Dick Cavett Relives the Carnage of 'Hellman v. McCarthy'

Ed Krieger

The 1970s talk-show host stars in a new play based on the lawsuit between authors Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy.

One day on the set of his popular talk show back in 1979, Dick Cavett received a note from his assistant saying his guest, author Mary McCarthy, wanted to mention a young writer she felt was not being recognized. When Cavett cued McCarthy, asking about overrated authors, she missed the hint and took a shot at celebrated playwright Lillian Hellman (The Children's Hour), calling her a "dishonest writer" and triggering a $2.5 million libel lawsuit. Now Cavett gets to relive the carnage, playing himself in the Los Angeles premiere of Hellman v. McCarthy by playwright Brian Richard Mori at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills through Feb. 28, including a March 1 performance at the Saban Theatre.

"If I had just said is there a young writer you hope to give some publicity to in a direct way, you and I wouldn't be talking, and the play wouldn't be there, and some people would be alive who are not from the strain of this ordeal," Cavett tells The Hollywood Reporter.

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McCarthy's exact words were "I said once in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.' " At the time, McCarthy was an admired intellect but had amassed nowhere near the fortune Hellman had accumulated with her plays as well as royalties from the works of her deceased husband, Dashiell Hammett. The two authors had a long held contempt for each other dating back to the Moscow Trials of the 1930s, Hellman being a Stalinist and McCarthy a Trotskyite. Then there was the time McCarthy took offense when Hellman said of novelist John Dos Passos that he only turned against the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War because he didn't like the food.

In the name of Trotsky and Dos Passos, McCarthy got her revenge but at what cost? When she moved to have the case thrown out in early 1984, Justice Harold Baer Jr. decided the suit had merit based partly on the fact that Hellman, a world-renowned playwright, was not a public figure. The defense pointed to a Blackglama mink ad, popular at the time, which read: "What becomes a legend most" with a photo of Hellman.

The play uses transcripts from Cavett's show as well as invented scenes surrounding the event, such as an on-air confrontation between the two that never happened. An acquaintance of Cavett's, Hellman sent him a note saying that though they had been cordial in the past, she would exact her revenge. "It was either 'why the hell' or 'why the f--k' didn't you defend me," he says with a laugh, about Hellman calling him out. His response was "I hardly think of you as anyone who needs defending."

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Primarily a talk-show host, Cavett played himself in movies such as Forrest Gump and Annie Hall, though he's never played himself in a dramatization of a real-life event as he does here. "It's a little odd, but I wasn't the first choice for the part," he jokes. "Who was?" someone asked during a Q&A following the performance. "Sidney Poitier," Cavett deadpanned.

In the end, after thousands of dollars spent on the lawsuit, McCarthy was nearly bankrupt. "Both women's health suffered from it," Cavett notes. "And barrels of ink were spilled about the controversy, virtually all of it against Lillian. But that didn't' stop the old bag."

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