The Company We Keep: Mary McCarthy and the Mythic Essence of Vassar

By Meghan Daum '92


"The essence of Vassar is mythic. Today, despite much competition, it still figures in the public mind as the archetypal women's college … For different people, in fact, at different periods, Vassar can stand for whatever is felt to be wrong with the modern female: humanism, atheism, Communism, short skirts, cigarettes, psychiatry, votes for women, free love, intellectualism." – "The Vassar Girl," Holiday, 1951

The older I get and the more years that unspool between my present-day self and the girl who collected her Vassar diploma one muggy May day nearly two decades ago, the more I understand that there are two kinds of love for Vassar. There is the love you feel when you are matriculated, when you are going about the quotidian business of student life, and then there is the mythic love, the love you feel for the idea of the place. The second is not dependent upon the first. In fact the first is a childish love. The first has to do with booze and sex and Frisbee, with friends and quasi-friends and friends with benefits and friends you'll have forever and friends whose names will be lost to you by your 25th birthday. The first has to do with what books and music and art and sports you're into and where you sit in the dining hall and whether or not you have chosen to spend the four years plumbing the depths of your psyche or (if you are wise) simply allowed your psyche to exist on its own terms, however messy and confusing and "clichéd" it might feel to you in certain moments. (A hypervigilance against clichés seems to be a particularly Vassarian trait.)

The second kind of love for Vassar tells us how the past perfect tense got its name. The second kind of love is the nostalgic, revisionist kind. It's the love of having been there. It is the warm little surge we feel when we spot the word "Vassar" spelled out across a car's rear window. It is that perverse yet abiding fondness we retain for rose and gray as a color combination. It is that strange phenomenon wherein, five or ten or fifteen years after we've passed through Taylor Gate for the last time, we can run into a classmate we barely knew or perhaps even actively disliked and feel a genuine gladness about seeing her. If the at-Vassar experience can be claustrophobic and emotionally fraught and too often burdened with what can only be described as a tyranny of cool (of being cool, of having cool associates, of knowing about cool things) the post-Vassar experience is expansive, buoyant, and as relevant or irrelevant to our lives as we want it to be. I have a distinct memory of being told by a senior Student Fellow during a freshman week orientation that one of the greatest advantages of a Vassar education is that you spend a lifetime bumping into fellow alums in the most exotic locations. "For instance," the soft-spoken, bespectacled young man explained, "I ran into someone in the basement of the Paris airport! It was remarkable!"

Notwithstanding that the same could be said for lots of private, relatively pedigreed institutions and notwithstanding the fact that even more remarkable would be running into a classmate in the basement of the Bismark, North Dakota airport, he had a point. In fact he had something close to the point. That is to say that we go to Vassar not only to study Shakespeare and Vermeer and calculus and French but also to build the connective tissue between our private ideas and our public actions (between "the self and society," as they say in sociology courses.)We go there not just to learn how to think but to learn how to live.

Mary McCarthy majored in English, not sociology, but I suspect she would have believed that to attend Vassar is to study sociology above all else. As a member of the class of 1933, McCarthy's Vassar was a place that made no bones about its commitment to providing women not only an elite education but also preparing them for membership in elite, eastern seaboard society. For McCarthy, who had come from Seattle by way of Minneapolis, this was alien territory. Though she'd had a private school education in Seattle, first at a Catholic convent and later at a prestigious boarding school (with a year of public high school thrown in for good measure) Vassar was an unequivocal step up the ladder for her, and one she believed she had coming to her. "I was determined to not let the U happen to me," she wrote in How I Grew (the "U" being the University of Washington; also unappealing was Stanford, which had a quota for one-eighth women but was said to "type a girl as a grind and homely.") Having sent for admissions catalogs from Vassar, Radcliffe and Bryn Mawr, McCarthy ultimately chose Vassar because, as she would later claim, she liked the direct, plainspoken language of the course descriptions.

McCarthy would later claim a great many things about Vassar—that she was encouraged by her teachers, that she was discouraged by her teachers, that she was happy, that she was miserable, that it was a shallow place, an intellectual place, a bucolic place and, especially in her first couple of years, a "too pastoral" place whose "short, fat trees" didn't measure up to the tall, angular topography of the pacific northwest. Throughout her professional career, Vassar was for McCarthy both a muse and a foil. Its precepts were her default setting, its emphasis on critical thinking, particularly as put forth by her cherished English professors Miss Anna Kitchel and Miss Helen Sandison, was often her go-to rationale for being so damn critical of everything in her midst. If McCarthy's big subject as a writer was the intersection of literature, politics and the human psychological experience, Vassar was one of the main channels through which she ran her ideas.

She referenced the college frequently—in fiction, in memoir, in lectures, in interviews. Her 1951 essay for Holiday, "The Vassar Girl," which talked about the ways women's roles had changed since she'd been a student, showed up in an essay collection ten years later, and, more importantly, was a wellspring for many of the characters and concerns in her breakout 1963 novel The Group. Like Cezanne with his apples or Degas with his dancers, McCarthy returned to Vassar in her work again and again, pointing out its failures (every graduating class that followed her own seemed more "self-centered" and "unconcerned with social causes" than the last) even while granting it a rather unimpeachable hero status. "Vassar remade a girl," she wrote in How I Grew. "Vassar was transformational." As is the case for so many of us, Vassar was for McCarthy the laboratory in which random little notions were allowed to germinate into lifelong convictions. It was also the place where her late-adolescent existential angst eventually faded into romantic sweet selective memory. This is to say she forgot how disconnected she often felt from the place but nonetheless left us to imagine her as a girl for whom every minute of the college experience afforded equal measures of intellectual reverie and convivial good times. In other words, she left us to imagine a girl none of us could possibly measure up to.

Like McCarthy, I've tended to wear my ambivalence about Vassar on my sleeve. I've written about how I was sometimes quite unhappy, how I didn't work hard enough, how I was often too irritated by the affectations of certain classmates to recognize the genuineness of others. In spite of all this, Vassar has been a subject about which I cannot seem to stop writing. It's a sort of permanent ringing in my ears, a leitmotif that has a way of creeping on to my pages every time I look away (does the subject of particle theory relate to the subject sexual politics at Vassar? I'm afraid I once spent many paragraphs attempting to show that it does.) What I am saying, in other words, is that I am not speaking to you as an expert on McCarthy or as an official representative of Vassar or even as a teller of my own, not-all-that-interesting story. I am speaking to you as a fellow traveler on the road to nostalgia. I am speaking about the way the second kind of love for Vassar, the looking back kind, can occupy an entirely different ecosystem than the first. Put another way: you don't have to have liked going to Vassar in order to like having gone there.


"There is too much talk, too many labels for things, too much pseudo-cleverness. I suppose I'll get that way, too, though I'm doing my best to avoid it." – letter to Ethel "Ted" Rosenberg, childhood friend, November 1, 1929 (McCarthy's freshman year)

I'm sorry to say I did nothing to avoid the pseudo-cleverness. I actually aspired to it. Labels were of less interest, since I was at Vassar from 1988 to 1992, the burgeoning years of grunge, and the only acceptable labels were Doc Marten, Levis, and Camel Lights. Cleverness, however—pseudo and otherwise—was job one. My interests were, in descending order: 1) adopting the traits and affectations of classmates that hailed from New York City; 2) smoking cigarettes and staring at the wall; 3) the films of Wim Wenders; and 4) letting people know that I was interested in the films of Wim Wenders. That sums it up for my freshman year. The subsequent years were spent in some combination of 1) changing dorms in an effort to become less miserable 2) engaging in quasi-intellectual brinksmanship (often about Wenders; occasionally about Fellini) while drinking Hazelnut blend coffee in the café on the second floor of the College Center 3) taking the train to New York City 4) missing (not accidentally) the last train back to Poughkeepsie from New York City.

I also did some legitimate stuff (I frequently have to remind myself of this.) I went to classes and to the library and to language labs. I had some healthy, meaningful relationships (platonic and otherwise) and some toxic, self-destructive ones. I wrote and co-directed a play for Philaletheis, I played oboe in the orchestra. I "guarded" the art (translation: fell asleep while reading The Bostonians) in the Taylor Art Gallery for my work-study job. I ingested psychedelic mushrooms on Founder's Day and rode the ferris wheel while the Red Hot Chile Peppers played on the outdoor stage. I wrote a review of Drugstore Cowboy for The Miscellany News. I went to the film league-sponsored movies in Blodgett nearly every night (presented on 16-milimeter reels by student projectionists who endured constant equipment failure and indignant shouts of "focus!" from the audience.) After these films I almost always went back to my room and listened to cassette tapes of broody female singer-songwriters and asked myself if the people around me were really having a great time in college or simply playing the part of college students having a great time.

I am admitting all this because I think it's important to come clean about a major feature of the Vassar experience: as good as it is at making you feel special, it's sometimes even better at making you feel miserable or even insane. Such are the hazards of attracting, as the college guides put it, "arty, off-beat students." A friend from Davison used to toy with the idea of writing a gothic novel set in an institution that purported to be a college but was actually a psychiatric facility. "Kids think their parents encouraged them to apply because it's supposedly an interesting and off-beat place," she'd explain. "But what they don't realize is that they've been mentally ill all their lives and are finally being warehoused among their own kind."

As a high school senior, my most trusted college guide had been Lisa Birnbach's College Book. Birnbach was the author of The Preppy Handbook, a satirical treatise on the social hierarchy of east coast WASP culture that had been published when I was in the sixth grade and that I read continually through high school without really understanding that it was a satire. If I recall correctly, Birnbach ranked Vassar as having the "most glamorous" students in the country. I also seem to remember something about there being such a shortage of men on campus that women happily paid for their drinks when they went out.

Mary McCarthy's Vassar was not a place where women bought men drinks. Founder's Day in 1930, the second semester of McCarthy's freshman year, involved not psychedelic drugs but a faculty performance of Julius Caesar. Yale men came to campus for mixers and students were often engaged or even married before graduation (needless to say, the concept of early marriage has been anathema to the Vassar sensibility for approximately the last four decades.) Pull up old film footage from those days and you will see delightfully grainy, herky-jerky images of young ladies in modest, flowing dresses and men in baggy knee pants and schoolboy sweaters. They look like silent film stars. Moreover, they look like adults. It's astonishing to think that these croquet-playing, Bugatti-driving sophisticates are the same age as the beer-chugging, Jams shorts-wearing youths of my era.

It should be said, though, that McCarthy's social life was not the stuff of chaste prom dates and pillow flights in flannel nightgowns in Main's South Tower. For starters, she was prickly and capricious in her friendships. "She could be absolutely brutal," a classmate recalled in Frances Kiernan's biography, Seeing Mary Plain. "She would decide she didn't like you one day, and then sneer at you." By the time McCarthy was an upperclassman, her frequent trips to New York allowed her to pass for the kind of cosmopolitan smarty-pants that would have terrified her a few years earlier. One oft repeated story has McCarthy letting her friends in on secret knowledge that there were "sexual perverts" in the world that "liked to have relations with corpses." Pondering the veracity of this, the friends had to resign themselves to assumption that "if Mary said it then it must be true."

And then there was her boy trouble. Beginning in her sophomore year, McCarthy was involved with a New York City actor named Harald Johnsrud (whose general persona and first name, complete with original Norwegian spelling, she later borrowed for The Group.) In true college girl fashion she spent many hours obsessing about whether he liked her and how much. The summer before her senior year she even moved with him into a one-room apartment, with disastrous results. "I had not thought that anyone could suffer so much," she wrote in How I Grew. "I cried everyday, usually more than once […] And almost the worst was my total mystification. What made him so hateful I never found out, and this left me with a sense of being hopelessly stupid."

Reader, she married him. McCarthy and Johnsrud wed shortly after her graduation in 1933. They divorced in 1936, but not before McCarthy had an affair with a man she met at a dance at Webster Hall, a popular Manhattan hangout for lefty activists. On the train to Nevada, where she traveled to secure a divorce, McCarthy shared drinks with a strange man and somehow woke up the next morning naked in his sleeping berth (later the basis for the short story "The Man in the Brook Brothers Shirt"). In the end, she was married four times, most famously to the critic Edmund Wilson, with whom she had a son. Along the way she had countless affairs. The year following her divorce from Johnsrud, her dance card was especially busy. "It was getting rather alarming," she recalled later in Intellectual Memoirs. "I realized one day that in 24 hours I had slept with three different men. And one morning I was in bed with somebody while over his head I talked on the telephone with somebody else. Though slightly scared about what things were coming to I did not feel promiscuous. Maybe no one does. And maybe more girls sleep with more men than you would ever think to look at."

If McCarthy were to seek psychological counseling today (not that she would, since she considered psychiatry nothing more than a collection of arbitrary narratives) her promiscuity would almost undoubtedly be seen as a casualty of fatherlessness. She'd been orphaned at age six when her parents died, one after the other on consecutive days, in the influenza epidemic of 1918. From there she'd been sent to live with relatives and suffered terrible abuse, including frequent beatings with a razor strop. Though she'd fared better after being placed with her grandparents in Seattle in 1923, her childhood was animated by an element of gothic horror that she sometimes joked about and probably never really got over. Though her sex life at Vassar, at least as far as we know, was comparatively tame (pining over one man for three years can have that effect) you have to wonder if she also returned to her room most nights and asked herself if she was having fun yet. Actually you don't really have to wonder.


"I've been working on a novel for years, it's about eight Vassar girls, called The Group. It's about the idea of progress. There are these eight girls that go through the book and who are subjected to all the progressive ideas of their period, in architecture, design, child-bearing, home-making, contraception and so on. It's kind of a technological novel about the woman's sphere . . . The novel's told from the point of view of these eight individual girls—though of course their mothers are all there too, large figures from the past, and the girls are sitting on their ample laps like little dolls on the lap of a great big Madonna . . . Well, I'm afraid the mothers are better than the daughters. The mothers sort of belong to the full suffragette period with its great amplitude—you know, women smoking cigarettes in holders and dancing the cha-cha—and the girls are rather tinny in comparison with the mothers, I'm afraid. This wasn't my intention to start with but that's what does seem to have emerged." – Interview in Vogue, 1963

McCarthy griped more than once about how boring and conventional her Vassar classmates tended to become as they grew older. She also often seemed convinced that no cohort was as intellectually curious, politically aware or socially conscious as the one represented by her class of 1933. Documentary footage of a campus visit in 1974 shows a winsome, rather mischievous-eyed McCarthy talking and smoking cigarettes with students (male and female, all of them long-haired, bell-bottomed and frightfully articulate) in the Rose Parlor about the mood on the campus post-Watergate. In a voice-over, she concluds that they feel "far less sense of a commitment to carry a [political] message" than her own peers had in the Roosevelt era. In her day, she says, "you had a sense, more here than in most colleges, that you would come out of here with something to contribute." The progressive spirit of the early days of the New Deal, she said, had the effect of making "everyone [in America] become a Vassar girl." Not that such exuberance was built to last. By 1949 the average member of her graduating class had "two-plus children and was married to a Republican," she wrote in "The Vassar Girl." Thanks to coddling parents and generous bank accounts, the demographic profile of the Vassar girl "is already decreed. And the result is that the Vassar alumna, uniquely among American college women, is two persons—the housewife or matron, and the yearner and regretter."

That might be overstating things ("uniquely among American college women?") and it most definitely overlooked the fact that a good many of those women were Republicans to begin with rather than fashionable socialists like McCarthy and her circle. It's also, let's face it, kind of bratty. But what could be more appropriate? Scoffing at the conformity of others is a time-honored tradition among Vassar alums. Who among us hasn't read the class notes and, amid the inevitable pangs of envy, secretly congratulated ourselves for taking what we perceive to be a more adventurous path? Who among us hasn't cited the college's relentless emphasis on independence as the source of our own fears of commitment? Who hasn't said, "of course I can't settle down yet; I went to Vassar?"

During my time at Vassar it was not uncommon for women to envision futures for themselves that involved having children on their own. Perhaps this stemmed from the gender imbalance of the student body and the attendant scarcity complex when it came to eligible men. Serious relationships were generally frowned upon (to attempt one was a little bit silly; to want one was almost shameful) and as a result the prospect of someday finding someone to marry, even in the outside, non-Vassar world, had something of an air of implausibility. Or perhaps it was just because The Heidi Chronicles, which ends with the loveless but "empowered" heroine adopting a baby on her own, was a hit on Broadway. In any case, when we sat around in our flannel nightgowns plotting our futures, men didn't necessarily factor very heavily into the equation. We were going to have major careers. We were going to do serious travelling. We were going to get PhDs in public health and help spread Norplant throughout the developing world. And someday, when we'd checked off enough boxes, we'd order up a baby and carry it around in a colorful, exotic sling as we strolled through the farmers market on lazy Sunday mornings in search of the perfect organic kumquat. This was what we fantasized about rather than Yale men in knee pants. And as best as I can see, this is what most of us fell short of, either by dropping out of grad school or marrying Republicans or not caring sufficiently about kumquats. We're all yearners and regretters in our own ways. And McCarthy too, for all her exceptionalness, was surely no exception.

I remember writing for Paul Russell's Narrative Composition class a short story about a woman who had a child with a gay man. I considered this concept to be very zeitgeisty and provocative. In describing the man's apartment I'd mentioned that he had a ficus plant in his living room. Russell dinged me for unoriginality, saying, "whenever a gay man comes out the closet he's rewarded with a ficus plant." To this day, I've never encountered a ficus plant without thinking about that.

That's a story about Vassar that I love, not least of all because it doesn't involve my staring at the wall for hours. But like I said, the more time I put between the rather ridiculous person I was back then and the only slightly less ridiculous person I am now, the softer my gaze on the whole experience becomes. The more I find my way into the second kind of love for Vassar, the past perfect kind that McCarthy mined into a literary genre unto itself, the more peace I make with the fact that the first kind of love mostly eluded me.

"You never liked me at college," says the character Norine in The Group. "None of your crowd did." How many of us have said the same thing, to ourselves if to no one else? How many of us have felt betrayed by that mythic essence? How many of us have lain awake at night in fear that our professors were on to our fraudulence, that our friends secretly hated us, that the admissions office let us in by mistake? How many of us regularly revisit Vassar in our dreams, wherein we retrace our steps through the quad as if searching for a lost item, wherein we have the nagging feeling that we've forgotten to do something, though we don't know what it is?

All of us, I suspect. Mythic qualities tend to have that effect. Vassar captures the imagination even as it breaks the heart. And isn't that what keeps us coming back for more?