Previous to Saint Mazie
, I've only ever written about characters I've made up from scratch before. Then I read an essay by Joseph Mitchell in his wonderful collection Up in the Old Hotel
, and I became entranced by the idea of writing about a real person: Mazie Phillips, aka The Queen of the Bowery. She ran a movie theater on the Lower East Side for decades and was the heart of her community, befriending eccentrics, children, and all the bums on Skid Row. She was a real knockout of a human being, and I couldn't stop thinking about her.
But she died in 1964, seven years before I was born. I would never know her, and it would be difficult for me to find someone still alive who had known her. I had a finite amount of information: the original essay, an obituary, and another article written when she retired. How could I write accurately about a person I had never met? What kind of responsibility did I have to her personal truth? How does one fictionalize a real person and still make it a "true" story?
First, I had an idea of her truth as it pertained to her spirit, which I found to be bawdy, broad, generous, and ravenous. She was someone who helped thousands of homeless men for decades purely because she cared about them and was concerned about their health and happiness. In sum, she had a big heart. And when I read the original Mitchell essay about her, I felt like I understood her essence instantly, and that's a tribute to the way Mitchell writes — his ear for the way people talk, the way he gathers and builds details, how he channels their personal rhythms.
Here Mitchell describes her in the original essay:
Sitting majestically in her cage like a raffish queen, Mazie is one of the few pleasant sights of the Bowery. She is a short, bosomy woman in her middle forties. Some people believe she has a blurry resemblance to Mae West. Her hair is the color of sulphur. Her face is dead white, and she wears a smudge of rouge the size of a silver dollar on each cheek. Her eyes are sleepy and droopy-lidded. On duty, she often wears a green celluloid eyeshade. She always has a cigarette hanging from a corner of her mouth, and this makes her look haughty.
But even as Mitchell explained her essence, he also set up these little mysteries and intrigues about her in the essay. Once I decided to write it, I looked at those mysteries and decided which ones were the big ideas. Like I was fascinated with how a Jewish woman on the Lower East Side in the 1920s became interested in the Catholic faith to the point where she started going to mass on a regular basis. And I wondered why she mainly helped homeless men and not homeless women. And why did she never marry? But also I was interested in flaws, her drinking and her violent tendencies. I was revving up to make that fictional leap.
Then I did actual good old-fashioned research. I visited the Tenement Museum in New York City, where I was able to view cramped tenement apartments from Mazie's era. And I read books, including Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century, which is a history of Coney Island; Only Yesterday, a history of the 1920s written in the 1930s; and Low Life, a history of New York City through the 1800s and early 1900s. I watched documentaries, I listened to music. I jammed my head with information until I arrived where I had enough research to make that leap.
And finally I did the more ethereal, indefinable kind of work: I daydreamed about her. I walked around Manhattan, the streets she walked herself, especially on cobblestone streets, and under the night sky, streets I imagined she had walked on herself. I meditated on her. I probably put a little bit of myself in her, and a few other strong women I know, because that's inevitable, that kind of thievery. She's a mixture of a lot of things, but she's her own person too. She became that person — her own person, her own character — after two years of contemplation, writing, and revision.
Still I wonder sometimes if I did her justice. Did I do due diligence to this real-life person? Did I pay the right respect to her? I can only hope that I did my job correctly — and that people will fall in love with her as I did.