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.
- 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) ↩