Mary McCarthy

Mary McCarthy

Mary McCarthy (June 21, 1912 – October 25, 1989) was an American novelist, political activist and critic, born in Seattle, Washington. She endured a difficult childhood but overcame it to become a woman of strength and determination.

She began her writing career as a critic, and gained admiration for her honest observations on culture and politics. In 1942 she published her first novel, The Company She Keeps, about a smart young woman going to college and breaking into New York City social circles.

The Group (1954) was arguably her most popular novel — it sat on the New York Times Bestseller list for two years and was made into a popular film. McCarthy’s novels and stories are part autobiography and part fiction, as she draws on her own experiences, traumas, and successes. That, along with her writing style, made her a respected  talent in the writing community.

McCarthy had friends and enemies within literary and activist circles — she was allied with Hannah Arendt, for instance, and was locked in a bitter feud with playwright Lillian Hellman, whom she accused of being an outright liar. She died of lung cancer in New York City in 1989.

Early life and education

McCarthy was orphaned at the age of six when both her parents died in the flu epidemic of 1918. She and her brothers, Kevin, Preston, and Sheridan, were raised in very unhappy circumstances by her Catholic father’s parents in Minneapolis, Minnesota, under the care of an uncle and aunt that inflicted harsh treatment and abuse.

Fortunately, McCarthy and her siblings were eventually taken in by her maternal grandparents in Seattle. During this time, she studied at Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Seattle, and Annie Wright Seminary in Tacoma, and went on to graduate from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1933.

Strong beliefs

As a young woman, McCarthy left the Catholic Church and became an atheist. In New York during the 1930’s, she moved in “fellow-traveling” Communist circles.

As part of the Partisan Review circle and as a contributor to The NationThe New RepublicHarper’s Magazine, and The New York Review of Books, she grabbed attention as a critic — sometimes a scathing one. During the 1940s and 1950s she became a liberal critic of both McCarthyism and Communism. She opposed the Vietnam War in the 1960s and covered the Watergate scandal hearings in the 1970s.

She visited Vietnam frequently during the Vietnam War, and after being interviewed after her first trip, she declared on British television that there was not a single documented case of the Viet Cong deliberately killing a South Vietnamese woman or child.

Mary McCarthy

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Personal life

McCarthy married four times. In 1933 she married Harald Johnsrud, an actor and playwright.

McCarthy married four times. In 1933 she married Harald Johnsrud, an actor and playwright. Next, McCarthy married well-known writer and critic Edmund Wilson in 1938, after leaving her then-lover Philip Rahy. She and Wilson had a son, Reuel Wilson.

In 1946, she married Bowden Broadwater, employee of the New Yorker. Then, finally, in 1961, McCarthy married career diplomat James R. West.

One of McCarthy’s most noteworthy friendships was with Hannah Arendt. After Arendt’s passing, McCarthy became Arendt’s literary executor from 1976 until her own death in 1989. McCarthy also taught at Bard College from 1946 to 1947, and once again between 1986 and 1989. She also taught a winter semester in 1948 at Sarah Lawrence College.


You might also like: Mary McCarthy Quotes with a Critical Eye

Awards and literary life

In the late 1930’s McCarthy’s debut novel The Company She Keeps recieved critical acclaim for bluntly highlighting the social lives of New York intellectuals of the time.

After building a reputation as a satirist and critic, McCarthy enjoyed popular success when the 1963 edition of her novel The Group remained on the New York Times Best Seller list for almost two years. Her work is noted for its frankness and mixture of autobiography and fiction.

Randall Jarrell’s 1954 novel Pictures from an Institution is said to be about McCarthy’s year teaching at Sarah Lawrence.

Her famous feud with fellow writer Lillian Hellman formed the basis for the play Imaginary Friends by Nora Ephron. The feud had simmered since the late 1930s over ideological differences, McCarthy provoked Hellman in 1979 when she famously said on The Dick Cavett Show: “every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”

Hellman responded by filing a $2.5 million libel suit against McCarthy, which ended shortly after Hellman died in 1984, in which McCarthy is quoted saying that she “…hadn’t wanted Hellman to die but, rather, to live so that I could see her lose.”

The Group by Mary McCarthy

Mary McCarthy’s books on Amazon

The Group

Considered to be the best-known novel written by McCarthy, The Group was published in 1954. It made the New York Times bestseller List in 1963, and remained there for almost two years.

The book follows the lives of eight young female friends just graduated from Vassar College in 1933. The story follows the women’s lives post-graduation, showing their struggles as they battle a variety of issues: sexism in the workplace, child-rearing, financial difficulties, family crises, and their intimate relationships. As highly-educated women from affluent backgrounds, they strive to carve out a place for themselves in the male-dominated mid-century world.

The novel was banned in Australia, Italy, and Ireland for “being offensive to public morals.” At the time of its release, men questioned McCarthy’s ability to be a professional writer. Notably, Norman Mailer for The New York Review of Books wrote that, “her book fails as a novel by being good but not nearly good enough … she is simply not a good enough woman to write a major novel.” 

McCarthy died of lung cancer on October 25, 1989, at NewYork–Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

Mary McCarthy

See also: Vanity Fair – Vassar, Unzipped

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4 Responses to “Mary McCarthy”

  1. I first read about Mary McCarthy in an Article called “Sex & The Single Vassar Girl” (July 2013) and in her own way helped create the Chick Lit Movement which is now a Multi Billion Dollar Empire. However I also noticed that she along with Rona Jaffe (The Best Of Everything) (RIP), as well as Patricia Highsmith (The Price Of Salt) (RIP) all had the same rituals when writing their Books. They had a Desk (Of Course) A Portable Typewriter as well as A Cigarette and an Ashtray. Although everything has changed (Typewriters being replaced by Computers), and Cigarette Sales going down it was an amazing ritual that made these books so memorable. Even Grace Metalious (Peyton Place) who never went to College pretty much followed the same ritual. In the Book Version, Allison McKenzie one of the main protagonists typed an smoked a Cigarette while on the Back of A Early Version there was the Author at her Desk deep in thought while the same posed was done in the Movie Version. I think that some of today’s Writers are lucky but spoiled. They have spell check, e-mailing, meetings over Skype amongst other things but they still are classics and pioneers.

  2. I believe Mary McCarthy died in 1989, not 1925 as stated on your website since that would have made her only 13 years old at the time. It’s quite a typo don’t you think?

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