McCarthy’s later life is notable for an ongoing dispute she had with playwright and Stalinist sympathizer Lillian Hellman when, on the Dick Cavett show, McCarthy accused Hellman of being a dishonest writer, stating, “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’”. Hellman countered by filing a $2.25 million lawsuit against McCarthy for libel, which ended with Hellman’s death in 1984. This literary feud was the subject of a play by Nora Ephron, Imaginary Friends.
Mary McCarthy’s contribution was acknowledged in later life; she received the National Medal for Literature and the MacDowell Medal in 1984 and was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1989. She died on October 25, 1989 of lung cancer at New York Presbyterian Hospital at the age of seventy seven. McCarthy continues to be remembered as a shrewd chronicler of twentieth-century American intellectual, social, and political life.