Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Most Unforgettable Character

Auntie Mame, Patrick Dennis

When Auntie Mame was published in 1955, it spent 112 weeks on the best-seller lists.  As I was reading it, I kept thinking, "Could he say that in 1955?"  The fact that Patrick Dennis could, and the book would sell more than 2 million copies in the next four years, challenged some of my ideas of America in the 1950s.  What in the world did those readers make of Mame saying, "I could be out at Fire Island with some of the most amusing boys..."  or a character who is described as having "laid everything but the Atlantic Cable" ?  I couldn't find any mention of bans or boycotts of the book, though I can't imagine it made too many church-sanctioned reading lists.

I also can't imagine how I missed reading this book for so many years.  I've watched a few minutes here and there of the 1958 film version.  While I love Rosalind Russell, no actress could fully capture a character like Mame, and here again I have to advance the Purist Principle that "The Book is Always Better."

As the story opens, Patrick Dennis is inspired by an old issue of Reader's Digest, which included a regular feature on the Most Unforgettable Character the writer had ever met. 
"That stopped me. Unforgettable Character?  Why, that writer hasn't met anybody! He couldn't know what the word character meant unless he'd met my Auntie Mame. Nobody could. Yet there were certain parallels between his Unforgettable Character and mine. His Unforgettable Character was a sweet little New England spinster who lived in a sweet little white clapboard house and opened her sweet little green door one morning expecting to find the Hartford Courant. Instead she found a sweet little wicker basket, with a sweet little baby boy inside. The rest of the article went on to tell how that Unforgettable Character took the baby in and raised it as her own.  Well, that's when I put the Digest down and got to thinking about the sweet little lady who raised me."
Patrick, who becomes an orphan at the age of 10 when his father dies in 1929, is left to the care of a guardian, his aunt Mame Dennis, under the supervision of the Knickerbocker Trust Company.  The trustees are there to ensure that Patrick is "raised as a Protestant and . . . sent to conservative schools."  He travels with the family's Irish servant Norah from Chicago to New York.  They arrive at Mame's apartment in the midst of a party, but when Mame finally works out who they are, her welcome is instantaneous: "'But darling,' she said dramatically, 'I'm your Auntie Mame!' She put her arms around me and kissed me, and I knew I was safe."  Patrick says later that "For both of us it was love, and the experience was unique."

That bond endures through the adventures and the mishaps that follow over the next fifteen years, including lengthy separations.  Mame, ignoring her brother's directions as to schooling, enrolls Patrick in a progressive school where the students and teachers wear no clothes, and the day often ends with a game where the boys play male fish fertilizing eggs laid by the girl-fish.  Unfortunately Patrick's trustee Mr. Babcock arrives one afternoon in the middle of the game, yanks him out of that school, and after blasting Mame ("No more fit to raise a child than Jezebel!"), drags Patrick off to a hellish private boarding school, St. Boniface Academy in Apathy, Massachusetts.

Some of their adventures are hilarious and quite racy, as when Mame takes in an unwed mother and decides to spend the last months of the pregnancy in Apathy, so Patrick will be on hand to run errands and make a fourth at bridge.  She allows her guest to register in the small town's most prominent hotel as "Mrs. Patrick Dennis."  In another escapade, as a college student, Patrick starts a torrid affair with a waitress from New Joisey, Bubbles, who insists that he take her to the Junior Prom at his Ivy League university.  Trying to keep Bubbles under wraps, Patrick is horrified to find Mame also in attendance at the Prom, the date of one of his friends (twenty years her junior).  There is also an emotional depth, though, in large part because of the bond between Mame and Patrick. Some of the adventures have a serious side, as when Mame loses her fortune in the Crash of 1929.  Her attempts to find work alternate between hilarious and heart-breaking, and I was reminded of Betty MacDonald's Anybody Can Do Anything, which also chronicles a search for work in the depths of the Depression.

"Patrick Dennis" is the nom de plume of Edward Everett Tanner III, who was a pretty unforgettable character in his own right.  There is a biography of him called Uncle Mame that is going on my post-TBR reading list, and I'll be looking for the other novels that he wrote as Patrick Dennis.


  1. I adore Auntie Mame! I had my own glamourous and deeply dramatic Aunt who used to make random appearances in my life growing up but she was never as outrageous as Mame - who could be? No matter how many times I reread this, it always makes me laugh outloud.

  2. Whoa! So the '50s produced some lively pop fiction. I've seen the film but did not think much about when the book was written. Mame must have been a refreshing character during that buttoned-up time.

    Although ... the post-war era and the early '50s gave us the Beat poets, so why am I surprised?

  3. Reading about this book brought back such happy memories for me. I was in a community theatre production of the musical version, Mame, and it was just about the most fun I've ever had in a play, with all the period costumes and everything. I played Pegeen, but since she doesn't show up until near the end, I was in the chorus for most of the show. I got to be a flapper and a Southern belle and a 1930s partier being hauled off to the drunk tank. Fun! In the interests of research, I read the book at around that time and found it completely hilarious.

  4. This is a book that has been high on my wish list for a while. It sounds so wonderful! I just love the thought of reading about an adventurous and energetic character like Mame.

  5. Claire, how marvelous to have an Auntie Mame of your own! I had plans, when my first nieces were born, of being theirs - but I sadly lack the essential Mame-ness.

    Fay, I don't know enough about the literature of the time, to know how well-known the Beats were, how big an impact they had. But then Shirley Jackson was also writing at this time, "The Lottery" was published in 1948.

    Teresa, it sounds like a magical experience! I was always in the chorus in junior & high school plays - all of the fun and none of the pressure. I only know the Rosalind Russell film version, I'll have to look for the musical.

    Anbolyn, as an aunt, you will properly appreciate the importance of Mame in Patrick's life :) I hope you come across a copy before too long. I can already tell that Mame will be the perfect antidote for a grey day.

  6. Lisa, The musical is great on stage and worth seeing live if you ever get a chance, but from everything I've heard, the film version of it (with Lucille Ball) is dreadful.

  7. Paul Rudnick called that film of the musical "epically dreadful" in his introduction.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!