social life. Often she was painfully uncomfortable, alternately cackling, coughing, complaining, and gasping for air. When they came home, the nurse undressed her for bed, and they walked—Hellman shuffled—across the hall to her office, where she kept the television set. Hellman followed this routine every night. She had trouble sleeping, and the talking on the television was a soporific. When she was ready for bed, the nurse would turn off the television and walk her back to her bedroom. On that Friday night, the nurse turned on the set just as Cavett was chatting with Mary McCarthy about herself. She heard McCarthy say, "Everything she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the,'" and she laughed. When her secretary, Rita Wade, came in the next morning, Hellman said that she had already spoken with her lawyer, Ephraim London, a leading free-speech advocate and a close friend. She was going to sue.

McCarthy and Hellman had crossed paths only occasionally, but over the decades they had shared intimate friends and had assumed conflicting political positions. In her Intellectual Memoirs and later in her deposition to Hellman's lawyers on August 12, 1981, McCarthy claimed that she first met Hellman in 1937 at one of the many Upper West Side dinner parties at which smart, successful, New York leftists socialized. She describes such a gathering in her story "The Genial Host": "Every dinner was presented as a morality play in which art and science, wealth and poverty, business and literature, sex and scholarship, vice and virtue, Judaism and Christianity, Stalinism and Trotskyism, all the antipodes of life, were personified and yet abstract." The two women's first public interaction was via an open letter ("A Statement by American Progressives") published in 1938 in the New Masses, a monthly magazine that supported Stalin and the Soviet Union. The letter signed by Hellman and numerous other writers, editors, and artists urged McCarthy and her cohorts to resign from the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky and to stop publishing "reactionary propaganda" and sowing confusion as to the "real meaning" of the Moscow Trials. In 1967, Hellman, always a big letter-signer, was also signatory to "A Statement on the CIA" in Partisan Review, protesting the US government's covert funding of nominally independent publications. From this letter, which includes the names of most of McCarthy's closest associates and friends—Hannah Arendt, Dwight Macdonald, Philip Rahv, et al.—McCarthy's own name is conspicuously absent.

In 1948 they met at a dinner party at Sarah Lawrence, where McCarthy was teaching and Hellman had been invited to give a talk. As McCarthy walked into college president Harold Taylor's sunroom, she heard Hellman telling students how the author John Dos Passos had "sold out" in the Spanish Civil War. McCarthy was incensed at "hearing those lies so smoothly applied to him," as she told her lawyer years later, in 1980, and she interrupted Hellman to say that what she was telling the students was "just a slander." Hellman had been much on her mind in 1978–79 because of a fracas over the Spanish Refugee Aid Advisory Committee, on whose board McCarthy refused to serve because Hellman had been invited to join as a sponsor. Ironically, one of McCarthy's chief gripes was that it was Hellman who was always defaming others. In a letter to Dwight Macdonald in 1979 about Spanish Refugee Aid, she complained that Hellman's "habit of slandering opponents can't be broken, for if she were truthful she would have to face the fact that she was not more moral than they but rather the contrary."

Although McCarthy had liked Hellman's first play, The Children's Hour, in 1934, she had written disparagingly of Hellman's later work. In a 1944 article for Town and Country, McCarthy had remarked of The North Star, the pro-Soviet propaganda film produced to encourage America's wartime alliance, for which Hellman had written the script: "The picture is a tissue of falsehoods woven of every variety of untruth." Hellman did not really disagree. She never liked the movie, over which she exercised little control, but McCarthy's remarks indicate the particular sharpness between them. In a 1964 interview with the Paris Review, Hellman was asked about McCarthy.


Excerpted from Just Words by ALAN ACKERMAN Copyright © 2011 by Alan Ackerman. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 Libel and Life-Writing 25

Chapter 2 Language Lessons 67

Chapter 3 Words of Love 117

Chapter 4 Choice Words and Political Dramas 184

Chapter 5 Criticism versus Libel 250

Conclusion 293

Notes 305

Index 342

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