One of the most biting scenes in The Group, Mary McCarthy’s acerbic sendup of female friendship and aspiration, takes place on a play date. Priss Crockett, the grind of the Vassar class of 1933 and now a doctor’s wife, is walking through Central Park with her toddler Stephen. She runs into a fellow alum, Norine Schmittlapp, and her 3-month-old baby, Ichabod. “Aren’t you afraid he’ll be called ‘Icky’ in school?” Priss asks before barely resisting the urge to tell Norine to raise the hood of the baby’s carriage, to shield his head from the sun.
The two women are off and running for an afternoon of sniping and clashing. Norine mentions letting Ichabod sleep in the bed with her at night. Priss can’t believe she doesn’t know that “under no circumstances, not even in a crowded slum home, should a baby be permitted to sleep with an adult.” Stephen sees Ichabod sucking on a pacifier and reaches up to touch the unknown object. Priss snatches his hand away. Norine brings up toilet training, the source of Priss’ most bitter shame, since Stephen is not performing properly. Norine’s theory is that children should train themselves. “Where in the world did you get such ideas?” Priss asks. The women repair to Norine’s apartment, where a butler whisks Stephen away. The butler later returns to whisper in Norine’s ear. “Stephen shat,” she casually reports, to Priss’ humiliation, even as she lets Stephen’s nursemaid clean up the mess.
In the last minutes in this strange apartment, Stephen plunges his hand into the neck of the nursemaid’s dress, and Priss, desperate to distract him, gives him a piece of chocolate cake. Stephen, a chocolate virgin, doesn’t now what to do with it. “Look! It’s good,” Priss tells him, chewing. McCarthy makes Stephen’s corruption complete with this last line of the chapter: “Soon he was greedily eating chocolate cake, from a Jewish bakery, with fudge frosting.”