In Which God Knows Whatever Possessed Hannah Arendt And Mary McCarthy

Thank You For Everything You Did

When we last left off with the correspondence of Hannah Arendt & Mary McCarthy, Mary was pursuing a divorce with her soon-to-be ex-husband, socialite Bowden Broadwater. The brief impasse between the two friends was mended, but medical problems for both — McCarthy would develop hepatitis after Arendt spent a few months in the hospital because of a taxi accident — brought them closer together again. In these letters they attempt to inch nearer to each other without ever having the advantage of standing in the same room.

Dearest Hannah:

This is going to be a hasty letter and written under the somewhat depressant influence of penicillin and sulfa, so if it sounds strange don’t mind.

Your letter came shortly after I got back from Bocca di Magra, and I was just recovering from the flue, which I’d caught at Bocca, in the damps of the last evenings. Hence its news came to me as from a remote distance.

The other day, though, Carmen at lunch in her gloomy, Spanish-style villa embellished with roses from her rejected suitors and huge oil paintings of wild goats, treated me to some rather shivery prophecies of what Bowden was going to do (or not do). After seeing her, I had a relapse (no connection) and have just got up again today. And meanwhile I’ve bene talking to Reuel on the telephone, he has been in Warsaw, staying with Jim.

Reuel’s advice is that I must take immediate action to get a divorce. That if I don’t, Bowden will become fixed in his ideas and attitudes toward me and it. He says Bowden knows very well that I shall never come back to him, but that if I don’t show him that I mean business about the divorce and will get it in spite of him at any cost, he will keep us all in the present limbo forever.

It was after this that I saw Carmen. Her warnings were not to expect a favorable reply, that the figure of two years had been flourished in Bowden’s conversation, that his dominating idea was revenge, on Jim primarily and incidentally on me. That he no longer loved me but wished someone to pay for his sufferings. That his attitude towards me was malicious. (This I can well believe from the single letter I had from him this summer; it was not, by the way, Hannah, who stopped writing, it was he. For more than a month I did not even have an address for him.) She also told anecdotes of Bowden serving dinner to guests in New York and saying, as he invited them to table, “Sorry, the Mrs has run off with the silver.” This, perhaps unfairly, made me absolutely furious.

I do not agree with you at all that he loves me. If he did, he would not have sat in Venice all summer making spiteful remarks about me and drinking cocktails and leading a bravura social life; he would have tried, I think, to see me, which would not have been hard. Or written me in a friendly way. At least to find out how I was. Certainly, he’s been very much hurt, and his behavior is compatible with that. And he finds it less painful and more dignified, as a role, to say that he loves me than to say that he has been hurt.

He has entered the love-competition and is playing a solo part in it — the man who loves alone, all alone on the stage. The fact is, I am not necessary to the performance, hence there was no reason to seek me.


Mary, darling —

The scarf is so breathtakingly beautiful that I don’t even know how to tell you that you should not. Which nevertheless is the naked truth! Oh Mary, how I wish you were here and how tired I am of this letter writing. I somehow had the feeling during the last week or so that you would suddenly stand in the door. Then your gift arrived and I changed dresses to try it out. It is simply marvellous, almost too beautiful to become a use-object. But still it would have been better if you would have stood in the door.

This time of year is hectic as usual. Even I have to give a dinner party — you can see how bad it is. For Auden and the Lowells and Rich Heller. They probably all hate each other. I hope not, but if they do, I can’t help it. I saw Lowell several times and we talked at great length. He somehow intrigues me and I think I like him. By the way, he really loves you. I don’t think he pretended for my sake. His mental health seems to be perfect.

Despite all this, I have worked rather well. But everything takes so much more time than one hopes it will. I am in the midst of the last section of the Revolution book and I hate to interrupt it again. But I think I shall finish it in Northwestern where I have only a seminar once a week and lectures twice a week. Since I leave so early, I had to give extra session here in Columbia which I did not mind because the class is so very good. We meet once a week and read Plato together by now have become like old friends.

Love, dearest Mary, and all the wishes in the world.


Dearest Hannah,

In the last two weeks I’ve been frightfully busy, otherwise I’d have answered sooner. My spirits have risen, I’m glad to say, and I’ve suddenly done some writing. Just reviews, one a long one of Vladimir Nabokov’s new book, Pale Fire, that’s coming out in this week’s New Republic and shorter one of Salinger for The Observer. The last I did in two days and it is very viperish and mean and gave me no pleasure, except to get it out of the way, but I really fell in love with the Nabokov book and worked very hard on it, with pure joy. I’m very curious to know what you’ll think of the book if you read it, to me it’s one of the gems of this century, absolutely new, though there are flashes of Lolita, Pnin, and all his other books in it. Among other things, it is terribly funny, about academic life, and terribly sad too.

It seems to me to have more of America and of the “new” civilization in it than anything I’ve ever read, and it’s the first book I know to turn this weird new civilization into a work of art, as thought he’d engraved it all on the head of a pin, like the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a terrific puzzle or game and requires several players to work it out. I ran around Paris, to the library, to friends who knew Russian, to friends who knew German, to friends who knew chess, and enlisted, miraculously, their interest, as though they caught fire from the book too, at secondhand. This contagiousness is one of its qualities. And it’s all quite different from working on Finnegans Wake, say, because when you look all the references there you’re simply back with the text, but with the Nabokov book everything you’re led to is beautiful in itself — rare birds and butterflies, the movement of the stars, curious chess situations, certain passages from Pope and Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle, Goethe…. I’m far from having elucidated all of it and am dying to hear what other people will find that I’ve missed. So far, the few reviews I’ve seen have been absolutely stupid and missed just about everything — in the most predictable way, as though Nabokov, laughing, had written the reviewers’ reviews. Well, enough of that.

Otherwise there’s nothing specially new. Except a story about Aron that is circulating. It seems he is a Don Juan with his girl students and has been inducing them to grant him their favors with all sorts of promises, which naturally he hasn’t kept. But one of these girls has drawn up a bill of charges against him and has sent it, mimeographed, to the principal editors of Paris and to all the professors of the Sorbonne. One of his promises, textually quoted, is that if she will go to bed with him he will “take her on his arm to official dinners.” Thwarted of this, she has taken her revenge. Some friends of mine say this is the second mad girl he has been involved with; the first tried to commit suicide to embarrass him or rather staged a suicide.

Oh, I do miss you, Hannah, and wish you were coming here soon.

They hanged Eichmann yesterday; my reaction was curious, rather shrugging. “Well, one more life — what difference does it make?” This cannot be the reaction the Israelis desired, yet short of rejoicing at his death, on the one hand, or being angry at it on the other, what else can the ordinary person feel?

I must stop and start cooking a dinner. I am so glad, Hannah, that you’re almost over the effects of the accident, and you were fortunate in misfortune.


Dearest Mary,

I was just on the point of writing anyway when your letter arrived. I read the Macbeth piece and immediately thereafter the Nabokov review in the New Republic. I fell greatly and enthusiastically in love with the Macbeth article, and Heinrich was even more enthusiastic than I — if possible. You are so entirely and absolutely right and said it all so beautifully! When did you write it and why did you not let me know? It was almost by accident that I saw it in Harper’s.

The Nabokov article — very very good, excellent as a matter of fact, very ingenious and puzzling — but I have not read the book. I am going to get it soon, but shall hardly have the time to read it. There is something in Nabokov which I greatly dislike. As though he wanted to show you all the time how intelligent he is. And as though he thinks of himself in terms of “more intelligent than.” There is something vulgar in his refinement, and I am a bit allergic against this kind of vulgarity because I know it so well, know so many people cursed with it. But perhaps this is no longer true here. Let me see. I know only one book of his which I truly admire, and that is the long essay on Gogol.

Last Year at Marienbad — I saw it and thought it a bore. But have a look, it is interesting from a technical point of view.

I am glad they hanged Eichmann. Not that it mattered. But they would have made themselves utterly ridiculous, I feel, if they had not pushed the thing to its only logical conclusion. I know I am in the minority with this feeling. One reform rabbi came out for mercy and criticized the Israel execution as “unimaginative”! Isn’t that marvellous?

How do you two like Paris? I mean living in the city. When I was there last summer I thought again it is the only place entirely fit to live in. Because it is like a house, the whole city really is, with many many rooms, but you feel never exposed, you are always “housed,” protected, an entirely different spatial feeling from all other big cities I know.

Love and yours,


Dearest Hannah:

It has reached the point where I feel if I don’t write you in the next five minutes I never will — I’ll be too ashamed. I don’t know exactly what has caused this silence. Lack of time to write a long letter, unwillingness to write a short one. Or you fell off my invalid list. Nicola says he observed that I wrote him as long as he was a classified invalid; after that, silence.

The Conference was bizarre enough. People jumping up to confess they were homosexuals or heterosexuals; a Registered Heroin Addict leading the young Scottish opposition to the literary tyranny of the Communist Hugh Macdiarmid, the Yugoslav group in schism and their ambassador threatening to pull the Belgrade Opera and Ballet out of the Festival because the non-official delegate had been allowed to speak before the official delegate; an English woman novelist describing her communications with her dead daughter; a Dutch homosexual, a former male nurse, now a Catholic convert, seeking someone to baptize him, a bearded Sikh with hair down to his waist declaring on the platform that homosexuals were incapable of love, just as (he said) hermaphrodites were incapable of orgasm (Stephen Spender, in the chair, murmured that he should have thought they could have two). And all this before an audience of over two thousand people per day, mostly, I suppose, Scottish Presbyterians. The most striking fact was the number of lunatics both on the platform and in the public. One young woman novelist was released temporarily from a mental hospital in order to attend the Conference, and she was one of the milder cases. I confess I enjoyed it enormously.

Enough of that. Nicholas Nabokov, on the telephone last night, told me that Cal Lowell was in a mental ward in Buenos Aires and that Marilyn Monroe committed suicide because she had been having an affair with Bobby Kenedy and the White House had intervened. Our age begins to sound like some awful colossal movie about the late Roman Emperors and their Messalinas and Poppaeas. The Bobby Kennedy swimming pool being the bath with asses’ milk.

Did you see the Esquire piece on me?


Dearest Mary:

I know it is terrible to dictate a letter and not to write it but I don’t know how long I would postpone answering yours otherwise. Please forgive me. I was so happy with your letter. Everything sounds so good and you yourself sound in high spirits. I enjoyed the Edinburgh bit. I think I read something about it. I knew that Tucci is a hypochondriac. He goes for a complete checkup twice a year to the hospital, each time in perfect health, but a broken arm is, of course, something new.

I am very sorry about Lowell. I hadn’t head form him but I was so little at home that I didn’t find it strange. Will they be back in New York?

Esquire piece: The less said about it the better, I suppose.

The Tin Drum: I read it in German years ago and I think it is an artificial tour de force — as thought he had read all of modern literature and had then decided to borrow and to do something of his own.

What do you say, since we are on literature, about the Nobel Prize going to Steinbeck? Rather surprising! Have you any idea who the alternatives were?

The Revolution book is finished and will appear in January. The Eichmann article has also become a book, and to everybody’s surprise, has been accepted by The New Yorker almost in its entirety. They are starting the series of articles end of January, which reminds me that Harold has now become their art critic and the first article appeared in the current issue. Just in case you should have missed it, I wanted to quote once sentence: “In our time, those who are content merely to paint pictures or to contemplate them are out of touch, either through choice or through ignorance, with the dynamics of creation in the arts; their norm is to be found in the canvases and picture gazers at the outdoor shows in Washington Square. Art, including its appreciation, has become an arena of conflicting powers.” Isn’t this marvelous? God knows whatever possessed him.

Yours, H

“Nightsea Wind” – Xiu Xiu (mp3)

“Laura Palmer’s Theme” – Xiu Xiu (mp3)


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