Filed Under: Essays That Nobody Would Publish

It’s… a longer story than the subject line would suggest.

The Irresistible, Unknowable Maeve Brennan

In the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote describes Holly Golightly’s pageboy coif as containing “strands of albino-blond and yellow,” but of course, we all know Holly looks exactly like Audrey Hepburn, with her slim black sheath and enormous brown pouf of hair balanced atop her head. If that is what Capote had intended, then perhaps the model for the character, as some have speculated, was Maeve Brennan, the Irish-born writer best known for her New Yorker Talk of the Town pieces published from 1954 to 1981 under the pseudonym “The Long-Winded Lady.” The physical resemblance between the two is almost uncanny: Brennan, like Hepburn, is fine-boned, with delicate features, an expressive mouth, and an immaculately coiled bun. In one portrait of her, Brennan stands outside a shop window, clutching a straw hat and wearing a fitted black coat. She gazes in at the merchandise beyond her grasp, much like Golightly did while chomping on a croissant outside Tiffany’s.

But the thing is that Maeve isn’t Holly––or at least, this connection can’t be verified in any way. The theory comes from Brennan’s biography Homesick at the New Yorker, in which writer Angela Bourke suggests that Capote, who also worked The New Yorker and Harper’s Bazaar, used young Brennan as a muse. Indeed, both the fictional American geisha and the real Irish writer possessed a famous wit, an impish beauty and the air of whimsy, but Brennan is hardly the only one in the running. Dancer Joan McCracken, models Suzy Parker and Dorian Leigh, Gloria Vanderbilt, even Capote himself may have served as the model for, or at least contributed inspiration to, the flighty protagonist of his beloved story. (Capote was typically coy when asked.) And yet when the novelist Emma O’Donoghue’s play about Brennan premiered in June of 2012, many Irish publications said Brennan was “widely considered” to be the source for Golightly. In the Irish Herald, writer Tanya Sweeney went so far as to proclaim that, “[Brennan] was the Irish girl credited as the inspiration for Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly.”

This leap from speculation to accepted-fact isn’t criminal––just the result of a game of literary telephone––but the urgency to cast Brennan in that glamorous role speaks to a renewed love affair that the Irish are enjoying with one of their most stylish unsung talents (“Our Maeve,” Sweeney endearingly calls her.) The most recent artist to rediscover Brennan is Eamon Morrissey, Irish actor whose charming if sketchy one-man show Maeve’s House is playing at the Irish Arts Center until November 3rd. The performance opens with Morrissey riding the subway from Brooklyn Heights to Wall Street in 1966. He is reading a short story of Brennan’s in The New Yorker and realizes that the story is set in the house where the Brennan family lived until Maeve was 17. It also happens to be the house where Morrissey himself grew up, his family having purchased it after the Brennans moved to Washington, D.C. Morrissey is smitten with Brennan, and her prose’s ability to transport him instantly to his childhood home in the suburbs of Dublin. Indeed, Brennan’s short stories, which Alice Munro called “pure and strong,” seem to have that transitive quality for many of her fellow countrymen, natives and expats alike. A vast majority of her stories are uniform in cast and setting. Her principle characters––alternately called the Bagots and the Derdons––are obvious fictional stand-ins for her family. They are all plain Irish folk who seethe under the surface with unexpressed resentments. She returns always to the landscape is always that of her homeland, a green isle so full of mirth and hopelessness, as if she’s trying to uncover a secret, perhaps to the essence of a poetic and troubled people Freud once denounced as “impervious to psychoanalysis.”

Maeve Brennan is the kind of writer that Past Me, who plays more of a role in my current life than I sometimes would like to admit, would have instantaneously idolized. She was beautiful, droll, and mysterious. Her origins were financially humble but historically impressive––her father was an Irish nationalist who spent much of Maeve’s childhood hiding from the British government––and she counted among her best friends Gerald and Sara Murphy, Edward Albee and William Maxwell. Maxwell, possibly her closest friend and editor, wrote of her fashion sense, “To be around her was to see style invented.” But for all her gifts, Brennan slowly came apart at the seams. After the demise of her short marriage to fellow New Yorker writer St. Clair McKelway, a notorious womanizer and drinker who suffered from bipolar disorder, she began to deteriorate in ways that suggested she and her ex shared some demons: she drank heavily, gave away bundles of money to strangers on the street, and became paranoid and delusional. She had always moved incessantly from place to place––she labeled herself a “traveler in residence”––but she began to do so more frequently, and without notifying anyone of her whereabouts. Brennan spent the last twenty years of her life wandering from seedy Times Square hotel to seedy Times Square hotel, occasionally taking up residence in the ladies’ room at The New Yorker, before living out her final days in a nursing home in Queens.

It’s not exactly a life a healthy person would want to emulate, but it’s tortured-artist glamor at its apex, the kind of story a biographer would jump at the chance to tackle. And yet as I read Bourke’s book, I was struck not by the fact that Brennan’s life was being revealed to me, but instead that I felt the distance between us grow more and more pronounced. Even Brennan’s nonfiction, including letters she wrote to close friends like Maxwell, has an arm’s-length quality. Her “Long-Winded Lady” pieces, while funny and engaging, are so manically detailed that one gets the sense that she is using her cleverness to hide from something. I felt this same heightened awareness of Brennan’s inscrutability while watching Morrissey recount, in Long-Winded Lady-esque detail, the one lunch they shared. One lunch and one shared address is a tenuous connection upon which to base a seventy-minute play, but I wasn’t eager to blame Morrissey for stretching. In fact, I sympathized, for I understood what it is to fall under the spell of Maeve Brennan, the pixie barfly with the sharp tongue. When we encounter people like her––those “fabulous yellow roman candles” Kerouac famously called them––we often want to get very close to them and figure out what makes them so damn special. We want a little of that elan to rub off on us, the Derdons and Bagots of the world. Sometimes we want to protect them, even posthumously, from hardships they often court yet seem incapable of weathering. Maybe, if she had been of sound mind, Maeve could have told us––or Maxwell, or Bourke, or someone––where she went when she disappeared, or why she never moved back to the Ireland that so possessed her thoughts. Maybe she could have admitted that she was sometimes lonely, hiding behind a big martini glass, watching the City pass her by all those afternoons. Her illness, however, robbed her of that ability. While residing at the nursing home, as Morrissey sadly announces at the end of his play, Brennan was often surprised to hear that she had once been a famous writer. This, to me, is the great tragedy of the Maeve Brennan story: mental illness not only made her unreachable to us, but it made her unreachable to herself.

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