A Handmaid’s Tale

When we moved to New York we stayed at the Algonquin Hotel on 44th and 5th. Our taxi was stuffed with as many bags as we had been able to carry from London. Ed, the bell-hop was neat, silver-haired, and buck-toothed, and his manner was so comforting that I wanted to tell him my worries and fears about this new life. But I didn’t know how, any more than I knew how much to tip him for carrying eight bags upstairs.

When we moved to New York we stayed at the Algonquin Hotel on 44th and 5th. Our taxi was stuffed with as many bags as we had been able to carry from London. Ed, the bell-hop, was neat, silver-haired, and buck-toothed, and his welcome was so comforting that I wanted to tell him my worries and fears about this new life. But I didn’t know how, any more than I knew how much to tip him for carrying eight bags upstairs.

The first room was cramped and dark and stank of smoke. I complained to Jason. Being Irish, I then begged him not to complain to anyone who could fix it. He called the front desk anyway and got another room, this one merely cramped and dark.

The hotel had just been bought. Builders hammered in the Oak Room and the new manager briefed important people. They were going to do so much more to capitalise on the wonderful literary tradition here, he said. Round Table, mm-hmm. Dorothy Parker. Thurber. Nearby, sleek Matilda dozed in her own glass-fronted, cat-sized suite and woke to prowl the lobby at night.

At the breakfast buffet I went back for refills and considered squirrelling away muffins for later. In the evenings the obsequious but unfriendly Indian waiters placed bowls of mixed nuts and Japanese crackers on the tables. I sat with a glass of wine and emptied them steadily. In my head I calculated over and over the daily cost of the room, breakfast, and dinner, which seemed enormous. Jason’s company paid. Every morning he walked to his new job on 45th Street, while I sat in the lobby with his laptop and didn’t write. We were two weeks married, and I was lost.

The other lobby residents were older. Couples talked about Broadway shows. Once I spoke with a German photographer over for a fashion shoot. He was out of place in this shabby gentility, but he liked it, he said, because the fashion crowd never came there. Once a middle-aged man told me how to close a sale, and then invited me uptown to see an art show. In the taxi back he confided that he couldn’t get it up except for phone sex, and I retreated to the hotel feeling stupid.

Allan spent almost as much time there as me. He was a threadbare impresario trying to arrange a series of what he called “cultural events” in the new Oak Room. Every day he wore a red sports jacket with too-short cuffs and sold his ideas over a coffee that grew cold. He leaned towards his audience of sponsors and hotel managers and doubtful actors. John Lahr would read from his _New Yorker_ theatre criticism. Brendan Gill would discuss Maeve Brennan. Lewis Lapham would talk about something or other. I’d never heard of any of these people. I watched Allan from behind my laptop until one day he asked if I was a writer. He was disappointed, I think, that I was merely nursing an electric security blanket, so I offered to help him plan these shows.

I wasn’t much help, but I confirmed guest lists, stamped tickets, and shuffled. He gave me a free ticket to each show, though the two-drink minimum recouped their loss. The Oak Room filled with the kind of stiff-haired people drawn to a series called The Culture Project at The Algonquin. I was always the only person looking at thirty, or even forty, from below.

The talk I remember most clearly was by Brendan Gill, who died a few weeks later. Gill was a _New Yorker_ writer of the old school, out-of-place in the Tina Brown era, and delightful. He spoke about his old colleague, Maeve Brennan, whose short stories had just been republished. I had never heard of her, though I had just graduated with a literature degree from Joyce’s university, and her Dublin stories were the equal of his. She had moved to Washington at the age of 17 when her father was appointed ambassador. She started as a fashion writer for _Harper’s Bazaar_, then she joined the _New Yorker_, where she wrote for Wallace Shawn, and published a book of her Talk of the Town sketches under the byline “The Long-Winded Lady”.

The tiny redhead with the acute gaze had charmed literary New York in the Fifties, but remained mostly unknown at home. Though she spent the rest of her life in New York, her short stories never strayed from Dublin, and they are a unique portrait of a new republic. Maeve Brennan died alcoholic, mentally ill, and homeless, having spent the last decades of her life living in the women’s toilets at the _New Yorker_. New staff were told, “She used to be a writer.”

I read her stories, The Springs of Affection, in the Algonquin lobby and wanted to press them on someone.

After three weeks we moved out of the Algonquin to a company apartment next door to Carnegie Hall. Our roommate was a Serbian programmer. “New York is Shit. Hole.” said vinegar-faced Bogdan. “I lived before in Santa Berbera. Santa Berbera is not Shit. Hole.”

I called home a lot. I learned to watch daytime TV. I read _The Newcomer’s Guide to New York_, but it didn’t make me brave enough to face the place until I got an unpaid internship at the publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux, where again I was a handmaiden to fusty Fifties New York. I read through the slush pile, filed press clippings, and filled Jiffybags with review copies. By phone I worked my way through more guest list confirmations. “This is Betty Bacall,” growled one, and I nearly hung up in fright.

Roger Straus sometimes appeared in the dusty, dog-eared corridors, still dashing at ninety-two. He wore a tweed jacket and a bright cravat, and had a sweep of white hair. He was, though I didn’t know it, a publishing legend: the playboy heir to Macy’s turned literary hero. He had escorted so many Nobel Prize winners that the Swedes believed he was the American Minister for Culture. There were rumours he was a spy.
“This one is Irish,” said Peggy, the kind and terrifying great lady of the house.
“Ah, like our own dear Edna O’Brien,” he boomed, “Do you know Edna, dear?”

It’s funny how I had forgotten that time. Eventually I found a paid job in a very different world, and invented a new story in which I was the cosmopolitan heroine in a so-fabulous New York. I carefully forgot that I had once got nervous ordering deli sandwiches, that I didn’t know how to give directions in a taxi, and that I had scuffed my shoes with shyness outside Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

But it all comes round again. I saw _Lost in Translation_ a second time because it was true. A week later I flicked from I’m a Celebrity… to a late-night RTE documentary on Maeve Brennan’s life. Her cousin, Roddy Doyle–who knew?–was interviewed, holding her forgotten collection of short stories. Then they cut to the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel, where Ed, bell-hop and beautiful man, fondly remembered “Miss Brennan”. Listening to his Queens vowels, I was back there on the fowth flooah, my worldly goods on his trolley.

May we all have such a eulogist.