Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Uncle Mame: The Life of Patrick Dennis

2000, 2002 Da Capo Press edition
Eric Myers
Uncle Mame: The Life of Patrick Dennis
Original price $16.95, purchase price unknown
Slightly worn paperback

I found this biography to be about equal to Dennis's fiction, not so much because of Myer's writing style, since that's a little flat and overly redundant (he tells us several times that one of Dennis's nieces became a nun), but because Dennis was even more of a colorful personality than any of his characters.  Whether he was a 10-year-old dressing up as Margaret Dumont, or a fiftysomething working incognito as Ray Kroc's butler, he was the life of the party.  Even his letters to friends, family, and his editor are priceless.

Myers never quite finds the right tone to address the darker side of Dennis's real life as Edward "Pat" Tanner, the depression, suicide attempts, and struggle to deal with his sexuality.  Tanner was campy before camp was recognized (including as a Boy Scout), and yet he was never involved with men until he was in his 40s, leading to a very long separation, but never divorce, from his wife.  (They reunited not long before his death, still in love.)  I consider him to be bisexual, but of course for most of his life-- he died in 1976-- that wasn't an accepted orientation.

As in Dennis's best fiction, there's a vibrant cast to back up the "lead," and Myers does a good job of digging below the stereotypes, so that Louise Tanner isn't just the long-suffering wife, or Corry Salley the Hattie-McDanielesque maid.  And we learn more about the folks behind Little Me, which sounds like it was even more fun to make than to read.

Note, I'm using the "film criticism" tag as well as the "literary criticism," because Myers does talk about the movie versions of Auntie Mame.  Dennis thought Rosalind Russell was great but found Lucille Ball "a little too c-mm-n for the role."

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