Politics & Policy

Writing Thomas

Novelist Thomas Mallon does D.C.

As an occasional contributor to National Review, Thomas Mallon is literally one of our fellow travelers. That’s also the title of his seventh novel: Fellow Travelers, set in 1950s Washington, D.C., is formally published today.

Mallon frequently writes for The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and other publications; his non-fiction books include Stolen Words (about plagiarism) and Mrs. Paine’s Garage (about the Kennedy assassination. He has been the literary editor of GQ, the recipient of Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships, the winner of a National Book Critics Circle award for reviewing, and deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He lives in Washington, D.C., and recently took a few questions from NR’s John J. Miller, who is a big fan:

JOHN J. MILLER: We’ve all heard about the “Red Scare.” What was the “Lavender Scare”?

THOMAS MALLON: The Lavender Scare is the title of a well-done 2004 study by David K. Johnson that details the attempts–pursued with more or less bipartisan gusto–to rid the federal government and particularly the State Department of homosexuals during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. Scott McLeod, who appears as a minor character in my novel, is a real-life figure, State’s security chief during Ike’s first term; he went on to become ambassador to Ireland after the fever over “sexual subversives” subsided. Were there Communists and homosexuals in the State department? Yes. The former, with due process, should have been gotten rid of; the latter should have been left alone.

MILLER: Why did you choose to write about this era?

MALLON: The Fifties have in some ways gotten a bum rap, and in other ways were just as awful as the clichés would have them. But I think they were a tremendously vivid time in Washington. For all the soothing serenity of Ike himself, the town was full of juicy, play-for-keeps characters on the main stage–with a whiff of impending nuclear apocalypse in the air.

MILLER: Joe McCarthy’s wedding figures in an early scene of Fellow Travelers. One of the characters asks, “What kind of guy picks lunch hour on Tuesday to get married in a church?” Well?

MALLON: One who’s going places and is pressed for time. There have always been, of course, gay rumors about McCarthy himself–and his marriage, in middle age, to a much younger beauty queen has sometimes been regarded as a kind of oblique “substantiation” of them. I have no firm feelings on the point; his sexual nature in my book is the product of imagination. More interesting, it seems to me, is the much-observed disparity between the boozy, hail-fellow-well-met guy who apparently existed in private, and the earth-scorching machine that walked into the committee room. His legacy was awful–he made anti-anti-communism respectable, and for that conservatives should regard him with contempt, even as they continue to battle the liberal nonsense that would have one believe a preoccupation with Communism amounted to “hysteria.”

MILLER: You describe how several of the Kennedys attended McCarthy’s wedding. Was little Ted among them? How close were the Kennedys and the McCarthys?

MALLON: To read Joseph P. Kennedy’s statement on the death of McCarthy, you’d think the Pope had just passed on. The senior Kennedy admired him and contributed to him; the younger ones liked him. Jack Kennedy was able to duck the censure vote in ‘54 because of his back operation, but he attended McCarthy’s funeral at St. Matthew’s cathedral in ‘57. (JFK won his Pulitzer for Profiles in Courage later the same day–and his own funeral Mass would be said in St. Matthew’s just six years later.) Popular lore puts JFK at McCarthy’s wedding in ‘53, but I see no evidence for that in the newspapers. Joe Kennedy, Bobby, Jean and Pat–whom McCarthy dated at least once–were all at the reception. Nothing in my research for this book, by the way, changed my opinion of Bobby Kennedy: I continue to find him a tremendously unappetizing figure.

MILLER: RFK unappetizing? Didn’t you get the memo by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. on how to write about the Kennedys? I thought everybody who wrote for The New Yorker had to sign it.

MALLON: Bobby Kennedy’s conduct toward Lyndon Johnson was childish and despicable. As the years went on he displayed nasty, self-pitying, and messianic qualities that would have made him a dangerously authoritarian president. If he’d won the White House in ’68, I believe he would have left it early because of some much-bigger, much-uglier scandal than Watergate. As for The New Yorker: what would one do without the generous indulgence of editors everywhere? Back in the early 80s, National Review even ran a positive notice I gave to one of Gore Vidal’s essay collections.

MILLER: At the end of one chapter, McCarthy says “goodbye to his visitors with a high, enthusiastic wave that parted the halves of his unbuttoned jacket and revealed the holstered pistol beneath.” Did McCarthy really pack heat in the Senate? Who do you think would win a fight–McCarthy or Sen. Jim Webb?

MALLON: Page 586 of The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy, by Thomas C. Reeves, presents evidence that McCarthy was carrying a gun at the time of the Army hearings. In a duel with Webb, I’d bet on a draw. If they met at sunrise, McCarthy’s aim, even at that hour, would be compromised by drink. And at the last minute Webb would have one of his Coriolanus-like bursts of superiority and decide that he was just too good for the whole sordid business; he’d end up not firing at all.

MILLER: What’s the best book on Joe McCarthy and his legacy?

MALLON: The Reeves biography seems pretty fair and measured to me. Reeves has also written a good book about Bishop Sheen–and one on Chester Arthur! (I consulted the latter for an earlier novel of mine called Two Moons.) William Bragg Ewald, Jr., who worked in the Eisenhower White House, wrote an interesting, very detailed account of the Army-McCarthy hearings called Who Killed Joe McCarthy? that I found useful.

MILLER: McCarthy is a large presence in the book, but lots of other well-known figures make cameos: Nixon, Goldwater, and so on. There’s even a sly reference to WFB, whose magazine is “made possible by the family money of a crazy individual” (according to one of the novel’s left-wing characters).

MALLON: National Review came along, in ‘55, at the moment when American conservatism most needed it. I take a dimmer view of McCarthy that WFB did (and mine is further informed by fantasy), but Buckley’s magazine helped to undo some of the damage that McCarthy did to the anti-communist cause. National Review made conservatism look intellectually formidable; it halted its drift toward the fringe–a tremendous contribution.

I continue to hold a heroic view of Goldwater. Nothing could please me more than to see a resurgence of libertarian conservatism within the Republican Party.

MILLER: In the acknowledgments to Fellow Travelers, you say that you took “more than my usual license with historical figures.” What do you mean by that?

MALLON: The phrase “who has what on whom” recurs several times in this book, and I needed to have my own theories of what may have led the real-life characters to do what they did during the Army-McCarthy debacle. People have long wondered if Roy Cohn had something on McCarthy, something that made the latter go for broke over a matter as trivial as Private David Schine’s treatment by the Army during basic training. I posit a wholly different (and utterly unsubstantiated) scenario: that Schine himself had something on McCarthy. Similarly, I tried to figure out what could have allowed the real-life Senator Potter (my protagonist’s boss) to be manipulated by the real-life Tommy McIntyre, and that led me to construct a significant and shameful incident for the Senator’s earlier life. I confess to a certain queasiness about this last invention, even though Potter has been dead for nearly thirty years. I suppose I allowed his own less-than-truthful memoirs to “justify” my doing it, but the truth is that fiction has got to be its own justification. I always tell people that nouns trump adjectives, which means that historical fiction is fiction, not history.

MILLER: The most important characters in Fellow Travelers are of course the fictional ones, especially Timothy Laughlin–a deeply committed anti-Communist conservative who is also Catholic and gay. Are 21st-century conservatives meant to draw any particular lessons from Fellow Travelers? I read the title not only as having a double meaning, but also perhaps as the first words of a speech that Tom Mallon might give to an assembly of right-wingers.

MALLON: It is difficult for any gay Republican not to wish Rudy Giuliani well at the present moment. It’s also interesting to see a few early signs that his “social liberalism” hasn’t put him beyond the pale of voters in the most conservative states. Who knows whether that will hold up through the primaries? Right now it pleases me. I’ll vote for whoever looks likely to pursue the most robust foreign policy, but all other things being equal, I wouldn’t mind having the next presidency be more libertarian and less evangelical.

I did not intend Fellow Travelers to be any kind of allegory about modern times, but I would say this about Tim Laughlin’s being both gay and conservative: there is no inherent paradox or contradiction to such an identity. Being gay and Catholic? A trickier proposition, but I think God would laugh at the idea of its being a dealbreaker. I’ve got far more to worry about than that once Judgment Day comes around. I was raised–and still consider myself to be–Catholic, though I’m non-practicing and haven’t fulfilled my Easter duty since sometime during the Nixon years. I’m assailed by all kinds of stimulating doubts, but I do believe in God. If I actually had Tim Laughlin’s sweet nature, I’d be much more optimistic about my prospects for salvation.

MILLER: Is this your most personal novel?

MALLON: I’m sure it is, even though my first two novels (Arts and Sciences and Aurora 7) actually contain closer biographical variants of me. With this book, I think I knew what was happening early on: I sat down to make some notes on Laughlin and found myself writing “date of birth: November 2, 1931,” which is twenty years to the day before I myself was born. I realized I was writing about what my life would have been like–much, much harder–if I’d been born two decades earlier. And yet, I was also writing about a world I actually remember: I was fairly alert, even when very young, to figures like Bishop Sheen and Vice President Nixon, and my father did do that imitation of Dean Acheson (“I will not turn my back on Alger Hiss”) that Tim’s does in the novel. And I certainly remember the world of that Irish-American holiday table, even if in my own life it was laid in Woodside instead of Hell’s Kitchen. I’ve often said that historical fiction provides relief from the authorial self, and for obvious reasons I couldn’t be in books like Henry and Clara or even Dewey Defeats Truman, but there seemed a spot for some refraction of me at the heart of this one.

MILLER: In Fellow Travelers, you make a reference to Henry Rathbone, the “son of the unfortunate fellow who’d been beside the president and knifed by Booth in the box and Ford’s”–i.e., a main character in your novel Henry and Clara. If I’m not mistaken, that was the book that inspired John Updike to call you “one of the most interesting American novelists at work.” At any rate, do you make a habit of dropping allusions to your other books in the novels you write?

MALLON: I’m not sure it’s risen to the level of “habit,” but the Rathbones do also have a cameo in Two Moons. It’s strange how the novels you’ve written become a kind of geography in your own head–different colored countries sharing borders. I have a feeling that Mary Johnson, a character in Fellow Travelers, may well show up in the next book I write.

MILLER: A friend of mine recently said that he’d like to read one of your novels but doesn’t know where to start. I gave him my two cents. What would you advise? For the sake of talking about some of your earlier books, let’s say you can’t recommend Fellow Travelers.

MALLON: I once wrote in an essay about having had the kind of happy childhood that’s so damaging to a writer, and I have a special fondness for Aurora 7 because a portrait of my father is there in the book. It’s also my sentimental favorite because Scott Carpenter, the astronaut whose flight it concerns, became a treasured friend. Whether it’s any good as a novel is for others to say. I actually think that Bandbox, by far the silliest of my books, is the best constructed of them.

MILLER: I smiled when I read this line in Fellow Travelers, spoken by one of your protagonists: “Harvard doesn’t need Communists. … The Ivy League undergraduate mentality is already more collective than anything you’d find on a Soviet wheat farm.” You were once a college professor and by now probably could have been comfortably tenured. But you quit to write books and articles. Why?

MALLON: The desire actually to be read, I suppose. I don’t think I was any great shakes as a scholar, but I got into the game young enough that, actually, I was tenured before I left. I had to take a deep breath before throwing all that over, but I figured it was time to bet the rent on being a writer. Also, while I enjoyed teaching and still do some of it part-time at GWU in Washington, I couldn’t bear all that went with doing it full-time. Meetings of the Vassar English department generally made the Army-McCarthy hearings look like a quilting bee.

MILLER: Do you know what your next book will be?

MALLON: I did two weeks ago; now I’m not so sure. It’s beginning to look as if I’ve got the idea for two novels, not just the one I thought. What I ought to do is finish this book on letters that I’ve been writing on and off for ages. It’s meant to be a companion volume to the one I did many years ago on diaries; I believe it’s now eleven years overdue at Random House.

MILLER: In that case, I don’t want to take any more of your time. Thanks very much. Now get back to work.


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