Non-fiction

maeve b in window

The Third City

“All my life, I suppose, I’ll be scurrying out of buildings just ahead of the wreckers, and I can’t afford to start wondering, every time I have the place painted, if the walls will speak up after the room has been laid open.”

—Maeve Brennan: ‘The Last Days of New York City’

On a blue day of May 2006, I dragoon a friend into driving me to Arverne in the borough of Queens, an hour’s journey from Manhattan. After a year living in the confines of Midtown New York, tuned to the hard, inward gaze of the city, there is an exhilaration to this escape. The expedition has a holiday air—well, we are going to the seaside and outside it is all sun-dazzle and heat—though we are not day-trippers, but literary sleuths.

Arverne lies on the long crooked finger of the Rockaway Peninsula. The Atlantic Ocean is a stone’s throw away but we get only fragments—glittering shards of water eclipsed by the struts of bridges—giving the sea a caged-in look. The huge concrete stanchions of the elevated track blunder past our windscreen like the legs of a pre-historic beast; the Freeway dives underneath it, casting us suddenly into deep shadow. Arverne was once a picturesque beachside resort with summer chalets and family hotels, an amusement park and a boardwalk. Now the city has this part of Arverne in its claw. On Beach 54th Street, the rumble of traffic insists, the A train hurtles overhead. Our destination is the Lawrence Nursing Home where Irish author Maeve Brennan ended her days.

Following in the footsteps of a dead writer can be a sentimental and morbid exercise. The acolyte haunting the places beloved of her literary heroine can begin to be haunted herself—succumbing to unlikely twinnings across the decades, surrendering to the unsubtle mistress of coincidence. And what is it exactly we hope to find? Some dim echo of the interior life, some essence of the artist inhaled from bricks and mortar? Or is it merely the desire to register one’s presence in the same dimension, like a graffiti artist scrawling on a wall—I was here. Better perhaps to stay at home and read the work. Be that as it may, I have in recent years, found myself haunted by Maeve Brennan. Or is it vice-versa? The pretext for my avid interest is research, for a novel—a novel I’m not sure I will ever write, perhaps because I have hunted my quarry too assiduously.

For a writer who became divorced so early from her native roots, it is ironic that Maeve Brennan’s beginnings were so tied to the national story. Maeve was born in 1917, a child of the revolution. Her father, a De Valera man and a romantic nationalist of the old school, did not see his second daughter until she was five months old, having been imprisoned and sentenced to death for his part in the 1916 Rising. (His sentence was later commuted.) Maeve’s childhood was coloured—and scarred—by her father’s involvement in both the War of Independence and then the Civil War. Her early years were filled with ‘the rumbling of Crossley tenders and armoured cars’ and the perilous absence of her father, often on the run, hiding in ‘safe’ houses. Anywhere but home, that is. So from the very beginning Maeve’s relationship to the idea of home was severely compromised.

In her autobiographical story, ‘The Day We Got Our Own Back’, Maeve wrote about a raid on her home by Free State police:

They pulled all the beds apart, looking for papers and letters, and they took all my father’s books out of the shelves and shook them, and they looked in all the drawers and in the wardrobe and in the kitchen stove. There was not an inch of the house they did not touch. They turned every room inside out. The newly polished oilcloth was scarred by their impatient feet, and the bedrooms upstairs were torn apart, with sheets and blankets on the floor, and the mattress all humped up on the bare beds. In the end they went back to the kitchen and they took down the tins of flour and tea and sugar and salt and whatever else there was, and plunged their hands into them and emptied them on the table and on the floor. Still they had found nothing, but the house looked as though it had suffered an explosion without bursting its walls.

When she came to write fiction it was the Dublin she had been exiled from that she wrote about, obsessively mapping the territory of childhood in her short stories, and in particular, the house on Cherryfield Avenue, in the Dublin suburb of Ranelagh, where she grew up. ‘Our street was called an avenue, because it was blind at one end, the farthest end from us. It was a short avenue, twenty-six houses on one side and twenty-six on the other. We were at No. 48, and only four houses from the main road, Ranelagh Road, on which trams and buses and all kinds of cars ran, making a good deal of noisy traffic.’ That house, said her editor and good friend at The New Yorker, William Maxwell, was her imagination’s home.

I grew up in a neighbouring suburb, Rathgar, forty years later in the nineteen-sixties, on a similar street similarly conscious of its respectability. It never struck me that this could be fruitful territory for fiction, until I read Maeve Brennan, that is. It was the first chiming between her circumstances and mine, a realisation that the territory of fiction can be domestic and miniature, but also profound. Other lesser twinnings registered too—my first piece of journalism, like Maeve’s, was published in the Irish Press.

In 1934, Maeve’s father was appointed Secretary of the Irish Legation to Washington DC and the Brennan family moved Stateside. Maeve was a seventeen-year-old schoolgirl (though already published in the Irish Press) and it was a move that was to divide her life in two. The before, a claustrophobic youth in a Catholic, Irish Republican household; the after, a bohemian, secular literary career in New York. It was quite a journey for a woman of her era, particularly an Irish woman, and it’s a journey that has always fascinated me.

Her first years in the US were spent in a leafy suburb of Washington DC, where I found myself some years ago and once again took up the Brennan trail. The family lived in Kalorama Park where Maeve and her sisters were expected to play hostess for her father’s diplomatic soirées. Her Washington was a segregated city under the waning influence of the New Deal. (Could she have even imagined the city I knew in the grip of Obama fever?) David Brinkley in Washington goes to War, remarks that in the late nineteen-thirties ‘the city slumbered… living at the slow pace and with the encrusted traditions that reminded most visitors of a placid southern town more than a major world capital.’

Perhaps it was this placid provincialism that made Maeve restless. Or maybe she railed against the limiting expectations of her father’s milieu? Or it might just have been a broken heart. As a student at Catholic University in DC she had met Walter Kerr, the playwright and Pulitzer Prize-winning theatre critic, with whom she had a relationship and was said to be engaged to. In her fine biography, Maeve Brennan: Homesick at The New Yorker, Angela Bourke writes that Maeve confided to a friend in the midst of a later mental breakdown that Kerr was her great lost love. (Bourke suggests that the reason William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, never hired Kerr was in deference to Maeve’s painful history with him.)

Whatever the reason, when her family returned to Ireland at the outbreak of the Second World War, Maeve headed to New York where she found work at the New York Public Library (NYPL). Employment records there show that from April to July 1943, she served as an intern in the Periodicals Room. Coincidence chimes again. In 2006, I too found myself in New York on a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, a magnificent research facility at the NYPL. When I stepped into the room where Maeve worked, with its high arched windows, its polished desks and mahogany wainscoting, its golden reading lamps, its globe chandeliers, I felt once again the frisson of connection, an Irish novelist in New York, albeit on a different trajectory to Maeve Brennan. (I was doing research at the time on a novel about another Irish writer, the playwright Sean O’Casey.) The room is an altar to modernism with its soaring murals dedicated to the publishing giants of the city—Scribner’s, McGraw Hill, the Hearst Building, the Time-Life Building, Herald Square and Newspaper Row. I like to think this is where the transformation of Maeve Brennan took place.

Her next manifestation was as a fashion copywriter for Harper’s Bazaar. A photograph of her taken at this time by Nina Leen of Life magazine, shows how she had changed from bookish girl to stylish career woman. Dressed in a demure business suit with pert bow-tie blouse, a straw boater in her hands, her hair upswept, she looks poised and contained, a world away from the homespun convent girl of the Washington years. She is standing at a shop window somewhere in Manhattan; a Midtown avenue disappears vertiginously behind her. The photo is taken from the interior of the store, so the viewer is looking at Maeve on the outside looking in. It’s an unwittingly precise psychological portrait. For if her fiction was obsessed with the recreation of her Dublin childhood, Maeve Brennan’s journalism was consumed with New York.

E.B White, essayist and author, remarked in his 1949 essay ‘Here is New York’ that there were three New Yorks—the native city, the commuter city and the city of the outsider who comes to New York in quest of something. ‘Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last—the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements.’ A description that could equally be applied to Maeve Brennan.

In 1949, she joined the staff of The New Yorker. It was a plum position for a young woman, all the more impressive at a time when the magazine was an almost totally male preserve. And she was an Irishwoman among the literary blue bloods. She started off writing 100-word book reviews, eventually progressing on to Talk of the Town columns—the first woman to do so—writing regularly from 1953 to 1968 under the pseudonym of the Long-Winded Lady.

The persona she adopted for these columns suggests a lady who lunches, a brittle dilettante with no occupation, but the plangent tone belies the persona.

There is something on Broadway that is not to be found at home, and everyone who walks along the great street begins to look for it. No other place is so blatant and secret, so empty and alive, so unreal and familiar, so private and noisy… There are eyes everywhere. I watched the crowd that roamed along there last night, moving through the lonely light that comes after sunset, during the hour when the sky is vacant and the moon is still powerless. High in the fading sky, the big lights glimmered faintly, creating an architectural mirage that was like the reflection of another city—the New York no one has ever found.

Although her career path was assured, Maeve’s life in the city seems curiously rootless when viewed from an Irish perspective. She lived in a series of small apartments and residential hotels (an establishment almost completely extinct in contemporary New York—otherwise I might have stayed in one for the sake of research). It would be impossible to track down all her addresses over the fifty years she lived in the city, even for an obsessive ghost-hunter like me. As a result, I must turn to her writing to find Maeve Brennan’s New York.

As the Long-Winded Lady, Brennan charts the city minutely. She fits Walter Benjamin’s definition of a flâneur, one for whom ‘the street becomes a dwelling’. Her restlessness and solitude rise off the pages. She often roamed the city at night, or early in the morning. Many of the places she writes about are long gone; some were disappearing even as she wrote about them, giving the pieces an archival air.

West Forty-Ninth Street seemed more than ever like an outpost, or a frontier street, or a one-street town that has been thrown together in excitement—a gold rush or an oil gush and that will tumble into ruin when the excitement ends… The people who decided to put this street to use for the time that remains to it have behaved with the freedom of children playing in a junkyard… In the daytime, and especially in the early morning, the street has a travel-stained look and an air of hardship…

It could be an Edward Hopper painting in words. Even when the streets still exist and thrive, there is a bereaved air to their description: ‘Sixth Avenue possesses a quality that some people acquire, sometimes quite suddenly, which dooms it and them to be loved only at the moment when they are being looked at for the very last time.’

The Long-Winded Lady dined in neighbourhood restaurants, usually those with a large window looking on to the street. She might have been a lady who lunched, but more often than not, she lunched alone. If she didn’t have a book to read, she people-watched. Waiters and diners, prostitutes and beggars, protestors and bar-keeps, quarrelling lovers and lost ladies are all observed forensically and their stories speculated about. She was always exacting in her physical descriptions, a gift honed when writing fashion copy for Harper’s Bazaar:

His hair was black and dense and glossy, like boot polish, and he had big, soft brown eyes and smooth skin. He had a little half-moon moustache. He was a Latin type, and she was Hogarthian, with Plantagenet features. Her forehead was big and she had small blue eyes, a domineering, bony nose, and a thin mouth.

But in the midst of Brennan’s merciless description, there was always a forlorn refrain.

An old woman living by herself in a single hotel bedroom goes frantic with apprehension and picks up the telephone, but there is no one for her to call. She tries to tell the room clerk of what is threatening her, and he listens, but he has the switchboard to attend to, and he has to watchdog the street entrance and the elevators, and he has other duties, and, in any case, he has heard her story many times before, from other people, in other years and in other defeated places like this one.

Such vignettes have the unsettling quality of a Jungian dream—as if everyone in the city might be a version of Maeve Brennan.

Maeve’s later years were marked by the melancholy decline she had so often observed in others. Who knows the precise cause? A broken marriage, bouts of mental illness, a drink problem, homelessness. At one stage she was living in the ladies’ room of The New Yorker, until, that is, she became violent and had to be banned from the closest place to home she had known in New York. In ‘Christmas Eve’, one of her last short stories to be published, Brennan characterises her narrator as ‘a child grown old and in the dark.’ It is a description that seems prescient of her own last days.

From the outside, the Lawrence Nursing Home is a grim fortress-like place, a cinder-block box set in an urban wasteland, surrounded by vacant lots guarded by security fences. But inside the lobby is painted in canary yellow with a South Seas mural on one wall. I tell the receptionist that a relative of mine stayed here—at this stage Maeve Brennan feels like a relative—and when I ask if I can take a look around, she shrugs and waves her hands in ‘whatever’ mode. The tiled day room hosts an unwatched TV. Several patients sit in wheelchairs; one ambulant woman with fuzzy white hair, stands in a Parkinsonian freeze, listening intently, hand raised in salute. Upstairs there are determinedly cheery twin rooms with crocheted spreads or bright candlewick covers. The beds are wooden—like bunks from childhood. There is nothing remarkable about the Lawrence, though according to Brennan’s biographer, Angela Bourke, Maeve was happy here. ‘I write every day for the Irish Press and get paid,’ she reported to her niece, merging at last the two cities that had haunted her, Dublin and New York finally rolled into one.

This will be the last stop on my Maeve Brennan pilgrimage. If I am ever to put her in a novel, I will have to invent from now on. The trouble is that fiction has a way of simplifying real people; the novel has little tolerance for unanswered questions and unresolved lives. How could I ever convey the complexity, the contradictory impulses, the maddening inconclusiveness that is Maeve Brennan, without reducing her to someone ‘knowable’? And as if in answer, when I step outside the Lawrence, where Maeve died in November 1993, a pale blue view of Manhattan’s spires rises up on the horizon. The city shimmers like something hazy and dreamed-up, and seems as fugitive as the ghost of Maeve Brennan.

Featured in:  The Stinging Fly

Vol. Two / Winter 2011-12