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Review-a-Day
Powells.com
Saturday, April 6th, 2002


 

Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade

by Patrick Dennis

A review by C. P. Farley

Auntie Mame was one of the bestselling books of the fifties, and Mame herself one of the most entertaining fictional characters of the century (she's certainly more fun than dour Holden Caulfied). Her Noel Coward wit and martinis-for-breakfast joie de vivre inspired a successful stage play, which was impeccably translated for the screen starring (perfectly-cast) Rosalind Russell, and a mega-hit Broadway musical, which was later turned into a horrible — horrible — movie musical starring (disastrously cast) Lucille Ball.

Auntie Mame was only one in a string of bestsellers for Edward Everett Tanner III (a.k.a. Patrick Dennis), who quickly became an international celebrity and well-known New York bon vivant. But Dennis had a little too much in common with his most famous heroine. With caviar tastes and an extravagantly generous nature, he spent through in rapid time the considerable fortune his print, stage, and screen royalties had earned him. By the early seventies, he was not only finished as a writer, he was also broke. He took up a successful — though bizarre — second career as the eccentric butler to some of America's wealthiest families, but by 1976 he was dead. All his books were out of print.

Which is unfortunate. The seventies should have welcomed Mame. Admittedly, her blood was as blue for the decade that popularized the slogan "power to the people." But Mame, well before Timothy Leary, represented a counterculture of one. She was anti-establishment, anti-bourgeois, anti-racist, anti-bad taste, and anti-pretension. She was also pro-youth, pro-sex, pro-tolerance, pro-nudity, and pro-drugs (though her drug of choice was gin).

But more to the point, the seventies generation was arguably the most theatrical of the century. It was, after all, the decade that created glam rock and the generation that embraced The Rocky Horror Picture Show with thespian excess. And at the heart of Mame's character is a dramatic, and very American, quality: the urge to continually reinvent oneself. During the course of the novel, Mame enthusiastically transforms herself into a Japanese doll, a southern bell, an Irish lass, an Indian princess, and so on.

Her hair was bobbed very short with straight bangs above her slanting brows; a long robe of embroidered golden silk floated out behind her. Her feet were thrust into tiny gold slippers twinkling with jewels, and jade and ivory bracelets clattered on her arms. She had the longest fingernails I'd ever seen, each lacquered a delicate green. An almost endless bamboo cigarette holder hung languidly from her bright red mouth.
...a southern belle...
Her hair was fluffier, softer, there were always a lot of camellias around the rooms; her dresses seemed to run to organdy and ruffles, and there was almost a roar of crinoline beneath her skirts....Her speech grew slightly blurred, softer and less staccato. She called me Honey a great deal and used You-all both in singular and plural.
...an Irish lass...
She'd had her second-best mink coat made into a reversible: Irish homespun on the outside, mink inside. She was wearing a homespun suit, good stout brogues, and a six-foot-long Eton scarf. She reeked of peat bogs.
...and many more. Mame is her own cast of supporting characters. At one point, Patrick, frustrated, lashes out:
Must you always appear in a character role? Do you have to go out there either dressed as a Farm Hand in a lot of sunbonnets or else as the Queen of Sheba with an armored truck full of diamonds?
Thankfully, she does. Because Mame understands something that Patrick doesn't, best summed up in her most famous line: *"Life is a banquet, and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death. Live!" Mame refuses to accept quiet desperation and uses imagination and style to create a life worth living. Auntie Mame is the original seize-the-day story, ancestor to such classics as Harold and Maude (though it dates better), Dead Poet's Society (far better written), and even Fight Club (Mame wants to avoid Babbitry, not destroy it).

But Patrick Dennis's trump card was his sense of humor. One of the great comic novels of the twentieth century, Auntie Mame is bust-a-rib funny, perhaps the best of the madcaps. And it really is funnier than the movie, which cuts several choice chapters (not to mention the more risquι bits) and can't quite capture Dennis's superb characterizations. For a taste, here's his description of Mame's new (southern) mother-in-law:

"But, beau, honey...when am Ah gonna meet yo sweet little ole mothah?" [this was Mame's southern belle period]

Mrs. Burnside could by no stretch of the imagination be called either sweet or little. But she was old, and I suppose that God in His infinite wisdom had seen fit to make her mother, although I've often risked blasphemy to wonder why. She was built along the lines of a General Electric refrigerator and looked like a cross between Caligula and a cockatoo. Mother Burnside had beady little eyes, an imperious beak of a nose, sallow skin, and bad breath. She wore a stiff black wig and a stiff black dress and she sat all day long in a darkened drawing room, her pudgy hands — encrusted with dirty diamond rings — folded over her pudgy belly. She was a grim, taciturn woman, but when she put her mind to it, she could converse on several subjects: a) her exalted ancestors, b) how uppity the nigrahs were gettin', c) the Yankees, d) how unworthy everyone but Mrs. Burnside was, and e) the lamentable condition of her bowels. But usually she just sat in thin-lipped disapproval, her evil black eyes darting like a malign old parrot's.

Inexplicably, though Auntie Mame the movie has remained a camp classic, Dennis's book has stayed out of print for three decades. When Eric Myers's well-received biography, Uncle Mame, came out in 2000, you could not even purchase a copy of Patrick Dennis's masterpiece.

This certainly is not because Mame hasn't aged well. Quite the contrary. Dennis's story of a square boy and his outrageous aunt is as uproarious, and disarmingly wise, as it was five decades ago. Besides, Mame's biggest — or at least loudest — fan is Camille Paglia, who declares Auntie Mame one of the most important books in her life. And you can't get more hip than the Queen of Lesbian Chic.

Perhaps to seventies devotees of Dr. Frankenfurter, Auntie Mame's hilarious histrionics seemed tame, or unnecessary. Fortunately, Broadway Books has recognized that if this ever was true, it is no longer, and has finally brought this divine book back into print.

*Ironically, Patrick Dennis didn't even write the line. It was added by the authors of the stage play. But it does accurately summarize Mame's appeal.


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