Lillian Hellman sues Mary McCarthy, spring 1980

March 7, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

When playwright Lillian Hellman sued novelist Mary McCarthy for slander in 1980, lots of people thought it was a joke, including Mary McCarthy.

She had just been on the PBS talk show hosted by Dick Cavett where Cavett had asked her about writers she thought were overrated. McCarthy, whose opinions were strongly held and expressed, had no trouble coming up with a list: Pearl S. Buck, John Steinback, John Hersey, and Lillian Hellman.

Cavett pressed her: What about Lillian Hellman is overrated? She was, McCarthy said, a bad, dishonest writer who belonged to the past. What about her is dishonest? “Everything. I once said in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”

It sounded like an off-the-cuff remark, but it wasn’t. Cavett and McCarthy had discussed it before the show, and McCarthy thought that it was a clever repost, so she decided to use it.

Hellman didn’t think it was clever. She viewed it as an attack on herself, her work, and her legacy, and she was not inclined to let it pass. Cavett, who along with PBS was named in the suit, invited her to come onto his show and defend herself, but she declined. Instead, her purpose was to inflict some pain on McCarthy. Hellman was a rich woman and could easily finance an extended lawsuit. McCarthy was not and was likely to be bankrupted by the whole thing.

Hellman and McCarthy shared many similarities. They both had had difficult childhoods, and they both had become involved in leftist politics in the 1930s and 1940s. They both had a passion for writing, and though they were barely acquainted, they shared many friends in the New York literary world. Hellman made her literary name as a playwright with many successful plays on Broadway from the 1930s through the 1960s. Her memoirs also achieved critical success, although the lawsuit she filed against McCarthy drew attention to their often gaping factual and interpretative flaws.

Hellman developed a longterm relationship with detective novelist Dashiel Hammett and inherited his copyrights when he died in 1961.

McCarthy published her first novel, The Company She Keeps, in 1942, a novelistic description of the New York literary scene in the 1930s. The real-life people she was writing about, including herself, are not hard to pick out in the book. She spent the rest of her adult life writing various forms of journalism,  novels, essays for magazines, and commentary. McCarthy is most remembered for her novel The Group, published in 1963, a book that helped usher in the sexual revolution of that decade. That book stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for nearly two years. 

McCarthy was devoted to factual depiction even in her fiction. Hellman’s non-fiction memoirs were far less rigorous and often inflated or misrepresented her role in her stories — for which she made no apology. Thus, this differing point of view was probably the spark that ignited McCarthy’s remark to Dick Cavett.

Friends of Hellman urged her to drop the suit. Friends of McCarthy tried to get her to find a way to settle. Neither would budge. Hellman, understanding their relative financial positions, was determined to bring McCarthy to ruin. McCarthy threw herself into finding the factual errors in Hellman’s writing, and she peppered her attorneys with the fruits of her research. A New York judge allowed the case to drag on (when most legal experts said it should have been dismissed).

Finally, the case ended in 1984 when Hellman died. The executors of her estate dropped the suit. McCarthy expressed disappointment. “I didn’t want her to die. I wanted her to lose in court. I wanted her around for that,” she said. McCarthy died five years later.

The controversy inspired a couple of non-fiction books that chronicled and analyzed the feud and a 2002 play by Nora Ephron, Imaginary Friends.

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