Beyond Vassar

If Mary Said It...

By Meghan Daum ’92

This spring semester, Vassar College Libraries celebrated the centenary of the famed novelist Mary McCarthy ’33 with the exhibit “Mary McCarthy and Vassar,” which presented archival materials from the college’s Mary McCarthy Papers, including writings, photos, and other materials. Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum ’92 delivered a lecture in conjunction with the exhibition and contributed an essay, titled “The Company We Keep: Mary McCarthy and the Mythic Essence of Vassar,” to the exhibition catalogue. In the essay, she shares her feelings of nostalgia about her alma mater and compares and contrasts her experiences in relation to Vassar with McCarthy’s. Here is a passage:

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.

McCarthy describes what it was like to be a “Vassar Girl” in the 1930s and talks to students in 1974 about the political climate of the day.

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.

View a portion of a CBS interview with Mary McCarthy, when she visited the Vassar campus in 1985.

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 the assumption that “if Mary said it then it must be true.”

Meghan Daum ( was an English major at Vassar. She is known for her engaging personal essays that appear in her weekly Los Angeles Times column, as well as in her nonfiction chronicle Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House. She is the author of the novel The Quality of Life Report and the essay collection My Misspent Youth, and a contributor to numerous radio programs, newspapers, magazines, and anthologies.