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The Libelous Truth

Just Words: Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, and the Failure of Public Conversation in America
By Alan Ackerman
(Yale University Press, 361 pp., $35)

Mary McCarthy preferred the old-fashioned way. You might not know this from her three divorces and the anatomical precision of her bedroom scenes, but she had a strong streak of cultural conservatism. She rejected feminism and lamented the disappearance of Latin from the schoolhouse. The modern fascination with technology annoyed her. Until her death, she pecked away on a Hermes (non-electric) typewriter and ground her coffee using a physically demanding hand crank. And when, in the fall of 1979, she slowly mounted the set of the Dick Cavett show, it was fairly obvious that she did not own a television or have a deep grasp of the conventions of the medium. “I hate to talk on the television,” she stiffly announced to the rolling cameras.

The 1970s had been a hermetic decade for her. After covering the Watergate hearings for the London Observer, she disappeared into her Paris flat, editing the lectures of her dearest friend Hannah Arendt for posthumous publication. If you were young, you likely did not know about her scathing criticism or satiric fiction—what Esquire termed “Mary McCarthyism” and what Alfred Kazin hyperbolically tagged her “wholly destructive critical mind.” But Dick Cavett remembered that Mary McCarthy, and asked leading questions to draw her out.

At the time, the intelligentsia might not have wished to be caught too loudly praising Cavett. But from the vantage of the present, his show looks like the televised version of Partisan Review. He didn’t just feature the likes of S.J. Perelman, Orson Welles, and John Updike, he also gave them the time to make robust arguments. Rather than trim his interview with McCarthy, he presented it over two evenings. Those were the days.

There were two sides to Cavett—a clever imp and a jovial bore. His open-ended questions, in that flattened prairie murmur, could act like a glass of warm milk on the way to bed. Indeed, on the night that the McCarthy interview aired, the ailing playwright Lillian Hellman had returned to her Upper East Side townhouse from dinner with her nurse and turned on Cavett, despite her creeping blindness, hoping that his voice would induce sleep.

But Cavett’s occasionally numbing manner masked a gift for instigating literary skirmishes that attracted tabloid attention. He seeded fights by orchestrating Dada pairings of guests (Truman Capote with the running back Jim Brown and the segregationist Lester Maddox) and by cajoling rivals to sit across from one another (most famously Norman Mailer’s berserk assault on Gore Vidal). Despite McCarthy’s advancing age, or perhaps because of it, Cavett knew she would be easy to bait into an outburst. And so he asked her to name “overrated” contemporary writers.

McCarthy gently deflected the troublemaking question, suggesting that over-praise was no longer a cultural plague. But Cavett persisted: “We don’t have the overpraised writer anymore?” “At least I’m not aware of it,” McCarthy replied. Since hedging was profoundly out of character for her, she proceeded to add, “The only one I can think of is a holdover like Lillian Hellman, who I think is tremendously overrated, a bad writer, and dishonest writer, but she really belongs to the past.” Cavett knew that he had stumbled onto good television. “What is dishonest about her?” he asked. “Everything,” McCarthy replied. “But I said once in some interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” When Lillian Hellman heard the quip in her bed, she laughed. By the time her assistant arrived for work the next morning, Hellman had called her lawyer, and set in motion a $2.25 million libel suit against McCarthy.

That Hellman and McCarthy would despise one another is not surprising. Each had good reason to view the other as her evil twin. Hellman wrote plays for Broadway; McCarthy reviewed theater for Partisan Review. They were both celebrated memoirists, whose legends stemmed, in some measure, from the frankness with which they discussed their sex lives. Where McCarthy cast her lot with the Trotskyists and remained with them as they morphed into liberal cold warriors (until she broke with them over Vietnam), Hellman was a Stalinist, invited to meet Uncle Joe in Moscow. Their politics reflected their literary sensibilities. McCarthy was a tough-minded realist and unstinting in pointing out the ugly flaws in herself and in her characters. Hellman wrote melodrama, erecting villains and heroes, none of the latter larger than herself, and depicting the moral choices of the world as a series of easy answers to epic questions.

In other words, Hellman’s libel suit against McCarthy came freighted with world-historical issues. Alan Ackerman has reminded us of these stakes in his interesting and somewhat overwrought book. He rightly suggests that McCarthy’s suit against Hellman was the culmination of the irreconcilable arguments about liberalism that were implicit in their collected works and biographies. That is what lifts the story of this squabble out of the realm of gossip and into the realm of ideas.

NEITHER MCCARTHY NOR Hellman was adept at obscuring her true feelings about the libel suit: both of them perversely loved it. McCarthy sent her lawyer long memos filled with the ample evidence of Hellman’s fraudulence that she had uncovered. Even though the legal fees nearly bankrupted her—and they would have done so if not for an emergency infusion of cash from Deborah Pease, the publisher of The Paris Review—she considered confrontation central to her professional bona fides and her mission as an intellectual.

McCarthy’s tendency to fling herself into a quarrel, the more adversaries the better, was already present in her earliest writing. Two years out of Vassar, she invested herself with the authority to pillage the entire publishing establishment. In 1935, she co-wrote a series of essays for The Nation called “Our Critics, Right or Wrong.” Dead wrong, as it turned out. And McCarthy had no problem naming names—The New York Times columnist J. Donald Adams, the proletariat-chic reviewers of the New Masses, and a long list of other eminences. They were charged with nothing less than the “debasement of taste,” for publishing reviews that failed to judge fiction rigorously. While brushing aside the achievements of modern literature with “oracular certainty,” they reduced criticism “to a quivering jelly of uncritical emotion.” The Times dubbed the series “a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of reviewers and critics.”

This series disclosed the sensibility that would undergird all of McCarthy’s criticism, fiction, and politics. She abhorred opinions that were withheld, or were reshaped in order to please their audience or to serve some unstated agenda. Her writing was a kind of intellectual’s muckraking, calling out the hypocrites and shaming the overrated. She venerated factuality and precision, stuffing her novels full of detailed descriptions. “The fetishism of fact” is a “splendid sickness,” she exulted.

To her critics, McCarthy’s instinct to expose and denounce seemed cruel. Even her friend Dwight Macdonald, who often defended her against those attacks, anxiously quipped, “When most pretty girls smile at you, you feel terrific. When Mary smiles at you, you look to see if your fly is open.” Indeed, like many of McCarthy’s friends, Macdonald made several veiled appearances in her fiction, although he never registered any complaints with her. To complain would have required admitting that he provided the basis for her characters, and such an admission would be far too crushing a confession of his own blemishes. McCarthy had a gift for compressing acute psychological assessments into a damning detail—for uncovering the most painful and, therefore, most telling character flaw. In the case of Macdonald, she perfectly mimicked his anxieties about his failure to write a Big Book, the way he carried around his notes for a project that everybody knew he would never finish.

When her friends and acquaintances identified themselves in McCarthy’s fiction, a task that usually required little straining, they sometimes found themselves joining Hellman in placing irate calls to their lawyers. Philip Rahv, the remarkable editor of Partisan Review, initiated (and then quickly withdrew) a suit alleging 132 violations of his rights after his thinly veiled appearance as the imperious editor Will Taub in McCarthy’s early novel The Oasis. Almost fifteen years later, the Herald Tribune quoted McCarthy’s Vassar classmates griping about how she had barely disguised them in The Group.

THEIR IRE IS not difficult to comprehend. Using fiction—where artifice provides the grounds for denying any intention of specific targeting—to point out the flaws of friends smacks of cowardice. But McCarthy applied the same tough-mindedness in her memoirs, where she often reserved the roughest treatment for herself. Her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood provides both a distillation of her factualism and the psychological explanation for why she clung so tightly to it. Although the book is set against her time with the Ladies of the Sacred Heart and Sundays spent at mass, it is really about her helpless navigation of orphanhood. Born in 1912, McCarthy spent her earliest and happiest years in Seattle. Her family lived off an allowance, provided by her Catholic grandfather in Minnesota. But her grandfather accused her father of spending the allowance too freely. Mary’s whole family was instructed to move to Minnesota, where they could be observed more closely. They unwisely made their long train trip to the Midwest in the summer of the Spanish influenza. By the time they reached North Dakota, her mother could hardly breathe. A few days after they reached Minneapolis, both her parents were dead.

The fact of her parents’ deaths was kept from her, a discovery that she proudly made many months later. Her grandparents then placed her with a childless aunt and her terrifying husband, Uncle Myers. Mary and her siblings were deprived of toys, except for the few hours when the grandparents who had given them as gifts came to visit. For a time, they were forced to stand outside for three hours every morning and once again in the afternoon, regardless of how low the Minnesota thermometer dropped. When she won an essay contest at age ten, Myers rewarded her with a razor-strop beating, lest she become too full of herself. “It was as though these ignorant people, at sea with four frightened children, had taken a Dickens novel—Oliver Twist, perhaps, or Nicholas Nickleby—for a navigation chart.” But to the outside world, there was little sign of these depraved conditions; many years passed before anyone intervened on her behalf. It is here that we can see why McCarthy became such an aggressive whistleblower, why her fiction and many volumes of memoir dwell on the dark moments that occur in private life, why she worked so fervently to expose liars.

She had published the recollections in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood over nearly a decade as essays in The New Yorker and elsewhere. By the time she assembled them into a book, she had begun to doubt some of her own memories. Many of these doubts originated in letters she had received from another uncle, contesting her recollections. McCarthy didn’t respond defensively to the questions. She clinically investigated them in italicized epilogues that follow each chapter. These brutal post-mortems analyze the failings of her memory with utter detachment. (“There are cases where I am not sure myself whether I am making something up.”) It is as if she has entered the confessional box, just as she did as a girl, only the sins that now gnawed at her were sins against the God of Fact.

Mary McCarthy was never a sustained or systematic political thinker, although you could always count on her to join a symposium or attend a congress of intellectuals. When she issued her political opinions, she did so with the same spirit that guided her criticism and fiction—the same zeal for transparency. She turned against Stalinism as a young woman because she abhorred the mendacity of the Communist Party and its acolytes, the front groups and the underground pretensions. When Lillian Hellman helped organize the fellow-traveling Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1949, McCarthy registered as a delegate and confronted the fellow-traveling critic F.O. Matthiessen, who had described Emerson as a forefather of American communism. If Emerson were a Soviet citizen, she asked, would he be permitted to write? 

By thrusting herself into controversy, McCarthy guaranteed that she would become a subject of attack herself. Some of these attacks were fair. Even her son conceded her “possibly exhibitionist tendency.” This description did not contradict her account of herself in her memoirs, in which she describes how her thirst for attention led her to stage childhood stunts and dream of a career in theater. Others, such as Kazin, saw her as a self-righteous pedant who set out to remind readers “of the classical learning they had despised, the social lapses they could no longer overlook.” Not an attractive personal quality, perhaps, and not necessarily the temperament of a great novelist—but this quality fortified her as a critic and a thinker, and reflected an unwillingness to relax her standards and muster anything less than outrage at mediocrity.

After she devastatingly reviewed a collection of Kenneth Tynan’s bouncy celebrity profiles—“such journalism can be produced by automation, with the reader’s chuckles built in”—her like-minded friend Elizabeth Hardwick asked, “Isn’t it awful to be in your forties and still find yourself attacking people?” McCarthy replied, “Oh Lord yes, I know just what you mean. I don’t want to do it. It’s something for young people to do. But they don’t do it!”

FOR ANYONE WHO shared McCarthy’s concern for precision, Lillian Hellman was a particularly infuriating figure of popular veneration. She was a spectacular liar. Her biographers have thoroughly documented her mendacity; her closest friends testified to it. Memoir, to state the obvious, is not an ideal genre for a writer with this particular pathology. But Hellman’s first book of recollections, An Unfinished Woman, received more adulation than any of her plays. She never wrote for the theater again, publishing instead two further memoiristic volumes. In its raw form, her life had all the makings of a great narrative—a chaotic childhood set, in part, in carnivalesque New Orleans; early success in a field that did not often reward women; a life of political commitment that included cavorting with Hemingway in war-torn Barcelona; a thirty-year affair with the noir novelist (and, for that matter, noir character) Dashiell Hammett. Hellman was hardly a conventional beauty, but she leveraged her wit and her charisma to attract a legion of lovers. In sum: she invented herself, and in her memoirs kept right on inventing.

Reading Mary McCarthy’s memoirs can occasionally require great effort—her self-flagellation can become tedious; her terrible honesty can feel, well, just terrible. Hellman, by comparison, is popcorn entertainment, unburdened by doubts or self-consciousness, packaged in perfectly crafted scenes. If you approach Hellman’s books with any knowledge of her mendacity, nearly every episode begins to smell of contrivance. As one of her biographers shrewdly pointed out: the more Hellman packed a scene with detail, the greater the likelihood of fabrication. The most famous instance of this is the “Julia” chapter of Pentimento, her final memoir, later adapted into a Jane Fonda movie. She tells the story of how she aided the Austrian resistance in the 1930s, an episode that almost certainly never happened to her and was filched from the experience of a medical student named Muriel Gardiner, with whom she later shared a lawyer.

There is a certain pathos to the improving touches that Hellman added to her life story. Despite everything, she did not consider herself interesting enough to leave herself unembroidered. She felt compelled to keep pumping out new volumes of memoir, further burnishing her own myth, even after she had thoroughly exhausted her supply of anecdotes. But it was not just Hellman’s general proclivity toward untruths that bothered McCarthy. She was most appalled by Hellman’s book Scoundrel Time, her most outrageous memoir of all.

SCOUNDREL TIME, WHICH appeared in 1976, recounts Hellman’s appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952. It was indeed a terrible time. Hellman had watched Hammett land in jail for refusing to answer the committee’s questions. Since she was unwilling to follow him to the slammer, she worked with her lawyer Joseph Rauh to carve out a risky strategy. She told the committee that she would consent to answer any questions about herself, while asserting (rather dubiously) the Fifth Amendment to avoid questions about anyone else. At the hearing Rauh distributed a headline-grabbing letter explaining this position, written in a far feistier tone than her actual testimony: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”

Hellman’s version of these events had several fundamental problems. In the book, she flatly denies ever having been a member of the Communist Party—a lie blatantly contradicted by an initial draft of her letter to the committee, uncovered by her biographer Carl Rollyson, in which she concedes that she had officially joined for the years 1938-1940, the time of Stalin’s pact with Hitler. Her testimony before HUAC was plenty dramatic, but she was not content with events as they had actually happened. She added an anonymous voice shouting to her as she testifies, “Thank God somebody finally had the guts to do it”—a voice that no one, including Rauh, can remember. Rauh also accused her of inventing a phone call from the Washington power lawyer Thurman Arnold, supposedly advising her to ditch her risky strategy at the last moment before her testimony.

But the strangest part of the book is its distribution of moral approbation. Hellman has nothing negative to say about communism, really: “Most of the communists I had met seemed to me people who wanted to make a better world.” What’s more, she has almost nothing bad to say about her right-wing accusers, whom she largely absolves. “I do not think they believed much, if anything, of what they said.” Instead, she hoards her ire for the liberal intellectuals who she claims failed to rush to her defense. “Only a very few raised a finger.” They used the sins of Stalinism as an “excuse to join those who should have been their hereditary enemies.” As Irving Howe pointed out, in a wonderfully white-hot essay rebutting Hellman, this charge was absurd. Her own lawyer was a founder of Americans for Democratic Action and the quintessential cold war liberal. Partisan Review published its own critique of the Red Scare—and Mary McCarthy had condemned it in speeches. Perhaps they could have shouted their complaints louder, but that was hardly Hellman’s argument. What really upset her was that liberals viewed the matter with greater complexity: the shameful treatment of American Communists by HUAC did not make them innocent.

MCCARTHY AND HELLMAN never had a personal relationship. But their first encounter sent them down a path of enmity. It came at a dinner party in 1948, hosted by the president of Sarah Lawrence College. Before they had been introduced to each other, McCarthy strolled into a sunroom and overheard Hellman denouncing John Dos Passos to a group of students. Hellman accused him of having “sold out” in the Spanish Civil War because “[when] he got to Madrid he didn’t like the food.” (She claims in An Unfinished Woman that he did not bring any of his own provisions and ungratefully consumed everyone else’s.) Even though McCarthy disliked the rightward turn in Dos Passos’s politics, she despised Hellman’s glib assault on the novelist’s honor. A bad paella wasn’t the reason for his disillusionment with the Loyalists, she insisted; he reversed his allegiance after watching the communists murder his friends, along with many other Trotskyists and anarchists.

The idea that Hellman’s opponents might be motivated by high ideals offended her. In a passage in An Unfinished Woman, a dinner companion in London admits to being confused about the Spanish Civil War, and his unbothered neutrality launches her into a fit of apoplexy. She storms out of the party and returns to her hotel, where she flops angrily onto the bed with such force that she bounces to the floor and sprains her ankle. Her capacity for ignoring any evidence that complicated or contradicted her beloved causes is so great that even though (or maybe because) she spent five months in Moscow in 1937 at the height of Stalin’s terror, she refused to believe the regime was presiding over purges and show trials. “I saw a number of diplomats and journalists,” she recalled many years later, “but they talked such gobbledygook, with the exception of Walter Duranty and Joseph Barnes, one couldn’t pick the true charges from the wild hatred.” Duranty and Barnes: her favored sources, therefore, were the two Westerners who arguably did the most to obstruct the full view of Stalin’s worst crimes.

This is the dark side of Hellman’s melodramatic mind. She disdained liberalism’s self-conscious gestures toward complexity and pragmatism. In 1964, she slapped Arthur Miller for precisely this sin: “a little breast beating and little apology.... Two sides to every question and all that rot.” The other side to this question, of course, is that Miller took a far bolder stand in the HUAC hearings than Hellman, when he invoked the First Amendment and refused to answer a single question. She was not one for breast-beating.

ALAN ACKERMAN REPRESENTS the sort of analytical complexity that Hellman found so contemptible. He sees merit in both sides of the Hellman v. McCarthy question. Of course, he cannot deny that Hellman lied, and about consequential matters. Still, he feels that she did not deserve to be mauled by McCarthy with what he regards as indecency—a “hyperbolic talking point.” And he strains to find reasons for sympathizing with Hellman and her “elliptical” style of autobiography. Ackerman seems to believe that she should have a right to edit her own story for public consumption. In his view, the right to control the presentation of one’s self is central to any meaningful concept of privacy. “Public conversation,” he argues, with an eye on our own combative time, “requires not only a measure of transparency but also selectivity.”

Ackerman mounts this tepid (and somewhat confusing) defense of Hellman in order to more convincingly inflate the libel suit into a parable of clashing values—transparency versus privacy; full-throated argument versus mutual respect. The fact that their disagreement escalated into a legal dispute is the ultimate example, he argues, of “the failure of public conversation in America.” But this interpretation, however generous in spirit, gives Hellman too much credit. She was not at all interested in preserving mutual respect in discourse. What she wanted was to see McCarthy bleed—a sadistic course that she, unlike McCarthy, could afford to take, given her personal wealth and her pro bono lawyer. When her friend Roger Straus tried to convince her to drop the suit, Hellman replied, “No, I’m gonna teach her a thing or two.”

What made her suit particularly diabolical was that Hellman had emerged from the 1950s as a great champion of civil liberties, even starting a group called the Committee for Public Justice, which was formed in part to protect “basic rights of speech.” (To sidestep the charge of hypocrisy, she closed the committee.) And McCarthy was not the first instance of her attempting to silence her critics. When Diana Trilling was about to publish a collection of essays that included a stinging critique of Scoundrel Time, Hellman called Little, Brown, Trilling’s publisher, and demanded that they pull the book. And the house callowly yanked it. But Hellman wasn’t finished. Norman Mailer had contributed an effusive blurb to Trilling’s dust jacket—and after Hellman gave “Normie” the treatment, he edited his blurb into an unprintable garble.

With her lawsuit, Hellman lucked into a sympathetic judge. Presented with a myriad of opportunities to dismiss the case-McCarthy’s statement was clearly intended as a joke; it was an act of literary criticism; Hellman was a public figure—he declined to reject it. If Hellman had prevailed, she would have succeeded in turning harsh literary criticism into a legally punishable offense. But she did not prevail. Four years into the suit, she died, which ended the matter. This fact did little to becalm McCarthy, who told The New York Times that “I’m absolutely unregenerate ... I didn’t want her to die. I wanted her to lose in court. I wanted her around for that.”

Ackerman does an admirable job of tying this case to the great issues of the mid-twentieth century. He uses Hellman and McCarthy as a pretext for fascinating digressions about John Dewey’s commission on Leon Trotsky, the history of Latin instruction in America, and the culture’s attitude toward abortion in the 1930s. But finally he is too eager to wring his hands about their mutual nastiness, which he views as a harbinger of cultural apocalypse. The case, he writes, “heralded the age in which we find ourselves with James Frey, Oprah Winfrey, Rush Limbaugh, and dysfunctional governments on local, state, and national levels.”

While anyone who has spent ten minutes flipping cable channels will agree with his grim assessment of our own “national conversation,” Ackerman does not come close to making the case that this dispute prefigured the coming profusion of dreck. In fact, he unintentionally proves the opposite: the Hellman-McCarthy saga was evidence of cultural vibrancy, where a popular television show gave voice to real intellectuals, and tabloid contretemps were grounded in urgent political and historical issues, and a writer was willing to risk her life savings and her reputation for the sake of defending a good one-liner. The Hellman-McCarthy fight may have been entertaining, but it was not conceived as entertainment. We may be as nasty as they were in those days, but we are also more trivial and more shallow.

Franklin Foer is an editor-at-large for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the August 4, 2011, issue of the magazine.