Maeve Brennan was an expatriate Irish writer who spent most of her life in the United States. There she worked for Harper’s Bazaar as a fashion writer until 1949 when William Shawn invited her to move to The New Yorker.
Some of her short stories had already been published in the magazine before she started writing her ‘communications’ or vignettes of New York under the Talk of the Town column. Her by-line was the Long-Winded Lady. Her real name would not be revealed until William Morrow published forty-seven of her columns as The Long-Winded Lady in 1969. While two of her short story collections were published in the United States during her lifetime, she was largely unknown in Ireland.
To some extent, Maeve Brennan’s life has parallels with that of Vivian Maier, a nanny who lived a low-key life of anonymity, while taking thousands of photos. Vivian was an incredible street photographer, capturing ordinary people in fleeting moments. These photos would only be discovered after her death.
But Maeve was more glamorous than Vivian. Petite and barely over five feet tall, she wore her auburn hair back or in a pony tail and was always impeccably dressed for a good part of her life. Her fashion writing doubtless helped establish her personal style. She wore strong lipstick, drank, and swore like a longshoreman.
But while she had short stories published at Harper’s Bazaar and The New Yorker, like Maier she was never famous in her lifetime and was almost unknown in Ireland. And like Maier, Maeve captured ordinary fleeting moments in these vignettes. But her portraits of city life were captured in words, not film. In a letter to her editor and close friend William Maxwell, she said she wanted to write as though the camera had never been invented.
In her author’s note to The Long-Winded Lady collection, she writes:
The attention to detail shown in these vignettes also appears in her short stories and her novella, The Visitor.
Maeve was born in Dublin in January 1917 to Irish Republican parents. She was one of four children. She and her two sisters were all named after ancient Irish queens: Emer, Deirdre and Maeve.
Irish politics was at the centre of her parents’ life back then. Both participated in the Easter Rising in 1916. While Maeve’s mother Una was only imprisoned for a few days, her father Robert was condemned to death, though his sentence was commuted. He was in prison when Maeve was born.
Robert, a de Valera supporter, continued to clash with the authorities, including Michael Collins’ Irish Free Staters who raided Maeve’s childhood home, an event she revisits in one of her short stories The Day We Got Our Own Back.
The move to America
In 1934, da Valera appointed Robert to the Irish Legation in Washington. Robert’s wife and children moved with him, and so Maeve’s American life began. She attended a Catholic convent school and went on to study English at the American University, graduating in 1938. She was fiercely Irish in the United States, and a glamorous American when she visited her home country.
Her parents and brother returned to Ireland in the nineteen-forties, but she stayed behind, along with her two sisters. She had moved to New York and was soon writing fashion copy for Harper’s Bazaar.
Thanks to Harper’s Irish editor Carmel Snow, Maeve got to meet other Irish writers and was often to be found at Costello’s Bar on Third Avenue. There she would come into contact with future colleagues from The New Yorker. She had already started writing her short stories during this time as well as her novella, The Visitor.
Maeve was only seventeen when she left Ireland. But her childhood home, the street and the neighbourhood in Dublin would come to feature over and over again in the stories she penned while living in New York.
Interestingly, Maeve never wrote about the biggest disruption of her life – the move to Washington. Her writing looks back to her childhood in Dublin, or later to her life in New York or her observations about the wealthy and their servants in an exclusive Hudson River enclave.
The short stories
When you read Maeve Brennan’s stories set in Dublin, you sense that there’s a biographical truth in a character’s home, their street, or the furnishings of a room. She’s mining her past, her childhood, her family and heritage from thousands of miles away. And perhaps distance in space and time sharpened her memories.
The opening to The Morning after the Big Fire reads like someone reminiscing about their childhood – going into detail about the houses in the street and the common end wall, and the tennis court at the back. Nostalgia is a big part of Maeve’s writing. The story is told from the perspective of a young girl whose father reports a fire at the shop and garage next door.
The next day, the girl tells the neighbours, revelling in being the bearer of news. But she’s suddenly very annoyed when it seems one of the men might go round and check out the ruins and be a greater authority than her. She’s already been banned from going near the remains of the building.
This is exactly how a child might feel when there’s a moment of drama. Suddenly the centre of attention and authority, and aware that it could all be lost any moment when an adult steps in. When the other children go round to see the wreckage, she is no longer the authority and pretends to be disinterested.
When the new garage is built, she secretly hopes it will catch fire and watches to see if it does. But there is no other fire before her family leave the house years later. The story ends with her thinking that if some child went round there with a match, she wouldn’t blame them, as long as she got to tell the story first.
The Morning after the Big Fire is a very short story – about three pages long. It’s built on nostalgia, her childhood home, and wryly observes child psychology.
In another story, The Old Man of the Sea, the girl, her sister and mother are plagued by an old man who comes round to sell apples. Her mother always takes pity on beggars, so she buys two bags.
After that, he comes round every week with two bags prepared. The mother can’t get rid of him. She doesn’t want all those apples. The situation escalates from week to week, while the girl is reminded of the old man Sinbad carried on his back. An old man who seemed to get heavier and heavier as time goes on.
The story is simple and full of humour as the mother, a soft touch for anyone who comes to the door, eventually hides in the kitchen and then the back garden. The mother in the story has a lot in common with Maeve’s mother.
Religion comes up in some of the stories – the girl narrator in The Barrel of Rumours is sure the poor Clare nuns sleep in coffins, and that they have to be measured up for their coffin the first day they enter the convent. Her mother thinks this is nonsense and wishes she would shut up about it.
All these stories and more appear in The Springs of Affection. This was the first of Maeve’s collections to be published after her death.
In another collection, The Rose Garden, there are five stories set in Dublin, while the rest are set in the US, whether Manhattan or a wealthy community on the Hudson.
In real life, Maeve married The New Yorker’s managing editor, St Clair McKelway. The marriage shocked some of their friends and colleagues who did not expect a good outcome. McKelway was an alcoholic and indeed the marriage would only last five years.
But during that time they lived in the exclusive Hudson River retreat of Sneden’s Landing. A place that would offer Maeve more inspiration. She later recorded the snobbery of the wealthy in her satirical stories set in the fictional Herbert’s Retreat. The maids in these families are invariably Irish. In her biography of Maeve Brennan, Angela Bourke speculates that the stories may have been building to form a novel. Six were published in The New Yorker but most critics failed to interpret the coded messages about how the privileged appeared through the eyes of their Irish maids.
With her marriage coming to an end, Maeve and McKelway agreed to divorce. In late 1959 she moved back to Manhattan. She had a cat and kittens with her, but her other cats and her beloved black Labrador Bluebell had to wait until she found better accommodation.
Bluebell and the cats appear a few times in Maeve’s short stories, but perhaps one of the most poignant examples is the one that opens as the preface to the short story collection, The Rose Garden. One of her Long-Winded Lady vignettes, she’s lying on the beach at East Hampton, where she lived for several years. Bluebell and the cats are there, but it soon becomes clear it’s a dream. The beloved pets are long gone. The year is 1976. Maeve is almost sixty.
Maeve had already written her novella, The Visitor, before she went to work at The New Yorker. She was still in her twenties. The novella wasn’t discovered until 1997. It was first published in 2001, less than a decade after her death.
The story of The Visitor follows Anastasia King, a young woman who has been living in Paris with her mother. At the beginning of the novella, she is returning in a train to Dublin. Her mother is dead, so she is coming back to live with her grandmother. But Mrs King, who never liked Anastasia’s mother, is nursing a grievance. And while she is never rude to her granddaughter, it’s clear that the old woman has no intention of letting her stay for long.
It is tale of loneliness, and a thirst for love, undercut by a beautifully understated cruelty and revenge. A story where daughters and granddaughters suffer at the hands of their older female relatives. Not only Anastasia herself, but an older woman she befriends whose own mother stopped her marrying the love of her life. But even Anastasia’s friendship with this woman takes a darker and crueller turn when she deliberately fails to carry out the woman’s last wish. On a first read it seems almost unfathomable that the simple request isn’t carried out.
The manuscript of The Visitor was discovered in 1997 at the University of Notre Dame Library. It was among the papers of Maisie Ward from the Catholic publishers Sheed and Ward.
It’s not clear whether Maeve failed to keep her own carbon copy. No copy was found among her own papers. It’s believed that the novella was written between 1944 and 1945 while she was living in a sixth-floor apartment at East 10th Street. She was in her mid-twenties and still writing fashion copy for Harper’s. The bitter heart of the story would stand in contrast with the writing in her day job.
The Long-Winded Lady
Maeve moved to The New Yorker in 1949. And in 1954 the first of her Long-Winded Lady pieces was published there. While Maeve’s Dublin stories mined her memories of her childhood, her Talk of the Town vignettes were very much rooted in the present. It wasn’t that she didn’t reflect on the past in these prose pieces. In fact, she was very aware of the constantly changing nature of the city – of buildings always being torn down to make way for the new.
In one story she writes of a farmhouse which was moved to a different part of the city to preserve the building. But she also writes about people like herself who lived in hotels and dined in restaurants and wandered the streets.
She observed what was going on around her, and recorded fleeting moments that most other writers would probably ignore.
One particular 1969 vignette titled The Solitude of Their Expression has Maeve looking out her window. She is living in a Forty-ninth street hotel with two big rooms, high ceilings, and big windows on three sides. She can see the Empire State Building. But one memorable part of this piece has her observing an elderly woman in another hotel. The woman’s window has two red geraniums.
Maeve remembers recently watching this woman sitting at her window, two floors down from the roof, reading a letter. The thin and aging white net curtains were fastened back to let in all the light and air. It was a hot day.
‘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. It fluttered down and away, and she went on reading.’
The woman reads the second sheet of paper, then stretches her arm out the window and lets it go. A third sheet of paper soon follows. Then she stands up and vanishes into the dimness of the room.
Everything from the geraniums in the window, the thin white net curtain of the hotel, the hot weather, the sheets floating down the outside of the hotel are transient. Both women are long gone. Brennan captures moments like these that would otherwise never be known. How could this elderly woman imagine people reading about her over half a century later?
Maeve lived in hotels like this, moving from one to another. She walked the streets, dined in cafes, and watched the people around her. The Long-Winded Lady is an observer recording the changing city and its inhabitants.
The Springs of Affection
After Maeve divorced McKelway she became something of a wanderer. She continued to write. Her masterpiece long story The Springs of Affection was published in The New Yorker in 1972. The story clearly mines her memories of Ireland, Dublin, Wexford, her parents, and her wider family.
The central character is Min Bagot. The Bagot family appear in a number of Maeve’s stories. But in this one Delia and Martin are dead. Min, who was Martin’s twin, reflects on her memories, including the day when everything changed – the day Martin married Delia. Nothing was ever the same again. Their mother never approved of Delia, and neither did Min. Min’s two sisters will also go on to marry, but she will remain with her mother. She wanted to be a teacher but instead becomes a dressmaker.
Her bitterness seeps through the story. Yet to her, the triumph is that she is the last one standing. Her sisters, her brother, her mother and father, and Delia are all dead. You can be jealous of those just starting out, but you can’t be jealous of the dead. She sits among the furnishings, books, and possessions she’s taken from her brother’s home. She returns in her mind to the day of her twin’s marriage and the in-laws’ farmhouse.
‘These families went a long way back in time, and they remembered marriages that had taken place a hundred years before. They didn’t talk, as Min understood talk. Here in the country they wove webs with names and dates and places. The dead were mentioned in the same voice with the living, so that fathers and sisters and cousins who had been gone for decades could have trooped through the house and through the orchards and gardens and found themselves at home, the same as always, and they could even have counted on finding their own names and their own faces registered faithfully somewhere among the generations that had succeeded them.’
Maeve’s biographer, Angela Bourke, notes that ‘Almost every fact in ‘The Springs of Affection’ is true, and yet the story is not. The relationships in two families over three generations, the appearance of houses and countryside, the people in the story, the work they do and the room where they do it, all are precise in their details and historical fact.’
However, there were parts that were very much not true. Going by the biographical details, Min Bagot was clearly modelled on Nan Brennan, one of Maeve’s older relatives. Yet Nan was very far from the cold and spiteful central character of the story. She was well liked in her community, independent, visited daily by relatives, friends, and neighbours. She was also eighty-five years old at the time of publication and The New Yorker had a way of reaching all the way to Wexford in Ireland. So much so that Nan wrote on the back of an old photo of Maeve and Bluebell, ‘Greatly changed for the worse, 1972.’
Meanwhile, Maeve was becoming increasingly eccentric. Her beloved Bluebell had died, leaving her adrift. Her parents back in Ireland were dead. Maeve’s mental health began to decline and she became paranoid. Her appearance changed, her makeup sloppy. Homeless, she took up residence next to the women’s room on the nineteenth floor of The New Yorker. There she took in a sick pigeon, and gave money to people on the street.
Maeve claimed that her younger sister Derry, who had already moved back to Ireland, had stopped speaking to her after the publication of The Springs of Affection. Nevertheless, when Maeve visited Ireland in 1973, she spent some time at her sister’s house. She spent about a year in the country, not always living in the same place. Her appearance improved but she was again showing confusion even before she returned to America. There her mental health continued to decline. She was hospitalised more than once. She also vanished for periods of time, leaving her American friends worried.
Her daydream piece about Bluebell and the cats at East Hampton was published in The New Yorker column in 1976. Maeve’s biographer Angela Bourke speculates that Maeve may have written the piece from a hospital bed.
Maeve’s last Long-Winded Lady communication was published in 1981. She died in 1993 in a nursing home. She was seventy-six. The staff of the home were surprised to learn she had been a writer.
Although there was already a growing interest in her work before her death, it was with the publication of The Springs of Affection collection that Maeve Brennan began to achieve the fame she never saw in her lifetime. A second collection, The Rose Garden, followed, along with the rediscovered manuscript of The Visitor. Angela Bourke’s biography was published in 2004.
Lessons from Maeve’s writing
Maeve didn’t write on a huge canvas. Her fiction and her vignettes are focused on the small things. Incidents from childhood are mined, family members become inspiration (and not always in a flattering way).
Where bigger events enter the scene – the Republican struggle and the clash with the Free Staters – they are viewed through a child’s eyes. Maeve gives some context through the lens of someone looking back in time. But the story The Day We Got Our Own Back is very much a child’s view of what should be a frightening event.
Maeve is equally detailed in her vignettes recording Manhattan as the city changed around her. Her eye for detail picks out people and fleeting moments that other writers might overlook. It’s a lesson in attention to detail, something helped by her time writing fashion copy at Harper’s Bazaar.
Just as actors observe the people around them, so must writers. But writers should also view the world around them, fleeting moments, memories from the past.
Writers are told to write what they know. Maeve Brennan is a good example of someone who did just that. She wrote about a transitional time in Irish history. She didn’t write about the famous people. Instead she detailed the lives of the people she grew up with, the family, neighbours, children, nuns, priests, and others.
In New York she sat at her window, walked the streets, sat in cafes, and watched the world go by, noting the details and reporting them in her Talk of the Town column. She satirised the snobbery of the wealthy at Sneddon’s Landing on the Hudson, wrote stories about characters in Manhattan, and immortalised her beloved pets, like Bluebell.
Her writing is not only seeped in nostalgia, and homesickness at times, but there’s also spite, satire, warmth, and humour.
Maeve Brennan was revered by younger writers at The New Yorker, but her stories of Ireland failed to take off in her own country. Part of the reason was her mining of an increasingly distant past. But during her lifetime, Irish literature was dominated by men. It was only after her death that interest in her work grew, on both sides of the Atlantic.
In her short story A Free Choice, published in The New Yorker in 1964, Maeve wrote:
‘She began to believe that she had been remembered at some time far back, at some moment when she had thought herself down and out and forgotten and derided. It had all been only in her imagination, that she had been forgotten. She had not been forgotten at all.‘
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