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.
This past year, Angela Bourke published the first biography of Brennan, of which I received an advance copy. On the cover was the familiar photograph of Brennan in black. Inside, the publisher had inserted a publicity notice sprayed with a heavy dose of what was supposedly Brennan's favorite perfume: Russian Leather. Even here was an appeal to some kind of nostalgia for midcentury glamour. I left the book on my desk, next to my ashtray, and for days a combination of perfume and cigarettes lingered, invoking recollections of a great-aunt who, while the tenant of a much shabbier apartment in Milwaukee, bore a permanent scent of what, it seemed to me as a child, was big-city sophistication. Like those ladies in Larchmont, my aunt was the kind of woman whose subscription to the New Yorker never ran out.
Yet all these images-the genteel Irishwoman, the fashionable magazine writer, the lady-who-lunches-are not the whole story. For one thing, the jacket photograph on the Brennan biography is all smoke and mirrors; it was taken in the borrowed apartment of a wealthy friend, the Irish American theater critic Quinn Curtiss. Brennan did not own expensive things and rarely had a long-term address. She often lived in short-lease apartments-usually with no kitchen and usually with a stray cat. More regularly, Brennan lived in hotels. After a brief hiatus in Sneden's Landing in upstate New York-coinciding with an equally brief marriage to the New Yorker writer St. Clair McKelway in the mid-fifties-she lived at the hotel Earle, the Royalton, the Iroquois, the Prince Edward, the Algonquin, the Westbury, the Lombardy, and the Holley hotel on Washington Square. Gardner Botsford remembers that when Brennan moved, she could, "like the Big Blonde in the Dorothy Parker story, . . . transport her entire household, all her possessions and her cats-in a taxi." (220).
By the early sixties, Brennan seemed to drop the suburban persona altogether, to reveal herself as a "traveler in residence," a flâneur of daily life in midcentury New York, who had, in the words of John Updike, "brought New York back to New Yorker" (Bourke, 249). Brennan also began to seem less interested in shopping sprees than in a city under siege. Her story, "I see You, Bianca," is not really about a "domestic pet"; it is about an apartment, a floor-through on West Fourth and Twelfth Streets about to be torn down (Rose Garden, 250). In one of her "Talk of the Town" pieces, "The Last Days of New York" (1953), Brennan describes a view from the window of her hotel room on Washington Square: down below is a "narrow gap" in place of the Holley hotel, the residential hotel she had inhabited years before. Beneath her window, "brand-new, drearily uniform apartments" take up one corner of the north side of the square, and beneath her feet, the floor of her hotel room is "already shivering under the wrecker's boots" (Long-WindedLady, 87).
The New York depicted in Brennan's essays from the fifties and sixties is a "capsized" one, its inhabitants clinging "to the island that is their life's predicament" (Long-Winded Lady, 1). In many of the essays, however, the shipwrecked appear merely as ambience, backdrop to what is most important: the island itself; the restaurants, bookstores, department stores she and her readers frequent, even if only in their imaginations; and the threat that at any moment it all might vanish. Read together, her New Yorker pieces take the reader on an extended walking tour with Brennan as umbrella-toting guide-a tour that is not intended for sightseers, but for those who know the city only too well, the purpose being not discovery, but elucidation: the casting of fresh, attentive eyes on the everyday. see your walls, lest they someday be forgotten. One essay relates the rescue of a two-hundred-year-old wooden farmhouse from imminent destruction and its removal from York Avenue to Charles Street downtown in the Village. Others written in the fifties and sixties wax nostalgic about what has already been destroyed-Stern Bros, department store, Schrafft's restaurants, Wanamaker's.5 Another mourns the Eighth Street bookstores that have moved or closed because of the high rents imposed in the sixties. Of all the spaces in the city, though, the one that holds the most significance and the one she regrets most consistently is the space connecting all the others-the New York hotel.
One might argue that in pining for Wanamaker's, Brennan was writing just the kind of middle-class reminiscence that Wolfe and Yagoda deride, or even that in detailing the ravages of urban development, she was providing her readers-the women of Larchmont and Dedham-confirmation of what they perhaps already believed: the city had gone to seed. Yet, if Brennan's essays and stories provided confirmation of why women might want to leave the city, they also reminded her readers why, in the past, they might have wanted to stay. Hers is a story of a woman traveling through the city, often preferring to eat alone in restaurants and live in hotels. Her work also reflects a tradition at midcentury of women fighting to save the city. It was often middleclass women, in the years following the destruction of Penn Station, who would be some of the most vocal opponents of the policies of Robert Moses: armed with baby carriages, the women of the Upper West Side march to save the playgrounds of Central Park, for instance, or join together, under the leadership of urban activist Jane Jacobs, to oppose Moses's plans to build a highway through the West Village.
Brennan's essays, criticized as demure and two-dimensional, were in fact addressing some of the most significant issues affecting urban life at midcentury: the rupture of neighborhoods in the era of Moses and Jacobs, the plight of New Yorkers losing their homes to the bulldozer, and the demise of the residential hotel. Brennan's work addresses the significance of the hotel for women in the first half of the twentieth century-census reports from 1920 show that for the first time in American history women made up almost half of its long-term inhabitants, a trend that continued into the thirties-and points to the destruction of hotels as one more example of the cultural shift at midcentury toward the reinstallation of women within the home. Her work also foretells, however unwittingly, the homeless crisis of the 1980s. Amid the rubble of the fifties and sixties lay not just the remains of the middle- and upper-class hotels-the Astor, the Brevoort, the Lafayette, the Savoy, the Murray Hill, the hotel Imperial, and so many others"-but boarding houses, cubicle hotels, and single room occupancy hotels (SROs) as well. The destruction of so many hotels in the sixties-as well as the conversion of many residential hotels into tourist accommodations or co-op apartments in the seventies-would be one of the core factors contributing to the housing crisis that would devastate so many lives in the decades to come.
In his book about the forces of New York real estate, urban historian Max Page argues that the central dynamic of urban development in New York City is the relentless cvcle of what-goes-up-must-comedown. "It will be a great place," O. Henry wrote of Manhattan, "once they finish it." Any street corner on any day in New York drives this fact home. Take this one: the corner of Thirty-fourth Street and Fitth Avenue. As I write this, I am in the library of a university building, which was once a department store, seated on the spot-I like to think-where once stood a display rack of ladies' hats.'
Although change and the endless tearing down of the familiar are permanent qualities of Manhattan, the fifties and sixties were a particularly traumatic moment in the city's history. In the years following World War II, New York saw the burgeoning of the service industry and a dramatic escalation of otfice construction." "The Great Manhattan Boom" was what Time magazine called the commercial building fever of the 1950s: "Manhattan, written off long ago by city planners as a dying city because of its jammed-in skyscrapers and canyonlike streets, has defied and amazed critics with a phenomenal postwar building boom" (Wallock, 89). All across the city new homes were being built-large-scale, high-density, low- and middle-income housing projects-while others were crumbling, cleared away to make way not only for the new public housing complexes and office buildings, but for expressways and civic centers. The building of the new Cross Bronx Expressway had cut a wide and devastating swath through the East Tremont neighborhood in the Bronx; down came the tenements of Hell's Kitchen to make way for the Coliseum on Fifty-ninth Street, for Lincoln Center, for Fordham's midtown campus; whole neighborhoods were razed under the National Housing Act's Title I provisions for slum clearance, providing new homes for some but forcing many, mostly minorities, to seek affordable housing elsewhere.'
In "The Last Days of New York," Brennan writes of watching a demolition from her office on the twentieth floor of a midtown building-presumably the New Yorker offices on Forty-third Street. "In the afternoon, when I went to lunch, I found a whole block of Sixth Avenue gone" (218). She experiences the bewilderment common to anyone who has lived, even if only for a short time, in New? York City: the missing of the taken-for-granted, the loss of what you never knew you had. "It is very disconcerting to have a gap suddenly appear in a spot where you can't remember ever having seen a wall" (218).
Later, in her hotel room, Brennan looks down from her window in her Greenwich Village hotel on Washington Square. She describes the square lovingly, the ice cream cart with its striped umbrella, a solitary woman feeding pigeons, the flight of the birds through the trees. And then, briefly, she alludes to talk of Robert Moses's plan to build an expressway: "I heard lately-it is only a rumor, I suppose-that there is talk of cutting an underpass through Washington Square. I suppose that means that part of the square anyway, will be dug up. It will hardly look the same after that."
As she sits in her hotel room, playing with a pack of cards, Brennan looks around her room and notes the brightly painted walls. She thinks "they should be even brighter, with more blue in them, so that they'd really assert themselves" (17). Perhaps then, she muses, when the hotel comes down, "as it is bound to do," the tenants of the new apartment buildings across the street will remark on its color: "I can't afford to start wondering every time I have the place painted if the walls will speak up after the room has been laid open." In a city fast becoming gaps where once there were walls-a city where homes were being forfeited and forgotten by everyone but their former inhabitants-Brennan asks her readers to follow her example: build houses of cards that will last, "paint their walls in noisy colors to astonish the tenants of high buildings all around" (56)."'
Eight floors above the park-with even taller buildings looming above-Brennan also stands between street and skyscraper, and as such, between the two antagonistic forces of urban development at midcentury. Morris L. Ernst, the famous lawyer and supporter of the preservationist cause in New York, based his campaign on the notion that "[p]eople cannot take root when they live more than six or eight stories off the ground," a position that according to New York historian Robert Stern would "run as a continuous thread through virtually all discussions of housing and urban redevelopment in the city as a whole" (New York 1960, 222). The fight to save the Village was very much a fight to save the street, a fight that at the time revolved around two pivotal figures in the history of Manhattan's urban planning: Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Marshall Berman would see them as representing the two poles of modernity: Moses, the Faustian lover of progress; Jacobs, the believer in the integrity of street life and neighborhood.
As New York City Parks Commissioner and as chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and the New York State Power Authority, Robert Moses had long been hailed as New York's urban savior-the man responsible for the planning of two World's Fairs and for the building of innumerable parks, beaches, bridges, expressways, stadiums, and tunnels. In his capacity as chairman of the Mayor's Committee on Slum Clearance, he was also the man behind the Title I policies, which cast roughly 500,000 New Yorkers from their homes. And as chairman, he was the man behind the proposed flattening of huge sections of the southeast Village to make way for a new residential high-rise enclave called Washington Square South, a plan that included the call for a new roadway cutting through Washington Square. By the time of Maeve Brennan's piece in the New Yorker, some of the city's inhabitants were beginning to alter their opinion of Moses, viewing him less as urban messiah-blueprints raised heavenward, Moses commands: "Here we shall build"-and more as bully of the bulldozer. Writing of the annihilation of his Bronx neighborhood, a vibrant community torn apart by the building of the Cross Bronx Expressway, Marshall Berman would liken Moses to the figure of Moloch in Alien Ginsberg's poem Howl: "Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs" (310).
If in Berman's eyes Robert Moses seemed to represent one principle of modernism-progress at all costs-then Jane Jacobs in her classic work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, offered a "source of life and energy and affirmation that was just as modern as the expressway world, but radically opposed to the forms and motions of that world" (316). Moses believed highways and cars could rescue city-dwellers from the dirt, noise, and crowded conditions of the street; Jacobs believed highways and cars were destroying the diverse vibrant neighborhood. Moses revered the philosophy behind Le Corbusier's Radiant City; Jacobs longed to overthrow the "holistic urbanism" that had dominated city planning since the publication of Le Corbusier's Urbanisme in 1929. Moses saw no value in old buildings; Jacobs, who fought for landmark preservation, believed older buildings were as important to the vitality of neighborhoods as new ones. Moses wanted to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway through the West Village; Jacobs led the campaign to stop it.
Jacobs's argument in The Death and Life of Great American Cities is that most urban planners who had grown up with the Le Corbusier model were, in fact, antiurban. They wanted to build slum suburbs in the sky, towers that bred crime and isolated people from the street life below. She wanted a return to the diversity and vibrancy of the neighborhood, what she called "the ballet of the city sidewalk" (50). To illustrate her point, she traces a day in her life on Hudson Street, and does so, as Marshall Berman explains, with a "deceptive modesty." She is "just talking about her everyday life" and in prose "that often sounds plain, almost artless" (315). She observes the children leaving for school, mothers making their way to the corner grocery store, old women on their stoops, shopkeepers sweeping the sidewalk, secretaries on their way to work, the myriad sights and views of one street on one particular day.
Brennan's stories about New York are characterized by a similarly "deceptive modesty" and a similar detailing of daily life. She describes a drugstore on Tenth Street and Sixth Avenue, a crowd gathered outside the New Criterion Theatre on Times Square, two lovers walking down Sullivan Street, trucks backed up on Forty-eighth Street, a couple having lunch at the University Restaurant on Eighth Street, a tourist riding a bus down Fifth Avenue, people looking out the window of the Village Smoke Shop. She has a reporter's eye for details of the street, and at times her prose meanders, following the contours of a city stroll. Often, her descriptions also have a kind of writing-exercise quality about them: describe a dress from top to bottom; describe a woman from hat to shoes. (In an interview with Time in 1974, she explains that "if you are writing about people in the street, you have to describe their clothes, all of them. Clothes tell a lot.") She does the same with public spaces: describe a walk from start to finish; describe a street from end to end. Her renderings of the city are marked by a fixation with the specificity of the landscape-the corners and landmarks of the city-as if she is safe in the assumption that her reader knows the city well.
Yet as someone who was perpetually "scurrying out of buildings before the wreckers," Brennan also writes on a darker note. Her matter-of-fact observations of street life often give way to elegy. In her story, "I see You, Bianca," the owner of an apartment on Fourth Avenue lives in a "neighborhood with too many buildings half up and half down, and too many temporary sidewalks, and too many doomed houses with big X's on their windows" (Rose Garden, 250). Nicholas, the owner, builds bookshelves and cabinets and fixes the furnace, hoping to create a "permanent refuge" he knows is bound to fail: "his house is to be torn down." Looking out his window, he observes what Jacobs called the "ballet of the city sidewalk" down below:
They stand outside their apartment houses on summer nights and during summer holidays. They stand around in groups or they sit together on the front steps of their buildings, taking the air and looking around at the street. Sometimes they carry a chair out, so that an old person can have a little outing. They lean out of their windows, with their elbows on the sills, and look into the faces of their neighbors at their windows on the other side of the street, all of them escaping from the rooms where they live in and that they are glad to have but not be closed up in. It should not be a problem to have shelter without being shut away. (256)
The desire for "shelter without being shut away" illustrates the underlying anxiety found in so many of Brennan's essays and stones. It is a double anxiety: on the one hand, the fear of being forced out of a home, a plight shared by thousands of New Yorkers at the time, and, on the other, the fear of being forced into one, the threat of being shut away, distanced from the activities of the street, sealed up in one of those brand-new beehive cement blocks high above-or obliged to leave the city for good. The desire for "shelter without being shut away" speaks to Jacobs's conviction that the rise of the large-scale apartment buildings-suburban slums in the sky-was destroying the "ballet of the street." It also nearly perfectly describes one reason why so many women in the first half of the twentieth century chose to live in hotels.
Of the many popular themes found in essays and stories about New York City, two perhaps carry the most resonance: that of the jubilant newcomer, gazing like Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway on the "fresh green breast of the new world" (182), and that of the longtime resident, stirring her walking companions (or her readers) with a poignant account of what was here before. Essays like "The Last Days of New York" belong to a tradition, the best of which is probably The American Scene (1907), the travel journal in which Henry James observes his native city after a twenty-one-year absence. James also sees gaps where once there were walls. He too finds New York diminished, and at the same time, new and enlarged. What figured in his youth as the biggest is now, in 1904, overshadowed by the even bigger: Trinity Church has been "cruelly overtopped," squeezed between those "triumphant payers of dividends," the tall buildings (60). Genteel Fifth Avenue has become a dress parade of ornate mansions; his boyhood home on Washington Square has disappeared. The American Scene reads something like a child's waking from a nightmare to find that the vista has been transformed into a vacant lot, the banister along -which he slid stripped of its polish."
This nostalgia and Rip Van Winkle disorientation characterize Brennan's essays as well.12 Yet there are interesting differences. Most significantly, James depends on the space Brennan loved best to describe the ills of New York. For James, the two images marking the end of a way of life-the end of tradition, solidity, sanctity of home and hearth-were the looming new buildings overshadowing the spires of Trinity Church and the bustling lobby of the modern hotel. For Maeve Brennan, what marks the end of her way of life-and the loss of her home-is not the rise of the hotel, but rather its annihilation. James, "the visionary tourist," mourned the "extinction of Trinity"; Brennan, the "traveler in residence," mourned the "execution of the hotel Astor" (Long- Winded Lady, 67). In one essay, she describes what was once the grand entrance of a turn-of-the-century hotel, now a darkly lit lobby, a third its original size, with an old orange leatherette sofa and a badly working elevator. Her hotels, if not destroyed, have been eclipsed, as architectural space and cultural idea, by the slabs of office buildings and apartment complexes erected all around.
James also identifies the hotel with women, who seemed to dominate the hotel lobby. Having exchanged the quiet, intimate interior for the peacock's parade, they now find in the interiors of the grand hotel the very "firesides and pathways of home" (81). Yet this transformation of public space into private space is what many women liked about hotel living. In "Snowy Night on 43rd Street," Brennan describes a street where she lived-a back street in a neighborhood bordering Times Square. (Brennan called it "The Latin Quarter," but it is commonly known as Hell's Kitchen.) Simply a description of her street and of an evening alone observing the regulars at a small restaurant, the Café Etoile, the story ends with Brennan alone in the hush of her hotel room down the street. The story illustrates one of the benefits of hotel living: the ease with which one can move between private and public space. hotel life fulfills both the need for a room of one's own and the need to socialize down below-in the lobbies, cafés, restaurants, and bars. James may have criticized women for turning the public space of the Grand hotel lobby into the "firesides and pathways of home," but Brennan calls the "small, inexpensive restaurants" the "home fires" of true New Yorkers (The Long- Winded Lady, 2).
James was not alone in identifying the hotel with the modern woman of leisure. In fact, between 1900 and the mid-1930s, the debate over the larger implications of women living in cities seemed to have found expression in the cultural tussles over the rented room. Charlotte Perkins Gilman saw the hotel as heralding the feminist Utopia to come. "From the most primitive caravansary up to the square miles of floor space in the Grand hotels," Gilman writes, "the public house has met the needs of social evolution as no private house could have done" (187). She believed that not only would the modern hotel free the urban working women, the typists and clerks, from domestic tasks (instead of slaving away in the kitchen, they could live together in communal sisterhood, sharing the burdens of childcare and cooking), but that it would also liberate middle- and upper-class women from another form of demeaning labor: interior decoration. In an article, "I Like a hotel," published in the Sunday Worker in 1939, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a Wobbly activist in the thirties, writes of seeing "lots of old ladies in hotels. People pity them. It's quite unnecessary. They enjoy it immensely. It's a sort of'sit-down strike!'" As she puts it,
When a committee puts me up at a hotel, I don't say "Bourgeois," scornfully. Not me! I luxuriate, because it doesn't happen often. I think "Well, this is a sample of the future, what every woman ought to have, a room to herself and release from domestic tasks." (Baxendall, 245)
Some critics, though, saw women's life in the public house as the end of harmonious family life. In his 1936 sociological study, hotel Life, Norman Hayner would claim that the transient existence was a menace to family values, transforming industrious homemakers into blurryeyed victims of the department stores, releasing throngs of precocious children, little Eloises, into the public dining rooms, and leaving men to fume in the smoking lounge. While Hayner admits that the growing number of the "other sex" in cities and hotels "may be thought of as an aspect of the general movement among women against slavish drudgery and towards the freedom of self-expression," most, he believes, are nothing more than "mental rovers" who "have gained their freedom but lost their direction" (87).
For some women, hotel living was a sit-down strike; for others, it meant greater access to street life; and for still others, it provided safety and respectability. In the nineteenth century, hotels were disreputableno nice girl would be seen in one. " In the twentieth century, the residential hotel often signaled respectability, a safe haven. Downtown artists could find cheap (and decent) lodgings at the Vanderbilt or the Murray Hill; single working women, widows, and divorcees found refuge in the apartment hotels on the West Side and Upper East Side. There were also the women's residences, which catered solely to women, and, like the doorman building today, provided parents the reassurance-probably never wholly justified-that their daughter was out of harm's way.14 Often, too, they were the only affordable housing for single women. Rosalind Rosenberg points out that "[a]side from these residences, living on your own in New York was impossible to afford" in the late twenties and early thirties "because even women who were college graduates were limited to low-pay ing jobs" (Byron, Al).
If the hotel itself provided a sense of safety, the network of Manhattan hotels also gave women a city bounded by a safe and familiar landscape. Maeve Brennan's hotels, for example, signify a connect-the-dots red line that maps a city delimited by the hotel world of three neighborhoods. She writes the backstreet hotel world of "The Latin Quarter"; she writes the hotels and inexpensive restaurants of Greenwich Village, often tracing the same route from the hotel Earle to the University Restaurant; and she writes the upscale midtown hotels. She wonders whether she should go along to the Algonquin, "which is so small and familiar, or to walk a little farther, and east, to the Biltmore, which is so large and familiar" (8). Her New York is a narrow one: she "has never felt the urge that drives people to investigate the city from top to bottom. Large areas of city living are a blank" (Long-Winded Lady, 6).
The novelist Dawn Powell, whose work Edmund Wilson once described as one long story of the days of Manhattan's "small, cheap and decent hotels" (530), also delimits a woman's urban map by recording the movement from hotel to hotel. In her case, the map records a journey of urban exploration and sexual freedom. In one of her satirical novels about New York, Angels on Toast (1940), the heroine, Ebie Vane, takes a nostalgic tour of Greenwich Village. She starts at the Vanderbilt, "where you could lunch with one man and see over the balcony rail the man you were going to dine with that night." She moves on to the Murray Hill hotel, where she remembers "in the dining room, publishers, agents, traveling salesmen" and "a pleasantly out-of-town flavor to it that made you able to guess the type of man he was if he suggested this restaurant" (145). In one of the older hotels, she ends up visiting her mother-a "New Woman" of an earlier era-who, along with the other "old birds," finds the hotel bar a space where she can be out in the world without having to leave the front exit.
The hotel was also an important space for writers.l3 For nearly twenty years, Dawn Powell frequented the café at the hotel Lafayette on Ninth Street and University Place and wrote one novel, The Wicked Pavilion, based on the social world of the hotel café. Writing to her editor, Powell explained that with the passing of the Washington Square hotels like the Lafayette and the nearby Brevoort, both of which had popular cafés where tourists mingled with artists and writers, "went an entire way of life," one that she recognized as "almost a necessity" for "writers, artists and people who work alone all day."
In our work we can't plan a social life too definitely-we never know but what we may get going good just when we're expected at a dinner. We do not know that we'll want to see somebody-anybody, sometimes-after being locked up with ourselves all day but we daren't risk tying ourselves down any more than we have to. So we depend on running into friends by chance when we're through work-stay a little while or for hours as we like-feeling that, in spite of the isolation y our work demands of you, you are in touch with the world. (Letters, 215)
Other artists felt the same, although for some the hotel's attraction lay less in the possibility for social contact than in the freedom to focus on their work. Georgia O'Keeffe preferred the Shelton hotel to an apartment because the hotel, with its maid service and public dining room, left her unhampered. Dorothy Parker lived at the Algonquin because "among institutional furnishings she felt free and organized" (Meade, 123). Even Dawn Powell ended up appreciating not just the social life afforded by the café, but the pleasures of living upstairs. After being kicked out of her apartment on Ninth Street, she moved with her husband to the Madison Square hotel at Madison and Twentysixth Street (now demolished)-which, though "in the suburbs" above Fourteenth Street, was "a good place to live" because it was a "restful and practical way to live and enormously economical" (Letters, 261).
Because the hotel was central to many women's experience of New York in the first half of the twentieth century, it is not surprising that women (and women writers) were often the most outspoken in recording and regretting its destruction. (Women were also, as Robert Caro points out, some of the most outspoken and earliest critics of Robert Moses and his development plans. The fiction writer Fanny Hurst, one of Moses's most vocal foes, was involved in the first fight to save the playgrounds of Central Park.)16 Ruth Wittenberg, a longtime Greenwich Village activist widely credited with being the most important force behind the successful effort to erant lame oortions of the Villaore landmark status in the fifties, recalls that there were "two spots in the Village that everybody in our crowd knew, the Brevoort and the Lafayette, which were the centers of political and writing activities." The destruction of these hotels "really changed the Village. The physical aspects of it have a real effect on the population. People weren't isolated in apartment houses where they didn't know what was going on next door. They collected in small cafés" (Baxendall, 442-43).
The same year Brennan published "The Last Days of New York," Eudora Welty wrote a short skit entitled "Bye Bye Brevoort," to be performed as part of an off-Broadway production in 1956.1' In the skit, three "old relics" (Millicent Fortescue, Violet Whichaway, and Agatha Chrome) throw a tea party in their room upstairs at the Brevoort, not yet reached by the wreckers dismantling the building. Fitted with hearing aids, they remain unaware that the building is being torn down around them. Portraits are falling, tea tables shaking, and still the women continue to think it merely "modern times!" "The noise is frightful," says Fortescue: "The vehicles! I can't think why they don't make vehicles go around the island!"-a fitting complaint, considering that Robert Moses couldn't think why the city didn't make the vehicles go across it. The skit ends with the wreckers carrying the shrieking ladies, still in their rocking chairs, out onto the street.
The closing scene of Dawn Powell's The Wicked Pavilion, written the year before "The Last Days of New York" and "Bye Bye Brevoort," tells a similar story. After a farewell banquet in the Café Julien dining room, made up of "real estate men commemorating their grief in selling the Julien to a mysterious concern rumored to be about to change it into apartments," the wreckers arrive. Two of the hotel café regulars stand in the street and watch the Julien come crashing down, gouging another gap in the familiar landscape and casting its regular patrons-writers, painters, and hangers-on-permanently back onto the street. The description of the gutted-out interior echoes Brennan: "[I]t was disconcerting to look through the paneless café windows straight into the open garden," the canopy "a tumbled pile of rags," the letters "Café Julien" "almost indiscernible under rubble," and the laurel vines "a great heap of gleaming green leaves," still "breathing and quivering with life" (178).
For Powell, the destruction of these hotels marks the end of a social world, the end of her subject: café society in Greenwich Village. Yet, the final scene also records the effect of the wrecking ball on the people who reside upstairs. Along with the artists and writers watching the Julien come down, there is also a "rouged and dyed old lady elaborately dressed in the fashion of World War One," dabbing at her "mascaraed eyes with a lacy handkerchief" (320). She has come not only to watch what had been her home for more than thirty years transformed into rubble, but to guard the welfare of her birds, who had made a nest outside her upstairs window, right above the café. One of the workmen in the demolition team makes his own observation: These women, the "old birds," were being sighted, looking lost and confused, everywhere around the Village. One could see a whole "nest of them" feeding the pigeons in Washington Square Park.
In eulogizing the New York hotel, writers like Brennan and Powell record not only the end of a period of voluntary homelessness for women in the city, but also the beginning of a period of enforced homelessness for thousands of New Yorkers. The dramatic depletion in the number of residential hotels, SRO buildings, and rooming houses in the sixties and seventies would ultimately be a root cause of the homeless crisis of the eighties. Since the turn of the century, residential hotels had been one of the main housing options for poor single adults and childless couples. In the seventies, when New York began to adopt its policy of "deinstitutionalization," the YMCAs and SROS and cubicle hotels became a resource for discharged patients of state psychiatric hospitals. Yet as the seventies passed, more and more homeless people were on the street, and a principal cause of this was that the affordable residential hotel was becoming obsolete.
One of the problems was that residential hotel life depended on old constructions. After 1930, almost no new residential hotels were built, partly because the "sheer primacy and publicly secured profits of suburban single-family houses overshadowed most notions of investing in downtown apartments or residential hotels" (Groth, 9). The singleroom housing stock also became increasingly regulated; in 1955 changes in housing codes barred the conversion or construction of new for-profit single-room housing.18 In the sixties, many older residential hotels were destroyed to make way for office buildings, and by the seventies, those that were left were swiftly being converted into higher-cost housing, especially in areas that were gentrifying, like the Upper West Side.19 Between 1972 and 1982, 100,000 SRO units disappeared.20 The only option, then, for many of the urban poor was the street or the shelter.
Brennan's phrase, "It should not be a problem to have shelter without being shut away," seems eerily prescient of what would happen to so many New Yorkers in the seventies and eighties. It was also eerily prescient of what would happen to her. By the late seventies she began experiencing psychotic episodes. Gardner Botsford recalls that she began to listen obsessively to Billie Holliday records and called him from Yaddo, the writers' colony, convinced that the people there were engaged in a plot to harm her. At one point, she was found sleeping in the ladies room at the New Yorker. She was institutionalized for a period, then released. For a time, she seemed to be taking her medication, but when she went off it, she stopped speaking to her friends at the New Yorker. She disappeared until in the early eighties she was sighted by one of her colleagues at the magazine near Rockefeller Center among a group of homeless people, feeding the pigeons, just like one of the ladies she had described from her window in "The Last Days of New York," and like one of those old birds Powell describes adrift in Washington Square. Although no one knew for sure, it was thought that the "traveler in residence" may have been homeless. A receptionist at the New Yorker noticed a "bag lady" in the waiting room one afternoon but had no idea who the woman was, and only later realized that the woman was once a glamorous staff writer for the magazine. Brennan briefly returned to Dublin to live with relatives, but then with no warning called a taxi and moved into a hotel. She did the same in Chicago, after another brief period living with her brother. Every once in a while, there would still arrive at the New Yorker a "Talk of the Town" piece, with no one sure where it had been written or where she was. Maeve Brennan died in a nursing home in 1993, with no recollection that she had either lived in New York or written for the New Yorker.
1. Wolfe admitted to wanting to have "a little fun" with the magazine by writing what he called an "anti-parody." Lurid and littered with exclamation points, the two pieces published in the New York Herald Tribune in April 1965 were entitled "Tiny Mummies! The True Story ot the Ruler of 43rd Street's Land of the Walking Dead" and "Lost in the Whichy Thicket: The New Yorker-II." As expected, the articles horrified the New Yorker staff. One of the complaints was that Wolfe had neglected to fulfill a basic tenet of good journalism: he got his facts wrong. But one fact he did get right. In the late fifties, there were more women living in the suburbs and more women reading the magazine than ever before. By 1954, they made up 55 percent of the readers and would continue to outnumber men for the next ten years (Yagoda, 311). There were also more women writing for the magazine. A 1958 survey of the contents of the magazine records that more than half the stories and short essays were by women (Yagoda, 282). That women writing for women should connote a slippage in quality, however, is not a matter of fact, but of taste. Alice Munro considers the fiction published in the magazine at midcentury, next to Chekhov, the most significant influence on the development of her short story style. The writer she recalls by name is Maeve Brennan. Brennan's short story "The Springs of Affection," published in the New Yorker in 1972, was an "all-time favorite" of Munro's. What Munro liked about Brennan was that she "wrote about the same thingsabout emotions and places" (1). In her 1988 essay about her years working at the New Yorker in the sixties, Frances Riernan remembers defending the magazine against similar attacks, often by people who had not read the magazine in years. She writes: "if you believe that fiction at its best can enrich or even change our lives, mustn't you constantly bear in mind that women have lives too?" (90).
2. Yagoda points out that in the fifties and early sixties the circulation of the New Yorker grew 40 percent and that its advertising pages increased by more than 70 percent- He explains the success partly as a result of the increase of the female readers living in the suburbs who were "flocking to the Netv Yorker" as "one of the few ways they could exercise-and in some cases advertise-their learning and culture" (Yagoda, 311).
3. It should be noted that the rise in the number of women readers and writers was not the only explanation Yagoda gave for the decline in the quality of the writing. In the case of nonfiction stories, he blames the "whichy sentence" on the magazine's "labyrinthine editorial procedure" and its "scrupulousness in matters of fact, grammar, and style," which had become "fetishized under Shawn" (327). In the case of fiction, he points to the decline in the popularity of the short story form and the fact that many writers had abandoned the New Yorker for Hollywood (283). The suggestion, although never stated, is that the only fiction writers available and willing were women.
4. Brennan's stories can be divided geographically: Sneden's Landing, Long Island, Ireland, and Manhattan. The suburban stories, otherwise known as the Herbert's Retreat Stories, are mainly collected in The Rose Garden (2000) and were originally published in the New Yorker in the early- and mid-fifties. There are also a number of stories set in the Hamptons, where Brennan sometimes lived in the winters, borrowing summer houses from friends like Sara and Gerald Murphy. The stories of Ireland were published throughout her career, although most reviewers consider her final stories, published in the late sixties and early seventies, to be her best. Most of these were republished in The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin in 1997. Of the Manhattan stories, there are two kinds. The early ones, which seem very much in the tradition of Dorothy Parker, are somewhat brittle, quaintly urbane: a couple buys a tie, a man is given a hot water bottle for a gift- And then there are the later New York stories, which I discuss here, most of which are about solitary life in the city and the transformation of the urban landscape.
5. In December 1954, Wanamaker's, occupying the entire block bounded by Broadway, Fourth Avenue, Ninth and Tenth Streets, closed in order to concentrate on its suburban operations. In the Netv York Times, journalist Meyer Berger wrote that New Yorkers "had come to love the place, its soft-spoken salespeople, its suave-but not too suave-floor walkers, its mellow indoor bells, the concerts in the great Wanamakers Auditorium, the air of quiet gentility that always lay, sort of reverent and hushed, over its well-stocked counters." In 1956, a plan was announced to tear down the store-one of the greatest achievements of cast-iron architecture in New York-and replace it with two nineteen-story apartment buildings. OnJuIy 14, 1956, shortly after demolition had begun on the store, a fire broke out in the building, one of the worst in New York's history, burning out of control for nearly twenty-four hours. Much of the building's cast-iron façade remained intact; still "there were no second thoughts about the building's future, and it was demolished" (New York i960, 22-4).
6. The Hotel Astor, a landmark hotel since its completion in 1909, was demolished in 1966. In its place was built One Astor Plaza, or the W. T. Grant Building, a large office building. One Astor Plaza marked the "dramatic acceleration in the shift from Times Square's principal role as a nighttime world of entertainment to its hitherto secondary daytime role as an office district" (New York i960,443). In recent years, Times Square has swung back again as a center of entertainment, this time for Walt Disney. The space that was once the hotel Astor is now the headquarters for MTV. The year Brennan published "The Last Days of New York," demolition began on the Brevoort, off Washington Square. It had closed down in 1949, but its famous dining room and sidewalk café remained open until 1953, when it was demolished, along with the Lafayette, to make way for a gigantic fourteen-story apartment house of 301 units and a restaurant "whose promise to recapture the culinary glory and atmosphere of the old hotel's dining room and café were not fulfilled" (New York 1960, 223). Along with these, many other hotels were being destroyed in the fifties and sixties, including some of the grand hotels, like the Savoy. The Manhattan hotel on Forty-second Street and Madison Avenue was torn down in 1961, replaced by a forty-one-story office building. The Dauphin, on the west side of Broadway between Sixty-sixth and Sixty-seventh Streets, went down in 1961. For more on the many upscale hotels that disappeared, see New York 1960, 1104.
7. The B. Altman Department Store, originally opened in 1906, was closed in 1989. In August 1999, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York moved in, another example of a trend in the last twenty years of converting large department stores. See Collins B1.
8. See the New York Times, 29 March 1954, 21 March 1956, 19 January 1954.
9. Instead of eradicating slums, the Title I policies ultimately created new ones. Because those evicted under the policy-largely black, Hispanic, and poorwere not given adequate provisions for relocation, many ended up crowding into other neighborhoods, thereby creating new slums. See Caro, 777-78, 966-79.
10. This image of the building stripped of its exterior, the walls painted in bright colors is found in other depictions of New York at midcentury. In Jane Bowles's Ttvo Serious Indies, there is a long passage that describes the same image to nightmarish effect. On a visit to the city, Miss Goering sees from her kitchen a building about to be destroyed and replaced by an apartment building. One wall "had already been torn down. The rooms were still partially furnished and rain splattered the wallpaper. The wallpaper was flowered and already covered with dark spots, which were growing larger." In typical Bowles fashion, horror is magnified through the dryly observant manner in which it is told. At the same time, we are invited to laugh. When Mrs. Copperfield hears the story, she responds: "How amusing, or perhaps it was depressing." Miss Goering then tells of seeing a man come into the room who "walking deliberately over to the bed, took up a coverlet which he folded under his arm" and then "walked around the room aimlessly for a bit" before standing at the edge and "looking down into the yard with his arms akimbo. I could see him more clearly now, and I could easily tell that he was an artist. As he stood there, I was increasingly filled with horror, very much as though I were watching a scene in a nightmare." Mrs. Copperfield asks, "Did the manjuinp?" No, replies Mrs. Goering: the man "just remained there for quite a while looking down" with an "expression of pleasant curiosity on his face" (17). In a sense, this is what Brennan does throughout: horror is magnified through the understated manner in which she tells of the city's destruction: "I suppose that means that part of the square anyway, will be dug up. It will hardly look the same after that."
11. The shock recorded in The American Scene was not just about the transformation of the landscape but also about the changes in the city's demographic that occurred while he was away as well. The child's nightmare could be described another way: a grown man has suddenly awakened to find wild elephants stomping in the nursery, dirty boots tracking mud on the carpet, strangers in possession of the house. On a visit to Ellis Island, he observes the throngs of Italian and Jewish immigrants and is left with a sense of having "seen a ghost in his supposedly safe old house" (66). A walk through the Lower East Side elicits an eruption of class prejudice: the immigrants on the fire escapes are described as "human squirrels and monkeys," clinging to the cages of "some great zoological garden" (102). There is no escape uptown either. Here, James is accosted by the ill manners of the parvenus. If Brennan's pen leads us like the tourist guide with her umbrella, James wields his pen much the way a man caught in a crowd of unruly children might swing his walking stick: with a wave, he longs for them to disappear. Fifty years later-when Brennan was writing her New York nostalgia trip-immigrants were once again pouring into the city, this time Puerto Ricans and blacks rather than the Irish, Jews, and Italians of James's day, while the white middle class, a class comprising the offspring of James's "aliens" of 1904, were flocking to the suburbs. Brennan, however, makes little comment about these changes in the urban population.
12. It is worth noting, too, that at the same time that Brennan was writing many of the nostalgic essays about New York, she was writing stories of women returning to their childhood homes in Ireland, where she finds the landscape (and people) of her youth unsettlmgly altered. see especially her novella The Visitor, written in the forties and posthumously published in 2000.
13. Throughout the nineteenth century, the title "hotel lady" was shorthand for prostitute. It signaled the unseemly, such that middle-class and upper-class hotels built separate ladies' lounges so that "respectable" women could be shielded from the potentially licentious influence of the public rooms as well as from the implications that went along with hotel dwelling.
14. For the upper-class girls, fresh out of Vassar or Smith, there was also the more luxurious "clubhouse hotel." The most famous of these, the Barbizon on Lexington and East Sixty-third Street, offered a dormitory feel-Vassar extended-and breathtaking views on an eighteenth-floor roof deck with lounges, a restaurant, and a solarium (New York 1930, 191). There were also a number of men's hotels designed on the club model in the twenties, but most of these failed because, as Robert Stern points out, they were considered "faintly Victorian." Women's hotels fared much better, a more sophisticated version of the old-fashioned boarding house: a step forward, not a step backward. Nearly all were built in the late twenties. Along with the Barbizon there was the women's club residence at 18 Gramercy Park South, built in 1927; the Allerton on Fifty-seventh Street built the same year; and The American Women's Association Building at 353 West Fifty-seventh Street, built in 1929. Containing 1,257 bedrooms and a 1,200-seat theater, as well as a cafeteria, lounge, indoor swimming pool, and bowling alleys, the AWA building was the largest and "aimed to duplicate the success of the Barbizon with a lower-class market" (New York 1930, 195).
If in the early days the clubhouse hotels seemed to represent the chic, modern city girl-albeit a privileged one-by the fifties they came to symbolize something antiquated and repressive. And dull. The heroine of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, for example, wins a magazine scholarship and is put up at the "Amazon." Modeled on Plath's own memories of living at the Barbizon, The Bell Jar tells a story of suffocation and of "girls at posh secretarial schools like Kay Gibbs, where they had to wear hats and stockings and gloves to class . . . and were waiting to get married to some career man or other" (4). The experience nearly pushes the heroine off the roof deck's edge. Dan Wakefield, in his memoir of New York in the fifties, describes his courtship of a girl at the Menemsha Bar in the Allerton House, noting condescendingly that it is "a residential hotel where girls just off the train to New York could stay and be protected while they learned how to fend off the evils of the big city," a place that he, as a recently arrived Greenwich Villager, deemed both "suburban" and "bourgeois" (212). There are few residential hotels left: the Gramercy Women's Residence (or the Parkside Evangeline) is still in existence, owned and operated by the Salvation Army. So too is the Webster hotel on Thirty-fourth Street, founded in 1923 by a Macy's executive for the department store's employees. While no longer associated with Macy's, the residence continues to offer the same services to single working women: full maid service; breakfast and dinner; a patio deck; and "the beau parlor," a room to entertain male visitors. The Webster still aims to be affordable: a room costs $213 a week. Men may visit until midnight. There is also El Carmelo Residence (owned by the Carmelite Sisters) on West Fourteenth Street, and the Markle Memorial Residence on West Thirteenth Street-for women only.
15. After stepping off their trains at Grand Central or Pennsylvania Station, it was often a hotel where artists in the twenties and thirties landed and would remain, sometimes for years-Nathaniel West at the hotel Sutton; Willa Gather at the Grosvener on Fifth Avenue; Edna Ferber at the hotel Majestic on Seventy-seventh Street; Dorothy Parker at the Algonquin; Dylan Thomas and Virgil Thompson at the Chelsea; Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz on the penthouse floor of the Shelton; and Dawn Powell, a self-proclaimed "permanent visitor" to New York, playing hostess down at the Lafayette.
16. Moses's 1956 plan to build a parking lot for Tavern on the Green in place of a playground in Central Park was one of the first of his actions to incite a city wide uproar. The fight to save the park was instigated by a number of Upper West Side mothers and a number of well-known residents living on Sixty-seventh Street, including those who lived in the "literarily oriented residence hotel, the hotel des Artistes" across the street from the park. Living at the hotel at the time was Howard Chandler Christie, the artist, and Mae Murray, the "Merry Widow" who "had once been Hollywood's most glamorous star." She lived in an "attic formerly a chambermaid's room" at the top of the hotel. On the same street also lived the now elderly Fanny Hurst. As Robert Caro explains, the fight to save the park was successful partly because it had harnessed the support of so many well-known artists and writers and show-business people living in the neighborhood. Fanny Hurst wrote the original petition against the parking lot. She would become as identified with the fight to save the park as the mothers with their baby carnages lined up at the edge of the construction site. Moses, when speaking to reporters, even referred to her: "Oh, who are these critics