Improbable Seductions: The Unsparing Eye of Mary McCarthy

For those interested in origin stories, posthumous literary gossip, and New York City in the 1930s, look no further than Mary McCarthy’s Intellectual Memoirs (1992) – a candid and lively account of McCarthy’s early writing career and the intellectual and political scenes that fueled it. McCarthy’s observations are sharp and often quite searing; she spares no one, not even herself.

We had fun in the New York Public Library reading-room, doing our research in back issues of magazines and newspapers and using lined cards to copy out quotations, some of them unbelievable. Peggy Marshall came from a Mormon family in Utah or Montana; she was about ten years older than I, around thirty-three, and was divorced from her husband; they had one little girl, whose custody they shared. Peggy, I soon discovered, did not have much energy; she was having an affair with a labor writer named Ben Stolberg, and both of them would lie on a sofa or daybed in her living-room, too tired to do anything, apparently too tired to go to bed and make love. Nor can I remember her ever cooking a meal.

Neither was very attractive; she was blond, grayish-eyed, and dumpy, with a sharp turned-up nose, and Stolberg was blond, blue-eyed, and fat and talked, snorting, through his nose, with a German accent. I don’t know what view Stolberg took of himself, but Peggy, to my horror, saw herself as seductive. Once, when we were talking of Ben and whether he wanted to marry her, I saw her look in the mirror with a little smile and toss of her head; “Of course I know I’m kinda pretty,” she said.

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