The thing that impressed me most about the writer Mary Lee Settle (1918-2005) was her intellect — in the questions she chose to pursue and the all-fulfilling ways she pursued them.
When she spoke to us in Charleston, for example, she talked about coming up with just-the-right Italian names for the characters in her novel Scapegoat — names that happily, in the end, turned out to originate in exactly the province she had hoped. (We take this for granted today, but it was a lot of work back then, even as late as the 1980s and early 1990s, when looking at a Sardinian phone book was not as easy as doing a Google search.)
By this time, however, Mary Lee was nearing the end of her career, happily published — first in the UK, then in the US — a confident and high-profile figure in postwar American Literature and very likely well-known (however forgotten now) in “important” circles of New York City and/or Los Angeles.
She happily told the story of partying — in California, I think — with Norman Mailer who supported her, I believe, when she founded the PEN-Faulkner Award for Fiction.
“It was getting to be that time of evening,” she said, meaning that they’d all stopped drinking — or should have.
“And Norman was going on and on about ‘the banality of evil’ or something.
“And I said, ‘Oh, Norman, shut up! I’ve seen more evil around the bridge table at Edgewood Country Club than you’ve seen in your entire life!’ ”
This quieted everything, she said, as Mailer took on this shocked appearance (perhaps theatrically), open-eyed as he looked across space to Mary Lee.
“And, then, he said: ‘That’s scary!’ ” she told us.
And she extended the word, with characteristic dramatic feeling: “…scaaary.”