Friday, July 16, 2010

Mary McCarthy dis's Lilly Hellman

"...Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"

"I want every penny she has - every God damn cent."

The great Linda Ellerbee once said that "Ideas off the top of one's head are a lot like dandruff - small and flaky."  In an appearance on the Dick Cavett show, Mary McCarthy let one such idea fly, and the resulting bug tussle that resulted from it would consume her and her target almost until their dying days.
If there was ever any love lost between Lillian Hellman (author of The Little Foxes, and the lover of Dashiell Hammett) and Mary McCarthy (author of The Group and sister of actor Kevin McCarthy), one would be hard pressed to know where to look for it.  The two despised each other for years, but kept their feud to polite whispers with their confidants.  That all changed when the literary critic and author quipped that every word that Hellman ever wrote was untrue, the litigious Lillian struck back with such ire that it rocked the literary world and caused the lions of publishing worlds to rush to take sides.
Hellman's poetic license was well known, but the animosity towards her simmered just beneath the surface.  There was also residual anger towards her for her performance during the HUAC hearings for trying to make her time on the stand all about "her" instead of standing up for the rights of others.
So when McCarthy let that pearl drop, Hellman lived up to her name and sued - everyone involved.  In addition to McCarthy, Lillian also named Cavett and PBS in the suit.  Hellman wanted for $2.5 million dollars, an outragous amount of money back then, though in retrospect, and charmingly small sum by today's lawsuit standards.  But she knew it would wipe out McCarthy, and Liliian was going for blood.  When friends begged her to back down, she - in modern parlance - "defriended them".  Never one to enjoy being left out of literary eye of controversy, even Norman Mailer threw himself into the spat, mugh to the annoyance of everyone.
What Hellman didn't plan on were McCarthy's will to fight the suit, and those who felt that Lillian had so re-engineered her past that she had no recollection of what was truth and what was the fiction of her life she peddled.  In fact, the keen eyes of many were turned to Hellman's works, and by God they were only too eager to find inconsistencies between Hellman's coming and goings and how she wrote about them later in life.
Even the titled of her last great work, Pentimento was an unwitting witness to Hellman's willingness to adjust the facts to suit the true story.  When the ink was signed for the film rights - Hellman insisted that the film bear a different name than the book.  She knew that two many people would called it "Pimento", and then after time they would start to wonder what the title really meant.
The suit started in 1979 end five years later when Hellman died and her estate executors refused to pursue the matter.  McCarthy died in 1989. 
In the end, no one received the justice that they felt they were due. Hellman never ruined McCarthy financially and McCarthy never was able to prove in a court that Hellman was nothing more than a hack  fiction writer.
Hellman scores big in that her name is the best known, as the questions around her fade.  And it is to her benefit that she died before the rise of Oprah and the 24 News Cycle Mania that has enveloped our society.  Had she lived she could have been the first author to appear before the Big "O" and defend her memories.  Hell would have to freeze over for Hellman to admit fault.
McCarthy, on the other hand scores higher on the academic scale.  never as popular in American culture, her finely honed eye for biting words are as respected as they are reliable.
But as far as quotable quotes - its McCarthy, over Hellman, in a knock out.

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