Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade

1955, undated but probably 1974 (see below) Popular Library edition
Patrick Dennis
Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade
Original price 95 cents, purchase price $1.25
Paperback with every page detached from the binding

As you can guess from the condition, I've read this book a lot, although of course I bought it used.  The cover says it inspired "the new Warner Bros.' [sic] picture Mame-- starring Lucille Ball," which came out in 1974.  Since Lucy was already 18 and an actress at the time the beginning of the book is set (1929), it's hard to buy her as 35ish Mame, although her offkey singing does add to the so-bad-it's-goodness.  Rosalind Russell did a much better job onstage and screen in the late 1950s, although she was about 50 at the time, and she took the title of her autobiography, Life Is a Banquet, from the script.  (It doesn't appear in the novel.  I'll get to Russell's book in the late 1970s.)

Although Dennis named the nephew narrator after himself, "Patrick Dennis" was actually one of the two pseudonyms of Edward Everett Tanner III, who'd earlier published two novels as "Virginia Rowans."  This book was his breakthrough, an immediate success that appealed to a wide range of people.  Even now, it's a fun, frothy read, with a camp/queer sensibility.  (Tanner was bisexual.)  Not that the book is pro-gay, with "dike" [sic] as a Mamian slur, but it's not anti-gay either, since Mame has many male homosexual friends.

The book is full of contradictions like that.  Is Mame a snob, or is she just snobbish towards snobs?  Is she open-minded and tolerant, or does she raise a boy who can call their beloved servant a "Jap" without irony?  (Both as it turns out.)  She is "color blind" about race, and yet she happily buys into a plantation fantasy when she gets married to a rich Southerner.

The main thing Mame is is an Auntie Mame type, that is she's eccentric, flamboyant, self-centered, and yet good-hearted.  Patrick is, more than Vera Charles, "her best friend and severest critic."  He tells anecdotes of his life with her, each connected by a contrast with an "Unforgettable Character" from Reader's Digest.  (This linkage was at the suggestion of Tanner's editor, if I remember correctly.)  Mame's outrageousness is meant to conflict with the stodginess around her, but by 1955 her nephew has grown up to be a perfectly normal upper-middle-class man.  The book ends with her about to take his 7-year-old son Mike to India.

The book is dated in that outrageousness isn't the same as it was back then.  One still revolutionary aspect though is that Mame is quite sexual, well into her 40s.  Yes, she's mocked for dating a college student half her age when she's 45, but there's no question that he and many other men find her desirable, as she finds them.  And she's never punished for this, although she has setbacks of course.  Even pathetic Agnes Gooch, who's both homely spinster (at 19!) and fallen woman (at 21), gets a happy ending.  After reading so many books where sexual women (in or out of marriage) suffer for it, Auntie Mame is a breath of fresh air.

Plus, I think the name "Lindsay Woolsey" for a publisher is inspired.

No comments:

Post a Comment