“Every word she writes…”

In “Sarah Palin, riot grrrl,” linked by Glenn Reynolds, Elizabeth Wurtzel mangles a great moment in American cultural history. Wurtzel leads her post with this:

To paraphrase Lillian Hellman, I don’t agree with a word that Sarah Palin says, including “and” and “the.”

But the quote paraphrased by Wurtzel comes from the author Mary McCarthy, who was commenting about Hellman. Appearing on Dick Cavett’s late night television show in 1980, McCarthy responded to Cavett’s question about overrated writers with an observation regarding Hellman:

[E]very word she writes is a lie, including “and” and “the.”

Hellman was not amused. She sued McCarthy for defamation, seeking $2.25 millon in damages. Truth is a defense to libel, however, and McCarthy had the pleasure of asserting the defense in response to Hellman’s lawsuit.
William Wright explores McCarthy’s quote and Hellman’s lawsuit in his biography of Hellman. He notes: “Of all the writers who accused Hellman of dishonesty, curiously the only such attacker she chose to battle with legal action was Mary McCarthy.” McCarthy had stung her.
Advised of Hellman’s lawsuit, Wright reports, McCarthy started laughing. Advised of the amount Hellman sought, Wright adds, “McCarthy, who was not rich, laughed even harder.” With the case headed to trial in 1984, McCarthy also got the last laugh when Hellman died. The lawsuit was dismissed on the ground that the law of libel does not protect the departed.

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