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.

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