Born in 1912 in Seattle to Tess Preston and Roy McCarthy, Mary McCarthy lived the life of a fairy princess with parents who adored her and her three brothers. Tess converted from Protestantism and became, like many converts, much more Catholic than any McCarthy, impressing upon her children how lucky they were to be Catholic. Roy’s heart illness often kept him home with his children, and Mary’s brief six years with him affected her greatly. Both her parents died in the 1918 flu epidemic when Mary was six. Mary and her brothers stayed first with their paternal grandparents, strict Catholics living in Minneapolis. Her grandmother McCarthy’s materialistic Catholicism contrasted greatly with both the spiritual, communal Catholicism her mother had instilled in her, and the intellectual, romantic Catholicism she later encountered at school as a young teenager. Eventually, the orphans were shuttled off to an elderly aunt, Margaret, and her husband, also living in Minneapolis.
After six years of unhappiness, Mary was claimed by her Grandfather Preston and taken with him back to Seattle; her brothers were left in a Minnesota boarding school. At first, she was nervous about the “Protestants getting her” as she had so often been warned by Grandmother McCarthy. But she was enrolled in a Catholic school, the Ladies of the Sacred Heart, a girls’ version of the Jesuit school attended by James Joyce and as powerful an influence on the budding intellectual.
After graduating from Vassar in 1933, McCarthy began writing articles for the Nation, New Republic, and Partisan Review; she served as drama critic for the latter journal from 1937–1944. Later, she taught at Bard College and Sarah Lawrence College. She married three times, the second time to literary critic and writer Edmund Wilson with whom she had her only child, Reuel. Wilson, whom she married in 1938 and divorced in 1946, is credited with encouraging McCarthy to write fiction.