Born 1917, Dublin, Ireland
Daughter of James Brennan and wife; married St. Clair McKelway
The daughter of an Irish partisan, Maeve Brennan spent most of her early life in Dublin. In 1934 her family emigrated to America where, in the early 1940s, Brennan joined the staff of Harper's Bazaar and then the New Yorker. She originated the "long-winded lady" column featured in the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town," and published most of her stories in the magazine. Her marriage to fellow staffer St. Clair McKelway lasted seven years. In 1973 Brennan received a literature award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Brennan's first book, In and Out of Never-Never Land (1969), is a collection of stories published between 1953 and 1968. Outstanding tales include "The Eldest Child," concerning the death of a newborn son and his parents' separate grief; "Stories of Africa," wherein a gentle Irish-woman nervously entertains an elderly bishop and both find themselves surprisingly comforted.
The Long-Winded Lady (1969) includes 47 nonfiction vignettes from the New Yorker. Writing about the city she loves, however, Brennan confesses in her introduction that "if she has a title it is one held by many others, that of a traveler in residence." Brennan's third collection, Christmas Eve (1974), introduces waspish American critic Charles Runyon, a not-always-welcome guest at fashionable Herbert's Retreat. Runyon, petty in a delightfully vicious sort of way, is at his best in a story such as "The Stone Hot-Water Bottle," where his hostess faces a crisis of major proportions over which guest will use the heirloom which Runyon has appropriated for his personal comfort.
While her "long-winded lady" sketches may endear her to the hearts of New Yorkers, Brennan's real strength lies in her short stories: in the psychological complexity of her characters, and in her wit and careful detail. She has the power to move her reader by means of ordinary circumstances, to probe the inner fears of her characters, to illuminate their hearts. The ambivalence of love and the breakdown of communication are also frequent themes in Brennan's work. She examines with precision those loveless marriages between two essentially good, decent people who grow apart without ever really knowing why. One does not actively dislike her characters—even the worst are only poor souls who set off on the wrong foot and were never able to get right again.
Brennan's best work is crystalline; the reader perceives a brilliant clarity until another facet is turned to the light, and then realizes he/she is looking not through the crystal but into it. Nothing is ever quite as simple as it appears to be; this is the essence of Brennan's art.
The Springs of Affection (1999).
Atlantic (Oct. 1969). NYTBR (23 Feb. 1969, 4 Aug. 1974). Time (1 July 1974).