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The Traveller in Residence: Maeve Brennan's New York

Artwork by Isabelle Davies

An Irishwoman, two Americans, and five French teenagers walk into a bar, sit at separate tables, eat, and leave. For Maeve Brennan, it’s not a pointless joke, but a story. The Irishwoman observes the French boys on holiday, listens idly to their conversation, notes their polite interest in the French bartender. She looks out of the restaurant window and thinks of ‘a country where people were so at ease with themselves that they were able to be at ease anywhere […] another world’. It is a perfectly framed snapshot of a cosmopolitan city, with its motifs of belonging, travel, curiosity, and solitude. But it is resolutely brought back to earth: she realises that during her philosophic daze the youths have left the restaurant. Shrugging, she turns back to her café-filtre.

This kind of witty denial – the promised moral, dissolved like a sugar cube into the black coffee of real life – pops up again and again in The Long-Winded Lady (1998), a collection of Brennan’s short columns for the New Yorker, where she worked from 1954 to 1981. The ‘Talk of the Town’ section, where Brennan’s pieces were published, featured a rotating cast of anonymous contributors; other ‘talkers’ included E. B. White, John Updike and James Thurber. Brennan signed off as ‘the long-winded lady’, distinctive in voice and manifestly female (most columnists’ gender was not revealed in their bylines). They are neither short fiction nor human interest pieces, but they aren’t not those, either. In the introduction she wrote to the first edition of the collection in 1969, Brennan describes her contributions as ‘snapshots taken during a long, slow journey not through but in the most cumbersome, most reckless, most ambitious, most confused, most comical, the saddest and coldest and most human of cities’.

‘Not through but in’: the pieces linger in space and time, lavishly spending words on a single interaction or someone glimpsed on the street. Most columns describe the Lower West Side, where Brennan lived on and off from her twenties until the end of her life. They are resolutely narrow in their scope: she 'knows next to nothing about the Lower East Side, less about the Upper East Side, nothing at all about the Upper West Side’, she asserts of herself with perverse pride. There is no talk of the Greenwich Village literati who surrounded Brennan in real life. Politics appears in anti-Vietnam street protests, Broadway in a trombonist playing on the roof of the Latin Quarter nightclub, ‘all by himself and to nobody’. Brennan’s eye is trained on the seedy hotels and small restaurants that peppered Manhattan in the 1950s and 60s, and the everyday New Yorkers who occupied them. One journalist described the columns as ‘a social diary crossed with an Edward Hopper painting’.

Part of the columns’ attraction comes from Brennan’s ability to be both within and without the scenes she describes. She is a New Yorker, inhabiting these spaces and at home with the people, and at the same time a foreigner with a foreigner’s wonderment. Born in 1917 to a family of staunch Irish republicans (when she was born, her father was in prison for his part in the Easter Rising), Brennan grew up in Ranelagh, on the south side of Dublin. When her father was appointed Ireland’s first ambassador to the USA in 1934, the family upped sticks to Washington, and Brennan soon departed for New York. Her short stories are often autobiographical, returning with decidedly mixed feelings to the Dublin of her childhood. But in the New Yorker pieces, her Irishness is shaded in so lightly it’s easy to miss. In one unusually personal column, the sight of two nuns in a restaurant sends Brennan’s mind hurtling back to her unhappy years in a convent school. ‘My right hand, with the empty martini glass in it, had somehow gone under the table and was hiding there behind the tablecloth’, she notices: the impulse is a hilarious but somehow dreadful hangover from a childhood constrained by rigid moralism. In that light, Brennan’s wanderings around Manhattan, and her leisurely hours in the coffee shops and small restaurants of the Lower West Side, show a freedom edged with incredulity. The ability for a woman to live alone in hotels, to be her own mistress, was still new and fragile at mid-century.

She is delighted with the city’s anonymity, which penetrates to the bones of her style: she describes herself as ‘interested, but not very curious’. ‘To walk along Broadway is like being a ticket in a lottery’, she writes (how perfect an image!). Her writing refuses to break that tombola-like rhythm, each person rattling past one another in random arrangements and rearrangements. There is no journalistic sniffing after stories; she never follows her subjects; she is a citizen of the city who follows the city’s rules, one of which is never to snoop. The result is a curious unpredictability in the columns. Some stories move with a fluid arc towards an ironic moral (‘Sometimes it is very hard to know the right thing to do’); but usually we are denied this easy closure. As a woman revs up for a standoff with a waiter, Brennan calmly notes: ‘Unfortunately, I had already paid my check and put on my gloves, and I hadn’t the nerve to just sit there watching, so I had to leave without hearing the rest of the repartee’. We are abruptly cut off from the climax of the scene, whisked away down West 49th Street just as things are getting exciting.

In the same way, Brennan’s attention is often directed to the side, away from the bright light of a big event and towards the people on the periphery. When a crowd gathers around a broken shop window, she looks at it, not the handcuffed man. ‘What was strange on that afternoon was the expression of the crowd. There was not one face that looked indifferent or amused’. In a sentence that ostensibly describes lack – what is not present in their faces – Brennan imbues this minor offence with an uncomfortable gravity. It is a reflection both on the crime, with its ‘interested and obedient’ perpetrator, and on the strange ritual of the street crowd. The blasé face and predatory instincts of Manhattan passers-by are illuminated by a moment when they are shaken out of complacency.

Before working at the New Yorker, Brennan wrote on fashion for Harper’s Bazaar, and traces of that job linger in the level of detail she packs into a single glance. A delivery boy ‘looked impersonal and triumphant, the way children sometimes look when they see something they like but do not want’. The Algonquin coffee house is ‘small and familiar’, the Biltmore ‘large and familiar’. She picks up everything and translates the city’s images into phrases that defy her pen name: pithy, witty, short-winded. A man looks into a child’s face ‘as though the little face were a mirror’; a teenager in the street ‘was sad, or being sad’. On a hot day, ‘There was no air except what was left over’. Each miniature portrait is swift, shockingly apt, and at the same time humanely sympathetic.

There is something of the flâneuse in Brennan’s observant yet right-angled approach to the city. As for Virginia Woolf, whose 1927 essay ‘Street Haunting’ starts with a trip to buy a pencil—‘an object, an excuse for walking half across London’—Brennan surrenders to chance, the hasty left-or-right turn that will result in one of two small but different events. Woolf contrasts the self at home, surrounded by associations and memories, with the self that exits the house: we become ‘a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye’. In her sometimes grotesque descriptions of London’s streets, peopled by a ‘maimed company of the halt and the blind’, she is every bit the outsider, the privileged saunterer in the tradition of Flaubert and Baudelaire. For Brennan, the self-proclaimed ‘traveller in residence’, the boundary between home and the street is more porous. She never stayed in the same hotel for long, and each new dwelling place adds a link to the chain of Manhattan life, continuous with the department stores and bars that jostle alongside them. In the midst of it all Brennan floats, an oyster without a shell.

It is a precarious existence, both for Brennan and for her adoptive city. The 1950s and 60s saw upheaval all over Manhattan as high-rise developments edged out small businesses in small buildings. Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs fought a pitched battle over the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway. All Brennan’s local haunts are shadowed by the promise of demolition. In the wake of demolished brownstones, ailanthus trees pop up ‘like a ghost, like a shade’. Perhaps it is endemic in New York city writing to be always mapping decay. I am reminded of another chronicler of the back streets, the cartoonist Ben Katchor, whose strip Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer documents its hero’s surreal trips through the business districts of an obsolescent New York. Julius Knipl first appeared in 1988, five years before Brennan’s death; nostalgia, at least, is perennial.

In later life, Brennan’s independence was curtailed by her worsening mental health. From her mid-fifties onwards, her behaviour became more and more erratic; a friend described her coming to visit and sitting for hours in a chair, wailing. According to the writer Fintan O’Toole, whose 1998 Irish Times article on Brennan revived Irish interest in her, she ‘more or less lived in the women’s toilets at the New Yorker building’ in the 70s. Moving through a swift succession of hotels, she landed at Lawrence Nursing Home in Queens. She died of a heart attack in 1993, barely remembered by her contemporaries and forgotten entirely by the literary world. Swallowed up in the anonymity she had sought, Brennan became a victim of the city’s tragic indifference. But for the voice that we hear in The Long-Winded Lady, elusiveness is still a game. We glimpse the life behind the column—the engagement that forces her to leave a restaurant, the call she has to make from a phone box—but we do not enter into it. We are invited to be, like Brennan, ‘interested, but not curious’. We connect—with sympathy, sometimes with passion—and then we walk off into the crowd. As usual, Brennan expresses it best: this play of connection and estrangement, in all its bewilderment and poignancy. In a piece entitled ‘From the Hotel Earle’, she glimpses a woman dead on the street. Walking away, she thinks: ‘I hoped she had had a nice day. I don’t know what I didn’t hope for her’. Sometimes, in the midst of a confused, sad, human city, it is enough just to hope.


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