The title of Frances Kiernan’s generous and engrossing new biography of Mary McCarthy alludes to some lines from a poem by Robert Browning:
Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you,
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems and new!
The poem, called “Memorabilia,” was written in 1855, and it records, with evident irony, a comfortable Victorian’s breathless apprehension of the wild otherness of an earlier, more radical generation. The idea that a figure we’re used to seeing through the mists of historical memory, whom we know primarily through old books, but also through rumor, hearsay, and half-recalled gossip—that such a person might have been, once upon a time, ordinary flesh and blood, seems almost incredible. The poem’s hero worship is ardent, but also vague; it records the glamour of the past—the literary past in particular—but also the past’s inevitable tendency to fade. The fact that Shelley actually spoke seems more exciting than anything he might have said, and the poem ends with a shrug: “Well, I forget the rest.”
Of course, we are hardly Victorians. And Mary McCarthy, who was born before World War I and died the year the Berlin Wall fell, was neither a poet nor a martyr. In any case, Byron was the English Romantic with whom she identified: “I’ve felt a sweet affinity with the wicked Lord, ever since I was eleven years old,” she once wrote to Edmund Wilson, indulging a taste for self-dramatization and literary flirtation. Unlike the Lord, she emerges, in Kiernan’s account, as generally sane, mostly good, and always interesting, if sometimes also a little dangerous, to know. And everybody seemed to know her. In this latest biography—the third, after Carol Gelderman’s of 1988 and Carol Brightman’s of four years later—Kiernan interlards her own careful day-by-day narrative with blocks of quoted testimony from McCarthy’s friends, husbands, fans, and foes. (There are also ample, judicious gleanings from McCarthy’s own private and public writing.) A “Cast of Characters” appended to the 750-page main text runs on for sixteen more pages, listing over two hundred and fifty names in what amounts to an alphabetical directory of American literary and intellectual life from the New Deal to the Reagan administration.
Mary McCarthy was married to Wilson (the second of four marriages), had affairs with Philip Rahv and Clement Greenberg, and counted among her friends such diverse luminaries as Hannah Arendt, Dwight Macdonald, Nicola Chiaromonte, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. She heckled Stalinists at the Waldorf-Astoria, shook hands with the North Vietnamese premier Pham Van Dong in Hanoi, and was sued, notoriously and absurdly, by Lillian Hellman for remarks made on The Dick Cavett Show. Born in Seattle, she migrated from Vassar to Manhattan, and then to Italy, Paris, and Maine. Her dinner parties were as renowned for her cooking as for her dazzling conversation. She left in her wake …