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Show Me the Girl : WRITING DANGEROUSLY: Mary McCarthy and Her World By Carol Brightman ; (Clarkson Potter / Crown: $30; 636 pp.)

March 07, 1993|Shirley Ann Grau | Grau is a novelist and short story writer who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1965 for "Keepers of the House."

Mary McCarthy was a beautiful, well-educated woman with an explorer's heart and an independent mind. She was born in 1912 in Seattle to a family that had followed its fortunes westward across the United States. Her grandfather, Harold Preston, a successful attorney, had moved to Washington from Illinois; his parents had come from Vermont. Her grandmother, whom she remembered as "a fairy-tale person who lived in an enchanted house," was a narcissist whose life was almost entirely devoted to the adornment of her person. Her mother, Tess, was reported to be the most beautiful woman in Seattle; her father, Roy McCarthy, was a charming, ineffectual alcoholic. In 1918 Roy, Tess and their four children moved from Seattle to Minneapolis, his family's hometown. Almost at once all six came down with flu in the pandemic of that year. Both parents died, leaving their very young children in the care of their grandparents. Mary was the oldest.

She spent the next years in Minneapolis, with the guardians the family had hired: Margaret and Myers Shriver, a dour, childless, middle-aged couple. Myers had once been a pickle buyer and a traveling salesman; now the McCarthys provided him with a house and $8,200 a year (a generous sum in those days) to feed and clothe the orphaned children. It was not a happy relationship. In later years Mary and her brother said that they suspected Shriver of embezzling some of the money their grandfather set aside for them.

Though there was no shortage of money with the Minneapolis McCarthys, there was an acute lack of concern and love.

Mary began school, an old-fashioned Catholic elementary. She was clever at her books; she learned easily. Her imagination began to work. She began to dream the usual dreams of a Catholic girl: She would be a Carmelite like St. Theresa of Avila, or perhaps she would be an abbess presiding over a famous convent of holy nuns, or perhaps she would be Queen Marie-Therese, the wife of the King of France.

McCarthy once described herself this way: "For me excess was attractive almost per se." That one sentence describes not just her childhood but her entire life.

A sense of rootlessness and restlessness filled her days, she said. (She wrote a great deal about her early life. The problem of a biographer is to separate the truth from the fiction writer's attitudinizing.) She moved west to join her grandparents in Seattle, she moved east to college at Vassar. Again she proved a good student, but an eccentric and unpredictable girl.

By her mid-teens the call of sex had become compellingly strong. She wrote about her affairs extensively, documenting her progression from a first encounter in the back seat of a car to the sophisticated environs of her mature adventures.

Unfortunately, Mary McCarthy's reputation for promiscuity occasionally obscured her reputation as a writer in much the same way that her reputation for vicious mockery often obscured the penetrating truth of her observations.

After college, where she earned a Phi Beta Kappa key, McCarthy moved to New York City. There she supported herself--meagerly--by writing, the comfortable shield of family money having vanished. She survived, even flourished. She had marriages and divorces, and many transient lovers whom she identified, clinically enough, by their jobs: a man who made puppets, a publisher, a truck driver. In a single day she noted that she had slept with three different men, but, she insisted, she did not feel promiscuous. She went to parties, she drank, she talked, she listened to others talk.

And she took up left-wing politics, this young woman who had never been interested in such things before. She dated her conversion to Trotskyism to a publisher's party in 1936 and a meeting with the novelist James Farrell. Soon her life was filled with the elite of the New York intellectual left: Philip Rahv, Edmund Wilson, Dwight McDonald. Thereafter a great deal of her energy and time and interest were devoted to political meetings and political maneuvering. And of course she did her own writing, quite a lot of it, both fiction and nonfiction.

McCarthy's life resembled a soap opera's domestic turmoil: abusive husbands, demanding lovers, divorces, a child, custody battles, commitment to a New York psychiatric hospital. Her professional life was almost as turbulent. Success and failure, good books and bad, even silly ones, best-selling books and unnoticed books, friendly critics and hostile ones. It seemed that both as a woman and as a writer she inspired strong feelings in other people. Her tongue, so clever and witty at times, got her into the most publicized literary squabble of the decade. On the Dick Cavett Show, McCarthy called Lillian Hellman a dishonest writer, elaborating when encouraged that "every word she writes is a lie, including and and the ." Hellman, every bit as aggressive as McCarthy, responded with a lawsuit. The resulting litigation did serious damage to the reputations of both women.

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