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.
This was somebody who arrived in New York to be greeted by a phalanx of reporters, photographers and television cameras, who did dozens of interviews in a matter of days, and, amid all this fanfare, still found time to put on overalls to paint the offices of one of his Broadway producers. A character who, after being arrested in a Los Angeles restaurant for being drunk and disorderly, was bailed out by the owner of the establishment, and brought back the next night as the venue’s star attraction.
Why was he so greatly loved? When you write a book you inevitably fall a little for the subject, so I may not be the best judge. Certainly, there were many times Behan made me laugh out loud with his antics. I’m thinking of a scene in the Royal Embassy Hotel in Montreal where he wreaked drunken havoc, marching around the lobby, bottle in his hand, roaring, “I’m the king of the castle, get down you dirty rascal”.
Or the night a publicist found him coated in sawdust, semi-conscious on the floor of a Greenwich Village dive bar called The Silver Rail. "Letty, my love, what are you doing down here?" asked Behan when she knelt to wake him from his alcoholic slumber. Two hours later, he was on The Tonight Show entertaining the US with witticisms and appearing almost sober.
For all the frivolity and the one-liners that make him a darling of Twitter even half a century after his death, there was a darkness on the edge of town. He hit his wife, Beatrice (a woman so devoted to him she once got down on her knees to beg him not to get off the wagon); he cheated on her with men and women; and he fathered a child with fellow Dubliner Valerie Danby-Smith. And that was all just while in the US.
There was more violence, too: an attempted rape of the aforementioned publicist Letty Cottin Pogrebin in a hotel room. Pogrebin stayed friends with Behan after foiling this assault. Why?
“I considered him a charming eccentric,” she said all these years later. “After that experience, I realised he was also a little mad.”
Perhaps as good a summation of the man as any.
Dave Hannigan's Behan in the USA: The Rise and Fall of the Most Famous Irishman in New York is out now