Frances Kiernan by Lynne Tillman

BOMB 71 Spring 2000
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Frances Kiernan. Photo by Marion Ettlinger. Courtesy of  W.W.  Norton & Company.

Frances Kiernan’s biography Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy helps us see Mary McCarthy again, and maybe, for many readers, for the first time. Today McCarthy is best known for her novel The Group and her memoir Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. But she wrote 20 books, including the revolutionary short story collection The Company She Keeps, as well as essays, investigative journalism, theater criticism and travel books. Born in 1912 and active until her death in 1989, McCarthy engaged with the fascinating characters of her day—critic Edmund Wilson, philosopher Hannah Arendt, art historian Bernard Berenson, novelist Norman Mailer, writer Elizabeth Hardwick and poet Robert Lowell to name just a few. Kiernan interviewed over 200 people for this book—writers of McCarthy’s generation and the next, friends, enemies, relatives, critics. In part an oral history, the biography comprises not only McCarthy’s fascinating life and important writing, but it is also a commentary of her time, spoken by the characters who made it so lively. The company McCarthy kept and the political and aesthetic debates she participated in—her involvement with the Partisan Review crowd, making a stand against Senator Joseph McCarthy, defending Hannah Arendt’s controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem, and writing authoritatively against the Vietnam War—educate us about this intriguing, tumultuous period. Kiernan evokes a figure who’s both larger-than-life and vulnerable, and reminds us that Mary McCarthy’s brilliance, exquisite use of language, and fierce observations make her one of America’s most stimulating and pleasurable writers.

Lynne Tillman Why did you decide to write a biography about Mary McCarthy?

Frances Kiernan I read The Group in college and loved it, but it wasn’t until I read Memories of a Catholic Girlhood in my thirties that she became a figure for me—I am not a Catholic and her childhood world was very different from mine. A little later, I was Elizabeth Hardwick’s editor at The New Yorker, and she talked a bit about Mary McCarthy. This was in the early 1980s, during Lillian Hellman’s lawsuit [McCarthy said on TV, “Every word Hellman wrote was a lie including and and the.” Hellman sued; the suit dragged on until Hellman died.] But Mary McCarthy was still a remote figure. I left The New Yorker in ’87, went to Houghton Mifflin, and inherited a writer named Thomas Mallon. McCarthy was a great supporter of his early work, he’d read everything she’d written and loved her writing. They became friends, so I’d hear about her. I heard about his visit to the hospital when she was dying. It was upsetting, the way it can be if you have a friend who’s close to someone, and you begin to feel you know them too. So there was a sense of real loss when she died. Around the same time, I wrote a piece on publishing and got a call from an agent who said, “I know you’re half-Southern and I think you should do a book on Eudora Welty.” Out of my mouth flew the words, “No, I couldn’t. She’s too private. But I could do a book on Mary McCarthy.”

LT McCarthy wrote important fiction and nonfiction, was read by everyone, but today her work isn’t read much and is viewed ambivalently. She isn’t read like a Bellow or Mailer—Mailer especially. Mailer did much of what she did—

FK And admired her early stories. Maureen Howard suggested to me that part of the problem was that McCarthy was not embraced by the feminists. In fact, she was on record as having no use for feminism. In that way she was very much of her generation. Lillian Hellman, Doris Lessing had no use for it, but they’re taken more seriously. Hellman isn’t now; but she was at one point.

LT In the biography, Maureen Howard explains, “Partially in the early ’60s, having performed so well on their own, they did not want to be associated with the disenfranchised.” Doris Lessing has lived longer and continued writing past the ’70s.

FK Mary’s best fiction writing ended in the late ’50s. The best parts of The Group were written in 1954. After that, a lot of her energy went into criticism and reporting.

LT Like her work on Vietnam and Watergate.

FK The Mask of State is terrific, the portraits so vivid; she was dead-on. I ran into Nixon’s special counsel, Leonard Garment, who said she was the one person who got it right.

LT She was also right that McCarthyism was more dangerous than the so-called Stalinist threat.

FK She just about always had the right position. The one time she was way off was about the prisoner of war in North Vietnam, Robinson Risner. She went out of her way to attack him. He’s just helpless, like a little bug she’s squashing. Renata Adler once said to me that Mary always attacked equals. That’s why you couldn’t get that angry with her. But Risner was the one time she didn’t. Mary was right that the war had to end, she was right about the South. She’s so right that when she goes wrong you’re taken aback. But she’s toughest on herself. When she collected all her Vietnam writing in The Seventeenth Degree, she wrote in her introduction about a dream—and she’s not a great believer in dreams—in which she’s lost and can’t find her way out. She begins to think that maybe she didn’t get it all quite right.

LT In A Charmed Life McCarthy wrote, “Nobody can have a permanent claim on being the injured party.” She was orphaned at the age of six, she’d suffered and been victimized by a sadistic uncle. She may have thought feminism was about victimization, not gender inequity, for instance.

FK Eileen Simpson says something about that. When they’re introduced as fellow orphans, Mary wanted nothing to do with Eileen. An orphan is not what she wanted to be in this life.

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Mary McCarthy, Portsmouth, RI, ca. 1950. Photo by Kevin McCarthy. Courtesy of Vassar College Library.

LT Her female characters are intelligent, active, fully developed. She proposes the relationship between men and women as a struggle of equals.

FK The woman is equal, thinking the whole time just as he is. Mary was always going to be an equal.

LT Why do you think she spoke out against feminism?

FK Part of it may have been that she was living in Paris. I think that something went wrong, in a way. She was a person who did best when she lived in the thick of things. Becoming involved in the Vietnam War and also in Watergate was a way of trying to get back into the thick of things. She thrived—I think Isaiah Berlin said it—when she was part of a coterie or small group. She was somebody who lived an active social life. She depended on the give and take of good friends. She performed for her friends, and for her enemies. She lived in the world totally. When she’s among the French who have very little use for her, you see her living in the narrowed circle of an expatriate’s life.

LT Thinking of Europe—McCarthy said at some point that meeting Nicola Chiaromonte and Hannah Arendt helped her leave the Partisan Review crowd in New York and broaden her view. In A Charmed Life there’s a discussion about Hamlet, Racine, tragedy, the Greeks. She writes novels of ideas. Is that out of favor here? Is she too European?

FK Ideas are very important to her. Also social context, in a way that it wasn’t for Bellow, for instance. Bellow was much more of an inward writer.

LT Which is why Arendt would be so important to her. Though she’d come of age with Bellow and Salinger.

FK Whose writing she didn’t get at all; Salinger, that is.

LT She got Burroughs and Nabokov.

FK But interestingly enough, she came to them through friends; Edmund Wilson was a great supporter of Nabokov.

LT But she took them up.

FK Doing so also allowed room for her because both of those writers lend themselves to the kind of exegesis that was natural to her. I remember asking Burroughs whether he thought she got Naked Lunch right. He said, “Well, right enough.” She was able to bring herself into it. It became an active enterprise. At the same time, it allowed her to believe that she was keeping up even though she read almost no American writers. But you’re right, she was not that interested in American writers. And Mary liked to shock, too. I think there was a certain pleasure in astonishing people with her admiration for Burroughs. Although she wouldn’t have said she admired him if she didn’t. But also he’s writing about what she thinks is a sort of modern expatriation; at that point she’s an expatriate. She’s feeling disaffected, cut off. She’s written that the modern novel’s theme is being without a nation, a home. In a way being a heroin addict would be being without a home.

LT A kind of inner expatriation.

FK She genuinely responded to that. But she also liked [Umberto Eco’s] The Name of the Rose. She liked things she could piece together, where her erudition was of help. She loved puzzles, anything that could challenge her mind. She was not easy on herself. She never relaxed intellectually. She worked so hard on Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind. That anybody would take two years off from their own work to work on something so different and so difficult is amazing.

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(Seated from left) Nicola Chiaromonte, Mary McCarthy, Robert Lowell. (Standing from left) Heinrich Blucher, Hannah Arendt, Dwight McDonald, and Gloria MacDonald. Courtesy Vassar College Library.

LT Reading Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, I was struck by her insistence on honesty. After all but the last chapter, there’s a postscript, reflecting upon whether what she remembered was accurate.

FK That, by the way, is one of the few books that’s taught. She’s interested in ideas, she’s interested in the search for truth. At a certain point this changed slightly. In 1962, she was interviewed by Elizabeth Niebuhr Sifton for The Paris Review, and she says, “There is a truth, and it is knowable.” I think in a way it marks a turning point. For a writer it’s not a great stance to take. It closes off possibilities. As a young woman, she says she did not see things that way.

LT I wonder why she changed. It’s a radical thing to say.

FK She loved to say outrageous things, and it probably is an oversimplification. Maybe it was from hanging out with Hannah Arendt.

LT You talk a lot about that relationship in the book.

FK But not the way most people do.

LT How do most people talk about it?

FK In a very reverent way, with Hannah the mentor and Mary the student or loving daughter. I think it was very complicated, and different people saw it in different ways. Was it totally beneficial to Mary? I’m not so sure it was. It depends on how you view Hannah Arendt. For me, she is an important figure, she is in many ways admirable. The book of hers that I’ve read that I find totally compelling, yet disagree with, is Eichmann in Jerusalem. When I pick it up I can’t stop reading it. I find it horrifying, totally effective. I think in a way it is a masterpiece. But that doesn’t mean I agree with it.

LT With what do you disagree?

FK I feel as Isaiah Berlin and Saul Bellow did: that she was simply wrong about the Jewish Councils. Those Jewish leaders didn’t believe they were collaborating with the Nazis in making lists, in doing what they were told to do, in the hope that some good would come of it. Arendt was judging after the fact, privy to information they were not privy to. I think Isaiah Berlin said if you saved 30 lives that way, you’ve accomplished something.

LT Berlin was extremely, almost violently negative about Arendt.

FK He really had no use for her.

LT People are often astonished that Arendt and McCarthy were friends. I don’t know why. They were famous women, singular even in that way, important writers, who shared a deep conviction that life, art, and philosophy could not be separated from each other.

FK Also, morality was very important. They were always making moral distinctions. Both of them were thinkers, for all that their styles were very different. And they were endlessly curious. But there is the underlying assumption that women really don’t like each other.

LT Where misogyny lies …

FK Alfred Kazin said he felt that Mary McCarthy didn’t really like men or wasn’t really interested in men, that it was with women she had her most significant relationships. Andy Dupee thought she was much smarter about her choices in women friends. Hannah offered something to McCarthy that she felt was important. There are friends of McCarthy who felt it was the most important friendship of her life. Some felt that the Mary of A Charmed Life vanished in time. When she wrote A Charmed Life, she was very aware of Hannah not approving of it. My feeling is that Birds of America, which is a far less good book, was written for Hannah. Cannibals and Missionariesstemmed from an idea that Hannah approved of. I think the friendship was very important, until it began to impinge, perhaps, on Mary’s fiction writing. But I also think it’s hard to know because also Jim West [her fourth and last husband] didn’t like it when she was being bitchy. With that marriage, she’d entered a whole other world.

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James West. Courtesy of Alison West.

LT For her, satire is a way of getting at the truth.

FK It’s still in The Group. Because The Group was conceived in 1952. But you don’t see it turning up in her fiction, really, ever again after she marries Jim West. In fact, she deliberately forgoes satire in Birds of America. It’s meant to be taken straight. The other, Cannibals and Missionaries, is a thriller. For the most part she’s playing it straight again. Satire is where she’s strongest, except for Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and of course that isn’t really fiction.

LT She’s bold in the way she wrote about sex, in her writing generally, in how she led her life. She held strong positions, used episodes from her life and people she knew who knew they were in her books. She took harsh criticism and didn’t flinch.

FK She stuck by it all. There was something in her that didn’t necessarily want people to like her. I think she wanted people to notice her.

LT You can imagine the reactions to her novels or her essays, compared with her childhood deprivations …

FK She could get through it. Because there is a difference. She was upset. John Gross talks about having written a bad review of The Group; he always felt that she’d read it. It was between them, but it never came up. She did read those things and took them hard. But at the same time it never stopped her. Somehow she could slough it off.

LT How did she take Mailer’s writing that “she was not a good enough woman to be a good novelist?”

FK She hated that review when it came out. She was really upset. Later on, with Birds of America, Helen Vendler attacked her for writing a book about the kitchen and domestic arts. The reviews were not great, and she said she began to long for something of the quality of Mailer’s review. Mailer said later on she forgave him, they had a decent relationship. It was wrong and sexist of him to do it. But at least he treated her as a figure worthy of this kind of demolition. In time, she wasn’t getting that kind of attention, and I think she may have missed it.

LT You were a fiction editor at The New Yorker for many years.

FK I was there for 20 years, always in the fiction department.

LT I wondered about your thoughts on the differences between fiction and biography.

FK No one would have written the kind of biography that I did who hadn’t come out of a fiction background. I’m so interested in Mary McCarthy as a personality. She is first and foremost the center. I’m interested in watching her develop and the contradictions in her character. I don’t believe that there is a truth that is knowable, and that permeates the book.

LT Is that why you chose to use oral history?

FK I was originally going to write a straight oral history. Then, I guess the book had three or four different people who were interested in buying it, but the one I wanted to go with was Gerry Howard at Norton. Gerry said, “We feel you should have writing of your own to control the voices.” For me the idea of doing an oral history was appealing. But it didn’t work. As the book goes on there’s more and more of my writing. What I realized was you needed my writing for the flexibility of it; also it was a way of shortening the book. It made it possible to take out about 300 pages. At some point I found the format constricting and wanted to do it as a straight biography. But Gerry felt it would be a loss. The fact is, some of those voices are terrific.

LT When you suggested doing McCarthy, had you read the other biographies?

FK No, but I did immediately. The Brightman hadn’t come out at that point; we thought Carol Brightman was doing a book about Mary’s politics, not a full-scale biography; I never would have attempted this book if I knew.

LT Was she helpful to you?

FK She’s been wonderful to me. What first happened was I read Doris Grumbach’s and then Carol Gelderman’s. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t start a book about someone I couldn’t like and respect. I saw quickly that she had flaws, but they weren’t flaws that bothered me. I think that’s important. Because people would say, “How could you do a book about this person? She was so awful!” I never found her awful.

LT What was so awful about her?

FK If you had a brush with her and she didn’t like you, she could be a terror. But I had never had a brush with her. I could imagine in my mind she liked me because people I knew and cared about she had liked and been good to. I think that was part of it. Many people have said to me, “Why you, of all people?” But what I liked in her was that she was so different from me. She was all the things that I would have liked to be, the person who did speak out. That’s why I was drawn to her. I would have been a Mary McCarthy groupie if we had met.

LT What about the instability of oral history, about people’s memories of the past and bad personal histories? Saul Bellow is particularly vicious and condescending.

FK I thought it would be obvious to readers when they’re way out of line. Bellow’s sometimes out of control. I sat with him for an hour and laughed the entire time—he’s one of the funniest men in the world. Later I thought, he hasn’t said a nice thing about anybody. I did all my own transcribing, because I felt it was important to hear the voices again. I transcribed Bellow accurately and was astonished at how mean he was. But his voice was so gentle, he was so charming. I thought, the delivery manages to mask the venom. He really hated her. It was mostly about Eichmann in Jerusalem—they were on opposite sides; Mary defended Hannah in an essay, “The Hue and Cry,” and he didn’t like Hannah. The other thing was Mary’s attack on George Orwell. Bellow was a good friend of Sonia Orwell, the widow, but he also felt that Mary was plain wrong about Orwell. She was. But it was Mary; she had her reasons.

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Mary McCarthy, Bocca di Magra, Italy, ca. 1964. Photo courtesy of William Mostyn-Owen.

LT Going back to her insistence on questioning ethical positions, which she did—

FK Constantly.

LT When she attacked Hellman for lying, it also damaged her, her reputation. It was one woman, one writer, attacking another.

FK Hellman lost, too. You don’t sue someone for making a personal attack.

LT The argument went back to the 1930s—

FK Hellman was a Stalinist. In 1948 Mary and she were at a party, at Sarah Lawrence—it was the second time they met—and Mary overheard Hellman accusing John Dos Passos of turning against the loyalist cause because he didn’t like the food in Madrid. Mary stepped forward, publicly corrected Hellman, and defended Dos Passos.

LT McCarthy was politically engaged.

FK Emotionally as well as politically engaged. The way most of us are.

LT She came of age in a period when positions were very clearly drawn. That’s compelling to consider now, in our post-Cold War world.

FK By temperament McCarthy tended to side with the underdog always. But in fact the underdog tended to be right. I think her finest hour is during the 1950s, when everybody else is losing their bearings, and she doesn’t. She stays on the right side, and she speaks out.

LT Was she ever brought in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee?

FK No, because she was never a Communist. She was an anti-Stalinist of the Left, but aside from signing a petition on Trotsky’s behalf I don’t think she was officially part of any radical group. Unlike William Phillips or Philip Rahv, she had no ties to the Communists, who had funded an earlier version of the Partisan Review. She’d never joined the Party.

LT Rahv, her former lover—one of the very interesting men in her life.

FK She does define herself through the men she’s with somehow, for all her independence. Mary always wanted to be Mary McCarthy, not on anybody’s coattails. But there’s no question Edmund Wilson helped her by encouraging her to write fiction. He was the best first reader you could hope for. He also had wonderful connections. Her first story was published by Robert Penn Warren, who was a friend of Wilson’s. Wilson had lots of connections at The New Yorker. It made it easier. She wanted to believe that she was the orphan who made it on her own. We all have our own stories about ourselves.

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Edmund Wilson, ca. 1943. Photo by Sylvia Salmi. Courtesy of Helen Miranda Wilson.

LT Her marriage to Wilson is talked about so much. Whatever other reasons she had, she also left him because he might in some way dominate her intellectually.

FK She had to leave, she’d gone as far as she could go with him. He tried not to dominate her. I love what she tells an interviewer about “The Weeds,” which was a story about their marriage. Wilson read it, helped her with it, and didn’t object to her sending it out. But he got so angry, later, when it was published. She said to him, “But you read it.” And he said, “But you made it better.” It’s about a wife who leaves, then the husband goes after her and brings her back. There’s so much anger and hatred in the story. And they’re so recognizable.

LT There’s much talk in your biography about the time she was in a mental hospital. What did you think happened?

FK Did Wilson beat her? I suspect he did. He was drunk, out of control. I think he didn’t remember beating her. Did he beat her as much as she thought? Probably not. It was awful for her, nonetheless. What she later admitted to Wilson’s biographer, Lewis Dabney, was that perhaps she was aware at the time of being put into a mental institution. Always she believed she was telling the truth. She was a great truth teller. But she misremembered things, the way we all do. Certainly, she did this less than most of us. But with time, stories altered. It happens. I start the biography with meeting Mary in the ladies’ room at The New Yorker. I remember her graying hair, it was shoulder length, and I think she was smoking by the window. But am I positive about the smoking by the window? Why was she on the 20th floor and not the 19th floor where [William] Shawn was? You’ve told this story so many times to yourself and to other people you aren’t sure anymore.

LT Being thrown into a mental hospital after that fight with Wilson would’ve been traumatic.

FK It would distort everything. Her letters to him strike me as the letters of a battered wife. Though they could be used to make a case on Wilson’s behalf—she’s trying to say I’m not going to be hysterical anymore. I find it so touching that she wants to keep her baby, Rueul. Which she does indeed do. I find her totally admirable to this day. I never got tired of her, ever. It took eight years to do the book, and that’s a long time to spend with anyone. Her life began to take over mine. I had a real crisis during the marriage to Wilson. After a while, I got so depressed; and there was a real sense of elation when she finally broke out. Then more elation when she discovers Europe, goes to Venice, finds something else. I really cried when writing her death. For me, it was terrible.

LT Her death makes me think of A Charmed Life. Death, and also sex. The sex scene on the couch …

FK Horrifying, brilliant, and hysterically funny—all at the same time.

LT It’s a great novel.

FK It’s my favorite. It was also James Merrill’s favorite. He said she could barely stand to think about death. Here she dispatches her heroine so quickly.

LT Being forced to consider whether it was right to have her main character die is one of the reasons why the ending works.

FK You don’t expect it at all. But it is prepared for. Her first book, The Company She Keeps, a collection of stories, is her best book probably. “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt” is in it. It’s so modern. Everyone has learned so much from her, without knowing it. She changed the way women write.

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Mary McCarthy, Paris, mid-60s. Courtesy Vassar College Library.

LT Was Dorothy Parker important to McCarthy?

FK No, the person who was was Rebecca West.

LT But there’s a frankness to Parker’s short stories—

FK Which Mary has. A writer named Tess Slesinger was actually the first to deal with the world of New York intellectuals. But as a writer she’s more self-effacing. Not as sharp or strident, not as good. In the best of those stories Mary has a strong main character, always the same Mary character. She is her own heroine and always best when she’s writing about herself. Look at Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Look at A Charmed Life. What’s interesting to me is that people say she’s not a good fiction writer. She is, at her best, and she’s a terrific essayist. The disparagement of her fiction is so wrongheaded.

LT Maybe it’s because of The Group. The Group had so much attention as the next generation came along. It’s not her best novel.

FK If somebody else wrote it, it would be fine. But for her it was a falling off.

LT Through your work and Carol Brightman’s, do you think that there’s a chance her reputation will be restored?

FK I would love that. I think it’s Alison Lurie who says in my book that McCarthy had such an influence on writers that what was once profound or shocking no longer seems quite so fresh. William Maxwell then talks about posterity, and how when one looks to posterity one assumes they are going to be brighter than we are, but they’re going to be pretty much like us. And he says, “Anywhere that people have hearts they’re going to read Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and those early stories in The Company She Keeps.” I’d like to believe that’s true: in the end quality will out. I think that what stays with me is the intelligence and the feeling both, there’s so much feeling in her writing.

LT Without being sentimental. She’s a tough thinker.

FK And she was willing to pay the price.

Lynne Tillman’s most recent book is Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co. Her novel No Lease on Life, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction in 1998, just appeared in paperback from Harvest Books (Harcourt Brace). Lynne Tillman is a contributing editor to BOMB in writing.

Originally published in

BOMB 71, Spring 2000

Featuring interviews with Frank Stella, John Currin, Jim Crace, Frances Kiernan, Brian Boyd, Marsha Norman, and Arto Lindsay. 

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