“Dry ice and vitriol,” critics used to say about author Mary McCarthy. Members of the class of ’33 at McCarthy’s alma mater, Vassar, have still not recovered from her darkly comic portrayal of them in The Group. But at age 67, she seems to have mellowed. “I don’t particularly like The Group,” McCarthy now says of her 1963 best-seller. “I think it’s a bit coarse.” In her 20 books (eight of them fiction), McCarthy has satirized faculty intrigue (“The Groves of Academe), the literary elite (A Charmed Life) and Utopian politics (The Oasis). Thrillers, not shockers, are more to her taste these days. Her latest novel (the first since Birds of America In 1971) is Cannibals and Missionaries, a psychologically complex social commentary revolving around a skyjacking. McCarthy wrote it in her apartment on Paris’ Left Bank, where she has lived quietly since 1961 with her fourth husband, James West, 65, a U.S. State Department official. McCarthy’s early years were turbulent—both as an orphan raised by a great-aunt and as a frequent divorcee. Her second husband was the late critic Edmund Wilson, by whom she had her only child, a son, Reuel, 40. McCarthy recently returned to New York for the publication of her novel and to visit her brother, actor Kevin McCarthy, 65. At the suggestion of PEOPLE, Kevin agreed to play journalist and interview his celebrated sister, while his son, James (“Flip”), photographed them to make it an all-McCarthy enterprise.
You’re widely celebrated for your so-called caustic wit. Does it come naturally? Are you proud of it?
Of course it comes naturally and I don’t know if I’m proud of it. I enjoy it, I enjoy laughing.
You seem to get a great deal of open pleasure in your own natural gaiety, in your own irony and humor.
You mean laugh at my own jokes?
In print you have the reputation of being cold and ruthless, you know, a bitter quill dipped in venom. When critics say you are seeking revenge on someone or something, what is your response?
Do you like writing?
It’s a terrible job. I can produce 19 variants of one page—often! Of course I rewrite. That’s why it’s a terrible job.
Who is your audience?
I think quite a few simple people, not illiterate, but very ordinary. I’m not an author that’s greatly loved by an elite.
Do the figures of our parents, whom we lost in the 1918 influenza epidemic, come back to you?
No, not unless something evokes them. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve really turned into their photographs.
Were you ever jealous of me?
I don’t know, Kevin, maybe as a young child. But I was envious when you ran away in such a dramatic way.
I remember saying when I got back to that dismal foster home, “I ran away to an orphan asylum.” I was looking for an orphan asylum to go to. But you ran away twice!
I think we four kids were difficult children, already a handful.
Did you ever go to a psychoanalyst?
After I was married to Edmund Wilson I was sent to three, don’t you remember? But I don’t recommend psychoanalysis. I think the whole thing is an absurd series of myths. It’s never in any way been empirically verified.
Why did your marriages break up?
I don’t know. But it’s never been incompatibility, except, let’s say, with Edmund Wilson. And in that case, there was no other man in the picture when I left him. It was [laughing] desperation!
I and my wife, Kate, are, you know, 35 years apart, and we’re about to have a child. I have three children by my first marriage and a grandchild, Jessica, almost 6. Is it an okay thing?
I think in this case, yes. Kate is going to be 29, has been married before and has a child. And you, Kevin, seem tremendously young for your age. But usually it’s grotesque—these ancient men with 18-year-old girls. You never see it the other way around.
When you look back on childhood, do you feel you are compensating in your career for some of those wounds?
That sort of psychiatric stuff doesn’t compel my belief. Its tendency is to take any mystery out of our experience, and to imply one has a kind of knowledge one doesn’t have.
Then what is your secret?
Well, as far as you and I go, I think it’s natural that we as orphan children—rather looked down on, different from other children—would try to distinguish ourselves favorably. I know that as a child I had this attention-getting business very strongly, and [laughing] alas, I still have.
Would you say that my becoming an actor was to get attention?
Yes, it could be. And I suspect our Irish father was drawn to the theater and drama, which might have been an early influence.
I vividly recall realizing in my first Shakespearean play at the University of Minnesota that I could speak—I could speak out! But you, too, wanted to be on the stage, didn’t you?
Yes, but at Vassar, when I played in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, I shook so hard that this papier mâché tower I was in nearly fell over and the audience was laughing. I still have stage fright, a fear of appearing in public.
You seem to me fiercely indomitable, always ready to take up arms. Why?
For the fun of it, perhaps! Or a mixture of fun and principle. If nobody will speak out on a subject, well, I will.
I admired your courage in going to the battlefields of South and North Vietnam.
Well, I wasn’t the first woman journalist. Barbara Deming [from a Greenwich Village journal, Liberation] got to North Vietnam first. And during those bombardments, I was scared. Once we had to flatten ourselves in a ditch when the American bombers came over. I never went on patrol. I felt I was rather weak, but I wouldn’t have learned anything about the Tightness or wrongness of our actions by going on patrol. It was the most dangerous thing you could do. I felt it would be a kind of betrayal of Jim, my husband, if I were killed.
Let’s talk about Chappaquiddick.
I don’t give a damn about what Senator Kennedy was doing with Mary Jo Kopechne. I don’t find that reprehensible. It’s what happened afterwards. It’s the cover-up—all those distinguished Democrats getting together to figure out how to play it. The original thing could have happened to anybody, but what happened afterwards could happen chiefly to a politician, and a politician who put his career first.
What about Pope John Paul II?
I’m not really very sent by this Pope. To me, he looks too much like a football player. I don’t see him as a spiritual man, like Pope John, whom I really did love. This new Pope has been taken in by the discovery of PR techniques. There are superman touches. He’ll say anything depending on the audience.
You say you’re against jogging. In fact you compared it to masturbation, a word we would never have used as kids.
I don’t like the way people look when they jog. There’s something very abstract about the idea. It’s some terrible turning back on the self, I feel. It’s like going for a walk wearing a pedometer, like our Uncle Meyers. The jogger isn’t even really running; he’s on some sort of treadmill.
I can’t imagine being as directly and openly critical of another actor as writers seem to be of each other. Why do writers have the long knives out?
I would call it plain speaking. As a writer, you don’t have to function as part of a group. With actors, there’s getting the show on that night, and that requires a bit more closing ranks.
In talking about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, you objected to it because, you said, violence is the ultimate pornography. Is that a phrase you would go with?
Yes. Now that sex isn’t forbidden, violence is the only thing that gives people a thrill anymore. It’s the only thing, generally, that’s forbidden.
You were quoted as saying, “I don’t like John Updike anymore.” True?
I did say that, but before I had read his marvelous African book, The Coup. He’s so gifted, but I think he should give his private life a long rest.
Have you ever read James Michener?
No, no. But as Jim Agee once said, reviewing Oklahoma! without having seen it, you don’t have to have seen it played to know it’s bad.
What do you have against Lillian Hellman?
Well, I’ve never liked what she writes. And there was a little episode back in 1948 when I was teaching at Sarah Lawrence. She was in a sun parlor telling the students that the novelist John Dos Passos had betrayed the Spanish Loyalists. She was defaming Dos! I couldn’t stand this woman brain-feeding these utterly empty, innocent minds, and thinking she could get away with it.
A young novelist, John Casey, said all Mary McCarthy’s characters have feet of clef. Isn’t the senator in your new book a thinly disguised Eugene McCarthy?
There’s no attempt at disguise; it’s supposed to be an improvisation on the theme “Gene McCarthy.” It was great fun to do! To be inside his mind, to be his voice. Reading it aloud the other night, it was right on target—right into the old catcher’s mitt. You know the real Gene McCarthy is extremely funny, but extremely perverse. When anything is expected of him is when he will not deliver.
You and the poet Elizabeth Bishop were at Vassar together, weren’t you?
Yes, she was a class ahead, but she doesn’t figure in The Group. They were mostly high-C-average people. She was too bright and original. I think she was, along with Robert Lowell, our best poet. And now they are both gone!
Can you ever get to the point where you let the activities of your mind rest and sort of drift and dream?
Thank you, Mary.
Thank you, Kevin, my dear.