Speaking in tribute to Brendan is sort of like trying to sing in tribute to Frank Sinatra – yes, you can do it, but no matter how hard you try, you will not be him, and you will only serve to remind everyone how much we have lost, and how impossible it will be to recreate, and how in a million subtle ways he has profoundly shaped us all. Brendan. Or should I say Brennnndaaannnn!!! But only he could speak convincingly in exclamation points, with inflections that rolled up and down like his beloved Connecticut hills. The rest of us have to struggle not to be too Brendanesque, if I can add an adjective to the language that everyone in this room will instantly understand. We cannot let ourselves be too Brendanesque because we know that only one person could successfully be Brendanesque. Brendan spoke in song, and in cadences that underscored the way in which he danced through his days; beside him the rest of us merely walk.
A Brendan event without Brendan seems odd – indeed, any event without Brendan seems odd; his ubiquity was part of his identity. There were moments when it seemed that Brendan’s ambition was to become the George Jessel of the intellectual set; he was everywhere, and no event was complete without his presence, preferably as a master of ceremonies. The joy he took in parties, in observing and participating in the social rituals of public life, have been talked about a lot since his death, and many have been perplexed by his joy, as if it were somehow not real – smart people are not supposed to be so happy. Yet this paradox was an essential part of Brendan’s nature, the way in which he broke all stereotypes, the way in which he combined the bliss of innocence with deep and searing knowledge of the human condition. Brendan was as far from innocent as anyone who has ever walked this earth. But his knowledge, instead of crushing his joy, seemed only to reinforce it. I think he was the least jaded sophisticated man who has ever existed. That, in the end, may have been the most miraculous thing of all about Brendan, the way his wisdom coexisted with his joy.
But I want to talk about another side of Brendan, an ambition he achieved with equal success, and that is the position he created for himself as the greatest public citizen of our time in the realm of architecture, planning, and historic preservation. Brendan was at once a high-profile civic presence, a New York grandee, and a journalist, and in his life all three sides of this identity were so tightly wound together that they can no longer be imagined separately. Brendan was a missionary, who insinuated himself into the lives of the rich and powerful with the goal of converting them to his way of seeing the world, and particularly his way of seeing his deepest civic passion, New York. But he insinuated himself with equal power into the lives of his readers, who did not write big checks to rescue churches and palaces, but gave preservation the constituency it needed. Brendan was never compromised by his dual role as civic activist and journalistic critic; his passions ran too deep, and were too consistent, for that to happen. If he took delight in socializing with the rich and powerful, he took still greater delight in deftly demolishing their rationales for building what he was certain should never get past the drawing board. He wrote what he believed, and it emerged out of equal parts of love and courage. His conscience made no compromises.
Brendan spent his life as a critic making his passions public, and in doing that he increased their potency. Without Brendan, it is impossible to believe that the landmarks preservation movement would have had the astonishing success it did within the last generation; while he alone did not save Grand Central Terminal, he did as much as anyone to establish the climate that made that possible, through his writing and his civic activism and his behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing. The same can be said of the rescue of the Villard Houses, and the creation of the Landmarks Conservancy, and the struggle to make a tolerable Times Square – especially important to Brendan in his last years, since he hated primness above all, and was horrified at the extent to which that had threatened to become the dominant value in urban planning and preservation, squeezing out the authenticity of city life that, in the end, was what Brendan valued most. On any of these causes, Brendan was the one person who could rally all the troops, and by that I mean he was the only person who could get both Brooke Astor and Harry Helmsley on the phone, since no one else in New York was on speaking terms with both of them. And then after playing behind-the-scenes matchmaker he could write a column about the glories of whatever building it was that was threatened, and appear on a panel and give a lecture and a radio interview, just so that no potential supporter was left unreached, and no medium left untouched.
Brendan’s love for the city, and for all that it represented, was genuine, and unshakeable, and in the end deeply moving, because it was far more realistic, and far less fatuous, than his own rhetoric sometimes suggested. His enthusiasm was never compromised by sentimentality. He was realistic about Times Square, a battle he knew he would not entirely win, as he was realistic about Grand Central, a battle he did win. And he knew, above all, that architecture had to be more than a party, more than a frivolous entertainment, and in several of the Sky Line essays he wrote in his last decade on The New Yorker, he took a firm, clear stance on the side of architecture as a serious, even enobling, art. The city he dreamed of was a place that combined the magnificence of the Beaux-Arts with the honkytonk of neon, a place in which Stanford White, Frank Lloyd Wright, Wallace K. Harrison, Philip Johnson, Hugh Hardy, Frank Gehry and Lewis Mumford would be equally at home – sharing turf, perhaps, with Philip Barry, Jerome Zerbe, Ben Sonnenberg and Brendan Behan. If such a city could be conceived only out of Brendan’s imagination, then surely Brendan’s passion, his eloquence and his joy turned that city, for each and every one of us, into something real.