Monday, October 10, 2011

Louis A. Brennan: A Life in Full Color


How does one begin to recreate the life of a polymath and many-sided friend? Once his was a household name recognized by newspaper readers in Ossining, Croton and Cortlandt. Today he lives on in the memories of those who knew and loved him. But our numbers are legion.
There were several Lou Brennans. One was the author who could create stories that laid bare the secrets of small town life or explore the culture patterns of the Iroquois in novels.
Another was the self-taught archaeologist and teacher who could make the past come alive for a classroom of students, for readers of his nonfiction books or for an enraptured audience at a Rotary meeting.
Still another was the dedicated journalist who reported on local affairs and activities without fear or favor, a fierce fighter for principle no matter whose ox was gored. Louis Arthur Brennan, the oldest of the five children of Edward Brennan and Gertrude Sherer Brennan was born in PortsmouthOhio, on February 15, 1911.
Portsmouth, a thriving manufacturing and railroad center, was the seat of Scioto County. In 1927 a million-dollar suspension bridge across the Ohio River linked it to South Portsmouth,Kentucky.
It would have been difficult for a youth growing up in the valleys of the Ohio and Scioto rivers to remain unaware of abundant reminders of Ohio's first inhabitants.
Known as mound builders, and generally agreed among archaeologists to have been early American Indians, they left behind countless earthworks as forts and mounds.
Young Louis became fascinated with the mysterious mound builders and with their descendants, the MiamisShawnees, Wyandottes and Mingos. Doomed from the start, Ohio's Indians had no defense against the land-hungry whites who swarmed into their lush valleys. By the mid-19th century, their bones, tools and weapons were all that was left in the bottom lands where they had lived and raised corn, beans, squash and pumpkins for centuries. His interest in archaeology was to remain with Lou Brennan for the rest of his life.
After attending Holy Redeemer elementary school and high school, he left for South BendIndiana, and Notre Dame University on an academic scholarship. Majoring in English, he graduated magna cum laude in 1932.
Another honor came his way that same year. Anthologist Edward J. O'Brien selected Lou's short story "Poisoner in Motley" for inclusion in his annual short story collection, Best Short Stories of 1932.
Twenty-one-year-old Louis Brennan was now in distinguished company. Among the works of the 25 authors represented was William Faulkner's "Smoke" and Morley Callaghan's "The Red Hat." Other well-known names included in that year's collection were Whit Burnett, Erskine Caldwell and Manuel Komroff.
In 1932, the country was in the throes of the Great Depression, and work of any kind was hard to find especially for an English major. Bread lines were common, and homeless veterans sold apples for five cents on street corners. Evictions were an everyday occurrence that left families huddled forlornly on the street amid their possessions. Lou took what jobs he could find. InCincinnatiOhio, he became assistant area director for the National Youth Administration (NYA), a New Deal "alphabet agency" providing jobs for young people. Later he was a projects manager for a Cincinnati firm of architects and engineers, Grunkmeyer and Sullivan Associates.
Lou Brennan married his childhood sweetheart, Margaret Pirron of Portsmouth, in the chapel of Notre Dame University in 1936.
In the early 20th century, the river that had brought commerce to Portsmouth became a menace with its floods. Portsmouth constructed a mammoth floodwall of reinforced concrete extending three miles along the Ohio River and raised it in stages to control a 62-foot stage of the river.
This should have been high enough--but the flood that inundated the Ohio and Mississippi valleys in January of 1937 broke all previous records and reached a height of 71 feet. Flood waters surged through the city causing extensive loss of life and property. The Brennans' daughter Ann was born in that year. That epic flood and the floodwall would later play a role in a Lou Brennan novel.

A War Intervenes
When this country entered World War II, he joined the Navy, rising to the rank of lieutenant and commanding a gunboat in the Pacific. After the costly 1943 landings at Tarawa showed the need for close fire support for troops on beachheads, the Navy designed the LCS(L)-class gunboat. In Navy parlance, the letters stood for Landing Craft-Support (Large).
Displacing 383 tons, with a length of 158 feet and draft of about six feet of water, these ships provided close fire support during assault landings. They bristled with weapons--naval guns, rockets and machine guns. The most heavily armed vessels in the war, they boasted more firepower per ton than any ship in the U.S. Navy.
Leading all other landing craft in an assault, they attacked the beach in a line, firing rocket barrages at 1,000, 800 and 500 yards. Next they opened up with their 3-inch bow guns. A few hundred yards off the beach, they turned and ran broadside, remaining close to the shore to give withering fire support to the troops pouring ashore from infantry and tank landing craft.
At Okinawa they had additional duties, screening vessels at anchor from suicide boat attacks and intercepting kamikaze planes targeting ships on radar picket duty. Because they carried excellent fire fighting equipment, these highly maneuverable gunboats could aid other ships damaged by enemy action.
Separated from the Navy after the war with a Bronze Star for valor, Lou Brennan returned to the Portsmouth area and bought a small farm. His intention was to combine farming with income from his writing. He soon discovered there was comparatively little time for anything else after he completed the farm's chores.
Unsuccessful at getting his work published, he took the advice of his literary agent who suggested that he "get off the farm and do some serious writing." At the urging of his brother-in-law, Frank Nulty, who lived in Ossining and with whom he had roomed at Notre Dame, he headed east with wife and daughter. To be near the New York publishing scene, the family bought a house on Hamilton Avenue in Ossining in 1948.

Journalism and a Literary Career
Lou became editor of the New Castle News, published in Chappaqua, the following year. Only one copy of that tabloid-size weekly survives in the archives of the Chappaqua Historical Society: Volume 6, Number 6, dated December 1, 1950. Leverett S. Gleason, a highly successful publisher of comic books, was the publisher of the newspaper. This issue contains 20 pages and sold for five cents. The front and back pages are on heavier glossy stock and the inside pages are on ordinary newsprint.
Lou Brennan desperately wanted to become a published author, continuing to write in his spare time. In 1953, Random House published his first novel. Titled These Items of Desire, its setting was the small city of RiversideOhio--a thinly disguised Portsmouth.
Reviewer M.P. McKay in Library Journal identified it as a first novel, calling the characters "well drawn" and the story "well told," thus assuring that the book would be bought by librarians.
In the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, F.H. Bullock remarked, "The materials of These Items of Desire, if generally on the sordid side, are unfailingly interesting and human."
Writing in The New York Times Book Review, reviewer James Kelly was unstinting in his praise: "Lavish is the word for Louis A. Brennan's first novel. He has ransacked a full cupboard to bring us this high-fidelity tale of love and life in a medium sized Ohio town. As a sweeping, sprawling reportage of civic divertissements and interior pitched battles between the sexes, These Items of Desire joins Sherwood Anderson's WinesburgOhio and John O'Hara's A Rage to Live in a growing American tradition. Call it a sermon on love or a handbook on man-woman behavior, it adds up to a big important novel. Mr. Brennan would be hard put to make his second a better one."
After the New Castle News folded in late 1952, Lou Brennan occupied himself with writing, and completed three novels. The 1953 reviewer's prediction about a second novel proved true in 1955 with Masque of Virtue, also set in mythical RiversideOhio. Reviewers were not quite so loud in their praise; Lou always attributed this to the severe cuts the publisher insisted be made in the manuscript.
Two other novels followed More Than Flesh in 1957 and Death at Flood Tide in 1958. The latter was a murder mystery in which the Portsmouth floodwall and a massive flood play a role.
In 1957, he landed a job as a reporter on the Croton-Cortlandt News. Founded in 1894 as the Croton Journal and later named the Croton-Harmon News, the paper was purchased impulsively in 1952 by Albert Granovsky, a successful manufacturer of furniture and bedding. Mr. Granovsky, who immediately listed himself on the masthead as editor and publisher, was a person of impressive accomplishments.
Born in Fall RiverMassachusetts, in 1896, he graduated from Harvard in three years. After receiving his degree in 1918, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and became an aviator. He later admitted that--in the air or on the ground--he had a terrible sense of direction. After the war, he became a buyer at Macy's in New York City.
In 1923, he started his own bedding and furniture factory, and developed and gave the name to the studio couch and sofa bed. Joan Yanowitch, one of Mr. Granovsky's two daughters, now living in Scarsdale, recalls the day that her father announced the news. "It was on the patio of the family home onTeatown Road in Ossining. He called the family together and said, 'I just sold my business and bought a newspaper!'" The paper's name was soon changed to the Croton-Cortlandt News to reflect its broader news coverage.
In Lou Brennan, the fledgling publisher had found a seasoned professional journalist who put his stamp on the paper and made it lively. His reportorial beat was the village of Croton and the town of Cortlandt, with occasional forays into the affairs of Ossining when journalistically appropriate.  He was tireless in his coverage of town and village meetings, including those of the often-overlooked planning boards and zoning boards. Nothing happened locally that escaped his notice.
Although Lou Brennan was nominally a reporter, his name did not appear on the masthead for many years. Bylines were not used, yet his vast contributions to each issue are evident in news stories and editorials written in his characteristic style.
He had many admirers among newspaper readers for his relentless coverage of local affairs and pursuit of the truth. These same qualities annoyed others who preferred to remain outside the harsh spotlight of a Lou Brennan story. During his tenure, the Croton-Cortlandt News won many awards in various categories from the New York Press Association.
The paper sold for ten cents and appeared every Thursday. Of a page-size called "broadsheet," it was printed on a flatbed press at the County Press in Croton. The building and many others, including those along one side of Riverside Avenue, were later demolished to make way for the divided-lane Route 9 expressway.
The change turned out to be a mixed blessing. Although through traffic bypassed Croton, the new highway effectively gutted and destroyed Croton's commercial center known as the "Lower Village."

Besides his work as a journalist and novelist, Lou Brennan continued his interest in archaeology, conducting "digs" at local Indian sites his practiced eye spotted easily. In 1956, he published his first archaeological report, "Two Possible Coeval Lamokoid Sites near Ossining." Over the next 26 years, 53 other meticulous articles of professional quality would be published.
His first popular book about archaeology, No Stone Unturned: An Almanac of American Pre-history, appeared in 1959. In it, Lou Brennan undertook to demolish the once-standard belief that man was a very late comer to the Americas--Mongolian offshoots who traveled via the Aleutians and arrived here in much the same condition in which the first European arrivals found them.
Supported by new carbon-dating techniques, the Brennan thesis was that man indeed had crossed by the Aleutian chain, but early enough to hunt mammoths and avoid the short-faced bear. Any accomplishments in weapons, pottery and weaving were of local invention and occurred on this continent as early as anywhere else.
Writing in The New York Times Book Review, George Gaylord Simpson, a respected paleontologist, recorded, "Brennan's book on prehistoric man in America is not another popularization of the romance of archaeological discovery. It is a popularization, and it is romantic, but its romance is that of prehistoric man himself, and its theme is a polemic more than an exposition. He conveys to the reader an exciting sense of the humanity of the ancestors of our Indian neighbors. This is the great value of his book, and it deserves high praise."
British archaeologist Ronald Jessup's review in The Saturday Review of Literature commented, "It is far from easy reading despite touches of dry humor, but it is well worth the effort. Brennan's theories are carefully presented, though the diffusion-by-migration experts will not like him at all. But, as the author rightly says, archaeology is not a case of mere argument. We dig to look and learn."
In 1959, Lou Brennan assumed the unpaid editorship of the New York State Archaeological Bulletin, transforming it from a mimeographed newsletter into a respected scientific journal. He would continue as editor until the day he died. In those 24 years, he produced three issues a year without missing a single deadline.

In 1962, Lou Brennan began teaching archaeology at Briarcliff College, where he founded the Center for Archaeology and Hudson River Prehistory. It later was accorded academic status and became a department of the college. Lou Brennan's title was Research Director and Adjunct Professor of Archaeology, a post he retained after Pace University bought ailing Briarcliff Collegein 1977.
Later renamed the Museum and Laboratory for Archaeology (MALFA), the Center moved to the restored Hopkins mansion at Muscoot Park. For administrative reasons, the name was changed to Material Archives and Laboratory for Archaeology without affecting the acronym. It is now headquartered at Croton Point in the Nature Center--the former park superintendent's residence at the northern tip.
To fill a gap in the literature of archaeology for young adults, Lou Brennan wrote The Buried Treasure of Archaeology, which appeared in 1964. Praising it in The New York Times Book Review, E.B. Garside wrote, "Though designed mainly for young people this book can be read with enjoyment and profit by adults." Enthusiastic' best describes Mr. Brennan's evocations. The author, having a genuine passion for his subject, is able, to a considerable degree, to humanize his remote peoples. A book of solid quality." He called it "a survey of the key historic finds written with a force and assurance out of a fund of knowledge."
Lou Brennan was named editorial chairman of the Bulletin of the Eastern States Archaeological Federation in 1969. It bothered him that the organization had no professional journal to match the quality of American Antiquity. Published by the Society for American Archaeology, the publication tended to favor the American Southwest, Mexico and Central America. Four years later, the first issue of Archaeology of Eastern North America, or AENA, appeared under his editorship. He was working on the eleventh annual issue when he died in his sleep during the night of March 17, 1983, at the age of 72.
He was survived by his wife, Margaret ("Peg," to her friends), a daughter, Ann Calam, of Cortlandt, two sons, Edward, of Gardiner, N.Y., and Matthew, of RidgefieldConn., and three grandchildren. Peg Brennan died on December 16, 2006, at the age of 91.
Archaeological societies have not forgotten him. In 1984, the Lower Hudson Chapter of the New York State Archaeological Association honored him by changing its name to the Louis A. Brennan Lower Hudson Chapter. In 1998, the Eastern States Archaeological Federation created the Louis A. Brennan Publications Award, a monetary grant for publishing special reports, monographs or journals in archaeology. When the award program was announced, one member remarked, "Lou really saved ESAF by setting up AENA."

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on Lou Brennan.


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