Two Mccarthys Who Hated Lies
Worse than writing that is bad, declared once Dashiell Hammett
to Lillian Hellman, is writing that is only half-
good, but I’d prefer to say it would be wrong to damn it
if it’s so half-good that it helps to make you laugh.
Every word that Lillian Hellman used to write would be
a lie, McCarthy (Mary) said, including “and”
and “the.” McCarthy (Joe) opposed lies, as emphatically
opposed to lies, not half-good- -don’t laugh! - -for the land.
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Poet's Notes about The Poem
When Mary McCarthy said of Lillian Hellman, 'every word she says is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'', a certain attitude was fostered. Not only to the celebrated playwright's experiences in war-torn Spain during the 1930s or before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1950s, but also to her personal life. Hellmann, this attitude said, was a myth-maker of the worst kind. She couldn't be trusted to tell the truth, not even about those she loved. So what if she wrote in her memoirs that crime writer Dashiell Hammett, with whom she lived on-and-off for 30 years, was the most important person in her life? 'Did anyone ever see them together? ' queried Gore Vidal.
Hellman's experience of the 'pains of writing' were always assuaged by Hammett's presence, his advice and criticism, even though theirs was the stormiest of liaisons. At one party, during an argument, he punched her on the jaw. On the opening night in New York of The Children's Hour, a play that Hammett had suggested to Hellman after reading about a 19th-century court case where two headmistresses of a girls' school in Scotland were accused by a pupil of having a lesbian affair, she called him in LA to tell him how well it had gone. A woman answered, saying that she was his secretary. When Hellman realised it was 3am, and Hammett had no secretary, she jumped on a plane and trashed his house.
In response to his affairs, she would have affairs, desperate to make him jealous. That they infuriated each other often was clear: on one occasion, she found him grinding a lit cigarette stub into his cheek. 'I said, 'What are you doing? ' 'Keeping myself from doing it to you, ' he said.'….
In her memoirs, Hellman gives occasionally disturbing glimpses of their writing life. Hammett taught her to be economical with her style, to be direct, and was unstinting in his critiques. When she passed him the first draft of The Autumn Garden, he shouted at her, 'You started out as a serious writer. That's what I liked, that's what I worked for. I don't know what's happened but tear this up and throw it away. It's worse than bad – it's half good.'
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