On Jan. 25, 1980, "shortly after 8:30 p.m. [playwright and memoirist] Lillian Hellman, nearly blinded by glaucoma and partially paralyzed by multiple strokes" tuned in, as was her wont, to Dick Cavett's now-legendary half-hour talk show on PBS.

Cavett's guest that night was the great novelist and critic Mary McCarthy, seven years Hellman's junior. Cavett, whose guests, typically, were pre-interviewed by assistants, steered McCarthy to a discussion of writers she felt to be overrated. After a bit of evasion and a return to the subject by Cavett, McCarthy replied John Steinbeck and Lillian Hellman "who I think is tremendously overrated, a bad writer and dishonest writer."

"What is dishonest about Hellman?" asked Cavett.

"Everything" replied McCarthy. "I said once in an interview that every word she writes is a lie including 'and' and 'the.'"

According to Alan Ackerman, drama professor at the University of Toronto, Hellman "laughed" when she heard McCarthy's joke. "When [Hellman's] secretary Rita Wade came in the next morning, Hellman said that she had already spoken with her lawyer, Ephraim London She was going to sue."

And sue she did, by God. The only thing that ended the lawsuit was Hellman's death four years later.

In retrospect, 31 years later, the lawsuit was patently ridiculous. It wasn't that McCarthy's judgment of Hellman wasn't gratuitously harsh but that it was so hyperbolic that it was clearly meant, in part, as a joke.

Or as Floyd Abrams -- who defended the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case -- said, "The words spoken by McCarthy on the 'Cavett Show' were a paradigmatic example of what is referred to as rhetorical hyperbole -- language that no one could have understood to be offered as literally true and thus not subject to a defamation action."

And that, by any decency and logic, should have been that. But Hellman was Hellman. And lawyers are lawyers.

And so Hellman's suit was no joke. Cavett has said that it depleted McCarthy financially which, in retrospect, may in fact have been part of Hellman's vicious bullying intent (if, as likely, she had some sense of how many fewer financial resources McCarthy had than she).

Part of Hellman's claim in the suit required her to deny being the sort of public figure who should expect such public condemnation -- an utter absurdity considering her own past as a reviewer and the fact that Hellman posed for Blackglama Mink ads that asked the less-than-immortal advertising question "what becomes a legend most?"

The back story here goes back to the bitter internecine battles of the American Left of the '30s and '40s. Hellman was a Stalinist, McCarthy a Trotskyite.

And complicating the issue considerably was the fact that Hellman was indeed a liar ("a pathological liar," Arthur Schlesinger called her in his journals -- and he liked her). At the very least, she was a woman with such a free-flowing relationship with facts that her big-selling (and, indeed, well-written) memoirs in later years sprouted a cottage industry of writers and investigators pointing out exactly how far from accurate they were.

The anecdote she told in "Pentimento" that became the Jane Fonda/Vanessa Redgrave movie "Julia" is now widely assumed to have been appropriated by Hellman from someone else.

You can take the Hellman/McCarthy lawsuit in any number of different directions.

And Alan Ackerman takes it in quite a few in this series of digressions by an extremely brilliant professor who knows his facts but who tends to go occasionally into tangents where only professors' pets are likely to follow (the anatomy of the case's legalisms is not the book's finest hour).

It is his basic point that the case three decades ago illustrated an inherent conflict between the public claims of fact and the public claims of rhetoric -- a conflict unavoidably injurious, if not fatal, to American conversation.

His book was been wickedly underrated, I think, as a consequence. It was genteelly murdered in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago despite the acuteness of its literary portraiture.

Though the tale of the suit has gone on to become fodder for a Nora Ephron play "Imaginary Friends," it seems now, in all its particulars, to be most remarkable that a lawsuit with such a specifically literary milieu and intellectual provenence could develop from a TV talk show.

You can imagine a book with an entirely different and less glutinous set of digressions than Ackerman's -- Cavett's self-evident delight in the literary feuds rife at the time (his was the home of Gore Vidal's withering dismissal of Norman Mailer's truculence at its most buffoonlike, for instance). Or perhaps the eerie parallel of Fonda/Redgrave as a makeshift sisterhood of the Left in movies as compared to the vicious anti-sisterhood of Hellman and McCarthy in the American Literary Left (it is important, at this point, to resist referring to Freud's concept of the "narcissism of small differences").

But there is quite a lot of intelligence here -- professorial depth as well as common sense rather elegantly expressed. His leap from Hellman into the world of Oprah Winfrey and James Frey's memoir inventions is no digression. It seems utterly to the point about Hellman's literary place.

Ackerman sums up the actions of both writers in the whole contretemps aptly and almost on the fly:

"Each seems to epitomize the author's most unfortunate qualities: McCarthy's put-down is a concise expression of her glib meanness and Hellman's outraged reaction indicates the passionate intensity of her narcissism."

Those are "just" words, indeed. You might even say fair and balanced.

Jeff Simon is The News' Arts and Books Editor.


Just Words: Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy and the Failure of Conversation in America

By Alan Ackerman

Yale University Press

361 pages, $26.95