Saturday, March 17, 2018

Women's History Month 2018: Maeve Brennan

Maeve Brennan
Maeve Brennan was an Irish-American journalist and short story writer with a varied style who was compared to writers like Chekhov and Flaubert. She also lived life entirely on her own terms, never minding the cultural expectations placed on women of her time.

Born in Dublin in 1917, Maeve was reluctant to come to America but was left with no choice when her father was appointed to a position in Washington D.C. in 1934. After graduating with a degree in English from American University, Maeve moved to New York City where she found work at Harper's Bazaar. She also wrote for the New Yorker and an Irish social publication. In 1949, she took a position at the New Yorker where she began as a social diarist and expanded to essays, fashion writing and short fiction. She wrote extensively about both her homeland of Ireland and her current place of residence, New York City.

Maeve became a vibrant part of the New York literary scene. She was bright, beautiful, eccentric, clever and captivating. She drank and ventured into pubs women simply didn't go into in those days. She moved constantly, searching out pretty places to live with fireplaces and eccentric details. She wasn't looking to settle down anywhere. Maeve loved her autonomy and her freedom. It seemed she viewed Ireland as her home, one she would not reside in again, and New York City as a place she lived. In fact, Maeve referred to herself as a "traveler in residence."

In 1954, the fiercely unattached Maeve married St. Clair McKelway, a fellow New Yorker employee and noted womanizer who was 12 years her senior. Both were bad with money, prone to too much drinking, impulsive and wild. The marriage lasted only a few years but ended amicably. During her married life, her mother passed away. These personal shifts and upheavals caused Maeve's work to taper off for a time. Once her marriage ended, however, Maeve started back to her writing, turning out even better work than before.

Also, in 1954, Maeve began writing unsigned pieces for the New Yorker as the "long-winded lady." She was not identified as the writer until she published a selection of the pieces in 1969. These articles offer up Maeve's sharp view of life in New York City. There are witty observations and quiet slices of life. There are celebrity sightings as well as sightings of anonymous people going about their lives.

Maeve also wrote series of stories set in Ireland. These were popular among readers and involved a cast of characters that carried over from piece to piece. Once, when Maeve had been in a bit of a dry spell with these stories, a reader wrote in to ask when more would arrive. Maeve responded to the letter in the magazine with a fantastical account of her own (fictional) death (Read it here).

Maeve's story doesn't end happily. Her light burned brightly, much like the open fires she always wanted to have in her living spaces, but perhaps it burned too brightly. Her eccentricities, once loved, turned concerning. Her drinking became heavier. Her behavior turned erratic. Having never settled anywhere, Maeve's constant moving and lack of money management resulted in her homelessness. She vanished from New York society in the early 1980s and eventually died penniless and alone in a nursing home in 1993.

Just as Maeve died in obscurity, so it seemed was the fate of her literary legacy. Thankfully, it looks like a revival is afoot. Her book, The Long-Winded Lady, saw re-release just a couple of years ago. Her work has been anthologized in collections of New York and Irish writers. Her writing continues to dazzle as new readers discover it. Maeve's talent is certainly worthy of a place among the 20th century's best writers. If those of us who discover her share what we find, hopefully, she will get the attention from history that she deserves.

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