Each of Pflaumen’s guests had been selected, as it were, for his allegorical possibilities, and every dinner was presented as a morality play in which art and science, wealth and poverty, business and literature, sex and scholarship, vice and virtue, Judaism and Christianity, Stalinism and Trotskyism, all the antipodes of life, were personified and yet abstract. Tonight there was John Peterson, who stood for criticism and also for official Communism. There was Jim Berolzheimer, a bright young man in one of the great banking houses, who represented capitalism, and his wife who painted pictures and was going to have a baby, and was therefore both art and motherhood. There was Henry Slater, the publisher, very flirtatious, with a shock of prematurely white hair, who was sex, and his wife, an ash-blond woman with a straight bang, who kept a stable full of horses and was sport. There was a woman psychoanalyst who got herself up in a Medici gown and used a cigarette holder. There was a pretty English girl named Leslie who worked on Time. There was the young Jew, Martin Erdman, who did not drink. There was Pflaumen himself, who stood for trade marks and good living, and you, who stood for literature and the Fourth International. After dinner there might be others: a biologist and his wife, a matronly young woman who wore her hair in a coronet around her head and was active in the League of Women Shoppers, a Wall Street lawyer, a wine dealer, a statistician.

And here was the striking effect produced by Pflaumen’s dinners: you truly felt yourself turning into an abstraction of your beliefs and your circumstances. Contradictions you had known in yourself melted away; challenged by its opposite, your personality hardened into something unequivocal and defiant—your banners were flying. All the guests felt this. If you asserted your Trotskyism, your poverty, your sexual freedom, the expectant mother radiated her pregnancy, the banker basked in his reactionary convictions, and John Peterson forgot about Montaigne and grew pale as an El Greco saint in his defense of Spanish democracy. Everybody, for the moment, knew exactly who he was. Pflaumen had given you all your identity cards, just as a mother will assign personalities to each of her brood of children: Jack is hard-working and steady, Billy is a flash-in-the-pan, never can finish anything he starts. Mary is dreamy, Helen is practical. While it lasted, the feeling was delightful; and at the dinner table everyone was heady with a peculiar, almost lawless excitement, like dancers at a costume ball.

Mary McCarthy, “The Genial Host”, in Novels and Stories 1942–1963, edited by Thomas Mallon