Speaking of television interviews: who remembers Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy on The Dick Cavett Show? It happened in January 1980, in the lead-up to Hustler Magazine vs. Falwell, and the tone (not to mention the frequency) of writers appearing on public talk shows has certainly changed in the time since. The longtime feud between Hellman and McCarthy, more recently known in the form of Nora Ephron’s play, Imaginary Friends, came to a head when McCarthy said of Hellman: “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”
Hellman filed a libel suit, the subject of Just Words: Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, and the Failure of Public Conversation in America, by Alan Ackerman, published this week. Ackerman explores the roles of truth and lying in American public life and considers why civil discourse seems beyond our reach. In the words of Irving Howe: “it’s not just two old ladies involved in a catfight.” Even Norman Mailer, who already had a history of being on The Dick Cavett Show after fighting with Gore Vidal, Janett Flanner and Cavett himself, got involved by writing an article for the New York Times, called “An Appeal to Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy.” “Libel”, writes Ackerman, “is an area of law that is itself characteristized by conflict over problems that have proven impossible to resolve, such as the status of the ‘truth,’ the definition of ‘malice,’ and what does or doesn’t count as ‘public.’” Hellman’s $2.5 million lawsuit against McCarthy, Cavett, and PBS kicked up a scandal controversy over public conversation and self-expression and continued until her death in 1984. Yet, for a variety of reasons, we still debate the question: what can you say?