McCarthy, Mary (1912-1989)

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 12/17/2007
  • Essay 8426
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Mary McCarthy was an American writer and one of the twentieth century's most prominent American intellectuals. Her considerable body of work includes essays, fiction, journalism, criticism, and memoir. She was associated with the revival of the influential literary journal Partisan Review in 1937. Her work appeared frequently in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, and other major magazines. Her books (nine works of fiction and 15 books of nonfiction) include The Company She Keeps, The Group, Venice Observed, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and How I Grew, among many others.

McCarthy's Gaze

Bibliographers Joy Bennett and Gabriella Hochman stated in the introduction to their McCarthy bibliography:

"Throughout her career, neither academics nor intellectuals, progressives nor terrorists have escaped her penetrating gaze. Passionately engaged with questions of truth and social conscience, her work consistently reflected her own life and concerns. She viewed the relationship between life and literature as one of 'mutual plagiarism,' and used friends and colleagues as real-life models for many of the characters in her books, often with devastating effect" (p. xii).

Critic Elizabeth Hardwick stated that McCarthy possessed "will power, confidence, and a subversive soul sustained by exceptional energy" (The New York Times, October 26, 1989).

Early Childhood

Mary Therese McCarthy was born on June 21, 1912, at Minor Hospital in Seattle. Her parents were Seattle native Tess Preston McCarthy (1888-1918) and Roy McCarthy (1880-1918), son of a family of successful grain merchants in Minneapolis.

Tess, whose mother, Augusta Morgenstern Preston (1865-1954), was Jewish and whose father, prominent Seattle attorney Harold Preston (1858-1938) was Protestant, had converted to Catholicism at the time of her marriage. Mary was baptized at St. James Cathedral in Seattle by Father Noonan.

Young Mary started school at Sacred Heart Convent/Forest Ridge in Seattle, a private girls school run by sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but almost immediately came down with chicken pox. When she recovered she attended school for only eight days before all Seattle schools were ordered closed to help stem the spread of the global influenza pandemic then raging through the state. Before the school reopened Mary, her three younger brothers, and her parents (along with an aunt and uncle) departed by train for Minneapolis, where they were planning to live near Roy McCarthy's parents. While en route the family members fell ill with influenza. By the time they reached their destination Roy and Tess were so ill they had to be carried off the train on stretchers. Both died shortly thereafter.

From a Dickens Novel 

The four orphaned children were not told that their parents had died. Their paternal grandparents put them in the care of Margaret and Meyers Shriver, a paternal great-aunt and her husband, then in their mid-50s.

Of her years in Minneapolis McCarthy later wrote, "It was as though these ignorant people, at sea with four frightened children, had taken a Dickens novel -- Oliver Twist, perhaps, or Nicholas Nickleby -- for a navigational chart" (Memories ... p. 64). Her account of the treatment she and her three younger brothers received includes food deprivation, corporal punishment, being locked outside for hours no matter what the weather, having their mouths taped shut at night to prevent mouth breathing, and other acts of cruelty. When Mary, then age 10, was awarded a $25 prize in a statewide essay contest, her great-uncle took the money and "furiously beat me with the razor strop -- to teach me a lesson, he said, lest I become stuck up" (Memories ... p. 63).

In 1923 Mary and her brother Kevin eventually were able to convey their terrible situation to their visiting maternal grandfather. Kevin and Preston were sent to a Minnesota boarding school. Sheridan, the youngest brother (whose treatment was apparently less barbarous), remained with the Shrivers. Mary returned to Seattle to live with her maternal grandparents.


Mary was re-enrolled in Forest Ridge/Sacred Heart Convent where she had briefly attended first grade before the fateful journey to Minneapolis. She was 11 years old and in the seventh grade. During her time at the school Mary, whose Catholic faith had been both heartfelt and an important coping strategy for her during her years in Minneapolis, began to experience religious doubt.  Ultimately, Mary McCarthy realized that she no longer believed in Catholic doctrine, nor even in God's existence.  This was a turning point in her young life.

McCarthy attended Seattle's Garfield High School as a freshman, but later recalled "I did not last long at public high school; my grandparents, wisely, withdrew me at the end of the first year when, crazed by liberty, I almost ceased to study" (How I Grew, p. 28).

McCarthy transferred to Annie Wright Seminary, an Episcopal boarding school in Tacoma, traveling to home Seattle some weekends by boat or on the Interurban streetcar.

The summer following her graduation from Annie Wright, McCarthy (who nurtured theatrical aspirations) attended classes at Seattle's Cornish School. She remembered in How I Grew, "Our class took place in an exercise room; to the music of the piano, we pranced about, girls and gangling boys, in a long line that formed an ill-shapen circle ... the idea, of course was that we were training our bodies to be expressive on stage ... . It would be wrong to say that I got nothing out of Cornish. Quite a bit less, certainly, than I got out of the summer I spent at typing school one year later, on my grandfather's suggestion" (p. 181).

Vassar Girl

Following in the footsteps of her Annie Wright teacher and mentor, Dorothy Atkinson, a Vassar College graduate, McCarthy matriculated at Vassar in the fall of 1929, delivered to the campus in Poughkeepsie by her grandmother and Aunt Isabel Preston.

She returned to Seattle the summer after her freshman and sophomore years at Vassar, considering the latter visit to be the last time coming to Seattle meant coming home. "When I came back to Seattle after that, it was for visits," she remembered in How I Grew, "even if my grandmother continued to speak of 'Mary's room'" (p. 235).

While at Vassar McCarthy (along with classmates Muriel Rukeyser, Elizabeth Bishop, Frani Blough, Margaret Miller, Eunice Clark, and Eleanor Clark) founded Con Spiritu, a literary magazine formed to protest the school's official literary magazine, the Vassar Review.

Mary's Marriages

On June 21, 1933 (her 21st birthday), Mary McCarthy married actor, director, and playwright Harold Johnsrud (1903-1939) in New York City. A Garfield High School friend had introduced McCarthy to Johnsrud, who had lived in Seattle and worked with the Seattle Repertory Playhouse, during her time at Cornish. The marriage ended in 1936. Johnsrud died three years later in a hotel fire as he tried to save one of his manuscripts.

McCarthy married eminent critic Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) on February 10, 1938, in Red Bank, New Jersey. Although the marriage was not happy (McCarthy's biographers describe numerous incidences of physical abuse committed by Wilson against McCarthy, including during her pregnancy with their son Reuel, born on December 25, 1938), it marked a period of steady growth for McCarthy's work. Wilson encouraged her to try writing fiction. Her first effort, "Cruel and Barbarous Treatment," was published in The Southern Review and eventually became part of her first novel, The Company She Keeps (1942). The couple divorced in 1946.

On December 18, 1946, Mary McCarthy married Robert Bowden Broadwater (1920-2005), a staff member at The New Yorker who was eight years her junior. During their 15-year marriage, Broadwater was supportive of McCarthy's career, assuming household domestic tasks (unusual for the time).

In April 1961 McCarthy married career diplomat James R. West (1915-1999). The couple divided their time between an apartment in Paris and a home in Castine, Maine.

Seattle Keeps Track

Some Seattleites knew Mary McCarthy as schoolmate or neighbor and many more knew or knew of her grandparents, and followed news of her career. McCarthy published book reviews in the New Republic beginning in 1933 and in The Nation beginning in 1934. Her essays in The Nation first appeared in 1935 and on November 6, 1936 the Seattle Public Library began keeping track. The first index card in the library's Washington Authors index reads "McCarthy, Mary (contributor to Nation)" and on the reverse side, "Mary McCarthy is the grand-daughter of Harold Preston of Seattle. She was educated here and at Annie Wright in Tacoma. Is a graduate of Vassar. Was born in Seattle. Was here a few months ago" (Seattle Public Library Washington Author file).

When McCarthy published an essay entitled "Circus Politics In Washington State" in the October 17, 1936, issue of The Nation, The Seattle Times called the essay "an amusing election campaign blast," alerting readers that the writer "was Mary McCarthy, Seattle girl, a graduate of Annie Wright Seminary and Vassar" (January 10, 1937). Seattleites who read The Nation could read McCarthy's description of her home state during the 1936 presidential election:

"The State of Washington is in ferment; it is wild, comic, theatrical, dishonest, disorganized, hopeful; but it is not revolutionary. Washington, it is true, has a tradition of radicalism in labor; but it has at the same time a tradition of corruption in political office. It gave the nation its most successful general strike; but it also pushed into the national limelight such fantastic public figures as Ole Hanson and Hi Gill, former mayors of Seattle. Its most distinguishing political characteristic has always been its sheer eccentricity ... . A smart promoter could put the entire state under a tent, charge admission, and get it ... the state is alive, but it is not yet able to speak coherently" ("Circus Politics...").

On September 24, 1944, news of McCarthy appeared in the "About People You Know" column in The Seattle Times: "Mary McCarthy, a former Seattle girl, has a lengthy story published in the September 16 issue of The New Yorker, the smart magazine of which her husband, Edmund Wilson, is book editor. Writing under her maiden name, Miss McCarthy calls her story "The Weeds." In it she analyzes a woman whose very soul is consumed by the will of her husband and whose ruined garden becomes the symbol of her desolate life ... [McCarthy is] the granddaughter of Mrs. Harold Preston of Seattle."

Visits Home

McCarthy and Johnsrud's marriage ended in the summer of 1936. McCarthy moved to Reno, Nevada, long enough to meet the residency requirement for obtaining a divorce in that state. She made a side trip to Seattle to visit her grandparents before again heading east.

On December 30, 1937, McCarthy's grandfather Harold Preston suffered a stroke. McCarthy considered rushing cross-country but decided against it. He died at Seattle General Hospital on January 1, 1938. Harold Preston's obituary in The Seattle Times stated that he "had practiced law actively longer than any other attorney in Seattle. While some of his contemporaries of 1883 still are living, they either have retired or taken up other work" (January 2, 1938).

McCarthy made an extended visit to Seattle in the summer of 1939, both as a respite from her troubled marriage with Edmund Wilson and to introduce her grandmother to Reuel. She may have visited in the interim, and was in Seattle during the summer of 1952 to visit her grandmother for what turned out to be the final time. Augusta Preston died at home in February 1954.

After her grandmother's death, McCarthy's visits to Seattle were opportunities to see her paternal uncle, Frank Preston. Seattle ephemera, however, she carried with her throughout her life, mentioning in her memoirs such physical reminders as her mother Tess's silverware and a cookbook published by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Temple de Hirsch, from which she could prepare recipes contributed by her grandmother's sisters Rose Gottstein and Eva Aronson.

Seattle's vegetative bounty also followed her east. Mary McCarthy wrote in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, "At Christmas, we had our own holly, cut from a tree in the front yard. The idea that this was better than any other holly persisted in my grandmother's mind until the very end, for every year until she died, a box would arrive for me, just before Christmas, in New England, from Seattle, packed full of holly from the Preston tree" (p. 223).

An Influential Writer

McCarthy's most popular novel was The Group, published in 1963. The Group follows a group of Vassar graduates through their early years of young adulthood and examines the intersection of their idealistic preconceptions with real daily life. The Group became a best-seller and made McCarthy into a public figure, widely photographed and written about in the popular press.

Martha Duffy described how McCarthy's writing influenced American culture in Time Magazine: "She always thought of herself as old-fashioned ... but Mary McCarthy was incorrigibly modern and, in spite of herself, a celebrated pioneer to generations of young women. She opened the way by ignoring the constraints -- and prerogatives -- of gender ... . McCarthy claimed for serious fiction the terrain of a woman's domestic strategies, her finances, her female friendships, her minute biological concerns. Every syllabus on feminist literature is indebted to her" (November 6, 1989).

Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times that McCarthy's novels provide "an idiosyncratic chronicle of American life -- at least within her own intellectual set -- as it changed over some five decades. Sexual freedom of the 1930s, radicalism of the 40s and 50s, Vietnam and the social upheavals of the 60s, Watergate and terrorism in the 70s -- these are the larger issues that flicker in the background of the novels" (October 26, 1989).

Political Commentary

McCarthy traveled to Southeast Asia twice during the Vietnam War and wrote many essays criticizing America's presence there. She published three collections of these essays: Vietnam (1967), Hanoi (1968), and Medina (1972).

In 1974 McCarthy published Mask of State: Watergate Portraits.

Awards and Honors

Mary McCarthy received Guggenheim fellowships in 1949-1950 and 1959-1960. In 1984 she was given two highly prestigious awards: the National Medal For Literature and the MacDowell Medal for literature. In 1988 she was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. McCarthy was also a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy in Rome.

Bard, Bowdoin, Colby, and Smith colleges, Syracuse University, and the Universities of Aberdeen, Hull, and Maine at Orono all bestowed McCarthy with honorary degrees.

Memories ... of Seattle

Between 1944 and 1957 McCarthy published a series of autobiographical sketches in Mademoiselle, Harper's Bazaar, and The New Yorker. In 1957 the sketches were published together with the title Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. The book covers McCarthy's life from her birth in Seattle: her earliest years, her parents' deaths, the difficult Minneapolis years followed by her return to Seattle, the loss of her religious faith while a student at Seattle's Forest Ridge/Sacred Heart Convent, and some focus on her teenage years. Carol Gelderman, one of McCarthy's biographers, states that the book "contains Mary McCarthy's best writing and is one of the most amusing and moving chronicles of growing up in English. As the reviewer in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review put it, 'Miss McCarthy, who writes better than most people, here writes better than herself'" (Mary McCarthy: A Life, p. 205).

The Seattle Times review of the book stated, "Only Mary McCarthy could have written this strange volume -- a combination of brilliant anecdote and analysis of her reasons for remembering each episode" (June 23, 1957).

McCarthy revisited her Northwest years in a two-part essay published in The New Yorker in July 7 and 14, 1986. Entitled "Getting An Education," the essay describes in detail McCarthy's freshman year at Seattle's Garfield High School and its impact on her subsequent three years at the Annie Wright Seminary, an Episcopal boarding school for girls in Tacoma. McCarthy wrote, "I was particularly fitted to 'get the good out of' the convent and the Seminary, not because I was more gifted or cleverer than my classmates but because, thanks to Garfield's plebian incentives, I was an intellectual by the time I reached Annie Wright. And no one else was" (July 7, 1986, p. 38).

Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Jean Godden (b. 1931) wrote of McCarthy's essay, "It's a little jarring to pick up The New Yorker, start to read a story on education and discover it concerns a year spent at Garfield High School in the 1920s. It takes a while for the initial shock to wear away ... but once past that hurdle it's wonderful to rediscover the talented pen of Seattle-born author Mary McCarthy" (July 17, 1986, p. C-1).

Kiss and Tell

The essay became part of McCarthy's second volume of autobiography, How I Grew, published in 1987. The book identifies many Washingtonians from McCarthy's past by name, including Forrest Crosby, with whom 14-year-old Mary lost her virginity in the front seat of a Marmon roadster parked "off a lonely Seattle boulevard ... it dampened my curiosity about sex and so left my mind free to think about other things" (p. 64).

Of painter Kenneth Callahan, whom she knew when she was 16, McCarthy wrote, "Callahan had no difficulty in persuading me to come to his studio, on First Hill ... . He did not invite me to pose nude, but naturally we 'went the limit' when he set down his brushes ... . On the whole I was relieved late that fall when Kenneth, having sold almost no paintings, decided to go to sea to earn a living (writing me many letters with little drawings in the margins to Annie Wright)" (How I Grew, p. 155).

University of Washington football star George Guttormsen (later a partner in McCarthy's grandfather Harold Preston's law firm) also numbers among McCarthy's kissed-and-told list. She remembered him in How I Grew: "He was an intelligent young man, a sort of intellectual even, a freak case of a football star who was Phi Beta Kappa and good looking as well ... . It was the end of my last summer (1931) when we met and excitedly made love ... . I never saw him again" (p. 241).

Of Russian-born artist Jacob Elshin (1892-1976), who fled the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and arrived in Seattle in 1923, McCarthy wrote: "Mr. Elshin was quite another pair of gloves. He was too old fashioned to do me any harm." Arriving unannounced at McCarthy's boarding school during visiting hours, Elshin "seemed quite taken aback by my uniform, and for my part I died at the thought that anybody glancing through the open door could see how crazy my poor old suitor looked" (How I Grew, p. 157).

McCarthy's final volume of autobiography, Intellectual Memoirs, was published posthumously in 1992.

Give 'Em Hell(man)

McCarthy's biographer Carol Gelderman quotes McCarthy's infamous assessment of Lillian Hellman when asked (by television talk show host Dick Cavett) what it was about Hellman's published memoirs McCarthy found dishonest: "Everything. I said once in some interview that every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'" (Mary McCarthy: A Life, p. 332). The segment aired in January of 1980.

Hellman, who happened to be watching the broadcast, was outraged and sued McCarthy, Cavett, and Public Broadcasting Service's New York affiliate Channel 13 (which had aired the show) for $2.3 million, charging that her reputation had been damaged.

The feud was widely reported in the press and the expense of fighting the lawsuit was a drain on McCarthy's financial resources. Lillian Hellman died on June 30, 1984, before the suit could be tried. In August 1984 her attorneys announced the termination of the suit.

Death of a Cultural Byword

Scholar Morris Dickstein summed up Mary McCarthy's literary and cultural impact in an essay entitled "A Glint of Malice": "For at least a quarter of a century, from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, Mary McCarthy was more than an author, even more than a cultural figure. To the sophisticated, college-educated young of that time she was a byword, even a role model: the bad girl who got away with it, the wicked satirist who held everyone up to ridicule, the Vassar girl who instructed us in worldliness and sexual sophistication, the brilliant critic and essayist whose work exploded the stereotypes of feminine sensibility -- in short, the fastest gun in the intellectual world, daringly sexual yet crisply intelligent" (Twenty-Four Ways... p. 17).

Mary McCarthy died of lung cancer at New York Hospital on October 25, 1989. She is buried in Castine Cemetery in Castine, Maine.

Sources: Mary McCarthy, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1957); Mary McCarthy, How I Grew (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1987);  Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Flu Epidemic Hits Seattle on October 3, 1912" (by David Wilma), (accessed December 4, 2007); "The Great Pandemic of 1918: State by State," website accessed December 4, 2007 ( Carol Gelderman, Mary McCarthy: A Life (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988); Frances Kiernan, Seeing Mary Plain (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000); Morris Dickstein, "A Glint of Malice," in Twenty-Four Ways of Looking at Mary McCarthy ed. by Eve Stwertka and Margo Viscusi (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996), p. 17; Mary McCarthy: An Annotated Bibliography ed. by Joy Bennett and Gabriella Hochmann (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1992); "Mary McCarthy," (various cards) Seattle Public Library Washington Author index, Seattle Room, Central Library, Seattle; "Names and Notes," The Seattle Times, January 10, 1937; Gloria Huntington, "About People You Know," Ibid., September 24, 1944; "Seattle-Born Mary McCarthy Writes of Her Childhood," Ibid., June 23, 1957; "Last Rites For Mrs. Harold Preston, 87," Ibid., February 8, 1954; "Bench, Bar, Host of Friends Mourn Passing of Preston," Ibid., January 2, 1938; Cathy Reiner, "Storybook Mansion," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 21, 1991, p. 24; The Annie Wright Seminary, The Annie Wright Seminary: Forty-Second Year (course catalog, Seattle Room, Seattle Public Library); Twenty-Four Ways Of Looking At Mary McCarthy: The Writer and Her Work ed. by Eve Stwertka and Margo Viscusi (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996); Carol Brightman, Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World (Orlando: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1992); Mary McCarthy, "Circus Politics In Washington State," The Nation, October 17, 1936; Jean Godden, "The New Yorker Looks At Author's Seattle Memories," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 17, 1986, p. C-1; Mary McCarthy, "Getting An Education -- 1," The New Yorker, July 7, 1986, p. 35; Mary McCarthy, "Getting An Education -- 2," Ibid., July 14, 1986, p. 34; "Mary McCarthy: Adding to the Legacy," Vassar College Libraries Special Collections website accessed December 15, 2007 (; Michiko Kakutani, "Mary McCarthy, 77, Is Dead; Novelist, Memoirist, and Critic," The New York Times, October 26, 1989; Martha Duffy, "She Knew What She Wanted," Time Magazine, November 6, 1989, p. 80.
Note: The date of McCarthy's marriage to Harold Johnsrud was corrected on October 11, 2012.

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