The Long-Winded Lady
The Long-Winded Lady, she called herself. She lived alone for most of her adult life, in hotel rooms and one- and two-room apartments in the Times Square and Greenwich Village neighborhoods of New York City. She hated hot weather, and how cars looked parked bumper to bumper on residential streets, and the long, wide commercial blocks of Sixth Avenue. She liked pigeons, and restaurants with views of the street, and the short, narrow commercial blocks of Madison Avenue, about which she once said: “Heaven forbid that there should ever be a riot in the city, but if there is I will go straight over to Madison Avenue with my stone or brick and I will shut my eyes and just throw, because there is hardly a window along there that does not contain something I would like to have.”
She once ordered broccoli with sauce supreme in a restaurant with windows facing Madison Avenue, and could not decide, when it arrived, whether she should pour the sauce on the stalks or the leaves, and so left it untouched on her plate, and felt grateful to the waiter for making no comment as he cleared it away. She once handed her taxi money to a poor woman selling shoe laces on the street, only to be followed by the woman, moaning “It’s too much,” until she grabbed the money back from her and hurried away. She once declined a seat on a crowded A train, telling the man who’d offered that she was getting off at the next stop; when the next stop came, she realized that it was the next stop she needed; when that stop came, she realized that she’d wanted the previous stop after all. “Sometimes,” she reflected, “it is very hard to know the right thing to do.”
These anecdotes, these opinions are what the journalist Maeve Brennan offered of herself to the world, in the form of a Talkof the Town column that appeared in the New Yorker magazine during the 1950s and ’60s, written under the Long-Winded Lady pseudonym. (In 1969, these pieces were compiled in a book, titled The Long-Winded Lady: Notes from the New Yorker.) Most Talk of the Town pieces can be described as as chatty, cocktail-talk journalism—character sketches of minor celebrities or notes from the meetings of niche organizations, written in a madcap, isn’t-city-life-funny style. The Long-Winded Lady pieces, however, are not madcap. They are mournful. It is not only hard to know the right thing to do in Maeve Brennan’s version of New York City, but also hard to know where to live or how to live, what to seek and what to avoid. It is even harder to leave.
Maeve Brennan was born in Dublin in 1917. She moved to Washington, D.C. with her parents and three siblings when her father was named secretary of the Irish legation in 1934. From Washington, she moved to New York City, and, within New York, shifted herself and her cat (sometimes cats) from rented room to rented room. Like many New Yorkers, she assiduously believed that contentment could be leased or rented in the form of more charming accommodations; like many New Yorkers, she made foolish financial decisions because of this hope. “She put parquet floors in a city apartment she did not own,” her friend and New Yorker co-worker William Maxwell once wrote, “and then found that she preferred living in the Hotel Algonquin, leaving the apartment empty until the lease expired.” Occasionally, she would leave for “the country”—Long Island or the northern reaches of New England—but she always came back.
“I think of New York as the capsized city,” she wrote in the introduction to The Long-Winded Lady. “Half-capsized, anyway, with the inhabitants hanging on, most of them still able to laugh as they cling to the island that is their life’s predicament.” At her best, Brennan perfectly captures her subjects’ small attempts at hanging on. Her columns are a catalog of small moments and imperceptible gestures—a young man in a restaurant phone booth reading the entire menu to a girlfriend, his expression “intent on something—one thing—and indifferent to everything else”; a young woman in a tight dress walking down Broadway on a Saturday night, carrying a small, clear purse containing nothing but one tube of lipstick. Manhattan, as they say, is the city that never sleeps; Brennan’s subjects are always unwittingly revealing that the race is making them tired.
“New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation,” E. B. White writes in Here is New York. The Long-Winded Lady cherishes the former over the latter. She lives alone, walks alone, and eats alone—always bringing a book with her into a restaurant because “it diverts me when there is nothing to listen to and camouflages my eavesdropping when there is something to listen to.” As a reporter and onlooker, she is extremely respectful of her subjects’ private thoughts and larger lives. She never follows people, never uses even first names, never speculates on motives or emotions or countries of origin—anything that might have made them as they are today.
She dislikes pushiness and showiness so completely that she is delighted to see a loud-mouthed patron fall off his chair in a diner, and resents the Empire State Building for “trying to be on nudging terms with every other building in the city.” When, at a favorite restaurant, a tall young man “who had made a great deal of fuss over his briefcase when he came in” invites her to have a drink with him, she tells him that she is waiting for someone. “I was sitting at table for one,” she notes.
In Homesick at the New Yorker, the sole published biography of Maeve Brennan, Angela Bourke characterizes Brennan’s late adolescence and early adulthood as a period of disappointment in love, and speculates that her introversion was the result of something “as old-fashioned as a broken heart.” Brennan herself puts it somewhat differently. After describing a man she sees on the street who is always combing his hair, once while using a friend’s sunglasses as a mirror, she confesses, “I know we are all only reminders of one another, but I don’t want him to walk up to me and look into my face as though I were a mirror. What I would like even less would be to look into his face and see myself hiding there.”
In 1954, at the age of 37, Maeve Brennan became the fourth wife of fellow New Yorker writer St. Clair McKelway. A brilliant reporter and sparklingly witty party guest, McKelway was also an acknowledged manic depressive and alcoholic. “It may not have been the worst of all possible marriages,” William Maxwell said of the match, “but it wasn’t something you could be hopeful about.”
The couple moved to an artistic, upper-class Hudson River enclave called Sneden’s Landing, which Brennan renames Herbert’s Retreat in a series of stories she wrote during her marriage. The Herbert’s Retreat stories are very different from the rest of Brennan’s output. They are busy and satirical, full of dialogue, divorce, servants, and parties. In a few sentences, these characters reveal more of their private thoughts and feelings than her other characters do in hundreds of pages worth of small actions and stalled glances. But their confessions seem boastful and false.
These characters announce rather than reveal, emote rather than feel. The author explains too explicitly, describes too specifically, palpably struggles to create the impression of a connection between author and subject. The connection never materializes. William Maxwell commented that her Herbert’s Retreat stories “seem to me to be heavy-handed and lack the breath of life.” Brennan had found characters she could look directly into the faces of; she did not see herself hiding there.
When the couple divorced after five years of marriage, Brennan moved back to New York City. The majority of the Long-Winded Lady columns compiled in the 1969 book, self-selected as Brennan’s best, were written in the 15 years following her divorce. When she returned to New York for good, the city she returned to was transforming.
In the neighborhood west of Times Square where Brennan often rented her hotel rooms, single-family brownstones were being razed three and four at a time to make room for the sleek, modern skyscrapers that now characterize midtown Manhattan. In Greenwich Village, Brennan’s other favorite neighborhood, boxy modern apartment buildings were rapidly replacing the small apartment houses that had been renting rooms for over 100 years. The Long-Winded Lady mourns the loss of specific establishments—a familiar French restaurant relocates to Long Island when its brownstone home is razed, a cozy 8th Street bookstore moves two blocks west because of the skyrocketing rents—and she mourns the loss of a felt sense and spatial experience of living in New York, shopping in New York, walking down the city’s streets.
Most basically, she regrets the new architecture, which she derisively calls Office Space, for not existing on a human scale. “Crammed with small enterprises of every description,” the old side streets were places for exploring, wondering, sampling. They were what people thought of when they thought of their lives in the city, the addresses and names with which they described their afternoon errands and evening meals.
“We ordinary New Yorkers were kings and lords in all those places, even where the owner pretended to be surly, even where he really was surly,” she wrote. “We could pick and choose and find our favorites, and so enjoy one of the normal ways of making ourselves at home in the city.” The new, “noseless” architecture displaces these businesses, and obliterate this sense of command and possibility, this way of feeling alive: “But more and more the architecture of this city has nothing to do with our daily lives. The Office Space giants that are going up all over Manhattan are blind above the ground, and on the ground level they are given over to banks and to showrooms and to businesses run by remote control by companies and corporations rich enough to afford the staggering rents.”
With fewer restaurant and apartment windows from which to watch passersby come fewer opportunities to combine participation with privacy, to feel both a part of and safe from the masses of people that crowd the streets. Along with this loss of safe observation comes a loss of sensed individualization. A New Yorker with no corner from which to quietly observe others is also a New Yorker who knows that no one is in a corner quietly observing. In this new New York, the individual must make a big noise, put on a big show, if he or she wants to stand out from the crowd.
“All is makeshift on Forty-ninth Street,” she muses while walking home from dinner one night, “and even the old brownstones, so beautifully proportioned and presenting such a pure outline against the high, calm evening sky of summer, seem part of a stage set designed to illustrate the shaky and vanishing side of New York City.” As she walks, she comes upon five tall girls standing in a group on the sidewalk. The girls are wearing tiny, sheer shifts “which barely covered their behinds and seemed designed to show even more leg than they had.” The crowd parts around them, everyone watching, laughing, sneering. One little old lady, extremely excited, moves from person to person, exclaiming “Did you see those bums? Did you see those bums?”
The Long-Winded Lady hurries to get away from her. Although she doesn’t think much of those sort of girls—“they looked as though they had been assembled, legs and all, in an automobile factory”—she does not want to stand on the street ridiculing them, either. As she walks away, she thinks about the girls, and what they represent: “They didn’t go with the street at all. They were ahead of themselves by a year or two. They will go better with the new buildings.”
Maeve Brennan struggled with mental illness and alcoholism from the 1970s until her death in 1993. No longer writing and no longer able to pay rent, she slept and bathed in the ladies bathroom at the New Yorker offices for many years. “Many men and women found Maeve charming, and she was a true friend, but there wasn’t much you could do to save her from herself,” her old friend William Maxwell once wrote. Maxwell had saved a copy of a mock response that Brennan had written (but never mailed), in response to a fan letter that was sent to the magazine on her behalf. In it, she reports that the writer Maeve Brennan has shot herself and been discovered in the poor box in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “We will never know why she did what she did (shooting herself) but we think it was because she was drunk and heartsick,” she writes. “She was a very fine person, a very real person, two feet, hands, everything. But it’s too late to do much about that now.”
In the author’s note that prefaces the pieces collected in The Long-Winded Lady, Maeve Brennan writes, “Somebody said, ‘We are real only in moments of kindness.’ Moments of kindness, moments of recognition—if there is a difference, it is a faint one. I think the Long-Winded Lady is real when she writes, here, about some of the sights she saw in the city she loves.” Even as the city changed, the Long-Winded Lady continued—sometimes to her own surprise—to rediscover it as a place where others could be real, and where she could thus be kind.
She is in a bad mood, walking in a crowd on Forty-fourth Street, thinking to herself that sometimes the “city seems actually to disapprove of people,” thinking “All of these people are sheep and I am a sheep.” And then, in the middle of this gloom, a young man catches her eye. He is very tall, “fat and untidy in a tweed jacket that was too short for him.” He is calling out “Father! Father!”, hurrying past her to meet a middle-aged man waiting on a corner. She watches the father and son reunite, watches the father’s pursed lips, “half formal and half shy” break into a grin. They walk down the street away from her, the son talking excitedly, “getting in the way just as he must have done not long ago, when he was a small boy.”
The Long-Winded Lady speculates that they are going out to dinner somewhere, maybe to the Howard Johnson’s at Forty-sixth Street. “That is a nice place,” she admits, “especially if you get near the window, so that you can look out at the crowd passing and see that, at a little distance, there are no sheep on Broadway.” -Emily Pecora
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