"Too much celebrity, I thought?"
Updated: Sep 30
In September 2016, Smithsonian's Irish expert said these words during an Emerald Isle tour. Hilary, a brilliant professor from Cork University, had done her doctoral thesis on Frank O'Connor. At the time of the tour, she was finishing a book on Frank O'Connor and Wallace Stegner, whose correspondence continued for years after O'Connor's stint at Stanford where Stegner ran the famous writing program. Hilary liked that I had taught a short story course on Frank and Flannery, the two O'Connor geniuses of the short story. And we noted the coincidence that Wallace Stegner was my literary hero and I'd taught courses on his literature.
Over breakfast one morning she asked what I'd read recently. I told her, Edna O'Brien's memoir, Country Girl. Too much celebrity, she thought. I said the celeb material wasn't that much, and largely about London and New York. We agreed to disagree, as the cliché goes! I mention this because last week I purposely ended with Paul McCartney's song about Edna O'Brien. Why, I ask, would an Irish girl from County Clare not tell how she got from there to literary fame, and mention those she met along the way? Was she supposed to refrain from telling her reader she enjoyed a night of actor Robert Mitchem's "hectoring charms"; that film director Roger Vadim and actress Jane Fonda stayed in her London home; that zany Shirley MacLaine took her palm and read Edna's past lives; that Richard Burton, her bard brother, recited Shakespeare to her; that Marlon Brando with his "quiet, lethal intelligence" asked Edna, "Are you a great writer?" "I intend to be," she told him; and he pushed her high in a swing, as if she were Eva Maria Saint in On the Waterfront (my interpretation and a favorite film).
What a life this country girl has lived: vacationing in Gore Vidal's Italian villa; attending a White House dinner at Hillary Clinton's bequest; receiving a phone call from Jackie Onassis, who wondered if Edna might have time for her. That call led to their ten-year friendship. "Jackie who went through life veiled, and left it with her stardust intact," O'Brien writes.
In detail she describes a disastrous dinner she hosted to pay back some of those who entertained her during frequent stays in NYC. Imagine assembling in an Italian restaurant the following persons: historian Arthur Schlesinger, Russian poet Yevtushenko, Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, Al Pacino in poor disguise, and their wives and dates. Her New York friendships, especially with writers, survived her periods of absence from the city; and Thornton Wilder, Günter Grass, Philip Roth, Joseph Brodsky are writers who sought time with her. "The famous were not so famous, and were not surrounded by gloating cohorts," she tells us in Country Girl, though Pacino's experience at Edna's dinner disputes her words, which refer more to London than to New York City. Although O'Brien declared she would never write a memoir, she did. She began writing it at age 78, with Country Girl published in 2012. This memoir is an engaging read and helpful as background for her fiction.
Next week: Edna O'Brien's 1960s trilogy, The Country Girls, and patriarchal Ireland's response.