A Traveler in Residence: Maeve Brennan and the Last Days of New York

By Peters, Ann | Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

A Traveler in Residence: Maeve Brennan and the Last Days of New York


Peters, Ann, Women's Studies Quarterly


In 1965, Tom Wolfe published an article in the New York Herald Tribune as the first installment of a two-part attack on the New Yorker magazine. In it, he dubbed the magazine the "laughingstock of the literary community," lampooned its editor, William Shawn, and mocked the "whichy thickets" of its prose. He also accused the New Yorker of having packed up and moved to the suburbs. Catering to "educated women with large homes and solid hubbies" and a fondness for "expensive things," the magazine had become just another example of the "sentimental bourgeois," a "totem" of good breeding in the "good green world of Larchmont, Dedham, Grosse Point, Bryn Mawr, Chevy Chase" (Yagoda, 339). Wolfe also noted the abundance of stories by women in the magazine, stories in which lady writers reminisce about growing up in "curious rural bourgeois settings" or describe "domestic animals they have owned" (Yagoda, 336).'

Ben Yagoda, in his comprehensive study of the magazine, makes a similar observation-and in similarly disparaging terms. He remarks that the "fiction that predominated from 1952 to 1962 was reminiscence, the locale Irish (followed by English, and then American southern), the authorial gender female." Women-writing-for-women may have led to an increase in sales,2 but, in Yagoda's opinion, it also resulted in "gentility bordering on blandness." Gone were the "vigorous" short stories and "tight objective sketches" that characterized the magazine under Harold Ross. In their stead was prose weighed down by a "deliberate long-windedness" and not "infrequent excursions into the outand-out dull" (282).3

On first glance, Maeve Brennan, a short story writer and "Talk of the Town" contributor at the New Yorker from 1949 through the early 1970s, seems the very epitome of the ethos that Wolfe and Yagoda deride. The bulk of her New Yorker stories take place in the dark parlors and damp bedsits of her native Ireland: Dublin, Wexford, and Coolnaby. She also wrote a number of stories about American suburban life, most based on her experiences living in Sneden's Landing, a town along the Hudson in upstate New York.4 There are even several stories about domestic animals-a few about Bluebell, her dog, and one story, "I see You, Bianca" (1966), told from the point of view of a cat. It was under the byline of "The Long-Winded Lady" that Brennan wrote her "Talk of the Town" pieces from 1953 through the late 1960s. In many of these, especially the early ones, she pretends to be a suburbanite, just down in the city for lunch. "The Long-Winded Lady," Angela Bourke explains, was intended to be a "two-dimensional figure," a woman seemingly "supported by a private income, and venturing forth only to shop" (191). Brennan's daily excursions around New York often record a bounded and familiar terrain, a landscape in which any woman in town from Dedham or Larchmont might feel right at home: a lunch at Longchamps, a view of a raucous party of sightseers in the Waldorf lobby, an afternoon martini at Le Steak de Paris.

Brennan also seems an ideal figure to appeal to a suburban woman hoping to catch a glimpse of midcentury urban glamour. "[T]o be around her was to see style being invented," recalls her friend and editor, William Maxwell. She painted the ceiling of her office at the New Yorker a Wedgwood blue, knew the difference between the colors "bone" and "taupe," and early in her career had worked as a copyeditor at Harper's Bazaar. The photographs of Brennan that appear to be most regularly on book jackets or in magazines support this image. They appear to be from one sitting taken the year before she began working at the New Yorker. Brennan sits or stands, a sleek Holly Golightly lookalike, in a room filled with "expensive things." She is dressed all in black, the ash of a cigarette dangerously long, her hair pulled back. A fire is in the fireplace, and roses are in a vase; there are stacks of books, a smoky mirror, a cut glass ashtray to catch the ash.

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