Imagining Enemies

Nora Ephron’s theory of Mary McCarthy vs. Lillian Hellman.

With “Imaginary Friends” like these …

It is one of the cruel whims of literary immortality that longtime enemies Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman ended up prominently featured in each other’s obituaries. Their long, highly public feud culminated on the Dick Cavett Show, or as Hellman’s lawyer later put it, “on a televised program in which Miss McCarthy appeared to tout her most recent unsuccessful novel,” when McCarthy famously said of Hellman: “Every word she writes is a lie—including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ” This inspired Hellman, by far the richer and more commercially successful of the pair, to sue for $2.25 million, a suit that ended only with Hellman’s death. Nora Ephron takes this stylish intellectual wrangle as the subject for her new musical play, Imaginary Friends.

When I say musical play, I am not talking about a little polite Chopin in the background. The show features full-blown musical numbers with gray eminences like Edmund Wilson singing and dancing across the stage. One has to admire the mad ambition of the venture—that is, creating a musical extravaganza out of a complicated, largely uneventful dispute between two dead writers. Some of the songs (like one about McCarthy’s relationship with the critic Philip Rahv, with the chorus, “A smoke. A drink. A Jew.”) might have succeeded in the campy ironic manner of The Producers, were they campy or ironic enough. Altogether, the production might have worked better as a brainy, talky play in the style of Arcadia or Copenhagen. But the legendary rivalry is nonetheless a ripe subject for Ephron’s clever comic sensibility.

The play deftly points out the similarities between the two powerful, creative women: They both had great successes when they were 29; they both attached themselves to powerful men who enhanced their reputations; they both used the whiff of sexuality to advance themselves; they both were contrarians, arguers, fighters. And it tries to answer the looming question: Why did they hate each other?

There has never been a fully satisfactory account of the animosity that shadowed their final years. It seems to have begun in earnest when they rubbed each other the wrong way over tea. Hellman offended McCarthy with a remark about John Dos Passos turning against the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War because he didn’t like the food—a remark that, Ephron points out, could easily have been made by McCarthy herself. The two had political differences at a time when political differences mattered more than they do now; a time when the stakes were higher and more passionately disputed: Hellman was a Stalinist, McCarthy a Trotskyist. It’s also possible that their feud was intensified by a primitive, sexual territorialism. McCarthy was galled by a dalliance of some kind between Hellman and Phillip Rahv, who was one of her own loves. And it’s been suggested that McCarthy envied Hellman’s commercial success and Hellman resented McCarthy’s highbrow literary reputation. But somehow none of this quite explains the monumental grudge; after all, they met only a handful of times. It would seem that the women had too little to do with each other to cultivate a deep, intensely personal rage. This is part of what makes their rivalry so fascinating: how arbitrary, how mysterious it remains in many ways.

Ephron has several theories to explain it. For one thing, she suggests that some of their competitiveness had to do simply with being female. Her Hellman says, “You wanted to be the only woman at the table.” And in fact, both she and McCarthy tried to elbow each other out of the serious, hard drinking, mostly male literary world. Hellman once said in the Paris Review: “Miss McCarthy is often brilliant … but she is a lady writer, a lady magazine writer.”

Ephron captures perfectly the particularly feminine nature of this nastiness. The rivalry was not always high-minded; it does not all transpire in transcendently witty aperçus. Sometimes the two brilliant women sounded like trophy wives picking at Cobb salads. The real Mary McCarthy, for instance, once observed that Hellman’s arms “looked shriveled and fatty at the same time … as if she was a hundred years old.”

For Ephron, the intellectual differences between the two women weren’t so much about politics as they were about literary sensibility. She casts McCarthy as a moral crusader for truth, and Hellman as a fantasist, a spinner of untruths. The play ends with McCarthy saying, “I believe in fact” and Hellman saying, “I believe in story.”

Hellman’s penchant for untruth is indisputable. She fabricated portions of her memoirs and an account of her interlude in Spain with Ernest Hemingway and glorified her statement before the House Un-American Activities Committee. On the subject of her decadeslong love affair with Dashiell Hammett, Gore Vidal once joked: “Did anyone ever see them together?”

But McCarthy’s allegiance to fact, on the other hand, is more nuanced than it appears in the play. Central to McCarthy’s work is the idea that no one ever gets their own life right. A bright thread of anxiety about how much she has invented runs through all of her autobiographical writings. She footnotes her memoir Memories of a Catholic Girlhood with italicized corrections to emphasize the impossibility of truthful reminiscence. Over the course of her life, she wrote extensively about her own distortions of fact, taking great pleasure in sniffing them out and uncovering them, like rare truffles. All her novels take as their subject the spectacular delusions people have, the lies they tell themselves. And so the real McCarthy never had the schoolmarmish passion for fact, the rigid belief in the possibility of truth, that Ephron attributes to her.

In fact, McCarthy was accused of sins not entirely dissimilar to the ones that have tarred Hellman. In her legal papers, which contained an impressive collection of Hellman’s lies, McCarthy accused Hellman of shamelessly stealing another woman’s story about smuggling money for the anti-Nazi resistance in Hellman’s memoir Pentimento. The book was made into a movie called Julia, and the real Julia, a psychiatrist named Muriel Gardiner, eventually stepped forward with a memoir of her own. But McCarthy’s outrage about this pilfering cannot have been as straightforward as it seems. Throughout her career, she herself was charged with using and caricaturing other people’s lives—by Edmund Wilson, by Philip Rahv (who went so far as to bring a lawsuit for his portrayal in The Oasis), by various Vassar women who saw shards of themselves in The Group. So, the idea of borrowing from other people’s experience, along with all the distortions and writerly immoralities it entails, cannot have been as purely horrifying to McCarthy as Ephron portrays.

In some way, McCarthy was blaming Hellman for qualities she knew herself to be guilty of. She saw her own lapses in integrity mirrored in Hellman, in an exaggerated and distorted form. Hellman, for her part, thought of McCarthy as being frivolous in her politics, taking them up at cocktail parties for whimsical reasons. Hellman herself desperately wanted to be seen as a serious political figure, but she was often accused of taking her stubborn unreconstructed Stalinism from Dashiell Hammett. So, perhaps McCarthy and Hellman despised each other not because they were different, but because they saw some glimmer of themselves in each other.

In the end, some of the conflicts at work in this dusty, literary dispute may have affected the production itself. I can see Ephron, writer of Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally, identifying with both the desire for commercial success and the yearning for literary cachet; I can see her trying to be both McCarthy and Hellman at the same time, and in the end creating something of a noble and interesting mess.