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Brendan's deadly love affair with america

BRENDAN Behan did not expect to like the United States. A few months before his first visit there in 1960, he took part in a CBS talk show via satellite from Ireland.

"Americans, they're like a broken bicycle saddle," he roared while swigging from a bottle. "They'd give you a pain in your derriere."

In fact, Behan came to love America, and it mostly loved him back.

As Dave Hannigan shows in this brilliantly researched and colourfully written book, his Stateside trips were among the happiest days of Behan's life.

It was a country that gave free rein to the Irishman's outsized personality, but his love of playing the drunken Irish rogue meant it was also a country that helped to kill him.

Behan first went to the US to promote his play The Hostage, which had been a sensation in London's West End and was about to open on Broadway.

His arrival at Idlewild Airport in New York was the literary equivalent of the Beatles' reception there four years later.

Journalists queued up to interview him, keen to hear about his IRA history, his political views and his famous capacity for alcohol.

Behan may have jokingly described himself as "a drinker with a writing problem", but in fact he was well aware of his illness.

"The trouble with me is that I can't drink just a small quantity a day, say a pint of whiskey and 12 bottles of stout," he told American reporters.

"I can't stop drinking and I become a bore and a nuisance and begin to say things, some of them of an obscene nature."


Sadly, this was an all-too-accurate description. The Behan that emerges from this book could be witty, charming and incredibly generous. He was also an overgrown child who hit his wife, tried to rape another woman, wasted his talent and eventually drank himself to death.

In the city that never sleeps, Behan felt completely at home.

Life became a whirlwind of pub crawls and society parties at which he exchanged witticisms with celebrities including Mia Farrow, Mel Brooks and the Marx Brothers.

The young Bob Dylan followed him into a bar, but was disappointed to find Behan too intoxicated to speak.

Behan also enjoyed the rare distinction of being banned from the St Patrick's Day parade in New York. This was not on account of his bisexuality (which very few people knew about), but because the organisers felt that he sent out the wrong image.

His verdict on them was equally hostile: "By Jaysus, they'd put years on you with their plastic shamrocks and green socks."

Although Behan came to regard New York as his second home, he was keen to see more of the continent. He crossed into Canada, where he was arrested for assaulting a policeman and insulted his hosts by calling it boring. "When you're in jail, how can you tell the difference?" he complained. He also spent some time in Hollywood, which he described in a letter home as "like Foxrock multiplied by a hundred".

At one point Behan was hired to act as MC in a travelling jazz cabaret with stars including Nina Simone. His fee was rumoured to be the astronomical sum of $3,000 (€2,181) a week, prompting him to remark: "I can't read a note of music, but I can certainly read a cheque." Unfortunately, audiences could not understand his Dublin accent and the show quickly collapsed.

Behan was a man with huge sexual appetites. He fathered a child with his 21-year-old Irish secretary, Valerie Danby-Smith, after a one-night stand in her hotel room.

He met a Dundalk sailor in the local YMCA swimming pool who became his lover, chauffeur and bodyguard for the next two years.

By the end of his time in America, Behan was a complete shambles. He would sometimes attend performances of his own work and invade the stage, crying out: "You're making a muck of me play!"

He developed the unfortunate habit of running through hotels stark naked, which resulted in him being asked to leave several establishments.

His wife Beatrice lamented: "The man who gives Brendan another drink is a murderer."

The tragic reality was that Behan seemed hell-bent on destroying himself.



Hannigan has now provided a much fuller account of this crucial period in Behan's life, making it one of the most important biographies of the man ever written.

Behan died 50 years ago this month at the age of 41, shortly after Beatrice gave birth to their only child. A year later a plaque was unveiled outside the bohemian Chelsea Hotel that had been his last home in New York.

Composed by the man himself, it reads: "To America, my new-found land. The man that hates you hates the human race."