Maeve Brennan is feted in her adopted homeland
Events in Greenwich Village and Chicago continue the great New Yorker writer’s revival ahead of September event at National Concert Hall
Kelly Letourneau as Maeve Brennan. Photographs: Peter Victor-Gasper
Dublin-born short-story writer and urban commentator Maeve Brennan, whose centenary was marked in Ireland earlier earlier this year with articles, events and a podcast, has now been celebrated before enthusiastic audiences in Chicago and New York.
Dublin jazz singer Emilie Conway and pianist Darragh Hennessy, along with Brennan’s biographer, UCD academic Angela Bourke, arrived in New York to celebrate Maeve in her adopted city, fresh from a Brennan event at Chicago’s new American Writers Museum, hosted by Irish Consul General Brian O’Brien and Vice-Consul Ragnar Almqvist on May 19th. No less a figure than John Updike declared that Brennan “put New York back into the New Yorker” where, in 1949, she was appointed to a coveted staff job by William Shawn, its legendary managing editor. Her short stories began appearing in the magazine the following year, while her sketches of New York life ran in its Talk of the Town section under the pseudonym The Long-Winded Lady.
Last week Brennan was the focus of the launch evening for The Village Trip, a new arts project celebrating Greenwich Village. She spent much of her adult life in that part of the city – perhaps finding in the bohemian streets around Washington Square an echo of Dublin, and even of Ranelagh, where she had spent her childhood.
By the time she died in 1993, Maeve Brennan had sadly slipped from public view rather like Dorothy Parker, another celebrated New Yorker writer who died 50 years ago this year. Happily, Brennan is now enjoying a renaissance in the US, where she arrived, aged 17, in 1934, after Eamon de Valera appointed her father, Robert Brennan, to the Irish Legation in Washington.
An Evening of Words and Music with Maeve Brennan and Friends took place at the Washington Square Hotel, a boutique family business in the heart of Greenwich Village which Brennan – who lived there for two periods in the 1950s and ’60s – knew as the Hotel Earle. Dylan Thomas, Ernest Hemingway, Barbra Streisand, Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan all spent time at this hotel, whose style and decor retains a strong sense of the period.
Emilie Conway opened the proceedings with snatches of two of many songs associated with the Hotel Earle: California Dreamin’ was written there by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas “on a winter’s day” in 1963, while Diamonds and Rust is Joan Baez’s poignant reflection on her affair with Dylan, which began in room 305 of what she calls “that crummy hotel over Washington Square”. (CEO Judy Paul acknowledged that the Earle’s “funky” period in the 1960s enabled a lot of young artists to crash there cheaply.)
Then it was into Songs for a Village Nightspot, as local bassist Marcos Varela joined Conway and Darragh. It was the sort of set Brennan (a fan of Billie Holiday) would have heard at the nearby Bonsoir club, where Streisand made her celebrated debut. You could almost feel Brennan’s foot tapping as she sipped a Martini.
RADA-trained Irish-American actress Kelly Letourneau was surely born to play Brennan. The audience – including Brennan’ nieces Yvonne Jerrold and Suzanne Maher, over from Britain, and Jackie Bolger, wife of racehorse trainer Jim Bolger (Maeve’s cousin), with her daughter Una and other family members – loved her performance as she brought to life some of Brennan’s celebrated New Yorker columns. Now collected in the book The Long-Winded Lady, these included the keenly observed From the Hotel Earle.
Angela Bourke put Brennan’s life in context. She quoted her statement: “Home is a place in the heart: when it is empty, it frets”, tracing the theme of home all the way from fiction set in Ranelagh Village to Brennan’s lyrical and metaphorical explorations of that idea in Greenwich Village.
The evening’s special guest was singer-songwriter Richard Barone, who sang Changes by Phil Ochs, from his latest album Sorrows and Promises: Greenwich Village in the 1960s. The event closed with a set inspired by Bill Evans’ legendary gigs at the nearby Village Vanguard in 1961, played by Darragh and Varela.
The Village Trip, of which John Sorensen is artistic director, aims to celebrate the history, culture and counterculture of Greenwich Village, the crucible of American culture where innumerable figures from arts and politics lived and worked, among them Thomas Paine, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Edward Hopper, Edward Albee, Isadora Duncan, John Reed, Merce Cunningham, Allen Ginsberg, Dorothy Day, Pete Seeger and Patti Smith. The Clancy Brothers were a fixture, hanging out at the White Horse Tavern, beloved of both Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan. Eugene O’Neill was another local, basing his character Hugo Kalmar in his play The Iceman Cometh on local anarchist writer and waiter Hippolyte Havel, who declared that “Greenwich Village is a spiritual zone of mind. It has no boundaries.”
Observed one local wag: “Everything started in the Village – except Prohibition”.
The plan is to create a month-long “portable festival”, based in the Washington Square Hotel, celebrating the people and places of a perennial bohemia whose very existence is threatened by the forces of commercialism. The project has been welcomed by local business and cultural associations.
The American Writers Museum, Chicago, where Angela Bourke had earlier been guest of honour, speaking about Maeve Brennan with Eilís Ní Dhuibhne and Irish-American novelist Alice McDermott, is a project conceived in 2010 by Sligo-born Malcolm O’Hagan, former CEO of a manufacturing trade organisation. He was inspired by the Dublin Writers Museum and the National Library’s Yeats and Joyce exhibitions.
Liz Thomson is co-founder and executive producer of The Village Trip: TheVillageTrip.com
Emilie Conway, Angela Bourke and Cathy Belton feature in a celebration of Maeve Brennan in words and music at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on September 12th