McCarthy, Mary (1912–1989)

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McCarthy, Mary (1912–1989)

American literary critic, novelist, journalist of the anti-Communist left, and author of The Group, who was one of the nation's most prominent intellectuals . Name variations: Mary McCarthy (1912–1933 and in her professional life throughout); Mary Johnsrud (1933–36); Mary Wilson (1937–45); Mary Broadwater (1948–60); Mary West (1961–89). Born Mary Therese McCarthy in Seattle, Washington, on June 21, 1912; died of lung cancer on October 25, 1989; daughter of Roy Winfield McCarthy and Therese (Preston) McCarthy; sister of Kevin McCarthy (an actor); Vassar College, A.B., 1933; married Harold Johnsrud, in 1933 (divorced 1936); married Edmund Wilson (a writer), in 1937 (divorced 1945); married Bowden Broadwater (a writer and deputy headmaster), in 1948 (divorced 1961); married James West (a Public Affairs officer), on April 15, 1961; children: (second marriage) one son, Reuel K. Wilson (b. 1938).

Selected writings:

The Company She Keeps (1942); The Oasis (1949); The Groves of Academe (1952); A Charmed Life (1955); Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957); The Group (1963); Venice Observed (1956); The Stones of Florence (1959); Vietnam (1967); Hanoi (1968); Birds of America (1971); Medina (1972); The Seventeenth Parallel (1974); Cannibals and Missionaries (1979); How I Grew (1987); Intellectual Memoirs: NY: 1936–1938 (1992).

Mary McCarthy was a leading American novelist, critic, and travel writer of the 20th century whose sardonic social observations made her widely feared as well as much admired. In a long succession of novels, she scrutinized, and often debunked, intellectuals, people who live by ideas, revealing the vanity, greed and ambition which drove them as much, or more, than their high-mindedness. She made strong friends but also passionate enemies throughout her long life and incurred a libel suit in 1980 when she declared on the "Dick Cavett Show" that every word the playwright Lillian Hellman had ever written was "a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" Four times married and famous for a long succession of stormy love affairs with literary figures, McCarthy was also a prominent figure in the anti-Communist left and a high-profile critic of America's role in Vietnam during the late 1960s.

Mary McCarthy was born in Seattle, Washington, in 1912. Her devoted parents were taken ill while traveling to Minnesota, in the severe influenza epidemic which swept America at the end of the First World War. They both died in the same week, leaving her an orphan at the age of six. With her siblings Preston, Sheridan, and Kevin McCarthy (who would become a well-known film and television actor), she went to live with a great-uncle and great-aunt in Minneapolis who brought her up strictly and inflexibly, depriving her of toys and playmates, beating her for disobedience, even taping her mouth shut each night to be sure she would breathe through her nose. Some of the most effective passages of McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957) describe, with Dickensian vividness, her bitter confrontations with them and show how she developed a combative streak in the face of persecution.

In 1923, at age 11, she went to live with a richer and much more benevolent grandfather back in Seattle who indulged her. Another wonderful passage of Memories explores her religious development as a Catholic. At the age of about 12, she realized that her grandfather, a Presbyterian, was destined for Hell, according to her Catholic teachers. She came to believe that his only hope was "invincible ignorance," the Catholic doctrine that no one can go to Hell if they have had no opportunity of learning the religious truth. She therefore ceased what had been her ostentatious devotions, but the grandfather, misinterpreting her motives, chided her for backsliding. She then relished the "martyrdom" of suffering despite doing the right thing. A little later, she made a bid for her teachers' and friends' attention at her elite Catholic school by alleging that she had lost her faith. As she tells it, what began as a social gambit suddenly turned into a reality, and she discovered that she was more convinced by the arguments against the existence of God than those for it. From then on, she had no religious life though, like many brilliant 20th-century intellectuals, she later substituted psychoanalysis and morbid self-scrutiny for the Christianity she had left behind.

Mary McCarthy was passionately devoted to a succession of female teachers and studied hard. She also grew up quickly, longing for the adventures of adulthood. She first had sex at the age of 14, with a man in his mid-20s, and later posed secretly for an artist who also slept with her. At the same time, she excelled in her West Coast schools before going to college back East, at Vassar, where she quickly gained a reputation among her fellow students as an intellectual enfant terrible. McCarthy mixed learning with acting, dating, and an enthusiastic social life. One of the rituals of college life for "fast" students at that time of Prohibition was buying and enjoying illegal alcohol, especially cocktails, which she enjoyed from the beginning. Always materialistic, McCarthy loved good clothes and the pleasures of wealth, and enjoyed social climbing, which never abated even when she was an active political leftist. She mentions in How I Grew that she disguised from her high-toned WASP friends the fact that one of her grandmothers was Jewish because of the social stigma it carried. Her most successful novel The Group (1963), a national bestseller which would make her name a household word, describes the fortunes of a circle of Vassar graduates in the New York of the 1930s, and depends heavily for characters and situations on her actual college friends. It is a sometimes affectionate, sometimes critical account of changing social mores, as these gifted young women go to work, experiment with sex and contraception, live in their own apartments, and try to apply the lessons of their elite education in a tough, Depression-afflicted city.

While still a college junior, McCarthy became engaged to Harold Johnsrud, an actor, theater director, and aspiring movie scriptwriter. Friends who knew him warned her that he was a womanizer, prone to heavy drinking and fits of depression. He even told her that a drunken car crash, from which he walked away, was really an attempted suicide. The idea that he was a suffering artist appealed to her Byronic side and encouraged her to marry him just after graduation, even though, during a college vacation, he had made her miserable with his bullying when they lived together for a few weeks. Their wedding day in 1933 was also her 21st birthday.

Though the couple lived in New York, Johnsrud was often away directing or acting in the following years. In his absence, McCarthy began writing regularly, soon establishing herself as a hard-hitting and controversial literary critic. Most of her early reviews were for the New Republic and the Nation. One set of articles for the Nation, a survey of contemporary book critics, was bitingly satirical about many big names of the era. Time magazine nicknamed the series, which gave the 22-year-old McCarthy an instant notoriety, the "Saint Valentine's massacre of reviewers and critics." Her husband's frequent absences also led her to befriend and then become the lover of John Porter, an unemployed writer, and she wrote to friends that although she had married Johnsrud she had never really loved him. She asked him for a divorce after three years of marriage and later fictionalized their breakup in a short story, "Cruel and Barbarous Treatment." She soon discovered, however, that she was less enamored of Porter than she had imagined, and could not bring herself, after her Reno divorce, to marry him.

In the mid-1930s, McCarthy found regular work and a circle of new friends at the Partisan Review, a journal of the American left for which she became drama critic. Partisan Review was run mainly by secular Jewish intellectuals, the sons of recent immigrants, who were leftists but anti-Soviet and foes of Stalin. Many described themselves as Trotskyites and like Leon Trotsky himself (an occasional contributor from his Mexican exile) they were fascinated by the achievements of the great literary modernists (W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf ) despite political differences. Eager to hack away at what she thought of as inflated reputations, McCarthy continued to take on famous authors; she described Graham Greene in one characteristic review of the period as an "ersatz great novelist." She also began a passionate love affair with the journal's editor, Philip Rahv.

Rahv was eager to get Edmund Wilson, America's premier literary critic, to add the luster of his name to Partisan Review. Wilson agreed and soon after his first contributions to the journal McCarthy met him and became his lover. For a while she tried to keep it secret but finally admitted to Rahv what was going on. Rahv was sufficiently impressed with Wilson's and McCarthy's talents that he continued to publish their work despite this mortifying jolt. McCarthy and Wilson married in 1937, when she was 25 and he was 42. Their marriage led to the birth of a son, Reuel Wilson, her only child, who was born on Christmas Day, 1938. Their union was also important for McCarthy's development as a writer. With Wilson's encouragement, she began to concentrate on writing fiction and published her first novel, The Company She Keeps, in 1942. It still glitters, is full of daring self-revelation about her indiscretions, and contains many portraits of friends, lovers, and employers. One section in particular, "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit," about the protagonist's getting drunk and having violent sex with a businessman while traveling across country by train, gave her the reputation of being a "racy" writer. The book elicited divided judgments from critics, many of whom were impressed by her sharp eye and candid style, but a few of whom were dismissive of the novel's subject and its jumpy narrative.

The years of her marriage to Wilson were, however, a period of emotional storm and stress. Theirs is probably the most famous literary bad marriage of the 20th century, and it ended in acrimony and bitter mutual recriminations. In many later novels, notably The Groves of Academe, McCarthy drew thinly veiled fictional versions of Wilson, making him physically grotesque, violent, abusive, egotistical, and drunk. And she often claimed later that she had never loved him but saw him only as a bullying reincarnation of the cruel great-uncle who had raised her. Wilson must certainly have been a difficult man to live with—he was vain and given to drinking binges, and sometimes lectured her for hours on whatever literary subject currently preoccupied him—but as his biographer Jeffrey Meyers points out, for a while the two exchanged affectionate love letters and took great pleasure in each other. When she was pregnant, however, McCarthy suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to a New York hospital. After the birth of Reuel, she continued to make regular visits to New York from their home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, partly to visit a Freudian psychoanalyst, partly to pursue more sexual affairs, including one with Partisan Review's art critic Clement Greenberg. By her own admission, she was, at this and several other times of her life, very active sexually. She and Wilson had several trial separations and finally divorced in 1945, with her gaining custody of their son during school terms and he during vacations.

McCarthy's beauty was accompanied by an uncommon intelligence … but there was truth in the fear that she had the goods on everybody, and was not above using what she knew.

—Carol Brightman

The year of her second divorce, McCarthy met and befriended Nicola Chiaromonte, an Italian exile intellectual also living in Massachusetts, who made a calm contrast to her stormy life with Wilson. Unlike most of her acquaintances up to that time, he was an enthusiast neither for any variety of Marxism, nor for psychoanalysis. He was suspicious of all abstract, intellectual master systems, and McCarthy, formerly an ardent leftist, learned to share this suspicion. She later told him that his influence, during the summer of 1945 when they were often together, had transformed her view of the world. Her skepticism of intellectual systems became clear in much of her subsequent fiction.

McCarthy next took a job teaching Russian and English literature at Bard College, in the Hudson Valley, where another Partisan Review writer, Fred Dupee, was head of the English department. She enjoyed teaching but found it difficult to write as well, and so resolved to give up the job which, in any event, was not sufficiently well-paid to finance her often-extravagant way of life. After her first trip to Europe in the summer of 1946, she returned to New York and married Bowden Broadwater, an aspiring writer who was eight years her junior and had been courting her for the previous year. He could not find regular work and suffered from prolonged writer's block, so for much of their 14 years of marriage he played the role of housekeeper and companion to Reuel while McCarthy got on with her writing. In the mid-1950s, he became a teacher at Reuel's school and later its deputy headmaster.

McCarthy's second novel, The Oasis (1949), described an intellectuals' commune in which her friends Philip Rahv and Dwight Macdonald were distinctly visible in the characters of Will Taub and Macdougall Macdermott. Her third, The Groves of Academe (1952), was based partly on her experiences as a teacher at Bard and a semester of teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in 1948. Written in the midst of the era of anti-Communist McCarthyism, about which she and her many leftist friends were dismayed, it nevertheless avoided the easy approach of contrasting good liberals with mendacious anti-Communists. McCarthy depicted liberal intellectuals as muddle-headed dupes, rather than staunch guardians of academic freedom and integrity. The novel's unscrupulous protagonist, Professor Henry Mulcahy, has been fired from one college because of allegations that he is a Communist. On the verge of being fired next from progressive Jocelyn College, in Pennsylvania, whose crusading President Hoar had sympathetically hired him, he reacts by claiming, falsely, that he is a Communist, because he anticipates that Hoar will then protect him in the name of standing up to McCarthyism. Sure enough, the disgusting Mulcahy gathers a committee of defenders, appealing to their interest in civil liberties, and keeps his job. In his place, the good-natured but naive Hoar is forced to resign. The novel showed that Mary McCarthy envisioned the paradoxical side of McCarthyism, and her humorous treatment of the whole issue indicates that she looked on it as anything but a reign of terror.

By the early and mid-1950s, now in her 40s, McCarthy was a well-established author who could command high fees for writing projects. On the strength of these fees, and taking advantage of rich friends with European houses, including the art connoisseur Bernard Berenson,

she spent more and more time there, which culminated in two fine books about Italy, Venice Observed and The Stones of Florence. The works were good for her career and checkbook but bad for her marriage. In 1956, she had a passionate affair with an English reviewer, John Davenport, only to discover, on her return to Europe, that he had boasted of his conquest to his friends, and was a liar and cheat. More significant was her meeting with James West, a Public Affairs officer at the American Embassy in Warsaw whom she met while lecturing in Eastern Europe on behalf of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. West was 46, had three young children, and was married. He and McCarthy fell in love at once and resolved to break their ties and marry one another, which they did, despite great prolonged legal difficulties, in 1961. The service was held in Paris. They had hoped to return to Warsaw, but the Wests' divorce had caused a scandal there which the Polish Communist authorities were eager to exploit. Instead, after nine months in the United States, West got a job with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris, where the newlyweds moved in 1962. Friends like Macdonald and Chiaromonte were amused to see McCarthy acting like a girl in love for the first time even though she was a 49-year-old with her fourth husband. She insisted that she had never really been in love before and that she was faithful to this husband, as she had not been to any of the others.

McCarthy had been working on The Group, based on the experiences of her Vassar friends, ever since the early 1950s and finally completed it in 1963. One long section was written in the Libyan mansion of one of her wealthy European friends. A vastly entertaining and witty book, it came out to almost universal critical acclaim and confirmed her popular standing as a leading American novelist. It also ensured that the busyness of the preceding years would continue, as she went on publicity tours and speaking engagements. It also prompted another literary critic, Doris Grumbach , to undertake a literary biography of McCarthy, following up on an article Grumbach had written about how few women became first-class novelists. McCarthy met Grumbach and tape-recorded several interviews with her. Indiscretions in the transcript of these conversations alarmed her, and the manuscript had to be modified to avoid libels, but it was duly published in 1967 as The Company She Kept. From then on, McCarthy was the subject of a steady stream of interviews, articles, studies, and biographies.

Mary McCarthy, like most American intellectuals of the late 1960s, deplored America's role in Vietnam and responded to an invitation from Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, to visit Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. Her articles described the depressing transformation of the city by the American military, and the apparent inability of South Vietnam to prevail in the war. They were followed by a sharp debate between McCarthy and Diana Trilling , a former colleague in the Congress for Cultural Freedom, because Trilling remained committed to the war on orthodox anti-Communist grounds. Next, in mid-1968, McCarthy took the more daring step of visiting the North Vietnamese enemy's capital, Hanoi. A succession of young leftists and idealists, notably the film star Jane Fonda , had visited Hanoi. McCarthy, who by then was in her mid-50s, added weight to the American antiwar movement by lending it the prestige of her reputation and was already a regular speaker on the antiwar and draft-resisters' circuit. Her visit to Hanoi was an embarrassment to her husband, an American State Department official, but he supported her work and agreed to her going. Even so, her books Vietnam, Hanoi, The Seventeenth Parallel, and Medina (about one of the My Lai massacre defendants) were far less successful than her fiction and won an audience only among other outspoken foes of the war, rather than the large, uncertain center of the American population which she had hoped to sway.

In the 1970s, McCarthy resumed the writing of fiction with two fine novels, Birds of America (1971) and Cannibals and Missionaries (1979), weaving, as before, episodes of her own life and those of her friends into imaginary dramatic settings. Cannibals and Missionaries, which describes the fate of a group of art collectors when their airliner is hijacked by Iranian terrorists, came out at the same time as the national trauma of the Iranian "hostage crisis." In the 1980s, as she entered her 70s, McCarthy took up the writing of memoirs, the first volume of which was How I Grew. She had always had the power to shock readers, as had been clear with "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit." She now did it again by describing her teenage sexual encounters, in graphic and unsparing detail, to the surprise of many of her friends, and followed up this first memoir by writing two more, one on her intellectual life and friends in the New York of the late 1930s, the other on her stormy relationship with Edmund Wilson. Mary McCarthy died of lung cancer in 1989 after a succession of illnesses, at the age of 77.


Brightman, Carol. Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World. NY: Clarkson Potter, 1992.

Gelderman, Carol. Mary McCarthy: A Life. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Grumbach, Doris. The Company She Kept. NY: Coward-McCann, 1967.

McCarthy, Mary. How I Grew. NY: Harcourt, 1987.

——. Intellectual Memoirs: New York: 1936–1938. NY: Harcourt, 1992.

——. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. NY: Harcourt, 1957.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Edmund Wilson: A Biography. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

suggested reading:

Brightman, Carol, ed. Between Friends: The Correspondence between Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949–1975. NY: Harcourt, 1995.

Kiernan, Frances. Seeing Mary Plain. NY: W.W. Norton, 2000.


Mary McCarthy Papers, Vassar College Library; Edmund Wilson Papers, Yale University Library.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

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McCarthy, Mary (1912–1989)

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