In the early 1960s a number of celebrities passed through Sausalito. For most, their visits were brief and under the radar. A few, like actor and adventurer Sterling Hayden, stayed and became enduring lights in the constellation of our town. A very few others seared across Sausalito’s firmament like intense shooting stars. Perhaps the most intense of these fiery passers through was the Irish poet, novelist and playwright, Brendan Francis Behan.
Born into an Irish republican family in 1923, Behan was surrounded by Irish history, literature, culture and patriotic ballads throughout his childhood. He joined the IRA at 16 and was imprisoned both in Ireland and in a borstal youth prison in the United Kingdom, where he learned Gaelic and set the groundwork for his novel, Borstal Boy.
Released from prison as part of a general amnesty in 1946, he moved between homes in Dublin, Kerry and Connemara. He eventually shared an apartment in Paris with Milt Maklin, later the editor of Argosy Magazine, then studying at the Sorbonne on the GI Bill, Norman Mailer and several other rising literary stars. Over the next cluster of years, his fame grew to international proportions, as did his reputation as a drinker.
In May of 1961, his play, “The Hostage,” was produced in San Francisco’s Geary Theater, and his Paris roommate, Milt Maklin, invited him to come over for the production and stay at his place in Sausalito. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Behan made quite a stir at the theater on opening night, “poured stout on the actors, mumbled to the audience.” What would be termed a heavy toper, Behan gravitated to the Sausalito bar scene, particularly to the No Name Bar.
Eschewing Maklin’s offer for the playwright to stay with him and his wife, Brendan chose to crash on Kaela Kahn’s front couch. He reasoned that her place was closer to the downtown action than Milt’s. A good hearted non drinker herself, Kaela then acted as his caretaker for the remainder of his stay, not an easy job. Behan rewarded her with a copy of “The Hostage,” autographed in Gaelic.
Like many writers of that era, and even before, Behan had created his own public personae. By the time he returned to Ireland from France, he had become a writer who drank too much, rather than a drinker who talked about what he was going to write, and was on his way to fame.
As his fame grew, so did his alcohol consumption. He saw that it paid to be drunk; the public wanted the witty, iconoclastic, genial “broth of a boy,” and he gave that to them in abundance. As a consequence, his health declined and he developed diabetes. He suffered diabetic comas and seizures on a regular basis, which may account for some of his over the top behavior in Sausalito, although to most of those who encountered him in those days he merely seemed to be in a perpetual state of spectacular inebriation.
Herb Caen had a field day, reporting Behan’s antics in his column. One of the more noted incidents was his impromptu swim — Caen had it from the municipal dock next to the Trident, but Kaela says it was during a champagne — lubricated visit aboard Sterling Hayden’s Wanderer. They both agree, however, that the poet proved to be publicly devoid of underwear when he dropped his pants.
My own experience was one evening when I entered the No Name with local poet and Contact magazine contributor Christopher Humble. Behan was standing at the far end of the bar. He was a large man, well over six feet and broad to match. He spotted us and with a shout of, “Christopher, me lad!” he lurched toward us, arms outstretched. There was a passageway between the long bar and a row of tables and he missed it completely, instead knocking over every table in the place as he advanced. Glasses, ashtrays and anything else in evidence flew in every direction. As best as I recall, Christopher and I quickly exited, the memory of that scene etched in our consciousness.
Behan’s stay in Sausalito ended abruptly when his wife flew in from Dublin and spirited him away to St. Mary’s hospital, “for a rest.” He returned with her to Ireland and had a daughter in 1963, but the combination of alcohol and diabetes brought him down in 1964. Collapsing at the Harbour Lights bar in Dublin he died at the Meath Hospital at the age of 41.