King of New York: Brendan Behan’s American fame

Behan’s celebrity in the US was so great, he got away with some of his worst behaviour there

Brendan Behan aboard the Cunard Liner Queen Elizabeth, at Pier 90, North River, Manhattan. Photograph: Fred Morgan/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Brendan Behan aboard the Cunard Liner Queen Elizabeth, at Pier 90, North River, Manhattan. Photograph: Fred Morgan/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Fri, Apr 4, 2014, 01:00

I was standing in a thrift store on Long Island. There were walls and walls of books, but the long-term emigrant’s eye was drawn, in the usual way, to a green spine with the names O’Sullivan and Behan on it. For no other reason than this was the only Irish tome on the shelves, I bought Michael O’Sullivan’s brilliant biography of Brendan Behan, and I discovered the Dubliner was once a major star in the US. Who knew?

In the 14 years since I moved here, I’ve become fascinated at the way the Irish media sometimes exaggerate how big Irish artists of all kinds are in the US. So, I started researching Behan’s American sojourns in the early 1960s. The deeper I dug, the more I discovered he enjoyed a celebrity so large it might be best described as what you’d get today if you crossed the literary credibility of Colum McCann with the tabloid notoriety of Colin Farrell.

One minute he was discussing Joyce with James Thurber and Burgess Meredith, the next he was on the front pages for drunkenly rampaging across the stage during a Broadway production of The Hostage . A few weeks into trying to figure out whether there might be an actual book to be wrung from this type of carry-on, I happened upon a quote from Frank O’Connor.

“I wish I had it in my power to suppress ‘Brendan Behan’s New York’ with which we are threatened,” wrote O’Connor in the week of Behan’s death in March 1964. “It will not be New York and it will not be Brendan. I should be happier to think that some young writer was gathering up the hundreds of stories about him that are circulating at this moment in Dublin and that would tell scholars and critics 100 years from now what sort of man he was and why he was so greatly loved.”

Only 50 years have elapsed, and the job of gathering stories about him in Dublin has already been done many times over. But, there are dozens more yarns about him in New York and other parts of the US, Mexico and Canada that have never been told. Some of them, as I discovered when I started writing this book chronicling his travels, are even true. Along the way I came closer to understanding what sort of a man he was. Brilliant, infuriating, sick, vicious, complex, troubled and mercurial are some of the words that might be used in that regard.

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