9.2.11

MY DINNER WITH MARY

NOTE For those inclined to read even more Dilettante today, he can be found over at New York Social Diary, with tales of servant woes in Gilded Age Bar Harbor.  And if today's post here seems familiar, it is because it is a re-post of an earlier piece inadvertently lost.


If the title of this post, with its allusion to My Dinner With Andre, suggests to the reader an evening of sparkling conversation with a scintillating woman named Mary, you are only half right.  It was an evening with a woman Mary, but conversation did not sparkle.  This is the tale of a simple Maine boy's chilly encounter with one of the formidable literary dragons of the 20th century.


I owned a bookstore in my youth and was slightly--very slightly---acquainted with the writer and critic Mary McCarthy, who summered 20 miles away in Castine, a village so picturesque and pristine that it is sometimes somewhat competitively referred to as 'Stepford'  by residents of our own picturesque, but less pristine, community.

If I remember correctly, McCarthy was drawn to Castine by the equally formidable, but much nicer, Elizabeth Hardwick, who had in turn first visited there when her former husband, poet Robert Lowell, inherited an old house on the village green from his proper Bostonian aunt, Harriet Winslow.

One either loved McCarthy or one didn't. I was a didn't. Her fondness for her own famous intellect was more than a little off-putting, and her intellectual snobbery, worn like armor to battle, made one yearn for the simpler social affectations of a Hyacinth Bucket. Frankly, She was just not terribly nice, although her husband, a former State Department type, was a great sort.  In fairness,  I was also young, extremely shy, and though generally in thrall to the literary greats of her era, I never warmed to her writing either. Our exchanges were usually polite and brief, and she obviously got along very well without my affection.

However, in a small community, one sooner or later dines with everyone, and one evening in 1982, fate decided that it was Mary's and my turn to sit next to each other at a party. The hosts were a couple of whom I was very fond, playwright Samuel Taylor (Sabrina)--who had a more than passing resemblance to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.--and his wife Suzanne, both of whom affected the highly stylized 1950's Hollywood/South of France glamor that one rarely sees anymore. Sam was the only person I ever knew who could actually look credible in an ascot or pull of wearing a necktie as a belt, and Suzanne was an accomplished enough hostess that Dorothy Rodgers bows to her in My Favorite Things, and  had herself published two cookbooks.


The front door of the Johnson House, Mary McCarthy's Castine home, c. 1910 postcard view
That evening I was let into the Taylor's front hall at the appointed hour (well, okay, 10 minutes past the appointed hour), and as I looked though to the terrace, I spied Mary McCarthy on a bench, holding court. With an involuntary shiver at the chilling sight, I gave a silent prayer that I would be seated at a different section of the table. Luck was not with me on that lovely summer evening. When we were summoned to the table, I was horrified to find that I was seated next to Mary.  On my right was a woman named Kay Brown, with whom I not had a chance to chat during drinks, but who I knew had been Sam's agent for many years, successfully shepherding his plays from stage to Hollywood.

At table, I tried my level darned Yankee best with Mary, who was famously disdainful of social small talk, but I might as well have tried swimming away from the Titanic. She was offering no help at all, absolutely none, and all my attempts were sinking. Flattery? I happened to be reading her Stones of Venice at the time, and enjoying it. Nope. I'd been on an Edmund Wilson kick the year before, but certainly she wouldn't be pleased to be reminded of what her former husband had written about her, so I didn't go there, though tempted. An article from from the latest New York Review by her friend Elizabeth Hardwick? "No, I haven't read that yet". Thud. An article she'd written about Alice Brayton, creator of Green Animals near Newport--perhaps we can find some mutual ground in a conversation about taste? Nope. Okay, small talk it is: Isn't this Vichyssoise delicious? Please! I'm going down for the third time, and this cold but supposedly witty woman is not tossing me a life preserver. At that moment, it was time to turn right, to Kay Brown, and suddenly I felt the warm relief a storm tossed passenger feels at reaching the balmy tropical isle. She was alive, interested, and ready to find out more about the poor young guy next to her, still shivering from his encounter with the iceberg. It turned out that she had not only been my host's agent, but that it was she who had brought Gone With the Wind to David Selznick's attention, and after her visit here, she was on her way to Japan on behalf of the Mitchell estate to discuss the rights to a Japanese musical version of GWTW.  Finally!  Some material I can work with!---and we were off and running. All too soon, I had to return to the iceberg on my left, and once again the cold winds of Siberia blew in my face. And so it went, until dessert, a delicious ginger mousse which I remember fondly 30 years later, and which memory lessens the shock that I am now probably the only person alive who was at that party...


After dinner, Mary and I were in separate groups, at least one of us relieved not to have to be trying with the other any more. At the end of the evening, saying good nights, I felt my good manners drain from me, and I turned to the literary gorgon, who was ignoring my departure, held out my hand, and with all the elaborately gracious sarcasm I could muster,  said 'Good night Mary, I'm sooo sorry we didn't get to chat more" (hey, I never claimed to be Oscar Wilde--or even Oscar Levant). Bad move. She just looked up at me, Medusa like, bared her little gray teeth into a semblance of a snarl---I  mean, smile---and slowly and carefully said "Oh, I too", and narrowing her eyes into slits, repeated "I too", abruptly pulling away her hand and turning back to her conversation. Moral: amateurs should be careful of sparring with the pros. And off into the night I went. I can still see her, sitting in that lovely room, her famous and faded looks lit by lamplight, as always pleased with herself beyond what the evidence justified. 

But wait! There's more! McCarthy was at the time being famously sued by Lillian Hellman, having said on the Dick Cavett Show that Hellman was the most overrated writer in America, and that every word she wrote was a lie including 'and' and 'the'. That I knew. What I didn't know, but that my charming but sometimes wicked hostess did, was that she had seated me between not just her husband's agent and Mary McCarthy, but between Lillian Hellman's former agent and Mary McCarthy.  Um, thanks.

And that children, is the tale of the night that your uncle Dilettante jousted with Mary McCarthy and lost.
 
PS.  As this is really a blog about New England design and architecture, and not about dropping the names of people famous half a century ago, here are a few shots of Mary McCarthy's house in Castine.  Inspired by the Asher Benjamin plate that heads this blog, naively interpreted by a local carpenter, it was built for Daniel Johnson just after 1800 

Ah, Polaroids! What we antique dealers used before the digital camera. A faux painted stereo cabinet made in Paris for McCarthy in the 1960's. The right hand front dropped down for the receiver, and the top slid to access the turntable (remember turntables?). The Dilettante purchased this for himself, along with the original cabinetmaker's drawings, but being an antiques dealer, sold it. And is still rather sorry. 


NOTE:  Please visit this link for images by Susan Wood of Mary McCarthy at home in Castine, looking surprisingly benign.
 

14 comments:

Reggie Darling said...

Dear DED: I loved this story when you first posted it, and I love it again. Thank you. RD has been remiss in commenting, I am afraid. One adored the piece on the mourning picture (a delightful, highly graphic one that filled Reggie with covetousness), and its journey swimming upstream to about as high as it could go. Interesting to run across pieces as they do just that. Several years ago I was the underbidder on a pretty painting at a country auction house, that needed only a mild cleaning and a better frame. Which is exactly what happened between when I bid on it and saw it next, which was in a booth at the Winter Antiques Show, where it was being offered by a dealer at more than ten times its hammer price. One doesn't object to the dealer seeking to make such a profit, one merely points it out. Reggie

Paul Gervais de Bédée said...

I love stories such as this for so many reasons, but especially because we have all had such dismal encounters with fame. Obviously, though perhaps a decent writer, she was not a lady. A lady talks to the right for the first course and to the left for the second and has cordial things to say to both.

Topaz said...

I don't know if I should visit here anymore.

I was perfectly content with my own little existence amongst the rougher environs and plain-spoken people of Colorado before but now realize I yearn to be on the East Coast, surrounded by the fantastic accoutrements of a well-lived life, human and otherwise.

Perhaps in my next incarnation.

P.S. Was the musical GWTW ever produced?

The Down East Dilettante said...

Reggie, thanks so much as always--

Gervais de Bedee, my point exactly.

Topaz, do not get the wrong impression---the encounters sometimes described here take up four or five nights a year---the other 359 are spent repairing leaks in the roof, hunting for bargains at TJ Maxx, and wishing for tropical vacations.

The Down East Dilettante said...

PS Topaz---as to whether the Japanese musical version of GWTW was ever produced, I cannot find an answer, but I have often wondered. It was the amusing highlight of the evening, hearing that.

The Devoted Classicist said...

D.E.D., you are much more of a gentleman than I am; after two tries at conversation with the adjacent dinner companion, I would throw out conventions of etiquette. And I remember, to my horror, the plans for a Japanese musical GWTW! Despite what must have been almost torture at the time, you came out all the better for it after all, no?

The Ancient said...

Dilettante --

When did Mary McCarthy ever claim to be a lady?

(I used to think that anyone who could have put up with Edmund Wilson for even a week deserved a pension from a grateful nation.)

Anonymous said...

What a fun read. Yet it was also painful to read. Let's call it painfully funny!

I'm a bit disappointed that this supposedly witty woman would be so deliberately rude to a dinner guest; disappointed but not entirely shocked. I was never exactly a fan of hers. Really, I think the best thing about Mary McCarthy was her brother.

Turner Pack Rats said...

where would we be without these heartwarming tales to enlighten a dreary winter. and the best part is the dilletante grew up in environs populated by eccentric eclectic famous people. you can see why he never left. at my house, the cats are a constant source of entertainment. DED substitutes the famous for cats.
is it just my computer or did you have a picture problem. several spots mention pix but all i got was captions. oh, i see. we're supposed to use our imaginations - how clever - how droll.

security word def - "scringst" - the cheapest man in town

Dovecote Decor said...

DED: Scary Mary was making quite the statement by her rudeness; such bad manners at a dinner party. But Oh, the ginger mousse, would have compensated epicurean me. These days everybody is trying so hard to sell their books, they are positively effusive with the world. Thanks for the encouragement on the outdoor furniture. Maybe the price is dropping! Come look at the antiques at our online store, I'd love your thoughts.
Best,
Liz

P.S. word verification Lizest! As a neurotic commenter, I consider it good luck!

Yankeegirl said...

DED, you wouldn't be heading to Nashville for an antiques/garden show this weekend, would you? It's an annual benefit for the historic house museum called "Cheekwood" and there have been dealers from Maine in the past. It's usually a very nice show.

ArchitectDesign™ said...

haha -what a fun tale for me to come back to! Why is it so often people are so full of their own importance they forget they're regular people as well? I met Jacques Pepin this past week, a giant and celebrity in any world, and he could NOT have been nicer or kinder.

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