Brennan, Maeve (1917–93), fiction writer and New Yorker columnist, called the ‘Long-Winded Lady’, was born in Dublin on 6 January 1917, second of four children of the nationalist journalist Robert (‘Bob’) Brennan (qv), and his wife, Una (née Anastasia Bolger, 1888–1958), both of whom she portrayed in successive stories. As Una Bolger, her mother was active in Maud Gonne’s Inghinidhe na hÉireann and in Cumann na mBan; she was probably the author of a series of feminist articles in the Enniscorthy Echo in 1908–9.
The Brennans married in July 1909; their daughter Emer (1910–86), was followed by a son who died in infancy. Both parents took part in the 1916 rising in Enniscorthy, and Robert was in prison in England when Maeve was born some nine months later. She became known as a ‘1916 baby’, leading to confusion about her birth year. When she was young her father was often on the run from the British, and later from Irish Free State forces.
In late 1921, as the Anglo-Irish Treaty was negotiated in London, the Brennans bought and moved into 48 Cherryfield Avenue, Ranelagh, Dublin. This modest terraced house, where they remained until 1934, is the setting for almost half of Brennan’s forty published short stories. ‘The day we got our own back’ (1953), describes an armed raid there in 1922, when Robert was in hiding elsewhere.
The meticulously detailed descriptions in Brennan’s fiction of day-to-day life in the Ranelagh house and garden represent her life-long turning away from the political and public issues that had dominated her childhood. Along with stories set in rural and urban Wexford, they offer unique portraits of middle-class Irish interiors and domestic life. Her work rises far above the local, however, to evoke the texture and minutiae of unsatisfactory intimate relationships, and show solitary women and men negotiating both private and public space.
Brennan attended Saint Mary’s national school, Belmont Avenue, and Muckross Park primary school, both near her home, and from September 1929, a convent boarding school. ‘The devil in us’ (1954), describes Cross and Passion College in Kilcullen, Co. Kildare. Two years later, she and her younger sister transferred to the Irish-speaking Scoil Bhríde in Dublin. Set up by the French-born-and-educated nationalist Louise Gavan Duffy (1884–1969), who rejected violence, Scoil Bhríde nurtured Brennan’s cultural nationalism along with her appreciation of theatre and literature in English and French.
In 1934, Taoiseach Éamon de Valera (qv) appointed Robert Brennan as secretary of the Irish legation in Washington, DC, and Brennan, who had finished her secondary schooling, moved to the US with her family. She attended Immaculata Seminary in Washington, followed by American University, where she was active in student literary societies and graduated BA in June 1938. She studied library science at the Catholic University of America, also in Washington, and in 1940 or 1941 moved to New York. She lived first at the Holley Hotel on Washington Square, and worked at the New York Public Library (NYPL) in central Manhattan.
Brennan left the NYPL when Carmel Snow (qv), Irish-born editor of Harper’s Bazaar, invited her to join the magazine. From 1943 to 1949 she wrote fashion copy for Harper’s and for its wartime offshoot, Junior Bazaar, and completed her pitch-perfect novella ‘The visitor’ before the end of 1945. Her striking, glamorous image – dark lipstick, high heels and hair piled up – dates from this period, while trained observation of fabric, cut and colour later lent characteristic detail to all her short fiction and essays. She lived mostly in Greenwich Village, met members of the Abbey Theatre and other visiting artists, and often accompanied photographers on assignment for the magazine. They included Karl Bissinger, who famously photographed her in 1948, when she escorted the playwright Denis Johnston to a session with him.
In 1949 William Shawn recruited Brennan to the New Yorker, to write unsigned fashion notes and book reviews. In December 1950 Harper’s Bazaar published her story ‘The holy terror’. In April 1952 ‘The poor men and women’ followed: the first of many stories, in two cycles about contrasting, yet similar, couples, in which she probes the walls where she grew up for the codes they imposed. Beginning in December that year, the New Yorker fiction editor William Maxwell, later a trusted friend, published all of her further stories of Dublin, alternating them with another series set in an exclusive community on the Hudson River, which she called Herbert’s Retreat. The Irish-born domestic servants she places there are surprising and memorable, drawn in many dimensions with ferocious sympathy and Brennan’s keen awareness of household politics and registers of language. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, her ‘Long-winded lady’ pieces also appeared regularly among the mostly male voices in New Yorker’s most-read section, ‘Talk of the town’.
Colleagues at her new office admired Brennan’s appearance, mordant wit and especially her writing; many appreciated her impulsive kindness. Several men’s names were linked to hers, not always accurately, but in 1954 she married charming, talented, fellow staff-writer St Clair McKelway, who was addicted to alcohol and three times divorced, and went to live with him in Snedens Landing, the original of Herbert’s Retreat. The marriage lasted until 1959, when she moved back to Manhattan.
Brennan never owned a house or apartment, although ideas of home permeate almost everything she wrote. In the 1960s she spent winters in East Hampton, Long Island, alone but for her black Labrador, Bluebell, and several cats. Later, she lived by the sea in Massachusetts. In summer she usually returned to Manhattan, where she rented or borrowed apartments, or stayed at the Algonquin Hotel; she made trips to Ireland and Europe by ocean liner.
Intimidatingly acerbic and helplessly compassionate, Brennan worked compulsively to capture the human realities behind the depictions of Irish domesticity in the 1937 constitution and popular writing. Her first fiction collection, In and out of Never-Never Land, and her own selection, The long-winded lady, appeared in the US in 1969. Critics hailed both, but she had begun to suffer writer’s block, and bouts of mental illness.
Brennan’s longest and most powerful story, ‘The springs of affection’, went through many versions before appearing in the New Yorker on 18 March 1972. Set in County Wexford, and based on her family, it caused hurt, and estranged her from some relatives. The magazine published only two more of her stories. It continued to pay her, and she wrote book reviews, but spent little time there in the years that followed.
During a series of artist’s residencies at the MacDowell Colony (now MacDowell) in New Hampshire in the 1970s, Brennan wrote agonised, occasionally humorous, letters to Maxwell about her difficulties with money and her writing. She spent months at a time with relatives, first in Dublin, then, after a disturbing incident at the New Yorker offices and a spell in a psychiatric hospital, at her brother’s home in Peoria, Illinois. Hinting at disarray, the publication date of her second fiction collection, Christmas eve, was June 1974.
Brennan’s books were not reprinted, nor were they published in Ireland or Britain. Between periods spent in hospital, she lived in run-down hotels, or slept at the New Yorker offices, rejecting old friends who tried to help her. Unknown to them, however, and to most readers, she had made new, supportive friendships at MacDowell with Tillie Olsen (1912–2007) and Edith Konecky (1922–2019), feminist writers from eastern European Jewish backgrounds, whose outsider experience chimed with her own. She stayed at Konecky’s New York apartment for weeks at a time, and wrote an encouraging meditation during one of Olsen’s writing ‘silences’ that both Olsen and Konecky later placed above their desks. Konecky’s second novel, A place at the table, features Brennan herself as the much-loved, fascinating, frustrating Irish writer, ‘Deirdre’.
Brennan’s last New Yorker piece, ‘A blessing’, appeared on 5 January 1981. The magazine’s management found her a nursing home in Arverne, New York, but declined to give information on her whereabouts to anyone outside the organisation, so that family and friends lost contact with her. She died of heart failure there on 1 November 1993.
Editor Christopher Carduff had already begun to read all of Brennan’s stories, selecting and arranging them in effective sequences. He commissioned a moving introduction by William Maxwell for the first of two new volumes, which appeared in 1997 and 2000, and produced a new, expanded edition of The long-winded lady in 1998. He discovered ‘The visitor’, in a university archive and edited it for publication in 2000. Brennan became known to a new generation of readers in the US, while in Ireland, a secular, liberal, Irish society embraced these four books as classics of twentieth-century writing.
A number of critics on both sides of the Atlantic, from backgrounds in feminist studies, urban studies and ‘the body’, as well as literature and history, have searched out previously unknown correspondence and published illuminating and persuasive readings of Brennan’s work, while writers of popular non-fiction have seized on her story to illustrate their themes.
Amplified by this new work, her reputation was consolidated in 2017, when the centenary of her birth brought new Irish editions of her work, with introductions by Anne Enright and Belinda McKeon, and numerous events and publications in her honour.