Ambassador to a Private World

Ambassador to a Private World

Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy
by Frances Kiernan
Norton, 2000, 845 pp., $35


Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals
by David Laskin
Simon & Schuster, 2000, 319 pp., $26


Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World
by Claudia Roth Pierpont
Knopf, 2000, 298 pp., $26.95



Mary McCarthy has vexed even the most intrepid biographers. Having told most of the really good stories herself—particularly in the volumes How I Grew and Intellectual Memoirs—she has remained not only the expert on, but the best writer of, her own life. This fact hasn’t deterred two separate generations of biographers. The first group, which wrote while McCarthy was still alive, included Carol Gelderman, Carol Brightman, and Doris Grumbach, and the second, each of whom published recent books dealing in part or in whole with McCarthy’s life, includes David Laskin, Frances Kiernan, and Claudia Roth Pierpont.

McCarthy’s writing career, which began in 1937 with theater criticism for Partisan Review and continued until her death in 1989, spanned literary and political criticism, short stories, the popular novel, memoir, and journalism. Parallel to her prolific career, McCarthy led a social and domestic life widely chronicled by her and others that was shocking enough for readers to conclude that McCarthy flouted at least as many social conventions as the protagonists of her fiction. In addition to having wed four times, McCarthy spent the better part of her years as a young writer in a series of relationships with a few of the mid-century’s more notable intellects: Philip Rahv, Clement Greenberg, and Edmund Wilson. Settling down later in life with men of less literary renown, she set her most popular work during the early years of her career when her legendary sexual appetite and professional ambitions were first forged.

McCarthy is best known as the author of The Group, a work of late-career juvenilia that brought her hundreds of thousands of readers and much-sought-after financial security. The Group—a novel detailing the post-college fortunes of her Vassar class of 1933—had its debut, in 1954 in the pages of PR, as the short story “Dottie Makes an Honest Woman of Herself.” “Dottie” is the story of a naïve, eczema-plagued co-ed who is persuaded by her bohemian lover to get herself fitted for a “pessary” (diaphragm). Much like her earlier, equally well-known story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit,” “Dottie” shows McCarthy as a master of the socially acceptable satire. In the characters of Dottie and her beau, McCarthy composed a devastating portrait of the timorous modernity of the “new woman” and the traditional caddishne...