When the erudite “thinking man’s” talk show host Dick Cavett invited sharp-tongued writer Mary McCarthy to appear on his PBS show in 1979, he provoked not just a war over words but a libel suit against McCarthy, PBS and Cavett himself. It was filed by Lillian Hellman, whom McCarthy had allegedly insulted on the show … accidentally prompted by Cavett.

McCarthy was a renowned novelist (The Company She Keeps, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, The Group) and a biting cultural critic who traveled in left-wing circles. She broke ranks with supporters of the Soviet regime, and fellow travelers who continued to defend Stalin felt her wrath in her critiques of their work.

Hellman, till then a very successful playwright and screenwriter (“The Children’s Hour,” “Watch on the Rhine,” “Little Foxes”) was an ardent Stalin loyalist. She glorified her role as a blacklisted Hollywood writer who refused to name names but later denied her own involvement in Communist activities.

On the show, McCarthy told Cavett that she considered Hellman, her lifelong ideological and literary nemesis, “tremendously overrated, a bad writer, and a dishonest writer, but she really belongs to the past.”

“What’s dishonest about her?” Cavett asked her.

“Everything,” McCarthy replied smiling. “I once said in some interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.'”

The next day, Hellman’s lawyer filed a $2.25 million libel suit that was dropped only because Hellman died four years later. McCarthy’s health and finances were severely strained; she died just five years after the suit was dropped.

Cavett is about to star in the West Coast premiere of “Hellman vs. McCarthy” by Brian Richard Mori, opening Feb. 6 at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills. The twist?

He plays “Dick Cavett.” Unlike his TV host job, here his words are scripted. The play’s premise is a fictional showdown between the two literary titans that never took place on his show.

Cavett had met both women as guests on his PBS show, and had dined with Hellman in her New York apartment “a couple of times before the explosion. Not since, quite naturally.”

About the women’s deep mutual animosity, Cavett said “There may have been things in their past we don’t know about.” (We do know they had a lover, poet Philip Rahv, in common.)

“Both could be sharply venomous and Lillian’s venom-sacs would rival those of a spitting cobra. The late and great Mike Nichols, who had directed ‘The Little Foxes’ for Lillian, told me, ‘I almost came to see you in the play, but the thought of seeing Lillian Hellman again in any form might make me seriously ill.’ Most of her former and alleged friends could identify with that.”

Answering a few questions by email, Cavett explained that the smackdown began innocently enough.

“My notes on Mary said she’d like to direct some attention to a fine young writer she’d discovered if it could be worked into the show. When she didn’t bring it up I tried throwing her a hint by raising the matter of over- and under-rated writers. I did it twice and she missed both hints, or simply forgot. Instead she grabbed onto the term ‘over-rated’ and slapped it on Lillian. The rest is sordid and dramatic history.”

He elaborated about his own role. “It is a strange feeling to think that a random choice of words on my part — when I could have simply said I’d heard about a writer she’d like to plug — triggered the whole sorry drama that stretched for years and cost millions and mental anguish galore. With simply a different choice of words, perhaps, the whole thing would not have happened. I also think that ‘Get Lillian’ might have been part of Mary’s agenda. They loathed each other’s guts. And many more people detested Lillian than couldn’t stand Mary.”

Some have argued that harsh literary criticism might become a punishable offense if Hellman had won her case. Ironically, the suit she brought opened the door to proving her own dishonesty and unraveled her reputation.
This literary catfight galvanized the attention of the media, the political class and literary cognoscenti. Years after the lawsuit was dropped it inspired biographies, books about the case, plays and even a musical by Nora Ephron.
Compared to such contemporary scandals as Oprah being duped by James Frey, I wondered whether Cavett could explain the continued interest in Hellman versus McCarthy.

“It has everything: money, court battles, gossip, reputations besmirched, sex (some of it unpleasant to contemplate), celebrity, fame and its price and on and on. Something for everybody.”

About the play, Cavett says, “This is an intriguing play, holds your attention from first to last, and audiences seem to just love it.

“I keep getting asked if it’s strange having to play myself. It’s weird. I don’t really recommend it. And my joke is that the worst part of it is that I wasn’t the first choice for the role.”

“Hellman vs. McCarthy” begins a limited run Feb. 6 to Feb. 28 at the Reuben Cordova Theatre on the campus of Beverly Hills High School. Call (310) 364-3606 or reserve tickets online at www.theatre40.org.

Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.

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