Historicist: One Drink Too Many, and a Thousand Not Enough
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Historicist: One Drink Too Many, and a Thousand Not Enough

Brendan Behan gets arrested and nearly dies in Toronto.

Photo of Brendan Behan and Jackie Gleason in New York, 1960, from Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Brendan Behan and Jackie Gleason in New York, 1960, from Wikimedia Commons.

“On the wagon is an amateur phrase. You’d never hear it from a professional alcoholic,” Brendan Behan mused to Toronto reporters. “It’s a tribute to the sheltered life of the person who uses the expression.” Though he’d struggled with sobriety for years, he understood the public’s expectation that he fulfill his well-cultivated image as a hard-living boozer.

Visiting the city as a member of a stage production at the O’Keefe Centre, the rebellious and iconoclastic Irish dramatist would fall off the wagon like a true professional during his stay. A week-long binge, with stopovers in jail and police court on charges of disorderly conduct and assault on a police officer, would end with Behan nearly dead, lying in a coma in a local hospital.

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Behan barrelled into Toronto on Sunday, March 19, 1961, in an unhappy mood. Days earlier, in New York City, he’d been publicly humiliated when he was barred from participating in the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade over organizers’ fears he’d be an embarrassing nuisance.

(Left: Article from the Toronto Star, March 20, 1961.)

Stung by the insult from the self-righteous “lace-curtain Irish”—as he dubbed New York’s second-generation Irish establishment—Behan accepted an invitation to be guest of honour at the Jersey City parade. “At one end of the Holland Tunnel lies freedom,” Behan quipped. “I choose it.”

Still brooding over the snub, Behan drank heavily on the train to Toronto. Met by reporters at the Royal York Hotel, the boisterous wit sought headlines with a series of intentionally derisive and expletive-laced wisecracks. “The New York tourist bureau should spend a free weekend in Toronto obtaining a few pointers on how not to attract tourists,” he scoffed to one reporter. “Drama critics,” he jabbed to another, “are like eunuchs in a harem: they see the tricks done every night, they know how it’s done, but they can’t do it themselves.” Waving a cigar around in the air, he mused: “A Torontonian is a fellow who leaves the arts to his wife. He does this because he thinks it’s sort of feminine for a real he-man Torontonian to be interested in the theatre or art or poetry.”

Although Behan and his wife Beatrice were welcomed by the mayor—who awarded Behan a pair of gold cufflinks and playfully warned him to behave himself—it didn’t take long for the city’s pro-British contingent to make them feel unwelcome. Shortly after the couple settled into their seventh-floor room at the Royal York, Brendan and Beatrice began receiving abusive phone calls, telling him to go back to Ireland. “We knew, of course,” Beatrice recorded in her memoirs, My Life with Brendan (Nash Publishing, 1973), “that there was a strong Orange feeling in the city and that an Irish Republican like Brendan, despite a reputation as a dramatist, wasn’t welcome.”

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From brandishing a pistol at an Irish Republican Army rally-turned-riot at the age of 13, to participating in an abortive bomb plot and assaulting policemen as a young man, Behan was an “incorrigible rebel against authority,” as one obituary put it. These youthful, seditious activities and resulting spells in prison informed his first stage play The Quare Fellow (1954) and his major breakthrough, the autobiographical Borstal Boy (1958).

(Right: Review of Behan’s Borstal Boy from the Toronto Star, January 3, 1959.)

Though he eventually steered clear of the IRA—working as a house-painter and journalist before finding fame as a writer—he never abandoned his rebel spirit. A hard drinker, Behan’s inebriated television appearances added to the mystique that surrounded him. “For millions who had never met him, he had become a symbol of revolt,” biographer Ulick O’Connor wrote in Brendan Behan (Hamish Hamilton, 1970). “With his open-necked shirt, his cursing, his drunkenness in public, his contempt for convention, he made an instant appeal to a generation that was attempting to shake off the straight jacket of urban conformity.” As his fame grew, so did the burly author’s compulsion to drink—not just as a weakness in himself, but in fulfillment of the tempestuous image the audience expected.

“Brendan’s drinking has nothing to do with publicity,” his quiet wife would explain to the Toronto press. “Like millions of other people he drinks to relax. He happens to be the type who can’t drink in moderation.” Though his boozy belligerence made him a volatile partner, Beatrice was ever-present, imploring him to stay on the wagon, but tolerating his inevitable lapses into self-destruction. The red-faced playwright with tousled, curly hair would dry out, sustaining sobriety for months at a time, only to eventually return to his roistering ways—curtailing his literary output. “One drink is too many for me,” Behan had once lamented of his battles with the bottle, “and a thousand not enough.”

Article from the Toronto Star (March 21, 1961)

Article from the Toronto Star (March 21, 1961).

Behan’s stint in New York City for the 1960 staging of his play, The Hostage, was emblematic of his struggles with the bottle. He arrived drinking nothing stronger than milk or soda water. But the play was a tremendous success with audiences and critics alike, and his evenings down in the pub grew longer and more rollicking, with Behan leading singalongs interspersed with his exclamations of “Up the Republic!” By the time he was giving a speech at McGill University that December, his noisy bluster had lost its usual charm, and his drunken sermon—against the Crown and for Quebec independence—offended the mostly Anglophone audience. A second speech scheduled for Montreal was cancelled by the organizers.

Back in Dublin that winter, drinking as hard as ever, Behan spent his time getting tossed from pubs and landing himself in court when an argument with a grocer over the price of champagne escalated into a fistfight. Worried, and knowing that he couldn’t trade off of the reputation of Borstal Boy and The Hostage forever, Beatrice implored him to write.

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Then, in the winter of 1961, O’Keefe Centre impresario Alexander Cohen asked him to host Impulse!, a jazz revue in Toronto that spring. The wages offered—a reported $3,000 per week—overcame Behan’s initial hesitation, and he accepted in February 1961.

(Left: Advertisement for Impulse! from the Globe and Mail, March 16, 1961.)

Exploring the varieties and meaning of jazz, Impulse! was to include performances by Nina Simone, Babatunde Olatunji and his Drums of Passion, multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef, trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, and dancer Carmen de Lavallade. Behan’s role was to provide commentary between segments—or, as he put it, to “get up and talk a lot of nonsense.”

After a week’s warm-up at the O’Keefe Centre, the heavily-publicized revue was to move to an engagement in New York, but trouble arose almost immediately. “The idea makes as much sense,” the Star (March 6, 1961) suggested with skepticism when the production was announced, “as importing Louis Armstrong to Dublin to chair a discussion by Irish antiquarians of the Gaelic epic poem Táin Bó Cúailnge and its legendary hero, Cúchulainn.” Behan’s tepid enthusiasm for Impulse! didn’t help matters. Asked what he knew about jazz, Behan retorted: “I can’t read a note of music but I can certainly read a cheque.”

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Swaggering onto stage for the March 20 premiere, unrehearsed and bolstered by drink, Behan mumbled his introduction and then broke into song, accompanied by Nina Simone. With a strong sense of showmanship and at-the-ready witticisms, Behan was quite adept at establishing audience rapport on television or in small venues. But, dressed in a tuxedo, he was lost on the O’Keefe Centre’s cavernous stage. “Long before the performance ended I knew it was a disaster,” Beatrice recalled. “My husband, the writer was making a fool of himself for a couple of thousand dollars. It was a cruel dissipation of his talent.”

(Right: Review of Impulse! from the Toronto Star, March 21, 1961.)

Star critic Nathan Cohen characterized Impulse! as incoherent, though he felt the individual acts would be pleasant enough in a nightclub. Behan was singled out for being out-of-place and adding little value to the proceedings. The Globe and Mail called the Irishman’s efforts at humour “lame.”

After the evening performance on Tuesday, March 21, Brendan and Beatrice joined friends for a late supper at the Barclay Hotel’s Club Oasis. It was not uncommon, when night-clubbing, for Behan to jump on stage to sing Irish folk songs and other standards—whether the audience liked it or not. On this night, his insistence on making the house band a quartet took a nasty turn. “[S]omebody heckled him and that’s when the Irish stew hit the fan,” the Club Oasis maître d’ recounted for a local gossip columnist. “I’ve never seen or read any of his plays but I want to tell you his nightclub ad-libs can be about as ripe as they come. Before somebody got hurt I doused the lights and eventually he sailed out, singing the Jewish national anthem. I hope I never have to find out what he does for an encore.”

Front Page of the Toronto Star (March 22, 1961)

Front page of the Toronto Star (March 22, 1961).

When Behan and his wife returned to the Royal York Hotel in the early hours, Behan’s continued thirst collided with the strictness of Ontario liquor laws. He was refused a bottle by the night porter. Already intoxicated and becoming increasingly belligerent, Behan shouted in the lobby: “I’m not moving until I get a fucking drink.”

When John Matthews of the hotel’s security intervened, calmly asking the 38-year-old author to go to his room quietly, Behan exploded. He leaned into Matthews and gave him a black eye before a second guard could help trundle the playwright up the elevator and into his room. “If you don’t keep that man in his room,” security warned Beatrice, who trailed behind them, “we’ll have him arrested.”

Enraged and craving drink, he badgered the hotel staff to supply him with a bottle over the telephone for hours, alternately pleading and threatening them. The hotel’s night manager, the Star reported, even cut power to the elevator to ensure Behan remained on his floor. Finally, around 6 a.m., the police arrived. As a true Irish republican, Behan had no affection for the constabulary. And as they approached, the stocky dramatist—in shirt sleeves and missing one shoe—bull-rushed the officers down the hallway. He landed a few blows, but was wrestled to the ground by Detective Edward Trevelyan and another officer. “He thinks he is a strong man, but there’s not much muscle, only fat,” Trevelyan told the press, once Behan was safely stowed in a cell at the police station on Regent Street.

“Am I losing control of him?” Beatrice asked herself despairingly, as she sat powerless on the bed, listening to the fracas outside her door. “Nothing had gone right since we arrived in Canada,” she thought. “Toronto didn’t appeal to me; it lacked the friendliness of New York; its people were reserved. I cried as I thought of Brendan locked once again in a police cell. I wanted to be out of Toronto, just as I wanted Brendan to be with me.”

Article from the Globe and Mail (March 23, 1961)

Article from the Globe and Mail (March 23, 1961).

“You just don’t get used to these things,” Behan’s wife told a reporter, as she ate breakfast the next morning. “Naturally I’m worried. In Dublin it takes only 10 minutes to get something like this straightened out. I don’t know how long it will take here.”

Disheveled and hungover, but sporting a crisp dark suit and silver tie, Behan joined the night’s haul of petty thieves, vagrants, and prostitutes in police court at Old City Hall at a little before noon. With Behan facing charges on two counts of assault and one of creating a disturbance, his lawyer asked for a week’s remand to prepare a defense. The magistrate agreed, setting bail at $1,500.

“On Monday, Mayor Nathan Phillips gave me a pair of gold cuff-links,” he told one reporter after his release on bail. “On Wednesday they gave me a pair of steel handcuffs. I wonder which of these is the proper credentials for a writer. The cuff-links are an honour. The handcuffs show I’m not a statue yet.” Both Brendan and Beatrice seemed surprised at the seriousness with which the incident was being treated. “In 1867 there was a Fenian raid on Canada and my grandfather was in it,” he glibly offered as a cause of his perceived persecution. “But that’s quite a way back to carry a grudge.”

Behan slept through the Wednesday matinee performance of Impulse! and was promptly fired by Alexander Cohen. “When I arranged for Brendan to appear here,” the producer complained, “I was satisfied this his problem was a personal one. But it is not personal anymore.” Looking back in 1971, Mary Jolliffe, the O’Keefe Centre’s PR rep, suggested that Cohen had used Behan, hoping to draw attention for Impulse! if the Irishman fell off the wagon in spectacular fashion. “He was drinking then, a poor sick man,” Jolliffe said of Behan. “It was the cruelest thing.”

Not even the media attention for Behan’s arrest could save a production that critics had called “a flimsy frippery.” At its lowest, the cast performed for an audience of only 210—prompting the 3,200-seat theatre to tighten up its refund policy because so many ticket holders wanted their money back. Within days, Impulse!‘s New York City run was cancelled too.

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Within hours of being fired, Behan was back to his loutish drinking and insisted upon joining the band on stage at the Walker House Hotel. Though his antics were tolerated by the musicians and ignored by the crowd on this occasion, it was to be but the first stop on a days-long binge.

(Right: Photo of Brendan Behan singing in New York City, 1960, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Increasingly worried about her husband’s health, Beatrice insisted Behan enter the Sunnyside private hospital, a local treatment centre for alcoholics, on March 26. Shortly after his admission, the dramatist sank into a diabetic coma brought on by excessive drinking. His attending physician, Dr. David W. Pratt, warned Beatrice that death was near.

Day after day, Beatrice sat at her husband’s bedside, as she’d previously done on his numerous booze-induced hospitalizations. His face grey with strain, and his eyes dark and sunken, Behan was more ill than he’d ever been—but rumours he’d actually died were quickly corrected by the newspapers.

“I always thought you would do the noble thing and drink yourself to death,” Behan’s long-time friend Eamonn Martin had told him when visiting the playwright in New York in 1960. “I just about did,” Behan had replied at the time, seemingly aware of the perils of the public image he’d cultivated. “It’s a wonderful thought until you get too close to actually doing it.” Like Behan, Martin had been born into an IRA family. He’d been helping his friend escape scrapes with the law since they were both teenagers, then traded Dublin for Toronto in 1953 and became a TTC inspector, arts advocate, and left-wing activist. Now, with Behan in his sick bed, Martin comforted Beatrice.

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When Behan missed his scheduled court date on March 27, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest and a policeman posted outside his hospital door—circumstances that Beatrice decried as “grotesque.”

(Left: Article from the Toronto Star, March 28, 1961.)

After about a week, Behan was able to sit up, though he was still too ill to leave hospital. “It was the strain of work and then suddenly going on the gargle,” Beatrice told the press on March 29. “I was very concerned about him. But he seems much better today.” Behind the scenes, Beatrice was surprised when Dr. Pratt asked if her husband had ever suffered a serious head injury. He had, she explained, in youthful fist fights and mistreatment in prison. “I would like him to undergo neurological tests,” Pratt said, suspicious that Behan’s compulsive drinking might be linked to neurological damage. “I think there may be pressure on his brain causing him to behave as he does.” But, when Brendan objected violently to a neurological examination, Pratt and Beatrice abandoned the line of inquiry.

“I have made a humble resurrection,” the dramatist proclaimed to reporters by early April, when he was able to walk with the aid of a cane. He received visitors cordially—including Luigi, a Royal York waiter who brought a serving of Behan’s favourite spaghetti—and said he received many letters from local well-wishers. “Judging from the many letters I’ve received in the past week,” he remarked, “there must be a good many fine people in Toronto.”

But, feeling he’d been made to appear foolish in some local newspaper coverage, Behan also unleashed a torrent of insults from his hospital bed. “I don’t want anything I have written to be on the CBC, or on stage or sold in bookstores in Canada,” he raged. “I want to get away from the Toronto Sabbath, which is 50 per cent bootlegging,” he added. He regretted ever having come to town.

Released from hospital on April 13, Behan and his entourage proceeded immediately to the police court at Old City Hall. When the case was heard, after being remanded again until late April, the magistrate treated the Irish literary icon as any other petty criminal. Behan was found guilty on two charges of assault and was fined $200.

Behan walked out of court, his hand raised in a “V” for victory sign, and hastened to the airport to catch a flight to New York. “New York is my Lourdes. I go there for spiritual replenishment,” he said as he arrived, peppering the press with bon mots. “I’m so glad to leave that even seeing the Howard Johnson architecture in Buffalo cheers me up.”

Feeling rejuvenated, Behan raced across the country to join a production of The Hostage in San Francisco. When Beatrice joined him a few days later, she found him unconscious in their suite, surrounded by empty bottles. The spree was followed by another hospital stay before Behan, on and off the bottle, eventually returned home to Ireland to try and dry out. “Pushing past reporters,” the Globe and Mail reported of his arrival in Dublin, “Behan and his friend went to the airport bar where they shook hands with everyone and then drank several whiskies.” He died in March 1964.

Sources consulted include: Beatrice Behan with Des Hickey and Gus Smith, My Life with Brendan (Nash Publishing, 1973); Michael O’Sullivan, Brendan Behan: A Life (Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1999); Ulick O’Connor, Brendan Behan (Hamish Hamilton, 1970); numerous articles reprinted in E.H. Mikhail, ed., Brendan Behan Interviews and Recollections, Volume 2 (Gill and Macmillan, 1982); and press coverage from the Calgary Herald (November 2, 1960, and July 20, 1962); the Globe and Mail (January 2 & 31, March 4, 18, 20 & 23, June 17, and August 10, 1961; March 21, and April 2, 1964; and January 16, 1971); the Miami News (April 13, 1961); the Milwaukee Journal (April 2, 1961); the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 28, 1961); the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph (April 10, 1961); the Regina Leader-Post (March 23, 1961, and February 9, 1967); the St. Petersburg Times (May 5, 1961); the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix (November 17, 1960, and October 13, 1966); the Toronto Star (June 19, 1956; September 17, and December 14 & 17, 1960; January 28 & 31, February 18, March 6, 11, 18, 20, 21, 22, 24, 25, 28, 29, & 30, April 3, May 9 & 29, August 10, and December 28 & 30, 1961; January 28, 1967; March 16, 1986; and March 9, 1996); and the Windsor Star (January 3, 1963).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.