A Traveller in Residence

Mary Hawthorne writes about Maeve Brennan

On the 20th Floor of the old offices of the New Yorker, at 25 West 43rd Street, the elevators let out onto a narrow, desolate vestibule. Its floor was set with dirty beige linoleum tiles that matched the colour of its blank walls; a lumpish chair upholstered in cracked black leather and a scarred wooden table with a glass top and a glass ashtray resting on it stood next to a door that led to the offices inside. At one end, a receptionist sat in a tiny cubicle behind a Plexiglas partition, with a small sliding door to receive deliveries and a cut-out circle to talk through. One day not long after I had been hired, in 1981, I came out of the elevator to find a very small woman with pulled back, unwashed grey hair sitting in the chair and staring at the floor. She was wearing a black, oversized jacket and a black rumpled skirt that was very long – so long that I can’t remember her shoes. When the receptionist pressed the button to unlock the door and I passed by, the woman did not look up. When I went out at lunchtime, she was still sitting there, and she was there when I returned – in the same position, as though she hadn’t moved at all. She was gone when I left at the end of the day. I went home and forgot about the woman but, to my surprise, the following morning I again found her seated in the chair, examining the floor. As I waited for the elevator that evening, I watched her slowly rise from the chair to leave. All the while, she continued her expressionless musing, never raising her eyes. There was a paper cup with some left-over coffee in it on the table, and some stamped-out cigarettes in the ashtray. I never saw her again.

Sometimes unhappy or delusional people would become fixated on the magazine, and sometimes they would show up at the offices, usually to drop something off: a story, or a poem, or a love letter, or a rant, or an obsessively meticulous rendering of an obsessively meticulous New Yorker cover by Jenny Oliver – or most common of all, a confession. In those days, the New Yorker was also a kind of Miss Lonelyhearts. At first, I had thought that the woman was one of those people, and in a way you could say she had become one. The receptionist told me her name: Maeve Brennan. I had never heard of her, though for nearly thirty years she had been a staff writer – one of the gifted ones, with a steady cult following among the magazine’s younger writers. And I did not know that, a few years earlier, after suffering a severe mental breakdown, she had ended up with no place to go and had moved into the magazine’s offices. For weeks on end, she lived in a tiny room off the women’s lavatory with a bed and a mirror and a fan, nursing a sick pigeon she had found on the street. At night, she wandered the hallways. Sometimes she broke into the offices of friends and vandalised them, destroying things she knew to be important to the occupant. By the time I saw her, sitting by the elevators, she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was no longer allowed into the offices. People sometimes saw her on the street, giving her money away to strangers or sitting on a stone bench in Grace Plaza, feeding the pigeons, but after a time she disappeared. She spent the rest of her life in and out of halfway houses and hospitals and died of heart failure in a nursing home in the Rockaways, four years ago this month.

Maeve Brennan was born in Dublin, the second of four children, on 6 January 1916, three months before the Easter Rebellion, in which her father, Robert Brennan, served as a commandant in the Irish Volunteers. Following the surrender ordered by Pearse, he was sentenced first to death and then to penal servitude for life but was released soon after and went on to organise the Department of External Affairs in the underground government until the treaty of 1921. Brennan offers, in one of her early stories, ‘The Day We Got Our Own Back’, a child’s sanguine recollection of her life at the time:

One afternoon some unfriendly men dressed in civilian clothes and carrying revolvers came to our house searching for my father … This was in Dublin, in 1922. The treaty with England, turning Ireland into the Irish Free State, had just been signed. Those who were in favour of the treaty, the Free Staters, were governing the country. Those who had held out for a republic, like my father, were in revolt. My father was wanted by the new government, and so he had gone into hiding. He was on the run, sleeping one night in one house and the next night in another, and sometimes stealing home to see us … There was no one at home except my mother, my little sister Derry, and me … Derry was upstairs in bed with a cold. I was settled comfortably on a low chair in our front sitting-room, threading a necklace. I was five.

Relations between her parents were strained, and the children, only two of whom – Maeve and Deirdre – were around the same age, were cordial but not close. Maeve learned to read at the age of three and spent her childhood buried in books and writing in her diary – the traditional refuges of imaginative, incompletely happy children. She was good-natured, independent, wilful and precocious – a source of pride to her parents and of dismay to both her younger and older sisters. Toward the younger children, she displayed a sense of responsibility and proprietary affection; she loved them with the open-hearted arrogance typical of many older, brighter, self-absorbed siblings, to whom it never occurs that their own affections might not be returned in kind.

In 1934, Maeve’s father was appointed the Republic of lreland’s envoy to the United States, and the family moved to Washington, DC; four years later, he became minister, a post he held throughout the uncomfortable years of the Second World War, when the Republic remained neutral. Maeve attended Immaculata College and American University and earned a master’s degree at Catholic University, all in quick, nervous succession. At the end of her father’s tenure, in 1947, the family began moving back to Ireland, but Maeve had already made the decision to remain behind. She moved alone to New York City and took a job at the Public Library on 42nd Street, then one as a fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar. A couple of years later, William Shawn hired her to write the ‘briefly noted’ reviews of historical novels and murder mysteries for the New Yorker.

I asked people at the office who had known Maeve what she looked like when she arrived (strangely, I hadn’t been able to find any photographs of her anywhere) and was surprised to hear her described as beautiful – an almost doll-like woman (she was a little over five feet tall) who took great pains with her appearance, bore herself like a martinet, and enjoyed calling attention to herself. She had an abundance of auburn hair, which she wore up in a huge bun, sea-green eyes that were fringed with thickly mascaraed lashes, an upturned nose and a large mouth, which she liked further to exaggerate with generous applications of dark lipstick. Brendan Gill told me that the photographer (and pacifist) Karl Bissinger had photographed Maeve when the two had worked together at Bazaar, and the description of her I had been given was confirmed when I stopped off at the War Resisters’ League a few months ago to pick up a contact sheet of photographs that Bissinger had left there for me. (When I had called and asked him about Maeve, he had paused and then half-groaned, ‘Ah, yes – Maeve.’) I was stunned, staring at the sheet as I made my way down the stairs out onto Lafayette, for Maeve had been not only beautiful but astonishingly glamorous. She was both admired and loved by her peers and counted among her closest friends at the magazine Charles Addams, Brendan Gill, William Maxwell (who edited her stories for twenty years, and who has written the Introduction to a reissued collection, The Springs of Affection) and Joseph Mitchell – as well as Shawn himself. They loved to listen to her because she spoke beautifully and with a lovely accent and in a lovely voice and because she was charming and amusing. But she wasn’t afraid to be caustic or difficult, either. She was aware of the fact that people found her interesting and attractive, and she was very sure of herself. Or at least she appeared to be.

Rather reluctantly, she became the fourth wife of St Clair McKelway, who had been a talented writer and editor under Harold Ross but whose powers were then in decline. He was handsome, suave (his advice to reporters was ‘to be more debonair’), charismatic and completely unstable – an alcoholic who suffered from manic depression, which worsened as time went on. He became famous for transforming the more colourful episodes of his illness into humour pieces – ‘The Edinburgh Caper’ was one – for the magazine. The couple drank Martinis and lived beyond their means, and the magazine looked after them. They lived in beautiful residential hotels in the city, then, as McKelway’s troubles with the tax authorities escalated, quietly retreated to Rhinebeck, upstate, only to resurface down-river, across the Hudson in Sneden’s Landing, the model for the wealthy community of Herbert’s Retreat, where Maeve set some of her early stories – deft, wicked, satirical pieces about the lives of its pretentious, disagreeable inhabitants. Just before Christmas, in 1959, she and McKelway decided to live apart. A few days later, he received an envelope the size of a calling card in the mail. Inside was a tiny newspaper clipping:

Are Geniuses Aware of Their Special Gifts?

Answer: Not in early adulthood, and apparently many never come around to that realisation. Dr Phyllis Greenacre, New York City psychoanalyst, teacher and tutor, in her studies of Swift, Carroll and Thomas Mann, became aware of the tendency of many creative people to feel bewildered in possessing mental gifts beyond those of others. She believes that many geniuses have a vague sensation of being a fraud or an impostor, particularly at the beginning of their careers.

Tomorrow: Will Car Ownership Induce Teenage Responsibility?

Brennan never remarried, and she lived alone for die rest of her life, moving restlessly about the city. But the break with McKelway marked a new beginning of sorts. For the next 14 years, she worked feverishly and produced her best writing. During the early Fifties, she had begun to write short, whimsical, experimental pieces about the city, which she likened to photographs. And much like the street photographers working at the same time – Friedlander and Winogrand and Arbus – what she tried to capture was the emotional dissonance produced by an alien and bafflingly alluring environment. They were often the lead pieces in the ‘Talk of the Town’ section and ran as letters from the ‘Long-Winded Lady’ – a sobriquet arising from the fact that they were about nothing in particular and perhaps intended to make them seem less dark and melanholy than they usually were. When the pieces were collected in The Long-Winded Lady (1969), they had titles: ‘They were both about forty’; ‘The dark elevator’; ‘A young lady with a lap’; ‘I look down from the windows of this old Broadway hotel’; ‘The man who combed his hair’. In the Author’s Note, Brennan writes:

It is as though the long-winded lady were showing 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 … Even after more than 25 years the long-winded lady cannot think of herself as a real New Yorker. If she has a title it is one held by many others, that of a traveller in residence. As a traveller she is interested in what she sees, but she is not very curious, not even inquisitive. When she looks about her, it is not the strange or exotic ways of people that interest her, but the ordinary ways, when something that is familiar to her shows. She is drawn to what she recognises, or half-recognises, and these 47 pieces are the record of 47 moments of recognition.

Brennan’s pieces are almost always about moments of self-consciousness in the face of the strange amnesia of self peculiar to New York, a displacement that in Maeve’s case became more pronounced as time went by – as she became more eccentric, as her favourite haunts closed and were torn down to make way for the skyscrapers she hated, as her friends began to fall away, as her beauty began to fail her, as she grew increasingly lonely and separate. Maxwell writes that Brennan was given to quoting a friend’s adage: ‘As we grow older we must guard against a sense of lowered consequence.’ It is doubtful whether anyone is altogether capable of doing so. Over the next decade, she lived in several residential hotels in and around Times Square – the Mansfield, the Algonquin, the Royalton, to name a few. In one of her most haunting pieces, ‘The solitude of their expression’, she reflects on growing old in the city and in a moment of sublime stillness describes what she sees from the window of her shabby 11th floor Times Square hotel room that looks out onto the rear of another shabby hotel in the next street.

In one of the rooms two floors down from the roof a very old lady makes her home. I see her at her window. Now in the hot weather she pulls her window up as far as it will go and leaves it so, and her curtains, the white net of hotel room curtains are worn thin, I suppose, like the ones I have here, are fastened back so that she can get all the light and air there is … One evening lately I saw the old lady sitting at her window, facing west, or rather, facing the west wall of her room. Her hair is completely white. She was reading what appeared to be a letter, holding it at an angle in front of her as you would a newspaper. It was one of those lucky evenings when the white summer day turns to amber before it begins to break up into the separate shades of twilight, and in the strange glow the towering outline of the city to the south turned monumental and lonely. The Empire State changed colour suddenly, and lost its air of self-satisfaction … Without turning her head she put her right hand with the sheet of paper in it out the window, stretched her arm to full length, and let the paper go.

The old woman continues reading her letter, letting the sheets drift from her window one by one. When she is finished, she abruptly vanishes.

She is on the tenth floor, but she might just as well have been leaving her ground-floor window after having spent an hour gossiping with her neighbours and watching the market bags to see who was having what for dinner. A good many of the ordinary ways of living go when people begin to live up in the air.

During the Sixties, Maeve also began writing some new stories about Ireland. She had written several autobiographical pieces about her childhood, but in 1962 she published the first of several stories about a fictional couple named Rose and Herbert Derdon who have long since lost the thread of love bur remain obsessed with each other. They are filled with guilt and shame and fear. One of the finest stories, ‘The Drowned Man’, begins:

After his wife died, Mr Derdon was very anxious to get into her bedroom, to have a look around on his own with the door closed and with no one there to watch him and wonder how he was feeling. It was not anxiety or grief or any painful sensation, not longing or yearning or anything like that, that drew him to the room, but curiosity. He wanted to look at it. The room, that had hardly existed for him while she was alive … now seemed mysterious to him … the way a bird’s nest lying empty on the ground after a summer storm will crowd the mind with thoughts that have nothing to do with wings and food and warmth and song: thoughts of vacancy, and thoughts of winter, and of winds that are too violent and nights that are too dark, and thoughts of stony solitude, endured in silence, and of landscapes that are too cold and flat and where no one cares to walk. The little nest, cast to the ground, contains an emptiness that is too big for us to understand.

A couple of years later, Maeve began to write about another couple, Delia and Martin Bagot. Although they were discrete and full characters, their relationship bore a decided emotional resemblance to that of the Derdons. In Maeve’s last published story, she returned to the Derdons, as if she were trying to decide which couple were best able to convey the kind of emotional truth she was trying to tell. They appeared to live in the same house – or at least on the same Dublin street, in a row of houses identical to one another, and identical to the one in which Maeve set her autobiographical stories. Sometimes, too, the same words slipped from their mouths. They were fictional, but real-life families are quick to recognise themselves in works of fiction, and this assumed recognition created problems for Maeve, whose family read her stories as fact and sometimes found the facts wanting. At one point, Maeve considered moving back to Ireland but she returned from her last visit disheartened. It was too late. This may have been the final blow, for in the strange years in New York during which she found herself steadily more marginalised by her age and temperament and by the beginnings of illness, she sank deeper into her past. But it was a past whose landscape and inhabitants she could reclaim only on paper, and that wasn’t the same thing.

One day last spring, I was meeting a friend for lunch at a Thai restaurant on West 48th Street and arrived twenty minutes early. I came out of the subway to a brilliant blue sky and a brittle silver light. I knew that two of Maeve’s favourite restaurants, the Steak de Paris and the Etoile, were gone, but I remembered having dinner one evening many years ago in a French restaurant nearby. I walked up to 51st Street and saw an old neon sign in front of a brownstone that said ‘Tout Va Bien’ and went in. A white-haired Frenchman who had been sitting at the bar stood up and came over to greet me. I told him that I just wanted to look around, and he returned to his barstool. There was a red and white checked tablecloth and a bottle of Côtes du Rhone on every table, in the manner of the Steak de Paris and the Etoile, and I told myself that during the next blizzard in New York I would spend the evening there, as Maeve recounted having done at the Etoile in her exquisite story ‘A Snowy Night on West 49th Street’. (‘It snowed all night last night and the dawn, which came not as a brightening but as a grey and silent awakening, showed the city vague and passive as a convalescent under light fields of snow that fell quickly and steadily from an expressionless heaven.’) It was possible, given the man’s age, that he had known Maeve and I asked whether he had heard of her. He combed his memory. I described who she was and where she had lived. Then I mentioned the Steak de Paris. ‘Oh, but it’s been gone for years!’ he cried in astonishment, and I could see him going back in his mind. ‘Of course I remember it! I remember the owner. Long gone,’ he said with finality.

After lunch I walked over to 49th Street, looking for the hotel Maeve was always mentioning in her stories. There was only one on the block – Radio City Apartments – and I went inside to look around. The lobby had an ornate ceiling and a thousand suitcases all chained together in front of the elevator. There was an old brass mailbox on the wall, and I imagined Maeve dropping letters the size of calling cards in that box. Across the street, where I took the Steak de Paris to have been, was a huge sunny vacant lot; the rest of the street was the kind of dark canyon of Richard Serra-like skyscrapers that looked as though they might decide to fall on you. In Times Square, there were stores filled with American Gifts – T-shirts and baseball bats and stuffed animals and gigantic plastic mugs – and pizza parlours and camera-luggage-electronics stores. An electric Liz Claiborne sign read, like a modern-day sampler: ‘THE POSSIBILITIES ARE ENDLESS.’ Another blinked messages: ‘EVERY 12 SECONDS A WOMAN IS BEATEN IN THIS COUNTRY.’ A faded hand-painted sign on the side of the old Carter Hotel read sweetly, anachronistically: ‘700 ROOMS ALL WITH TV’. Inane music wafted from the huge Disney store. At 42nd Street, a big hole was being dug for a skyscraper – the new Condé Nast building, to which the New Yorker’s offices will soon be moving. People stopped and stared, mesmerised by the sight of earth being tossed about by toy bulldozers; it seemed like an alien substance. On my way to the subway at Grand Central, I stopped at St Agnes Church, which had nearly burned to the ground several years ago. Maeve’s memorial service had been held in the church’s temporary quarters – a dark, airless, run-down chapel. Inside, several people were kneeling in silent prayer. Near the confession rooms, electric votive lights under red glass flickered like candles. A sign said: ‘OFFERING .50¢ PUSH BUTTON TO LIGHT CANDLE.’ I read a prayer in a frame on the wall that became visible once you pushed the button. As I studied the flickering lights and a tall plaster statue of St Jude, whose pretty brown plastic eyes gazed blankly at nothing, I thought of the last piece Maeve had written for the magazine. It ran in the 5 January 1981 issue and it was full of the twists and turns of a person whose mind is not right but is right enough to make itself plain. She was recalling a particular New Year’s Eve in Cherryfield Avenue, in Dublin, when she was a child:

What happened that New Year’s Eve was that in the late afternoon word went around from house to house that a minute or so before midnight we would all step out into our front gardens, or even into the street, leaving the front doors open, so that the light streamed out after us, and there we would wait to hear the bells ringing in the New Year. I nearly went mad with excitement and happiness. I know I jumped for joy.

The piece ended, ‘I must tell you now that I am praying to Almighty God for blessings on your house, with extra blessings to go with you whenever you leave the house, so that wherever you are you will be safe. Blessings on your house. Happy New Year.’ I did not put the money in the box and push the button, but hurried out of the chapel into the glittering light that still suffused the saddest and coldest and most human of cities.