Thursday, 10 May 2012

And The Lies

In January 1980, an apparently spontaneous comment by Mary McCarthy about Lillian Hellman triggered a literary vendetta  and a discussion about truth, particularly in autobiography, that has continued to resonate in print and on stage.

From Nora Ephron's Imaginary Friends

McCarthy, a guest on the Dick Cavett show, was asked what writers she thought were overrated. Among those she named, McCarthy singled out Lillian Hellman, "who I think is tremendously overrated, a bad writer, a dishonest writer, but she really belongs to the past." Cavett pressed McCarthy, what was overrated about Hellman. McCarthy replied, "Everything. I once said in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'."

Mary and Dick share a joke

Hellman was watching TV  that night and was so outraged she brought a $2.25m lawsuit, not only against McCarthy, but also against the Educational Broadcasting System and Dick Cavett. The lawsuit alleged that McCarthy's statement was "false, made with ill-will, with malice, with knowledge of its falsity, with careless disregard of its truth, and with the intent to injure the plaintiff personally and professionally."

Initially, McCarthy thought the lawsuit, was a  bad joke. But when it became clear that Hellman was serious, McCarthy realized she could be in  deep financial trouble:  Hellman was hell bent on wreaking  revenge by bankrupting McCarthy.

McCarthy's legal team argued that her remarks were literary criticism, which was protected by the First Amendment, and that her quip was "rhetorical hyperbole" rather than slander.