Monday, December 17, 2012

Maeve Brennan: The Long-Winded Lady

Maeve Brennan
The Long-Winded Lady
I am enthralled with a new author suggested in a comment left by Tullik on my post about The New Yorker cartoonist Helen Hokinson (here). 

Maeve Brennan came to America from Ireland in 1934 when she was only seventeen. Fifteen years later she was writing for The New Yorker: book reviews, essays, and short fiction. The book I am reading, The Long-Winded Lady: Notes from The New Yorker, is a collection of sketches she wrote of daily life on the streets and in the neighborhoods of Manhattan between the years 1953 and 1981. 

This 1998 edition contains fifty-six columns written for the magazine's feature "The Talk of the Town." These are what Ms. Brennan calls 'snapshots' in the author's note and she explains that they were introduced in the magazine with the phrase "Our friend the long-winded lady has written to us as follows" or "We have received another communication from our friend the long-winded lady."

This long-winded lady liked to move: from hotel to apartment to the country and back to a hotel in the city giving her a chance to observe a variety of her fellow citizens. She likes to sit at a window table in her favorite restaurants so she can observe what is happening on the sidewalks. She smokes. She drinks martinis. She orders coffee ice cream for dessert. 

She writes of seeing a parade of men dressed in dark suits marching shoulder to shoulder - no one seems to know who they are or what they are marching for. In other sketches she writes of coming upon a gathering of Flower Children protesting the war in Vietnam; of gawking with others at the charred and water-soaked inventory after a fire at the corner haberdashery; of going out of her way to locate the site of the new home for a 200-year-old wooden farmhouse that had been saved and moved; of taking a short but scary ride in a dark elevator in her hotel.

Nothing escapes her attention. 

Here is her description of a seventy-year-old woman who lives in Ms. Brennan's building:

She has a room without a bath and she is often in the hall. She has bad temper written all over her face, bad temper and arrogance,  and her eyes look about her in a curiosity that is unkind and persistent. She is always fighting with somebody and she is always complaining. She looks as though she would like to reform somebody. 

It was clear, as she climbed the stairs, that the hot weather was hurting her. She was tired. She looked as though she had never seen a worse day. She wore a long-sleeved knitted sweater of beige silk and a brown tweed skirt. Her hair, as usual, was caught tightly in a net, and she carried her handbag and a small brown paper grocery bag. 

I don't know much about the layout of New York City but that doesn't matter as Ms. Brennan paints such a clear picture of the people, the shops, the tourists, the delis and restaurants, that I feel that if I were dropped onto the streets of 1960s and '70s Manhattan I would be able to recognize her neighborhoods. 

I was sorry to read that Ms. Brennan suffered in later life from mental illness and alcoholism. She died in a nursing home on November 1, 1993 at the age of seventy-six. A rather tragic ending for an attractive and highly creative writer.

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