NOTE: For those inclined to read even more Dilettante today, I can be found over at New York Social Diary, with tales of servant woes in Gilded Age Bar Harbor. And if today’s post here seems familiar, it is because it is a re-post of an earlier piece inadvertently lost.
If the title of this post, with its allusion to My Dinner With Andre, suggests to you an evening of sparkling conversation with a scintillating woman named Mary, you are only half right. It was an evening with a woman Mary, but conversation did not sparkle. This is the tale of a simple Maine boy’s chilly encounter with one of the formidable literary dragons of the 20th century.
I owned a bookstore in my youth and was slightly–very slightly—acquainted with the writer and critic Mary McCarthy, who summered 20 miles away in Castine, a village so picturesque and pristine that it is sometimes somewhat competitively referred to as ‘Stepford’ by residents of our own picturesque, but less pristine, community.
If I remember correctly, McCarthy was drawn to Castine by the equally formidable, but much nicer, Elizabeth Hardwick, who had in turn first visited there when her former husband, poet Robert Lowell, inherited an old house on the village green from his proper Bostonian aunt, Harriet Winslow.
One either loved McCarthy or one didn’t. I was a didn’t. Her fondness for her own famous intellect was more than a little off-putting, and her intellectual snobbery, worn like armor to battle, made one yearn for the simpler social affectations of a Hyacinth Bucket. Frankly, She was just not terribly nice, although her husband, a former State Department type, was a great sort. In fairness, I was also young, extremely shy, and though generally in thrall to the literary greats of her era, I never warmed to her writing either. Our exchanges were usually polite and brief, and she obviously got along very well without my affection.
That evening I was let into the Taylor’s front hall at the appointed hour (well, okay, 10 minutes past the appointed hour), and looking though to the terrace spied Mary McCarthy on a bench, holding court. With an involuntary shiver at the chilling sight, I gave a silent prayer that I would be seated at a different section of the table. Luck was not with me on that lovely summer evening. When we were summoned to the table, I was horrified to find that I was seated next to Mary. On my left, was a woman named Kay Brown, with whom I not had a chance to chat during drinks, but who I knew had been Sam’s agent for many years, successfully shepherding his plays from stage to Hollywood.At table, I tried my level darned Yankee best with Mary, who was famously disdainful of social small talk, but I might as well have tried swimming away from the Titanic. She was offering no help at all, absolutely none, and all my attempts were sinking. Flattery? I happened to be reading her Stones of Venice at the time, and enjoying it. Nope. I’d been on an Edmund Wilson kick the year before, but certainly she wouldn’t be pleased to be reminded of what her former husband had written about her, so I didn’t go there. An article from from the latest New York Review by her friend Elizabeth Hardwick? “No, I haven’t read that yet”. Thud. An article she’d written about Alice Brayton, creator of Green Animals near Newport–perhaps we can find some mutual ground in a conversation about taste. Nope. Okay, small talk it is: Isn’t this Vichyssoise delicious? Please! I’m going down for the third time, and this cold woman, supposedly very witty, is not tossing me a life preserver. At that moment, it was time to turn left, to Kay Brown, and suddenly I felt the warm relief a storm tossed passenger feels at reaching the balmy tropical isle. She was alive, interested, and ready to find out more about the poor young guy next to her, still shivering from his encounter with the iceberg. It turned out that she had not only been my host’s agent, but that it was she who had brought Gone With the Wind to David Selznick’s attention, and after her visit here, she was on her way to Japan on behalf of the Mitchell estate to discuss the rights to a Japanese musical version of GWTW. Finally! Some material I can work with!—and we were off and running. All too soon, I had to return to the iceberg on my right, and once again the cold winds of Siberia blew in my face. And so it went, until dessert, a delicious ginger mousse which I remember fondly 30 years later.
After dinner, Mary and I were in separate groups, at least one of us relieved not to have to be trying with the other any more. At the end of the evening, saying good nights, I felt my good manners drain from me, and I turned to the literary gorgon, who was ignoring my departure, held out my hand, and with all the elaborately gracious sarcasm I could muster, said ‘Good night Mary, I’m sooo sorry we didn’t get to chat more” (hey, I never claimed to be Oscar Wilde–or even Oscar Levant). Bad move. She just looked up at me, Medusa like, bared her little gray teeth into a semblance of a snarl—I mean, smile—and slowly and carefully said “Oh, I too“, and narrowing her eyes into slits, repeated “I too”, abruptly pulling away her hand and turning back to her conversation. Moral: amateurs should be careful of sparring with the pros. And off into the night I went. I can still see her, sitting in that lovely room, her famous and faded looks lit by lamplight.
But wait! There’s more! McCarthy was at the time being famously sued by Lillian Hellman, for saying on the Dick Cavett Show that Hellman was the most overrated writer in America, and that every word she wrote was a lie including ‘and’ and ‘the’. That I knew. What I didn’t know, but that my charming but sometimes wicked hostess did, was that she had seated me between not just her husband’s agent and Mary McCarthy, but between Lillian Hellman’s agent and Mary McCarthy. Um, thanks.
And that children, is the tale of the night that your uncle Dilettante jousted with Mary McCarthy and lost.
The flying staircase in the Johnson House, c. 1900 postcard view. Compare this to the flying staircase in the Ruggles House at Columbia Falls. McCarthy would later use plain buff canvas, called drugget, as her stair runner, a trick learned from chic Alice Brayton of Green Animals in Newport.