Of all the incomparable stable of journalists who wrote for The New Yorker during its glory days in the Fifties and Sixties – AJ Leibling, Joseph Mitchell, Lillian Ross and John McPhee are all worth seeking out – the most distinctive was Irish-born Maeve Brennan. Her keen-eyed observation of the minutiae of New York life has been compared to Turgenev, but a closer parallel is Edward Hopper.
His mysterious urban canvases, pregnant with possibility, might be illustrations for Brennan's vignettes: the girl on Broadway who "walked like two snakes... Her dress was more than very tight. It was extremely tight"; Julie Andrews caught eating a sandwich while making a film in the Algonquin Hotel, "her hungry face glazed with anger"; a woman attempting to catch the eye of a waiter after encountering a substandard melon in the Plaza Hotel; "the worst-mannered dog in New York City, and possibly the world". Brennan's subject was the public life of mid-town Manhattan, "a hard, ambitious, irresolute place, not very lively and never gay", as observed from a hotel window or in an unfashionable restaurant.
Anyone familiar with New York will enjoy a transporting jolt of recognition from these pages. Looking back from our own time, when it seems that every column has to be loaded with hectoring opinion and egotistical preening, Brennan's stylish scrutiny of minor embarrassments and small pleasures is as welcome as a Dry Martini.