Mary McCarthy? Lillian Hellman? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The funniest caustic condemnation of a prevaricator that I have ever heard was delivered by the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy. The result was a multi-million dollar defamation lawsuit filed by the famous playwright Lillian Hellman who was the target of the criticism. Would you please examine precisely what was spoken?
Quote Investigator: In 1978 a journalist named Joan Dupont interviewed Mary McCarthy for a short-lived English-language periodical called “Paris Metro”. Dupont explored the topic of rivalry between women intellectuals and asked McCarthy’s opinion of the political philosopher Hannah Arendt. McCarthy said she greatly admired Arendt and felt no competitiveness toward her. When Dupont asked McCarthy about the playwright Lillian Hellman the response given with a smile was savage and comically hyperbolic. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
“I can’t stand her. I think every word she writes is false, including ‘and’ and ‘but.'” Her steady smile has grown into a full grin.
This version of McCarthy’s comment is not well-known because “Paris Metro” did not circulate widely. But McCarthy decided to reuse her bon mot in October 1979 during her appearance on a public television talk show hosted by Dick Cavett. When Cavett asked her to name overrated authors she referred to Hellman, and she attempted to recall her previous quip. She produced an altered remark that achieved wide distribution: 2
FROM THE TRANSCRIPT OF THE DICK CAVETT SHOW,
OCTOBER 18, 1979, TAPING
MCCARTHY: 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, to the Steinbeck past, not that she is a writer like Steinbeck
CAVETT: What is dishonest about her?
MCCARTHY: Everything. But I said once in some interview that every word she writes is a lie, including “and” and “the.”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The taped interview with Cavett aired in January 1980, and when Hellman saw it she notified her lawyer and initiated a lawsuit for $2.25 million against Mary McCarthy, Dick Cavett, and the Educational Broadcasting Corporation (WNET-TV). Hellman believed that she had been defamed and deserved monetary compensation for pain and suffering. In February 1980 “The New York Times” reported on the case: 3
In the course of the interview with Miss McCarthy, who was on the program to talk about her latest novel, “Cannibals and Missionaries,” a question was raised about contemporary writers who are “overpraised.”
Miss McCarthy replied that Lillian Hellman was “a bad writer, overrated, a dishonest writer.”
When Mr. Cavett asked what was “dishonest” about Miss Hellman, Miss McCarthy answered, “Everything.” Miss McCarthy continued, “I once said in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.'”
To mount a defense against the lawsuit McCarthy and her allies searched for falsehoods in Hellman’s memoirs. For example, in “Pentimento” Hellman cast herself as an anti-Nazi heroine who smuggled money into prewar Berlin. The extraordinary tale was made into a Hollywood movie called “Julia” starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. But McCarthy’s team concluded that Hellman had constructed her tale based on the real-life activities of Muriel Gardiner Buttinger, a woman Hellman had never met. Hellman’s daring role, they believed, was fabricated. 4
The lawsuit moved through the court system for years. Finally, in 1984 Hellman died and her estate simply dropped the lawsuit.
In conclusion, Mary McCarthy did craft an acerbic remark about lying during a 1978 interview. She employed a close variant statement during a talk show appearance recorded in 1979.
Image Notes: Reduced-size, low-resolution images of two book covers: “Pentimento” by Lillian Hellman containing the episode that inspired the movie “Julia”; “The Group”, the most well-known novel by Mary McCarthy.
(Great thanks to the anonymous person who wished to know the precise words used by Mary McCarthy.)
- 1991, Conversations with Mary McCarthy, Edited by Carol Gelderman, (Collection of Mary McCarthy interviews from miscellaneous publications), Series: Literary Conversations Series, Chapter: Mary McCarthy: Portrait of a Lady, Author/Interviewer: Joan Dupont, (Reprinted from February 15, 1978 issue of The Paris Metro), Start Page 157, Quote Page 164, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2000, Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy by Frances Kiernan, Chapter 25: The Hellman Suit, Quote Page 673, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1980 February 16, New York Times, Miss Hellman Suing a Critic For 2.25 Million by Herbert Mitgang, Quote Page 12, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 2000, Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy by Frances Kiernan, Chapter 25: The Hellman Suit, Quote Page 681 to 683 and 702, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩