Everyone loved Chapter Two. Straitlaced Dottie Renfrew—Vassar class of 1933 and a virgin—has gone home with the handsome but dissipated Dick Brown. He undresses her slowly, so that she “was hardly trembling when she stood there in front of him with nothing on but her pearls.” Dick makes Dottie lie down on a towel, and after she experiences some “rubbing and stroking,” and then some “pushing and stabbing,” she starts to get the hang of things. “All of a sudden, she seemed to explode in a series of long, uncontrollable contractions that embarrassed her, like the hiccups … ” No hearts and flowers here, simply a female orgasm described by a female writer who was as empirical and precise as the male writers of her day—perhaps more so—yet always attuned to the social niceties imprinted upon a certain class of female mind. Dick removes the towel, impressed by the minute stain, and in a remark that pulled the romantic veil from the usual novelistic pillow talk, says of his ex-wife, “Betty bled like a pig.”
It was the first line of Chapter Three, however, that brought mythic status to Mary McCarthy’s fifth novel, The Group. “Get yourself a pessary,” Dick says the next morning, walking Dottie to the door. The chapter proceeds to offer a tutorial on the etiquette, economics, semiotics, and symbolism of this particular form of contraception, circa 1933. Diaphragm, ring, plug—call it what you will—when The Group was published, in 1963, the subject was still shocking. Sidney Lumet’s movie of The Group—released three years later, smack in the middle of the sexual revolution—included Dottie’s deflowering and subsequent trip to a gynecologist but substituted euphemisms for McCarthy’s blunt language. Instead, Dick Brown says, “The right lady doctor could make us a lot happier.”
Critics of The Group would call it Mary McCarthy’s “lady-writer’s novel” and “lady-book,” insults meant to suggest it was a falling-off from her previous work. And it was different from what she’d done before. Up until The Group, McCarthy was feared and revered in the smart, tight, testy, and frequently backstabbing world of midcentury literary quarterlies and political reviews. Her critical assessments of theater and literature were scathing, and no one was too high to be brought low. Arthur Miller, J. D. Salinger, and Tennessee Williams—the greats of the day—all came in for vivisection, McCarthy’s own Theater of Cruelty on the page. (“Torn animals,” poet Randall Jarrell wrote of a character based on McCarthy, “were removed at sunset from that smile.”) Her early novels read like moral chess matches where everyone is a pawn. And her memoirs, well, one thinks of brutal honesty dressed in beautiful scansion, Latinate sentences of classical balance and offhand wit in which nothing is sacred and no one is spared, not even the author herself. There was never anything “ladylike” about Mary McCarthy’s writing. She struck fear in the hearts of male colleagues, many of whom she took to bed without trembling or pearls. For aspiring female writers, she remains totemic.
But The Group—a novel that followed eight Vassar roommates from commencement in 1933 to the brink of war in 1940—was her Mount Olympus and her Achilles’ heel, a monster international success that brought world fame yet failed to impress the peers who mattered most.
“Women’s secrets again,” the poet Louise Bogan wrote to a friend, “told in clinical detail.”
“No one in the know likes the book,” poet Robert Lowell wrote to fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop, a Vassar classmate of McCarthy’s.
“Mary tried for something very big,” critic Dwight Macdonald wrote to historian Nicola Chiaromonte, “but didn’t have the creative force to weld it all together.”
All true, and all beside the point. Published on August 28, 1963, with a whopping first printing of 75,000, The Group was a sensation. By September 8 it was No. 9 on the New York Times best-seller list for adult fiction, with booksellers ordering 5,000 copies a day. By October 6 it had dethroned Morris L. West’s The Shoes of the Fisherman to become No. 1, where it would stay for the next five months. By the end of 1964, nearly 300,000 copies had been sold, though now and then Harcourt Brace Jovanovich had to refund the price of a book. Women’s secrets “told in clinical detail” were, for some, tantamount to pornography. The book was banned in Australia, Italy, and Ireland.
Countless novels have topped the best-seller list for months. Mention them now—The Shoes of the Fisherman, for instance—and people go blank. Not so with The Group. While its plot was almost nonexistent and its emotional hold next to nil, the secrets of these Vassar girls were chinked in stone and the racy one-liners etched in memory. As Helen Downes Light, a Vassar classmate of McCarthy’s, told Frances Kiernan, the author of the biography Seeing Mary Plain, “I used to keep seventy-five dollars of mad money in a book. We had The Group on the shelf in our guest room and I thought, I’ll remember where it is if I put it in there. Every guest we had would come down the next morning and say, ‘Did you know you had money in that book?’ ”
Money in that book! Avon paid $100,000 for the paperback rights. Movie rights sold to producer-agent Charles Feldman for $162,500. The Group made Mary McCarthy a very rich intellectual, one of America’s first highbrows to receive gargantuan sums, thus changing the financial expectations of serious writers and the scale on which their work could be judged.