IN THE LANDSCAPE of friendship, Hannah Arendt’s capacity stands luminous and large. From the time she was a young woman, she surrounded herself with a circle of friends with whom she exchanged gossip, ideas about politics and philosophy, opinions on culture and the state of the world, and, occasionally, romantic partners. Perhaps the model of Berlin salon society, about which she published an important essay early in her career, shaped her desire to create and sustain an intellectual community to nourish her. Yet Arendt’s circles — what later would become known as “the tribe” — differed from those 19th-century European salons in one important respect: Arendt’s were not comprised of “types,” or representatives of different social groups, but of companions with whom she shared a devotion to conversation and heated debate (and a love of champagne), and to whom she gave intense loyalty, expecting it in return.
In the tiny set of rooms on Morningside Drive, which Arendt shared with her second husband, Heinrich Blücher, and her mother, and, later, in the larger Riverside Drive apartment that hosted many a New Year’s Eve party, some of the most illustrious political and literary minds of the 20th century would meet — among them Hermann Broch, Paul Tillich, Salo and Jeanette Baron, Helen and Kurt Wolff, Hans Morgenthau, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy, Lotte Kohler, Elizabeth Hardwick, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, J. Glenn Gray, Dwight Macdonald, W. H. Auden, and Lionel and Diana Trilling. Many were, like Arendt, émigrés from Nazi-occupied Europe. Others, like Jarrell, Kazin, McCarthy, and Trilling, were American poets, writers, artists, and critics whose work shaped the cultural milieu of mid-20th century America: the New York Intellectuals, as they came to be known. All were drawn to, and sometimes repelled by, the argumentative, opinionated, yet unceasingly electrifying German-Jewish woman who held her court in a shabbily furnished apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
With its high ceilings, large rooms, and grand windows, apartment 12A at 370 Riverside Drive in New York reminded its visitors of those prewar buildings in Berlin. From Arendt’s desk, one could look over Riverside Park and the Hudson River to the edge of New Jersey. In the living room, where Arendt received visitors with her characteristic combination of archness and wit, womanly guile and cultivated erudition, stood a high-backed sofa covered in a dismal green vinyl, worn and patched, but serviceable. Scattered across from the sofa was an assortment of armchairs and in front of it, a coffee table, on which she would serve glasses of champagne from her well stocked supplies to closer friends on social occasions. The dining room, whose main table was covered in books, papers, and journals, served primarily as a library.
Helen Wolff described it as “a cheerful apartment but by no means furnished with aesthetics in mind. A philosopher’s home.” It was Arendt’s home against the world, providing, in the language she used in a 1974 speech given at Columbia University, a “place of one’s own shielded against the claims of the public.”
Hannah Arendt loved being in the contentious center of things, whether quoting Goethe and Hölderlin in the original German, lecturing Saul Bellow on the literature of Faulkner, listening to Randall Jarrell reading the poetry of Wordsworth, Eliot, or Whitman to her, being celebrated in stanzas written by Robert Lowell or W. H. Auden in her honor, or debating current events or philosophy with Mary McCarthy, J. Glenn Gray or Dwight Macdonald. Helen Wolff characterized her “very striking [...] and noticeable immediately even to those who met her for the first time, was a very powerful Ausstrahlung [charisma].”
In New York Jew, his memoir of literary New York in the 1940s-1960s, Alfred Kazin attempted to explain Arendt’s allure:
She confronted you with the truth; she confronted you with her friendship; she confronted Heinrich [her second husband] even when she joined him in the most passionate seminar I would ever witness between a man and a woman living together; she confronted the gap, the nothingness, the “extreme situation” of “modern man.” [...] The excitement of being with Hannah was mysterious, for it reached to foundations of thought that she accepted with a kind of awe. “I have never, since a child,” she once said to me, “doubted that God exists.”
With her, Kazin recalled in an interview more than a decade later:
Everything ... was temperament ... What people responded to ... was always the temperamental thing, which was very vivid ... She couldn’t accept criticism ... But she made a very deep impression ... It was this temperamental thing, which was astonishingly passionate ... She was very much a woman in every deep sense of the word ... These deep friendships [...] there’s no question that a lot of the men, poets and others who hanged around, were very much affected by her.
“As a woman?” he was asked. “Oh, yes, definitely.”
Unsurprisingly, this erotic magnetism disturbed some of the women in the circle, such as Ann Birstein (Alfred Kazin’s third wife) and Diana Trilling, whose presence may have been more a function of Arendt’s attachment to their husbands than to themselves. At least that was the impression Arendt gave them, either by ignoring them, or dismissing them with some curt remark.
There were, in fact, two types of friendship in Arendt’s life: those that were most like her characterization of friendship in her portrait of Gotthold Lessing in Men in Dark Times, which she called “friendship among citizens,” and those which she called “intimate.” “We are wont to see friendship solely as a phenomenon of intimacy,” she wrote,
in which the friends open their hearts to each other unmolested by the world and its demands. [...] Thus it is hard for us to understand the political relevance of friendship. [...] But for the Greeks the essence of friendship consisted in discourse. [...] This converse (in contrast to the intimate talk in which individuals speak about themselves), permeated though it may be by pleasure in the friend’s presence, is concerned with the common world.
Sometimes, but only rarely, the two types were interwoven in the same friend.
“The tribe” was a circle of friends concerned with that common world, and much less with the intimate topics of face-to-face encounters. A very private person, Arendt shared the more intimate details of her life only with her husband and a few close friends, mostly women, in whom she confided more frequently in letters than in person.
Among her women friends, the unlikely and very long-lived friendship of Arendt and Mary McCarthy has been much documented and discussed, even more since receiving its first celluloid rendition in Hannah Arendt, the new film by Margarethe von Trotta, which opened some months ago to much critical acclaim. What sort of friendship was it?
In a recent post on “Page-Turner,” The New Yorker’s online book blog, Michelle Dean complained that the image of Arendt’s friendship with McCarthy in von Trotta’s film was a “flat portraiture.” Dean argued that it represented the conversations between these two “ferocious minds” as if they had been dominated by exchanges “about men and love.” In reality, she contended, their friendship formed a “close intellectual bond,” serving as a “bulwark against their naysayers.”
All this is true; but it underplays the complexity and intimacy of Arendt’s relationship with McCarthy. In an age when, as Dean notes, “women hunger for models of intellectual self-confidence,” the pair’s friendship can be a source of inspiration, an exemplar of women talking “about ideas among themselves.” But this model also risks a portraiture that is flat, dispassionate, and disembodied, and we should perhaps pay attention to the complex role of the erotic in this and Arendt’s other female friendships as well.
Littered throughout McCarthy and Arendt’s correspondence are recommendations for books to read and write, places to visit, and ways to think about current issues. Their mutual intellectual support did not rule out criticism or alternative insight. “I’ve read your book [The Origins of Totalitarianism], absorbed, for the past two weeks, in the bathtub, riding in a car, waiting in line in the grocery store,” McCarthy exclaimed in a letter to Arendt. “It seems to me a truly extraordinary piece of work.” And then she added an objection: Arendt’s explanation of totalitarianism gave too little weight, she thought, to the role of the “fortuitous” in its development. After finishing McCarthy’s The Group, Arendt similarly wrote:
I liked The Group very, very much, it is quite different from your other books. [...] You have won a perspective, or perhaps rather: you have arrived at a point so far removed from your former life that everything now can fall into place. You yourself are no longer directly involved. And this quality makes the book more of a novel than any of your other books.
Unafraid to judge, both women practiced a form of truth-telling that, in its more strident tones, bordered on arrogance; the kind of arrogance neither begrudged the other.
Yet the undertone of dialogue in the letters exhibits a growing intimacy and fervor. After a 1968 letter from Paris catching Arendt up on the latest news among their friendship circle, as well as events in her own personal life, McCarthy wrote: “I must stop. I miss you very much. More than ever recently.” And Arendt replied: “Each time I receive a letter from you I realize how much I miss you. Times are lousy and we should be closer to each other. I guess I have been depressed all winter.” Not only the “daily news” which was “like being hit over the head,” but also Blücher’s continuing health scares troubled Arendt all the time. And though she didn’t speak of it much, she let McCarthy know.
The most private self-revelations, though, came from McCarthy. Arendt found her too open, in fact, and she disapproved. McCarthy told an interviewer in 1988, “She thought that was all very American and that one should hide things. Actually I don’t think she hid much herself, but that was her principle.” McCarthy held back very little. Flagrantly effusive in public and private about all her excesses, she frequently used her letters to Arendt to unload the emotional consequences of her many romantic liaisons and marriages, or to seek advice, sometimes even engaging Arendt in her intrigues.
Sometime in the fall of 1956, McCarthy began an affair with an Englishman named John Davenport. She was supposed to meet Arendt in Amsterdam in October, but wrote to tell her plans had changed; she was staying in London with her new lover. Then she enclosed several postcards written to her husband at the time, Bowden Broadwater, to create the illusion that she and Arendt were traveling together, and asked her to mail then to Bowden. Arendt complied.
The affair with Davenport continued into the following spring, until McCarthy learned from another friend about the darker, more treacherous sides of her lover’s personality — Davenport was a pathological liar and a drunk, who fabricated his own ancestry to gain entry to British society. This sad story became the narrative thread of a long letter to Arendt. “The truth is,” McCarthy wrote, “I still care about him, just as much as ever, though perhaps this feeling would not last if I saw him in actuality. [...] Oh, Hannah, isn’t it awful? I still would do anything for him [...] but what can I do?” Two weeks later came Arendt’s reply:
He did not want to be saved by you either. And this is the reason why I think you were right not to see him. [...] [Y]ou had to be frightened away; and he must have known that it would take rather drastic measures to achieve this. Certainly, there is a great deal of cruelty in all this; but then you can’t expect someone who loves you to treat you less cruelly than he would treat himself. The equality of love is always pretty awful. Compassion (not pity) can be a great thing, but love knows nothing of it.
One of Arendt’s other close friends, Lotte Kohler, who was also her literary executor for a time, claimed that Arendt couldn’t understand McCarthy’s promiscuity. There’s no question, as McCarthy herself knew, that she and Arendt didn’t see eye to eye about McCarthy’s trumpeting of sexual experiences, as she did rather audaciously in her fiction. But if Arendt couldn’t understand it, she didn’t condemn it, any more than she did her other friends’ extramarital affairs. Instead, she suggested McCarthy simply couldn’t have it both ways — if she wanted to lead a promiscuous life, she ought to accept the choices she’d made and take responsibility for them. Self-pity wasn’t a trait Arendt tolerated.
In 1960, trying to obtain a divorce from Broadwater in order to marry her next, and last, husband, Jim West, McCarthy once again turned to Arendt, complaining about Broadwater’s lingering resistance and asking Arendt to intercede on her behalf. Again, Arendt complied, agreeing to intercede in her own way. But not without chastising McCarthy for her impatience:
You say you cannot trust him. Perhaps you are right, perhaps you are wrong, I have no idea. But it strikes me that you can forget so easily that you trusted him enough to be married to him for fifteen years. [...] You write that it is just “too ridiculous” for the two of you (Jim West and you) to be the “passive fools of other people.” If you want to look at the matter in these terms at all, then it seems to me rather obvious that you both are the victims of your own, self-chosen past. This may be inconvenient but it is not ridiculous, unless you wish to say that your whole past was not only a mistake, but a ridiculous one.
And then, after lecturing her, Arendt closed her letter with this: “Mary, my Dear, I miss you! Much love and the best of luck. Yours, H.”
I confess to having been as much beguiled by the centrality of Arendt’s friendship with McCarthy as anyone. Still, as open and loving as Arendt was with McCarthy, I couldn’t help thinking the intimacy between them was bounded by a margin of revelation which Arendt would not cross. Arendt’s brutally honest mentoring of McCarthy in matters of the heart seemed to be a barrier behind which she kept her most self-revelatory feelings and fears to herself. Even though she talked with McCarthy about her concerns for Blücher’s health and her feelings about her former lover, the notorious Martin Heidegger, Arendt didn’t speak in the voice or with the vulnerability any woman, no matter how intellectual, might use to express her most intimate fears or joys with her “closest woman friend.”
That is, until I researched Elżbieta Ettinger’s archives and drafts of her never-completed Arendt biography, when another woman, an early acquaintance from Arendt’s days in Germany, came into sharper focus: Hilda Fränkel. And so did more angles of Hannah Arendt....
Stories of Arendt’s female friendships such as these reveal a side of her not usually captured in more traditional portraits. Yes, her intelligence was intimidating; yes, she was judgmental, arrogant, and not easily moved from an opinion once formed — whether on ideas or people. But she was also a person of deep feeling, with an appreciation for the vagaries of the human heart. Those she allowed to come closest saw and came to depend upon that.