Four Paintings and a Cloakroom
The smallest room in our house, apart from the lavatory, was the cloakroom – an oddly anachronistic name for the cell-like room off the hall where we children hung our coats and deposited our wellies, the adults their stricken umbrellas. The cloakroom was plumbed for water with a small hand-basin, so the nineteenth-century appellation coupled with twentieth-century functionalism made it an oddly ill-defined space, sitting rather importantly at the front of the house, but with a frosted glass window suggesting the secrecy of a closet. Ours was a standard four-bedroom, semi-detached house, half red-brick – up to the first floor – and then pebble-dash to the eaves, a common model in the Dublin suburbs of the 1950s, for which my parents paid the princely sum of £3,000.
As well as being a functional room, the cloakroom was a place of punishment. Its door had a sliding bolt on the outside, so there was no escape for the hapless occupant. It was where we were sent to cool off – the 1960s equivalent of the naughty-step beloved of present-day parenting gurus. When my harried mother wanted to separate the warring factions that developed among four siblings, the most offending child would be sent there. Aping our elders, we often locked one another in the cloakroom, exploring the exquisite torture of claustrophobia and the delicious machinations of blackmail. What will you give me if I let you out?
Perhaps that was why, when reading Jane Eyre, this was where I imagined the young orphaned Jane being sequestered in the opening pages of that novel. Our cloakroom could not be further removed from the dark, damask-draped ‘red-room’ that Charlotte Brontë described – ‘a spare chamber, very seldom slept in’ – where Mr Reed had breathed his last and which gave the red-room its ‘sense of dreary consecration’. There was no high, dark wardrobe in our cloakroom, no stately bed with massive pillars of mahogany, no ottoman. Instead, we had bare walls painted a neutral shade – cream, eggshell white, something nondescript. On the floor was an earthy-hued lino – linoleum being a very modern and fashionable floor covering of the time. This was in an expressionist pattern, a mix of muddy green, rust red and daubs of white – think of Philip Guston’s early abstract work and you have it. It is the only room in the house where the original lino has survived and still adorns the floor almost sixty years later. So as well as being modern and fashionable in its time, it has proved to be durable too. (Alas no longer; since writing this essay, the cloakroom has been refurbished as a bathroom.)
What the cloakroom had in common with Brontë’s red-room was that it exhaled the deprivation of the cell – emphasized by its jailer-like lock – and the dreaded threat of abandonment. What if you were left there, trapped forever among the musty coats giving off their whiff of neglect? Who owned some of these coats – dark plastic macs, transparently horrible, thick tweed overcoats and giant menacing galoshes that seemed far too big for my father’s size eight shoes? It was as if the cloakroom harboured secrets that were older than the house itself, and suggested ghostly presences of another era.
This was a room where you couldn’t sit down, where there was nothing to fiddle or play with, making it the perfect place to ponder on your wickedness, and after the allotted time (sooner rather than later) to express your remorse. Or if the offence merited it, it was where you calculated the odds of further punishment. Deferred penalty was the ultimate deterrent. Wait till your father gets home were words we grew to dread. Which, in our case, could mean a long wait. My father worked as a customs officer and was away for weeks at a time in far-flung outposts of the Republic on night shifts at border crossings and alcohol factories. But what made the cloakroom the ultimate prison was its lack of visual distraction. There were no paintings, or what we called pictures, on the wall. If you had been locked in the sitting room, you could contemplate The Virgin of the grapes (Pierre Mignard, Musée de Louvre, 1640s) in its ornate gilt frame. Or you might have considered Fabiola (Jean-Jacques Henner, 1885) – versatile patron saint of divorcees, difficult marriages, victims of abuse, adultery, unfaithfulness and widows. This was a rather boring picture to my childish eye, a Roman profile view of an aristocratic-looking female draped in a red veil against a black ground. As in the matter of punishment, my father was the final arbiter of the images on the walls.
My father died in 1970, when I was 13, so I never knew him as an adult. Born in London in 1910, the son of an Irish emigrant journeyman carpenter, my father returned to Co. Clare when he was 5 and grew up in a cottage outside Kilrush. It was a crowded house. There were four young children, his parents, plus two members of the extended family – his mother’s sister, Molly, and Aggie, a distant cousin (not the full shilling) – both of them single women who cleaned and cooked and provided the surrogate mothering that female relatives in Irish households of the time provided in return for their keep – or because it was their instinct. My father completed his secondary schooling and joined the civil service as a ‘Junior Ex’ after leaving school in the early 1930s. Politically, he was a devoted Dev man – a bust of the Long Fella still sits on the sitting room mantelpiece. He died in the run-up to the infamous Arms Trial, which was to tear his beloved Fianna Fáil apart. Just as well, my mother used to say, the result would have killed him anyway.
He was a man of his time, which, I constantly have to remind myself, was the Edwardian era. A distant father, as fathers were then, slow to anger but fierce in his authority. What I remember most clearly about him now, and recognized even as a child, was his passionate auto-didacticism. (His favourite catchphrase when his children showed evidence of intellectual pride was to say ‘sure I only went to the hedge school’.) Not literally true, of course, but revealing of an acute insecurity about his educational shortcomings.
Above all, he wanted opportunities for his children that he had not enjoyed himself. Hence music lessons – he came along to our first lessons on the piano with Mrs Wiener, a rather elderly and grim German lady who lived nearby, and plodded along with our scales and arpeggios until we left him far behind in the garden slopes and climbed the laddered rungs of the Royal Academy of Music grading system. He learned German in middle age – strangely using Hitler’s speeches at the Nuremberg rallies to perfect his accent. I’m reminded of Sylvia Plath’s poems about her Teutonic father. In this age of political correctness, it’s hard to view this choice of learning aid as a purely linguistic decision. But I cannot ask him and so cannot know.
My earliest memory of his interest in art was visiting Dublin’s galleries. I remember being brought to the Municipal Gallery (now the Dublin City Gallery) to view the Hugh Lane bequest, which spent half the year in Dublin, the other in London. I have a mental image of myself as a small child, my hand in his, standing in front of Renoir’s Les Parapluies and thinking it the most beautiful and most blue confection I had ever seen. I identified, of course, with the coiffed and bonneted little girl in the right foreground of the painting, dressed in what seemed her Sunday best and clutching her spinning hoop and stick.
My father didn’t view art as just a spectator sport. On Saturday mornings when he was at work – or else he would surely have joined in – he arranged for my brothers and me to have art lessons. We were tutored by a succession of students from the College of Art (one of them a brother of the leading Irish fashion designer Paul Costelloe) in watercolours, pen and ink, calligraphy and lino cuts, a veritable array of artistic skills that I can only imagine he longed to have himself.
I am now the age my father was when he died. Perhaps it is this fact that makes me realize the rich aesthetic legacy he has left – not just in the cultural opportunities he insisted upon, but in the images he chose to surround us with. These aesthetic choices live on. The same images he chose hang on the walls of our home to this very day. All around them, the house has been modernized – aluminium windows, central heating, numerous changes of wallpaper and decor – but the pictures remain as a legacy of both his taste and his cultural aspirations, a permanent exhibition, if you like, of which he is the ghostly curator.
Although I can say what these pictures have meant to me – these were my first images and informed my childhood – I have never considered before what they meant to him and what they might tell me about the man I never properly knew.
On making my inventory, the first thing I can say is that he was a Vermeer man. Practically all of Vermeer’s thirty-eight authenticated canvasses adorned our walls – The Little Street, The Milkmaid, The Art of Painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring, View of Delft. These were print reproductions which, I discovered, my father had cut from art books and framed. It was an eerie experience to examine the backstage of these framed prints that I have spent so long looking at. There on the cardboard backing he’d carefully placed to support the prints was my father’s handwriting, often in pencil, giving the title of the work, the artist’s name and dates. As if he knew that one day someone would lift them down seeking out their provenance. And, in some way, his.
His interest in Dutch painting extended beyond Vermeer. There are reproductions of work by Pieter de Hooch and Gabriël Metsu, both contemporaries of Vermeer – and interestingly, much more successful in their time than he was. The Vermeer images are all small, arranged usually in clusters of four, and because of Vermeer’s current ubiquity, probably of less interest than my father’s other choices. That he loved Dutch painting seems beyond question. And while, to my mind, de Hooch and Metsu have neither the absolute conviction nor the exacting stillness of Vermeer, there is a quality in their work of rigorous but graceful control, qualities I associate with my father.
Reviewing the broad strokes of his preferences, two strands emerge. Dutch school and religious themes. Sometimes they overlapped. Vermeer, who converted to Catholicism, painted a version of the parable of Martha and Mary (Christ in the house of Martha and Mary) which was part of my father’s collection. The religious preoccupation is not surprising – either for the time, or for the man. My father was a very pious Catholic. He followed the exacting requirements of his faith to the letter. Weekly confession, nightly prayers, daily rosary. I remember him measuring out his food for the Lenten fast – ‘one full meal and two collations’ for forty days – using a weighing scales at the table.
Religion was, at that time, not just a pervasive feature of our lives, but formed the basis of animated family discussions. ‘The prodigal son’ was a favourite hot topic at the dinner table – my mother warning darkly that there would be no fatted calf for any of us if we went off the rails. But she was equally exercised by the injustices of ‘The workers in the vineyard’ – why, she questioned, should the workers who’d only arrived late in the day, get paid the same as those who’d toiled since early morning? Often these debates would be between my parents – my father favouring the more orthodox view. As a result, these seemed live issues to us as children. To be surrounded by a great deal of religious art was equally unremarkable. What is remarkable is that it was of such a high standard.
Where did this passion for art spring from? It seems unlikely that there were many pictures in my father’s own home, a workman’s cottage in Cappagh, Co. Clare. I have no way of knowing, since the house went out of the family on the death of my grandmother years before I was born. But my father’s brother was a talented amateur artist throughout his life, and two of his watercolours graced our walls right beside the Vermeers – so there must have been a strong predisposition to visual culture in the family. My grandfather was a carpenter, which might explain the appreciation of fine craftsmanship among his sons, but it’s hard to imagine that they would have had much exposure to great works of art growing up – apart, of course, from the images the church offered.
Whatever the reason for my father’s passion, there is no doubting it. What is of more interest to me is the insight it might give me into his character. Looking around our house, I’ve chosen several works of his (so identified in my mind are they with him, it sometimes seems as if he painted them himself) mainly because they are works I loved as a child and/or they have excited my curiosity in middle age.
The first is a Dutch interior by Pieter de Hooch (1629–84). De Hooch’s subject matter was the seventeenth-century Dutch domestic interior. Woman lacing her bodice beside a Cradle dates from de Hooch’s later career, some time in the 1660s, when he concentrated almost exclusively on depicting the comfortable middle classes in their own milieu – the domesticated safety of home. In this painting the mother is opening her bodice as a prelude to feeding the baby. (In companion pieces, de Hooch shows the same woman actually feeding the baby.) The unseen infant lies in the cradle beside her.
As a child, I did not understand why the woman seemed to be in a state of undress – breastfeeding was not a common sight in the Dublin suburbs of the early 1960s. I had noticed, however, that the buttons of her skirt seemed to be undone – as if her flies were open – to reveal what looked to my eye like a nightie underneath. This gave the painting a slightly illicit charge. But that was a minor note. My real interest was in the child in the painting. Here was a little girl making for the open doorway through which a tantalizing sun creeps, flooding the tiled floor and illuminating the back of the painting with an almost celestial light. There she is, like a moth drawn to a flame. The moment the painting captures seems full of imminence – the child taking advantage of her mother’s preoccupation, something that must have chimed with my own desire for escape.
There were details I noticed as a child without actually understanding them. It never struck me, for example, that the aperture behind the mother was a bed – in seventeenth-century Dutch homes, beds were often hidden in living room alcoves. I saw this as a chimney breast or a curtained-off cubbyhole. (Perhaps even their version of a cloakroom?) I remember being fascinated by the cradle – a basket on rockers which seemed plump and fat with the solid-looking hood construction suggesting a similarly stolid infant within.
De Hooch’s concern with light meant that certain details were highlighted. Even though my interest was in the narrative of the painting – will the little girl make it through the open door before being called back? – certain painterly effects caught my eye. The glistening warming pan (which I thought was some kind of giant frying pan), the high finish of the black knob for cloaks to hang from, the red cloak itself with the upturned hem, the sheen of the tiled floor all spoke of a very clean and polished house.
For a man who spent a lot of time away from home, perhaps it was these warm and reassuring depictions of a cultured home life that appealed to my father. He was a man who had come late to domesticity – he was a 40-year-old bachelor when he married (to my mother’s 28). I know little about this pre-existence. Was he sowing his wild oats? If so, he spent twenty years doing it. And by the time we came along, he neither smoked nor drank. Which either suggests a blameless youth, or the exact opposite. Perhaps he thought he would never enjoy marriage and children and home; perhaps the de Hooch prints predate his marriage and represent a young man’s yearning for the grace and harmony of an idealized middle-class household. Or were there echoes of his own childhood in those orderly Dutch homes? Aspiration or nostalgia?
On the other hand, La Sainte Cèné (the Last Supper) by Carlos Oswald couldn’t be further removed from the stillness of those Dutch interiors. Born in Florence in 1882, Oswald lived and worked in Brazil where he was known as ‘the painter of light’. He opened the first engraving workshop in Rio de Janeiro and was a charismatic teacher and prodigious printmaker. Perhaps his biggest claim to fame is drawing up the designs for the Christ the Redeemer statue, executed by the French sculptor Paul Landowski, that dominates the Rio skyline. From the second decade of the twentieth century (he lived until 1971) Oswald specialized in religious commissions. One of these, La Sainte Cèné, was widely disseminated by the Stehli Brothers in Zurich. It is one such print my father bought.
La Sainte Cèné is a standard depiction of the Last Supper, a horizontal view of the table with the apostles gathered around. Unusually, the figure of Christ is not in the centre, but placed in profile at the extreme right. Oswald captures a dramatic moment – presumably when Jesus predicts he will be betrayed by someone in the company. Several of the apostles standing behind Jesus display expressions of horror, hands aloft in shock and denial. The supper takes place in a vaulted cellar sunk in mossy shadow; the only illumination within the painting is a candelabra on the table, its tapers throwing light on the side-view of Judas’ face.
It seems obvious to me now that Judas is the figure cloaked in purple with his back to viewer. He is gripping the table edge, white-knuckled with guilt. He has upset a goblet of wine which seeps like a bloodstain on the disturbed white tablecloth in a clever foreshadowing of events. But as a child, I remember heated discussions (much like the ones about the parables) about this painting, prompted by my father. Which one did we think was Judas? I wondered about the apostle sitting at the opposite end of the table to Jesus, quietly removed from the action. Now I see it’s more likely that he is one of the recording evangelists, but then I thought he looked shifty, rather than merely observant. He seemed less a detached witness than a spy, a devious plotter.
Whatever about the dramatis personae, Oswald’s Last Supper is drama at its most intense. It’s a whodunit – or who will do it – rather than a static depiction of a ceremonial ritual. This is what I loved – and still admire – about Oswald’s work. Was it the same for my father? In comparison to the composure of De Hooch, Metsu and Vermeer, Oswald’s treatment seems largely emotional, a painterly confrontation of a Big Moment rather than the Dutch concentration on the small moment, the domestic detail. In that, the Oswald seems a departure for my father. It may just have been the theme. After all, we had prints of the Annunciation. We had a crucifix. Perhaps he thought this another iconic Christian moment that needed recording. But why this one? I would choose it for that depiction of Judas – sweating, terrified and guilty. The eye immediately goes to him rather than to Jesus, who looks pained and long-suffering but not terribly interesting.
The painter has used the novelist’s trick, depending on the viewer’s knowledge to see what the participants of the drama fail to see. What this painting did for me was to flesh out Judas – he was not the crass baddie of the gospels, but the stricken, haunted creature of Oswald’s painting. I doubt if my devout Edwardian father saw it that way but by choosing this print, he showed an avid appetite for the luridly theatrical, a side to him I never saw beyond his record collection, which included Abbey Theatre productions of Synge, O’Casey and Behan.
My final pick from my father’s collection is a pair of paintings that have hung on the stairs for many years and which, as a child, I loathed. Nor have they grown on me in adulthood. In that, they represent a kind of failure of my father’s project, if what he had hoped to do was to instil admiration for the images he surrounded us with. In keeping with the spirit of this artistic exercise, I thought I should not just choose paintings I liked, but paintings he did.
It was hard, however, to work out the attraction of the pair of deer – two long, brown, gloomy oil paintings meant as companion pieces. What could have possessed him? They are competent works; the animals are faithfully reproduced, although the doe’s hooves look suspiciously dainty to me and the landscape rather oddly miniaturized. The subject matter doesn’t help. This kind of wild life, with the distinct whiff of the taxidermist’s studio, is deeply unfashionable to our twenty-first-century eyes, betraying a kind of fusty Victorian pastoralism.
Apart from some Irish landscapes, which I didn’t include here because they were wedding gifts and therefore not voluntary choices, my father’s taste seems to have run to people rather than places. In that, the deer also went against type. But, I reasoned, something about their execution must have excited his interest. When I fetched them down from the wall there was no identifying mark on the frames, no gallery tag, no helpful signposts from my father to guide me. What was it about these rather overstuffed-looking paintings that made him buy them?
These, I noticed, were original canvases, not cut-outs from calendars or art books. I asked my mother. (My father might be the artistic curator but my mother is the custodian of his collection.) Oh, she said airily, they were painted by your father’s great-aunt. She was a nun. And that was as far as my mother’s knowledge went. What else is there to know?
Well, that she painted – large ambitious paintings, by the look of it, even though they might not appeal to current taste. It set me wondering about this woman’s life, her place in the inherited aesthetic. I know nothing about her, bar the scant details a cousin provided and those the 1901 census throws up. Born Bridget Morrissy, she entered the Convent of Mercy, Strabane, Co. Tyrone, aged 24 in 1884 and died there forty-eight years later. Her religious name was Sister Mary Berchmans Joseph, in honour of the sixteenth-century Belgian saint, John Berchmans. (My father’s only sister entered the same convent in the 1920s, which explains why she chose to travel so far to enter the religious life; there was a family connection.)
By trying to solve one artistic mystery, I had stumbled on another. A mystery, perhaps, but also some kind of explanation. Is this woman, Bridget Morrissy, the progenitor of the painterly impulse that has shown itself in four generations of my father’s family – my uncle, my brother and nephew all paint – and which manifested itself in my father as a vigorous evangelism for painting? Maybe so. But the fact of her begs a whole new series of questions. Did she paint before entering the convent or was it a pastime she adopted in later life? Or did she forsake her painting when she entered religious life? Are there other paintings of hers hanging elsewhere? Would I like them better?
When I began my sleuthing expedition, I was hoping to come to know my father through his collection of favourite paintings. I did not expect to find a genealogical link to the mid-nineteenth century in the process. The unexpected legacy of my father’s permanent exhibition is not that I have necessarily come to know him any better, but that I have been introduced to someone I didn’t know at all. It seems, too, I was wrong about the cloakroom. It was not the site of ghosts in our house; no, the spirit of the nineteenth century was, all along, hanging on the walls.
The Vibrant House:Irish Writing and Domestic Space
Ed Rhona Richman Keneally and Lucy McDiarmid
Four Courts Press, 2017
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
Issue 20/Vol. Two / Winter 2011-12