A WOMAN IN FULL: I first met Iris Dornfeld McWilliams, who died on July 10 at 97, in the fall of 1980. I’d just started my internship at The Nation, and Victor Navasky asked me to come to his office to meet the widow of The Nation‘s former editor Carey McWilliams. Iris needed someone to help organize Carey’s voluminous papers, and Victor thought I’d be just the right person. I was finishing my undergraduate thesis on the McCarthy era, and in my intern application I’d explained that I wanted to work at a magazine that fought so courageously for civil liberties during those scoundrel times. As for McWilliams, I considered him a lead watchman during those dark nights.
Iris and I developed a routine. I’d show up at the McWilliams apartment at West 115th Street at 9:30 am sharp. Iris would let me in. I’d go straight to what had been Carey’s study, filled with books he’d written or collected—many by longtime Nation contributors like Frank Donner, Fred Cook or Robert Sherrill—and I’d bury myself in the files and correspondence with people as remarkable as Ambrose Bierce, Upton Sinclair and Robinson Jeffers.
I was shy, and at first Iris seemed somewhat aloof. Then one day she asked if I wanted coffee. We started to talk a bit each day. Iris told me of the house she and Carey had owned and loved on North Alvarado Street in Los Angeles; of their courtship, which began while he was serving in California state government; of the financial and political troubles they experienced when Carey was called before the California state Committee on Un- American Activities in the 1940s. And she told me how, despite their passionate attachment to LA, they decided to move to New York City in 1951 so that Carey could edit a special issue on civil liberties for The Nation. Four years later he became its editor.
After some initial resistance, Iris embraced the city. She shared memories of how their apartment became a kind of oasis during the 1950s—a time Carey would later dub "The Vile Decade." As one longtime friend of theirs described the scene, "The intelligent and decent civil liberty types all drifted in, and as discouraging as the country seemed, the possibilities of an open and sane society seemed alive there." Iris also spoke of the insanity of those times, of the few friends she and Carey considered "cold war casualties"—three committed suicide because of the relentless political harassment, including the eminent literary scholar F.O. Matthiessen. What Iris remembered most vividly about McCarthyism were these personal tragedies, not the scabrous headlines.
Soon after, Iris started affectionately calling me Buster. Then she gave me copies of her two novels, Jeeney Ray (1962) and Boy Gravely (1965). She was proud that the British Spectator had described her second book as "a little cockatrice of a novel." I fixed on the dust jacket copy for Jeeney Ray, which said that Iris comes "from a family of singers, storytellers, bible-reciters, make-believers, and downright liars." I was convinced that she’d written it; Iris never denied this. I think she also liked my appreciation of the dust jacket photo showing an intense, elegant brunette with movie-star looks.
Iris had little patience for fools or conformists. She was unsentimental, free-spirited, feisty, plain-spoken, perpetually curious, kind, liked a drink, gracious and strong. She also held the right kind of grudges; when Navasky helped organize Carey’s memorial service, Iris knocked a few names off the list because of the way they had treated Carey in tough political times.