Mary McCarthy attended Vassar College from 1929-1933, where she was initiated into a more elite, East-coast intellectual and social scene, which became the subject of her best-selling novel, The Group (1963). McCarthy describes The Group as a “mock-chronicle novel” about “the idea of progress” as “seen in the female sphere”. She exposes the disparity between the progressive beliefs and professional aspirations of a group of highly educated, liberal minded women in 1930s America and the traditional reality of their lives in the domestic world of marriage, child-rearing, decorating, and divorce. While at Vassar McCarthy formed a rebel literary magazine, Con Spirito, with fellow classmates Elizabeth Bishop and Frani Blough. She also started a relationship with actor and aspiring playwright Harold Johnsrud, whom she married upon graduation. Like the ill-fated relationship of Kay and Harald Peterson in The Group, McCarthy’s marriage to Harold Johnsrud ended three years later.
Upon graduation from Vassar McCarthy moved to New York city where she wrote reviews for The Nation and The New Republic. After her divorce from Johnsrud in 1936, McCarthy moved to Greenwich village and started work as an editorial assistant for the publisher Covici-Friede. She also began making theatre contributions to Partisan Review, a leftist literary and cultural magazine which began in 1934 as an organ of the Communist sponsored John Reed Club under editors Philip Rahv and William Phillips.
With the Moscow Trials (1936-38) and the Hitler- Stalin Non-Aggression Pact (1939) many New York intellectuals suffered a disillusionment with Marxism and turned in the 1950s toward revisionist liberalism and liberal anti-Communism in the so-called “end of ideology”. Though McCarthy traveled in left intellectual circles, she describes her “accidental conversion” to Trotskyism in the essay, “My Confession”, when she found herself on the letterhead of the Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky after a conversation she had at a party hosted by James T. Farrell.
In 1937, after making a formal split with the Communist Party, the “new ” Partisan Review was formed as an independent, anti-Stalinist liberal magazine with a leaning toward Marxist politics and modernist aesthetics. Mary McCarthy became theatre editor of the “new” Partisan Review joining founding editors Philip Rahv and William Phillips, leftist intellectual Dwight Macdonald, literary critic F.W. Dupee, and art critic George L.K. Morris as the new editorial board. Mary McCarthy and Philip Rahv began a romantic relationship, which lasted until she took up relations with renowned literary and cultural critic and former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Republic, Edmund Wilson, who was seventeen years her senior. McCarthy and Wilson were married in 1938 and had one son, Reuel Wilson.
Under Wilson’s influence McCarthy left the editorial board of Partisan Review (though she continued to write theatre reviews until 1962) to focus on her career as a fiction writer. While McCarthy credits Wilson with fostering her career as a fiction writer (she published several autobiographical sketches that were later collected in The Company She Keeps toward the start of their relationship), they had a tumultuous relationship, including allegations of alcoholism and physical abuse against Wilson and accusations of mental instability for which Wilson had McCarthy briefly institutionalized. McCarthy’s relationship with Wilson is fictionalized in A Charmed Life (1955) and her ambivalent attitude toward Wilson is further explored in her late autobiography, Intellectual Memoirs: 1936-38 (1992).