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Mary McCarthy: A Biographical Sketch

The only daughter of Roy Winfield and Therese ("Tess") Preston McCarthy, Mary Therese McCarthy was born on 21 June 1912 in Seattle, Washington. Following Mary came three brothers: Kevin, Preston, and Sheridan.

En route to a new home in Minneapolis, purchased for the family by her paternal grandparents, the McCarthy children (ages 6, 4, 3, and 1) were orphaned when their parents became victims of the influenza epidemic of 1918. The children were taken in by their great-aunt Margaret Sheridan McCarthy and her new husband, Myers Shriver and subjected to a horrible life depicted in McCarthy's work, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957). After six years with the Shrivers, Mary was taken back to Seattle to live with her maternal grandparents, Harold and Augusta Morganstern Preston; her brothers were sent to boarding school. Mary moved in with her grandparents in their upper-class home and enjoyed a life of luxury. Harold, a well-known and successful attorney, and "Gussie," known for her beauty and elegance, wanted Mary to have an excellent education and enrolled her in a convent school for her primary education and then in the Annie Wright Seminary for high school. From there she went on to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and graduated, Phi Beta Kappa, with her bachelor's degree in 1933.

Following commencement McCarthy moved to New York City and married Harold Johnsrud, an aspiring playwright, the first of her four husbands. They divorced in 1936 and early in 1937, she began a job as an editorial assistant for the publishing house of Covici-Friede.

By spring 1937, Mary had become involved with Philip Rahv. Together they revived a literary journal known as Partisan Review, which had been founded in 1934 by Rahv and William Phillips. Mary served on the editorial board along with Dwight Macdonald, F. W. Dupee, and others. She served as drama critic as well. During that period of time, she also had book reviews published in The New Republic and The Nation.

Through her association with Partisan Review, McCarthy became acquainted with Edmund Wilson, a well-known literary critic, whom she married in 1938. With Wilson Mary had her only child, a son named Reuel. McCarthy's first book, The Company She Keeps, was published in 1942.

Following their divorce in 1945, McCarthy accepted a teaching position for a year at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, not far north of Vassar. During that time she met a member of the staff of The New Yorker, Bowden Broadwater, whom she married in 1946. Much later in her life, McCarthy returned to teach one semester a year at Bard College, as the Charles Stevenson Professor of Literature, between 1986 and her death in 1989. For a semester in 1948, Mary taught English at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. During her marriage to Broadwater, McCarthy was very prolific in her writing, publishing eight books between 1949 and 1961. She also contributed numerous articles to such periodicals as Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and Harper's, as well as Partisan Review.

While on a lecture tour in Poland for the United States Information Agency in late 1959 and early 1960, accompanied by Broadwater and Reuel, McCarthy met and fell in love with James West. As the Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw and director of the embassy's branch of the U.S.I.A., West planned their itinerary for the four weeks they spent in Poland. Following their respective divorces in 1960 and 1961, McCarthy and West were married in April 1961.

The Wests maintained two homes, an apartment in Paris and a house in Castine, Maine, and delighted in a busy social life together. On 25 October 1989, McCarthy died of cancer at New York Hospital. At the time of her death, she was working on the second volume of her autobiography, published posthumously in 1992 as Intellectual Memoirs: New York, 1936-1938.

Mary McCarthy was the author of twenty-eight books during her lifetime, both fiction and non-fiction. Many of these works comprised chapters that had previously appeared in periodicals; two were texts of lectures that she had given. Her novels were partially autobiographical, and many times, her characters in whole or in part, were based on her acquaintances. Irvin Stock, a critic whom McCarthy admired, has said of her novels that "each has so much life and truth, and is written in a prose so spare, vigorous, and natural ... yet at the same time [is] so witty, graceful, and, in a certain way, poetic...."

The breadth of her writing is wide, from drama reviews to the history of art and architecture, from cultural criticism to political analysis and travel observations. She was known for her keen intellect, her wit and courage, and her literary style that was precise, but graceful. From her readers and reviewers, she elicited strong reactions that were frequently negative. She was often referred to as the "lady with a switchblade." Wendy Martin, in Modern American Women Writers (1991), said: "McCarthy was a survivor rather than a victim; she was unequivocally a writer of extraordinary range and a citizen of the world."

McCarthy won a number of literary awards, among them the Horizon prize (1949) and two Guggenheim fellowships (1949-50 and 1959-60). Both the MacDowell Medal for Literature and the National Medal for Literature, were bestowed upon her in 1984. She was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and the American Academy in Rome. She received honorary degrees from Bard, Bowdoin, Colby, and Smith Colleges, Syracuse University, and from the Universities of Aberdeen, Hull, and Maine at Orono.

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