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Brendan Gill

By William Maxwell

Now that I can’t pick up the phone and hear that amused voice, I find myself trying to remember what he was like at this or that stage of our long friendship. His hair and his eyebrows were black when I first knew him. Then a mixture of black and grey. Then grey. And finally white. But if he changed, I wasn’t aware of it. From the beginning he was generous, he was witty, he was worldly. He was intelligent. Above all he was effervescent. He had the same effect on people that champagne does. In his company their eyes brightened. They began to enjoy the occasion. He believed that “the first rule of life is to have a good time and that the second rule is to hurt as few people as possible in the course of doing so.” I think nobody ever owned him.

For a while Brendan’s office and Maeve Brennan’s and mine were all in a row on the twentieth floor of 25 West 43rd Street, and there was so much slipping of notes under his door, and hers, and mine, and such explosions of laughter as a result of our reading them that William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker at that time, felt it was bad for the office morale and Maeve was moved to the other side of the building.

My office—“cubicle” would be a more accurate word for it—was barely large enough to accommodate a desk and chair for me and an authentic deck chair of the kind people reclined in on ocean voyages while having their mid-morning bouillon. If I was going over proofs with a contributor and an office boy wanted to drop something in my in basket, he had to climb over the contributor’s ankles. Eventually I saw my chance and asked for a bigger office and two cubicles were thrown together. Brendan took an interest in the remodeling. “Ask for indirect lighting,” he advised. “I don’t mind what’s there,” I said. “No, no!” Brendan exclaimed. “It’s terrible. You must have concealed lighting.” “But it will cost them a lot of money to lower the ceiling,” I said. “All the better,” he said.

When I first read Brendan’s masterly Here at The New Yorker twenty years ago, it struck me as perhaps a little harsh on some of our colleagues. I have just reread it and I found nothing I would quarrel with and that much astonished me. It is both thoughtful and thorough. It also made me laugh out loud. Along with everything else the book is an extremely candid autobiography. From it I learned that Brendan was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1914, the fourth of five children. His father was a surgeon and physician with a very large practice. Brendan’s mother died when he was seven. Dr. Gill had no idea what to do with his orphaned children except shower them with extravagant gifts, admiration, and love. Periodically he would sail off to Europe with them and they would come home with their little suitcases plastered with hotel stickers: The Grand Hotel This or That, the Hotel Terminus, the Hyde Park, the Danielli.

I incline to think that Brendan came into this world knowing what to do with a typewriter. At Yale he managed to combine literary aspirations with being a member of Skull and Bones. He won the poetry prize in both his junior and his senior year. His reputation spread as far away as Northampton, where someone challenged a very pretty Smith College sophomore named Anne Barnard to write a letter to him. She bet he would not answer and lost the bet. She got five letters from him and then one afternoon there he was, a handsome and dashing young man in a sporty car with a dog on the front seat beside him. They were married the day after he graduated, and spent their honeymoon in Europe. During the daytime Anne went to see the Tower of London and the Unicorn tapestries and the Bridge of Sighs while Brendan typed. He was writing a novel about tobacco farmers in the Connecticut River Valley. I have no way of knowing what it was like but suspect that it was earnest. And well-written. With talent sticking out all over it. John Farrar read the finished manuscript and urged Brendan not to publish it. I had a similar experience with Farrar a few years earlier. Publishers afraid to risk money on a first novel nevertheless would just as soon it didn’t fall into the hands of some other publisher.

After many rejections Brendan sold a short story to The New Yorker and this led to his being offered a job as a reporter for Talk of the Town. Here at the New Yorker starts off with an allusion to the opening paragraph of Anna Karenina: “Happy writers have histories shorter even than happy families. The whole of my professional life can be summed up by saying that I started out at the place where I wanted most to be—The New Yorker magazine—and with much pleasure and very little labor have remained there ever since. Sometimes, and with good reason, I boast of having never done an honest day’s work in my life. An honest day’s play—Oh, that I have accomplished on a thousand occasions, or ten thousand, but work implies a measure of drudgery and fatigue, and these are states as yet unknown to me.”

When he wrote those sentences he was somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty.

It is not really necessary to list his accomplishments. They are various and important and common knowledge. His novel The Trouble of One House won the National Book Award for fiction in 1950. During the ten years that he covered the New York stage his reviews were unmatched. For that you would have to turn to the theater criticism of George Bernard Shaw and Max Beerbohm. Perhaps Brendan valued his writing on architecture more.

His social ramifications were enormous and they were not limited to the continent of North America. Eminent figures of all kinds were attracted to him and he would invite them to lunch. Sometimes he would ask me to come along as ballast. In this way I met Father Darcy, the model for the omniscient Jesuit in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies and a man given to converting the famous. In this way I met also that charming English poet John Betjemen, who was enthusiastic about our skyscrapers but said he minded not being able to see the sky. When we left the restaurant we walked up one street and down the next, looking for it, but in mid-town Manhattan the sky is not easily come by. If there is a building left in this city worth looking at we have Brendan mostly to thank for it. When Grand Central Station was threatened, who else would, or could, have invoked the help of Mrs. Kennedy and saved it?

Brendan became a father early on and as his children emerged from babyhood they figured in his conversation along with the poems of the Earl of Rochester and money. He would have had no difficulty or embarrassment in disposing of an infinite supply of it, but it wasn’t only money for himself that concerned him. At a meeting of the trustees of the New York Society Library, Shirley Hazzard pointed out that a certain member of the staff had served for twenty-five years and oughtn’t they make some expression of gratitude for work faithfully done? Perhaps a thousand dollars. She looked around and her heart sank. The faces were dubious. Except one. “A thousand dollars is not enough!” Brendan exclaimed. “It should be two thousand.”

Heaven knows how many tedious board meetings he suffered through, how many worthy causes he served. He announced his retirement as a trustee of the Library by saying, “I’m cutting back on my boards, but if you ever need me for anything, just call me. The old fire horse will still be first out of the stall, racing to the scene.”

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 7, 1998.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters