Saturday 18 November 2017

How Behan checked in to Chelsea Hotel to quit drinking but checked out for good

Waste: Adrian Dunbar stars as Brendan Behan in 'Brendan at the Chelsea'
Waste: Adrian Dunbar stars as Brendan Behan in 'Brendan at the Chelsea'

Colin Murphy

It was the hotel where Sid Vicious killed Nancy Spungen and where Dylan Thomas died (after 18 straight whiskies). Leonard Cohen wrote of Janis Joplin there, "I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel". (Quite what he remembered isn't suitable for a family newspaper.)

And it was also the hotel where Brendan Behan stayed in the early 1960s, as he tried to save himself from alcoholic death.

Now, Brendan's niece, Janet Behan, has revisited his time there in a new play, Brendan at the Chelsea, which comes to Dublin this month, with Adrian Dunbar in the lead, after a successful run off-Broadway, where The New York Times called it "a must". (It's at the Project Arts Centre, November 12-16. See www.projectartscentre.ie.)

New York was, initially, good to Behan. His memoir Borstal Boy had been a hit there and an appearance on the Ed Murrow talk show was a success, though not in conventional terms: Behan got drunk and was largely edited out of the broadcast show, but the controversy helped burnish his reputation.

But by the time Behan arrived in New York for the premiere of The Hostage, in 1960, he had been warned that his drinking on top of his diabetes would kill him, and he was determined to dry out.

He disembarked in New York clutching a bottle of milk and proclaimed to reporters, "I'm on the wagon." (The quote, and others here, is from Ulick O'Connor's excellent biography.)

Sober, Behan artfully managed the publicity, peppering reporters with witticisms.

Did he have a police escort in Dublin, he was asked. "Yes, but I'm usually handcuffed to them."

Along with critical acclaim and celebrity, he won the respect of his peers. "New York was dead in those days," said Norman Mailer.

"Brendan's Hostage broke the ice. It made the beatnik movement – Kerouac, Ginsberg, myself and others – respectable up-town."

He fell off the wagon spectacularly a number of times.

Once, he had an argument with his wife, Beatrice, over a bottle of champagne, and then went and drank six more.

And then he went to the theatre, where he climbed on stage during his own play, only to be bundled off and into a dressing room, where he could be heard singing till the curtain call.

Back in Dublin, he set to work on a new play, Richard's Cork Leg. But it wasn't good, and he never finished it. He fell back into a well worn pattern. He would drink himself into a near coma, be hospitalised, and check himself out as soon as he could walk, making an apparently rapid recovery.

In between drunken binges, he somehow managed to work, tape recording books in order to appease his publishers.

It was too easy, and he lost the discipline for writing. Back in the States, he was cast in a Broadway revue, but the try-out in Toronto was a disaster – Behan slept through the matinee – and the show never made it to New York.

He assaulted a policeman in Toronto and later landed himself in hospital in San Francisco, where The Hostage was playing. Back in New York, he was found wandering in the streets in his socks, and spent a week in a psychiatric ward.

He tried to dry out again when he returned home, but failed, and eventually he decided to go back to New York.

For two weeks, he was sober, and even went to the gym. But he started drinking again, and was thrown out of his hotel – which led him to the Chelsea.

(The play merges his time in various hotels in New York.)

Norman Mailer remembered him there as "carrying an incredible fatigue inside him".

He would drink and forget his medication and drink more to get through it. Eventually, he exhausted his welcome in even the Irish bars, and went home.

He died in Dublin the following year, at 41. He was "too young to die, but too drunk to live," read one obituary. He was "much more a player than a playwright", wrote Flann O'Brien.

His time at the Chelsea was his last chance to rescue himself. That he didn't was another tragedy for a hotel associated with them.

colinmurphy@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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