Mary McCarthy (author)

For other people with the same name, see Mary McCarthy (disambiguation).
Mary McCarthy

McCarthy in 1963
Born Mary Therese McCarthy
(1912-06-21)June 21, 1912
Seattle, Washington, US
Died October 25, 1989(1989-10-25) (aged 77)
New York City
Cause of death Lung cancer
Education Vassar College
Spouse(s) Harald Johnsrud (m. 1933)
Edmund Wilson (m. 1938)
Bowden Broadwater (m. 1946)
James West (m. 1961)
Children Reuel Wilson

Mary Therese McCarthy (June 21, 1912 – October 25, 1989) was an American novelist, critic and political activist.

Early life

Born in Seattle, Washington, to Roy Winfield McCarthy and his wife, the former Martha Therese Preston, 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 direct care of an uncle and aunt she remembered for harsh treatment and abuse.

When the situation became intolerable, she was taken in by her maternal grandparents in Seattle. Her maternal grandmother, Augusta Morganstern, was Jewish, and her maternal grandfather, Harold Preston, a prominent attorney and co-founder of the law firm Preston Gates & Ellis, was Presbyterian. (Her brothers were sent to boarding school.) McCarthy credited her grandfather, who helped draft one of the nation's first Workmen's Compensation Acts, with helping form her liberal views. McCarthy explores the complex events of her early life in Minneapolis and her coming of age in Seattle in her memoir, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Her younger brother, actor Kevin McCarthy, went on to star in such movies as Death of a Salesman (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

Under the guardianship of the Prestons, McCarthy studied at the 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 with an A.B., cum laude, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

Beliefs as an adult

McCarthy left the Catholic Church as a young woman when she became an atheist.[1] In her contrarian fashion, McCarthy treasured her religious education for the classical foundation it provided her intellect while at the same time she depicted her loss of faith and her contests with religious authority as essential to her character.

In New York, she moved in "fellow-traveling" Communist circles early in the 1930s, but by the latter half of the decade she repudiated Soviet-style Communism, expressing solidarity with Leon Trotsky after the Moscow Trials, and vigorously countering playwrights and authors she considered to be sympathetic to Stalinism.

As part of the Partisan Review circle and as a contributor to The Nation, The New Republic, Harper's Magazine, and The New York Review of Books, she garnered attention as a cutting critic, advocating the necessity for creative autonomy that transcends doctrine. During the 1940s and 1950s she became a liberal critic of both McCarthyism and Communism. She maintained her commitment to liberal critiques of culture and power to the end of her life, opposing the Vietnam War in the 1960s and covering the Watergate scandal hearings in the 1970s. She visited Vietnam a number of times during the Vietnam War. 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.[2] She wrote favorably about the Vietcong.[3]

Social life

She married four times. In 1933 she married Harald Johnsrud, an actor and would-be playwright. Her best-known spouse was the writer and critic Edmund Wilson, whom she married in 1938 after leaving her lover Philip Rahv, and with whom she had a son, Reuel Wilson. In 1946 she married Bowden Broadwater, who worked for the New Yorker. In 1961, McCarthy married career diplomat James R. West.[4]

Although she broke ranks with some of her Partisan Review colleagues when they swerved toward conservative politics after World War II, she carried on lifelong friendships with Dwight Macdonald, Nicola Chiaromonte, Philip Rahv, F. W. Dupee and Elizabeth Hardwick. Perhaps most prized of all was her close friendship with Hannah Arendt, with whom she maintained a sizable correspondence widely regarded for its intellectual rigor. After Arendt's passing, McCarthy became Arendt's literary executor from 1976 until her own death in 1989.[5] McCarthy 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.[6]

Literary reputation

Her debut novel, The Company She Keeps, received critical acclaim as a succès de scandale, depicting the social milieu of New York intellectuals of the late 1930s with unreserved frankness. After building a reputation as a satirist and critic, McCarthy enjoyed popular success when her 1963 novel The Group remained on the New York Times Best Seller list for almost two years. Her work is noted for its precise prose and its complex 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 feud with fellow writer Lillian Hellman formed the basis for the play Imaginary Friends by Nora Ephron.[7][8] The feud had simmered since the late 1930s over ideological differences, particularly the questions of the Moscow Trials and of Hellman's support for the "Popular Front" with Stalin. 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. Observers of the trial noted the resulting irony of Hellman's defamation suit is that it brought significant scrutiny, and decline of Hellman's reputation, by forcing McCarthy and her supporters to prove that she had lied.[9]

McCarthy also engaged in a controversy with USAF general James Risner over their meeting while he was a POW in North Vietnam.[10]


McCarthy was the winner of the Horizon Prize in 1949 and was awarded two Guggenheim fellowships in 1949 and 1959. She was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy in Rome. In 1973, she delivered the Huizinga Lecture in Leiden, the Netherlands, under the title Can There Be a Gothic Literature? The same year she was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[11] She won the National Medal for Literature and the Edward MacDowell Medal in 1984.

McCarthy holds honorary degrees from Bard, Bowdoin, Colby, Smith College, Syracuse University, The University of Maine at Orono, The University of Aberdeen, and the University of Hull.


McCarthy died of lung cancer on October 25, 1989, at NewYork–Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.[12]

Film portrayals

In the 2012 German movie Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy is portrayed by Janet McTeer.

Selected works

Books about McCarthy


  1. McCarthy, Mary (October 2, 1988). "Letter to the editor: Flannery O'Connor's works". The New York Times. Archived from the original on May 25, 2015. Retrieved May 18, 2016.
  2. Leckie, Robert (1992). The Wars of America. Castle Books.
  3. Liukkonen, Petri. "Mary McCarthy". Books and Writers ( Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on 10 February 2015.
  4. "James R. West, 84, Diplomat Married to Mary McCarthy". The New York Times. September 17, 1999. Retrieved May 12, 2010.
  5. Parini, Jay (2004). The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature. Oxford University Press. p. 48. doi:10.1093/acref/9780195156539.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-19-515653-9. LCCN 2002156325. OCLC 51289864.
  6. "Mary McCarthy: A Biographical Sketch". Special Collections: Mary McCarthy - A Biographical Sketch. Vassar College Libraries. Retrieved June 26, 2014.
  7. "Ben Pleasants's Contentious Minds: The Mary McCarthy / Lillian Hellman Affair". Retrieved 2010-11-09.
  8. Saidi, Janet (September 20, 2002). "When Mary Met Lillian". The Christian Science Monitor.
  9. Jacobson, Phyllis (Summer 1997). "Two Invented Lives". New Politics. Retrieved 2010-11-09.
  10. McCarthy, Mary (March 7, 1974). "On Colonel Risner". The New York Review of Books. 21 (3). Retrieved July 26, 2014. (subscription required (help)).
  11. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter M" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 25, 2014.
  12. "Mary McCarthy, 77, Is Dead; Novelist, Memoirist and Critic". New York Times. October 29, 1989. Retrieved 2008-07-07. Mary McCarthy, one of America's pre-eminent women of letters, died of cancer yesterday at New York Hospital. She was 77 years old and lived in Castine, Maine, and Paris.
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