Every time I see "Breakfast at Tiffany’s" on TV I think of Dublin-born writer Maeve Brennan.
Why? Because she may have been the inspiration for Audrey Hepburn’s sexy and totally eccentric – and morally challenged – Holly Golightly.
Brennan made her mark as “The Long-Winded Lady” at The New Yorker magazine, but she was born in Dublin 100 years ago this month at the beginning of the War of Independence to Robert Brennan, one of the most important Republicans of his day. In fact, she was born while her father was serving time in prison for his rebel activities.
Daughter of a revolutionary who had a “Dislike of Collins”
Maeve was very much her father’s daughter—highly intelligent, highly rebellious, and highly literate. If you read her father’s witness statements about the War of Independence at the Bureau of Military History you are struck that her father was an exceptional—and wordy—writer too. Brennan must have nearly 600-manuscript pages at the Bureau concerning his adventures during the rebellion. Many of them are riveting.
Mostly, he did PR and journalism for the movement, but he had daily involvement with every important person, from Eamon de Valera, to Arthur Griffith, to Michael Collins. He did not like Collins, but had a great, grudging respect for him.
His descriptions of Collins are priceless. He first heard about the Big Fellow from Thomas Ashe when they were both imprisoned. Collins had sent Ashe his plans for the future, which Brennan read and declared “amateurish and pretentious.”
He first met Collins back in Dublin. Collins, always the man with the money, paid Brennan and his friends from Wexford their expenses. Brennan asked his companion who the man with “the tremendous…shoulders” was and was told it was Collins. “I don’t like him,” Brennan said.
He may not have liked him, but there is nothing but admiration in his description of him. Apparently, Collins was no longer “amateurish and pretentious”—in fact Brennan goes on to describe Collins as nothing less than an Irish superman:
“This initial dislike of Collins,” Brennan freely admits, “I never quite got over. I tried to do so later, because I had a lively appreciation of the great work he was doing and of the risks he ran. His energy was terrific and his self-confidence unbounded. Though he was dynamic, he was never flurried. He built up from nothing at all an almost perfect intelligence department. His secret agents were to be found later in almost every British institution up to the highest level.
“Against odds,” Brennan continued, “which would have disheartened most men, he carried on the heavy work of the Finance and Communications departments. His memory for detail was faultless and his office system, harried though it was by having to remain underground and subject to constant raids, was well-nigh perfect. Any one of his departments—Intelligence, Finance, Army, Communications—would have taxed the ability and time of a very able administrator, but Collins managed them all without apparent effort. Not merely that, but because he was impatient of delays, he encroached on the domain of nearly every other government department and thus spurred his colleague to greater effort.
“I knew all this,” Brennan admitted, “and yet I could not bring myself to like him. Perhaps it was because he was ruthless with friend and foe; because he could brook no criticism or opposition; because or he was vain and loved power. Some of his admirers give Collins all the credit for such success as we had. I think this is a pity. It is true that without him Sinn Féin could not have achieved the success it did in the time if did, but this is not less true of Eamon de Valera or Arthur Griffith.”
Maeve witnesses the brutality of the British
Brennan mentions his daughter only once in all his writings for the Bureau. Being a prominent propagandist for Sinn Féin, his offices and homes were subject to raids by the British. He recounts one such raid and the effect it had on his family:
“When I got over the wall,” Brennan wrote, “I saw [his wife] Una standing at the window, pale and silent. I had never seen her so near a break. She had been crying. They had kept her downstairs all night away from the children and they had grilled her and our eldest child, Emer, aged nine, for hours, on my activities and whereabouts. Una had very narrowly missed having a bayonet run through her at the foot of the basement stairs in the dark. The rooms looked as if a herd of wild cattle had been through them. The two younger children, Maeve, aged three, and Deirdre, one and a half, were hysterical, which was not to be wondered at. It was of this raid that Erskine Childers wrote: ‘This is not civilized war.’ ”
Mrs. Dev has a crush on the Big Fellow and the Long Fellow is jealous
Brennan, devoted to de Valera since their prison days after the Rising, went against the Treaty, and, of course, Collins. There is one rather funny story about Sinéad de Valera’s deep affection for Collins, which perplexed her husband, the Long Fellow:
“At Greystones,” wrote Brennan, “Mrs. Dev was eloquent about the kindness everybody had shown her during Dev’s absence. Michael Collins, she said, had been particularly kind. He had called every week, ‘I’m quite in love with him,’ she said. Dev, with some show of temper, said: ‘That’ll do. There are enough people in love with Michael Collins.’ ”
This statement is interesting in several ways. When de Valera absconded to America in 1919 he did not take the missus with him. Instead, he chose his secretary Kathleen O’Connell, leaving many Fenian lips flapping in speculation. Collins eventually convinced Mrs. de Valera to join her husband in America. And de Valera may have been insinuating that Collins had many girlfriends, not only his fiancée Kitty Kiernan, but also Lady Lavery and Moya Llewelyn Davies, both of whom were based in London. So, it seems, there may have been a little alley named McPeyton Place running off O’Connell Street during Ireland’s War of Independence!
Mr. Brennan goes to Washington…and takes Maeve with him
By 1932 de Valera was back in power and Brennan, after a stint as general manager of de Valera’s Irish Press, found himself in Washington, first as Secretary of the Irish Legation, then Chargé d’Affaires, and finally as the top man, Irish Minister to the U.S., which basically was the Irish Free State’s ambassador to Washington. [Still officially holding dominion status in the British Commonwealth of Nations, Éire technically could not have an ambassador of her own.]
Maeve arrived in 1934 and, apparently, became Americanized fairly quickly. She took to fashion and because of her extraordinary looks, fashion took to her. She studied library science at the Catholic University of America, but even then you can see her attitude changing towards Ireland after de Valera’s 1937 Constitution put restrictions on the women of Ireland and what jobs they could hold.
According to Angela Bourke’s biography of Brennan, "Maeve Brennan: Lonely at The New Yorker," she corresponded with the fiercely Republican writer Dorothy Macardle, who warned her what de Valera’s Ireland had become to many feminists like Macardle: “I am glad to know you are making steadily for library work. But how I hope you won’t encounter heartbreak and frustration when you come back here. The country is going through a phrase when scarcely any body is interested in anything but money and factories. People who care about thinking and reading are getting desperate. If you find you can’t do your best work here I think you’ll just have to go where you can do it…”
Bourke describes Maeve as “popular, witty and wickedly clever.” Even her attitude towards revolutionary Ireland—the Ireland her parents had put their lives on the line to achieve—was changing. She was, seemingly, also sexually active—something that a girl her age back in Dublin would probably not even consider. She fell in love with a Jewish man, who rejected her because of her Catholicism. Apparently, the great love of her life was Walter Kerr, the renowned theatre critic. Kerr dumped Maeve for a woman ten years his junior. That woman, Jean Kerr, would gain some fame in 1957 by publishing "Please Don’t Eat the Daisies." Maeve’s heart was broken and she was learning quickly that life in America was not a Doris Day movie.
By the early 1940s she found herself in New York City working for Harper’s Bazaar magazine. Eventually, she made her way to The New Yorker, where she rubbed elbows with editor William Shawn and such writers as Brendan Gill (perhaps another lover), and a southern fellow named Truman Capote.
Her two sisters married and stayed-on in America, but her family returned to Dublin in the late 1940s. Maeve remained in New York where she morphed into the Maeve Brennan we celebrate today. Her pieces on everyday New York, written under the byline of “The Long-Winded Lady” told of New York and its peculiarities: its glamour, its quirkiness, and, yes, its loneliness. The thing about the pieces that sticks out, even over fifty years later, is how alone Maeve seems to be. Already divorced, she is a gypsy, moving from apartment to apartment and hotel to hotel, the only anchor being her love for Greenwich Village. In many stories, she relates her tales as she sits alone in restaurants and observes the world around her. Her stories are magical, and as someone who grew up in Greenwich Village during that period, they always strike me as being right-on in capturing that bohemian period of the 1950s and ’60s.
Holly Golightly Brennan?
Since her death in 1993, which was preceded by years of mental illness, Brennan has been positively reevaluated and her reputation has grown. Eileen Battersby, literary correspondent at the Irish Times, argues that her short stories are such masterpieces that “…no one could dispute that Brennan’s Dublin stories are best compared with James Joyce’s Dubliners.”
On the 100th anniversary of her birth a bit of a cult seemed to have grown up around Brennan. Her comeback began in 1997 when Houghton Mifflin published "Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin." This was followed by Counterpoint in 2001 publishing her nonfiction pieces: "The Long-Winded Lady: Notes from The New Yorker;" her short story collection, "Springs of Affection;" and "The Visitor," her novella which was only discovered in 1997 at the University of Notre Dame and was unpublished during Brennan’s life. All these publications were followed by Angela Bourke’s biography in 2004 which has just been reprinted in paperback by Counterpoint.
Actor Eamon Morrissey, who lived in the same Dublin house that Maeve grew up in, premiered his one-man play, "Maeve’s House" at the Abbey Theatre in September 2013. At one point the Irish Arts Center in New York City even had a walking tour celebrating her haunts in Greenwich Village.
One of the tantalizing unknowns surrounding Maeve is that she may have been the avatar for Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany’s." Maeve and Capote worked together at The New Yorker in the early 1950s and were friends. I interviewed Angela Bourke when her biography of Brennan first came out and she had some interesting things to say about that mystery. “Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly may owe quite a lot to her,” Bourke told me.
“I think it is a speculation,” continued Bourke. “It doesn’t do justice to the totality of who she was, because Holly Golightly comes across as a bit of an airhead and Maeve was emphatically not that—she was an intellectual and a worker. But certainly ‘Miss Holiday Golightly, Traveling,’ as you see on the doorbell in the first chapter of "Breakfast at Tiffany’s": Maeve called herself a ‘Traveler in Residence.’
"Maeve always had a cat. Maeve wore big glasses. She would have worn the little black dress and the hair piled high. And that kind of elusive quality. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she had been the model for Holly Golightly. I refer to "Breakfast at Tiffany’s" in the book, but I didn’t want to lay any weight on that because I don’t want to reduce her. Holly Golightly’s a wonderful character, but she’s not Maeve and Maeve’s not like Holly Golightly, but I think some of the ways she influenced people and the way people saw her, there was that incredibly attractive, very elusive, maddening kind of quality about her. She’d be absolutely charming—then she’d be gone.”
So, the next time you see "Breakfast at Tiffany’s" and hear the haunting score of "Moon River," I hope you think of a great Dublin writer with a great Irish pedigree and history and remember the woman, Maeve Brennan, who is now considered one of the best Irish writers of the 20th century.
* Dermot McEvoy is the author of the "The 13th Apostle: A Novel of a Dublin Family, Michael Collins, and the Irish Uprising" and "Our Lady of Greenwich Village," now available in paperback from Skyhorse Publishing. He may be reached at [email protected] Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com. Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook at www.facebook.com/13thApostleMcEvoy.