Shocking, titillating, and acid-laced, The Group, Mary McCarthy’s 1963 novel about eight Vassar girls, turned the feared and revered literary critic into a wealthy, world-famous author. But the backlash was brutal, not least from her Vassar classmates. Laura Jacobs explores why the book still dazzles as a generational portrait, falters as fiction, and blighted McCarthy’s life.
Everyone loved Chapter Two. Straitlaced Dottie Renfrew—Vassar class of 1933 and a virgin—has gone home with the handsome but dissipated Dick Brown. He undresses her slowly, so that she “was hardly trembling when she stood there in front of him with nothing on but her pearls.” Dick makes Dottie lie down on a towel, and after she experiences some “rubbing and stroking,” and then some “pushing and stabbing,” she starts to get the hang of things. “All of a sudden, she seemed to explode in a series of long, uncontrollable contractions that embarrassed her, like the hiccups … ” No hearts and flowers here, simply a female orgasm described by a female writer who was as empirical and precise as the male writers of her day—perhaps more so—yet always attuned to the social niceties imprinted upon a certain class of female mind. Dick removes the towel, impressed by the minute stain, and in a remark that pulled the romantic veil from the usual novelistic pillow talk, says of his ex-wife, “Betty bled like a pig.”
It was the first line of Chapter Three, however, that brought mythic status to Mary McCarthy’s fifth novel, The Group. “Get yourself a pessary,” Dick says the next morning, walking Dottie to the door. The chapter proceeds to offer a tutorial on the etiquette, economics, semiotics, and symbolism of this particular form of contraception, circa 1933. Diaphragm, ring, plug—call it what you will—when The Group was published, in 1963, the subject was still shocking. Sidney Lumet’s movie of The Group—released three years later, smack in the middle of the sexual revolution—included Dottie’s deflowering and subsequent trip to a gynecologist but substituted euphemisms for McCarthy’s blunt language. Instead, Dick Brown says, “The right lady doctor could make us a lot happier.”
Critics of The Group would call it Mary McCarthy’s “lady-writer’s novel” and “lady-book,” insults meant to suggest it was a falling-off from her previous work. And it was different from what she’d done before. Up until The Group, McCarthy was feared and revered in the smart, tight, testy, and frequently backstabbing world of midcentury literary quarterlies and political reviews. Her critical assessments of theater and literature were scathing, and no one was too high to be brought low. Arthur Miller, J. D. Salinger, and Tennessee Williams—the greats of the day—all came in for vivisection, McCarthy’s own Theater of Cruelty on the page. (“Torn animals,” poet Randall Jarrell wrote of a character based on McCarthy, “were removed at sunset from that smile.”) Her early novels read like moral chess matches where everyone is a pawn. And her memoirs, well, one thinks of brutal honesty dressed in beautiful scansion, Latinate sentences of classical balance and offhand wit in which nothing is sacred and no one is spared, not even the author herself. There was never anything “ladylike” about Mary McCarthy’s writing. She struck fear in the hearts of male colleagues, many of whom she took to bed without trembling or pearls. For aspiring female writers, she remains totemic.
But The Group—a novel that followed eight Vassar roommates from commencement in 1933 to the brink of war in 1940—was her Mount Olympus and her Achilles’ heel, a monster international success that brought world fame yet failed to impress the peers who mattered most.
“Women’s secrets again,” the poet Louise Bogan wrote to a friend, “told in clinical detail.”
“No one in the know likes the book,” poet Robert Lowell wrote to fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop, a Vassar classmate of McCarthy’s.
“Mary tried for something very big,” critic Dwight Macdonald wrote to historian Nicola Chiaromonte, “but didn’t have the creative force to weld it all together.”
All true, and all beside the point. Published on August 28, 1963, with a whopping first printing of 75,000, The Group was a sensation. By September 8 it was No. 9 on the New York Times best-seller list for adult fiction, with booksellers ordering 5,000 copies a day. By October 6 it had dethroned Morris L. West’s The Shoes of the Fisherman to become No. 1, where it would stay for the next five months. By the end of 1964, nearly 300,000 copies had been sold, though now and then Harcourt Brace Jovanovich had to refund the price of a book. Women’s secrets “told in clinical detail” were, for some, tantamount to pornography. The book was banned in Australia, Italy, and Ireland.
Countless novels have topped the best-seller list for months. Mention them now—The Shoes of the Fisherman, for instance—and people go blank. Not so with The Group. While its plot was almost nonexistent and its emotional hold next to nil, the secrets of these Vassar girls were chinked in stone and the racy one-liners etched in memory. As Helen Downes Light, a Vassar classmate of McCarthy’s, told Frances Kiernan, the author of the biography Seeing Mary Plain, “I used to keep seventy-five dollars of mad money in a book. We had The Group on the shelf in our guest room and I thought, I’ll remember where it is if I put it in there. Every guest we had would come down the next morning and say, ‘Did you know you had money in that book?’ ”
Money in that book! Avon paid $100,000 for the paperback rights. Movie rights sold to producer-agent Charles Feldman for $162,500. The Group made Mary McCarthy a very rich intellectual, one of America’s first highbrows to receive gargantuan sums, thus changing the financial expectations of serious writers and the scale on which their work could be judged.
By the time McCarthy began The Group she had been writing about groups for years. It was a fascination of hers, and you could say it was fated. When McCarthy was six, she and her three younger brothers lost both parents in the 1918 flu pandemic. Gone the beatific home created by an adored mother and charismatic father; gone the intimate group that is one’s family. Her father, Roy McCarthy, was the son of J. H. McCarthy, a wealthy, self-made grain merchant in Minneapolis. Roy was charming and handsome, but he was a binge drinker, which made it difficult for him to hold a job. At 30, he went west to Oregon for a fresh start in a timber-brokerage business, and it was there that he met 21-year-old Tess Preston, dark-haired, beautiful, and accepting of Roy’s alcoholism. They married in 1911, and when Mary was born, in 1912 in Seattle, Roy not only stopped drinking for good, he became a lawyer at 32. Unfortunately, the ill effects of childhood rheumatic fever left him increasingly bedridden. The decision to move the family back to Minneapolis, to be close to Roy’s parents, proved fatal. Upon arrival, Roy and Tess died within a day of each other. The orphans would be shuttled between unsympathetic and sometimes sadistic relatives.
A little girl with a gimlet eye, Mary was acutely aware of her new status—the outsider looking in—and she became well acquainted with the power games played by those on the inside. Her coming-of-age brought more of the same. As a Seattle girl of uncertain class (not to mention—and she didn’t—a Jewish grandmother), she was an outsider at East Coast, upper-crust Vassar. As an Irish Catholic of bourgeois upbringing, she was an outsider among Partisan Review’s gang of first-generation Jews, even as she ruled from within as the magazine’s theater critic and queen cobra, entrancing male colleagues while living with P.R.’s editor Philip Rahv. In fact, being “inside” only brought ambivalence. “A princess among the trolls” is how she came to characterize her position at P.R., rather nastily, in her astonishing short story of 1941, “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt.” This frank and often bawdy portrayal of a one-night stand on a cross-country train, its details drawn from McCarthy’s own past tryst on a train, was a dropped bomb that brought career-making notoriety. “I was at Exeter at the time,” the late George Plimpton told Frances Kiernan, “and it made almost as much of an impression as Pearl Harbor.”
The Group is considered McCarthy’s fifth novel, but, truth be told, it’s hard to know exactly which of her books is the first. The Company She Keeps, published in 1942 and cited as the first, was actually a collection of previously published short stories, including “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” all sharing a protagonist, Margaret Sargent. Her piercing sensibility takes the place of a plot, sending waves of pitiless social insight and irony rippling through the book. McCarthy’s “second” novel, The Oasis, was the winning entry in a 1949 fiction contest sponsored by the English literary monthly Horizon. A novelette in length, a political satire in tone, The Oasis was also a roman à clef that spoofed the Partisan Review intellectuals, presenting them as Realists or Purists and plopping them into a rural Utopia where they attempt to live outside society, without modern conveniences or class distinctions. Former lover Rahv, caricatured as the leader of the Realists, was so stung by the book he threatened to sue. In an interview with The Paris Review, McCarthy clarified: “The Oasis is not a novel It’s a conte, a conte philosophique.”
An interesting choice of words on McCarthy’s part, conte versus “story,” for the French conte not only translates as “tale,” it also connotes a narration, a story told orally. Setting aside the fact that McCarthy could be quite theatrical when reading her work before an audience, there is a distinctly narrated, documentary-voice-over quality to her fiction, as if her tales came straight from her head—eyes, ears, brain, mouth—without ever having traveled through her heart.
The Groves of Academe followed in 1951 and A Charmed Life in 1954. Groves is yet another chess match, an example of what the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, a lifelong friend of McCarthy’s, termed her “ideological follies,” this one between academics (recognizable to those in the know, naturally) at a small college modeled on Bard, where McCarthy had taught for a year. As for A Charmed Life, the plot, not ideological but still a kind of folly, zeroes in on the emotional dynamics of an iffy marriage dropped into a tiny community of bohemians, further complicated when the protagonist’s former husband (based, in part, on McCarthy’s second husband, the writer Edmund Wilson) lures her into a drunken roll on the couch. Booze and bad sex were never far apart in the world of Mary McCarthy, and A Charmed Life turns on what will be done with the pregnancy that follows.
In the year that brought forth A Charmed Life, the Partisan Review published yet another McCarthy tale, this one called “Dottie Makes an Honest Woman of Herself.” Hard to believe Mary could go one better than “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” but she did. Sandwiched between an Irving Howe essay, “This Age of Conformity,” and Hannah Arendt’s “Tradition and the Modern Age” was the unabashed third chapter of The Group—“Get yourself a pessary.” It was a scandalous sneak preview that made everyone want more.
Portrait of the Ladies
According to biographer Carol Gelderman (Mary McCarthy: A Life), the idea was articulated in 1951, when McCarthy applied for a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation grant. She wanted to write about “a group of newly married couples who emerge out of the Depression with a series of optimistic beliefs in science, engineering, rural electrification, the Aga stove, technocracy, psychoanalysis In a certain sense, the ideas are the villains and the people their hapless victims.” It was a concept novel, with not so much a plot as a plan: the characters conned by progress with a capital P. The grant was denied, but McCarthy went ahead and began writing.
In 1959, five years after “Dottie Makes an Honest Woman of Herself” was published, McCarthy again applied for a Guggenheim, this time describing the book as a “history of the faith in progress of the nineteen-thirties and forties as reflected in the behavior and notions of young women—college graduates of the year 1933 It is a crazy quilt of clichés, platitudes, and idées reçues. Yet the book is not meant to be a joke or even a satire, exactly, but a ‘true history’ of the times … ”
The concept had been simplified and refined. In a way, it was the fictional flower of a nonfiction essay McCarthy had written in 1951, for Holiday magazine, in which she stated, “For different people … at different periods, Vassar can stand for whatever is felt to be wrong with the modern female: humanism, atheism, Communism, short skirts, cigarettes, psychiatry, votes for women, free love, intellectualism. Pre-eminently among American college women, the Vassar girl is thought of as carrying a banner.” The Group was now the book McCarthy was destined to write. Her editor, William Jovanovich, of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, thought it “might be one of the few important books that is about women without being actually for women.” The jury at the Guggenheim must have thought so too, for the grant was given.
McCarthy would fulfill her proposal with i’s dotted (Dottied?) and t’s crossed. The Group isn’t a joke, and though satirical it isn’t a satire. The lives of McCarthy’s eight graduates—nine if you count Norine, a classmate who envied the group from afar and is the novel’s lone outsider—do indeed present a crazy quilt that captures the history of the time. Dottie proffers a peephole into the sexual mores of the 1930s and Priss into “enlightened” mothering. Literary Libby wants to be an editor but is steered toward agenting, while Polly’s love affairs shed light on the era’s attitudes toward psychoanalysis and psychiatry. In Kay we have the consumer as climber, a woman in love with the intellectual cachet of modernism; for this she is mocked by her philandering husband, Harald Petersen (modeled on McCarthy’s first husband, Harald Johnsrud). Androgynous Helena writes the class newsletter, and chubby heiress Pokey is present mostly through her butler, Hatton. Empress of them all is Lakey—Elinor Eastlake, of Lake Forest, Illinois—the aloof aesthete who’s studying art in Europe and spends most of the novel offstage. Most of the movie too. “Waiting for Lakey to reappear,” the film critic Pauline Kael wrote in a 1966 essay on the making of Lumet’s movie, “is about like waiting for Godot.” But worth the wait, for she was played with sublime hauteur by a young Candice Bergen. It is upon Lakey’s return from Europe that the group realizes she is a lesbian.
Getting the book written would take some doing. Late in 1959, the year McCarthy received her Guggenheim, she met the man who would become her fourth and last husband, the diplomat James West. McCarthy left her third husband, Bowden Broadwater, to wed West, who had to leave his second wife, Margaret. West was posted to Paris, where the couple bought a large apartment, and McCarthy took on extra writing assignments to help pay for its renovation. This annoyed Jovanovich, who’d drummed up huge advance interest in The Group and wanted to see it finished and in print pronto. Moreover, in early 1963, just as she should have been perfecting her final manuscript for its April deadline, McCarthy spent intellectual and emotional energy defending Eichmann in Jerusalem, an eyewitness report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a bureaucratic cog in the Holocaust machine and the man who would embody, in the report’s infamous phrase, “the banality of evil.” First serialized in The New Yorker and deeply controversial, the book was written by McCarthy’s beloved friend and kindred spirit, the political theorist Hannah Arendt.
Yet even before the move to Paris and the Eichmann explosion McCarthy realized she couldn’t manage The Group’s projected time frame—the Roosevelt 30s to the Eisenhower 50s. In 1960 she told The Paris Review, “These girls are all essentially comic figures, and it’s awfully hard to make anything happen to them.” She felt that comic figures, as if by Delphic decree, were not allowed to learn or grow. Reducing the time frame to seven years, she still had trouble wrapping it up. “I’ve lost all perspective,” McCarthy told Arendt. “The main thing is to push on and deposit the burden. On Jovanovich’s lap.” That said, when McCarthy suddenly found herself on the verge of best-sellerdom, she was, she wrote, “very much excited by all the excitement about the book.” The question of whether McCarthy had made the girls’ fates feel like more than faits accomplis would be left for the critics to settle.
The year 1963 was a big one for what is now termed “second-wave feminism.” McCarthy never rode any wave of feminism. Generously mentored by male editors and lovers, she scorned special pleading based on gender. Nevertheless, her Vassar girls burst upon the world in the same year that saw the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, a groundbreaking study of the nameless unhappiness that was plaguing postwar housewives. (Friedan’s book was sparked by Smith girls, classmates she had surveyed at a 15th reunion.) Also in 1963, Radcliffe girl Adrienne Rich published her third collection of poetry, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, a seismic shift into the terrain of gender politics. “All three of these books,” says Katha Pollitt, essayist for The Nation, “were about the way very smart, educated women get trapped in the lesser life they are compelled to lead.”
Unlike her sister-school sisters, McCarthy wasn’t taking on the present in a way that was radically or even covertly subversive. She was looking at the past, specifically, she said, at a “vanishing class”—upper-middle, Protestant, educated. Her girls were bluestockings, not rebels. They graduate from Vassar embracing the social responsibilities required of their class and believing that America is inevitably improving. Almost all of them become less acute with the passing of time. One could and probably should read this diminuendo as an authorial statement on life. As W. H. Auden wrote in the poem Lullaby, “Time and fevers burn away / Individual beauty from / Thoughtful children … ” But Pauline Kael also had a point when she said, “She beats up on those girls.”