This Day In History: February 14

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In one of the most caustic literary feuds of the 20th century, playwright Lillian Hellman sues novelist and critic Mary McCarthy for libel, demanding $2.25 million in damages. The case poses the question of where the legal line stands between a critic's free speech and malicious libel.

The two writers didn't personally know each other well, but evidently had a long history of enmity, reportedly dating as far back as the 1930s.

The lawsuit originated after McCarthy, a novelist and bitingly satirical critic best known for her novel The Group (1963), called Hellman “a bad writer, overrated, a dishonest writer” during an interview with TV host Dick Cavett on his national talk show in late January of 1980. When Cavett asked what exactly was dishonest about Hellmann, McCarthy replied, "Everything. I once said in an interview that everything she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" Hellman's suit also named as co-defendents Cavett and the Educational Broadcasting Corporation (later PBS), which aired his show.

Hellman found commercial success for her Broadway plays "The Children's Hour," "The Little Foxes" and "Toys in the Attic," some of which later became movies. Known for her leftist politics, she was blacklisted from Hollywood in the 1940s and summoned before Senator Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952.

Many writers and supporters of free speech rushed to Mary McCarthy’s defense, including an heiress who picked up McCarthy’s $25,000 legal defense fees and saved her from certain financial ruin. In May 1984, Hellman won a first round of the case, when a judge denied McCarthy's motion to dismiss based on her argument that her comments were simply her opinions about a public figure. Hellman died six weeks later, before the lawsuit came to trial.