My rating: 8/10.
It is what it is – a blissfully easy-to-read, unapologetically American social comedy, with enough perfectly timed, backhanded slaps at social snobbery, racism and anti-Semitism to redeem it from total silliness.
I don’t know quite where she came from, but Auntie Mame appeared one day in a stack of old paperback books I was sorting and putting away. I gave her a rather scornful glance – she was, after all, ensconced between tatty covers emblazoned with movie tie-in headlines, never a particularly endearing feature - and popped her into a box with a bunch of other “maybe someday” books. But not long afterwards she showed up on my night table, brought into the bedroom by (of course) a man, who’d been looking for a diversion, found her intriguing and decided to experience her lavish charms more intimately. After he’d finished with Mame, he left her there to work her charm on me.
“Well, darling,” she whispered to me with a we’re-all-girls-in-here-together-now intonation, “how about it? Don’t you want to find out what Auntie Mame is all about?”
So I read her.
I’m guessing almost everyone’s either seen one of the two movies based on this 1955 bestseller - the 1958 Rosalind Russell vehicle (pretty darned good), and the 1974 Lucille Ball effort (pretty darned bad) - or one of the countless stage adaptations, or read the actual book itself - printed and reprinted numberless times, most lately in, I believe, 2001. That’s a good half-century of popularity, and I think it’s safe to state that Auntie Mame has a decidedly secure place well up in the top end of the American pop culture archive.
Does she deserve it?
Well, yes, I rather think she does. She’s a deeply lovable creation – with that lovableness outshining her undeniable glamour and her bizarre goings-on as the key reason for my re-reading her spicy “biography” every so often, whenever Mame winningly works herself up to the top of the book stacks, like cream rising to the top of an old-fashioned bottle of milk.
Here’s the basic outline, for those of you who’ve so far been blissfully unaware of the existence of Auntie Mame and her impressionable young nephew, Patrick.
Orphaned at the age of ten in 1929, the very much fictional* Patrick Dennis is sent to live with his wealthy and gloriously extroverted aunt, who is presently holding court (apt term) in a lavish apartment at 3 Beekman Place in Manhattan.*The author published this book under this pseudonym in order to add verisimilitude to the “memoir” form; after the novel’s success, the pseudonym was maintained for most of the author’s future writings. Edward Tanner is the real name of the author – actually, Edward Everett Tanner III. Mame was inspired by, but was not an accurate depiction of, the author’s real-life aunt, Marion Tanner. Edward Tanner also wrote under the pseudonym “Virginia Rowans”.
Mame welcomes her “own little love” with open arms, and Patrick returns that affection immediately and instinctively, despite his father’s rather foreboding words while making his will the year prior to his sudden demise.
…My father read his will to me in a shaky voice. He said that my Aunt Mame was a very peculiar woman and that to be left in her hands was a fate that he wouldn’t wish a dog, but that beggars couldn’t be choosers and Auntie Mame was my only living relative.
Despite the deathbed wishes of Patrick’s father for his son to receive a conservative upbringing, Mame craftily dodges the stodgy school which Patrick’s trustee, the estimable but strictly conventional Mr. Babcock, has chosen. Instead Patrick ends up in a very avant-garde establishment distinguished by its policy of complete nudity for all, students and staff - and absolute lack of any inhibitions, or actual academic teaching. Mr. Babcock’s visit as the students and their adult mentors are role-playing a school of spawning salmon puts a quick end to the experiment, and lands Patrick in that dreaded boarding school, far away from the influence of his aunt, whom Mr. Babcock regards as the epitome of evil decadence from that moment forward.
Luckily Patrick’s education had already received something of a unorthodox but most useful boost from his aunt’s insistence, from his very first day with her, of Patrick’s carrying a pad of paper with him and writing down any unfamiliar words for future explanation.
I spent that first summer in New York trotting around after Auntie Mame with my vocabulary pad, having Little Morning Chats every afternoon, and being seen and not heard at her literary teas, salons and cocktail parties.
They used a lot of new words, too, and I acquired quite a vocabulary by the end of the summer. I still have some of the vocabulary sheets of odd information picked up at Auntie Mame’s soirees. One, dated July 14, 1929, features such random terms as: Bastille Day, Lesbian, Hotsy-Totsy Club, gang war, Id, daiquiri – although I didn’t sell it properly – relativity, free love, Oedipus complex – another one I misspelled – mobile, stinko - and from here on my spelling went wild – narcissistic, Biarritz, psychoneurotic, Shönberg, and nymphomaniac. Auntie Mame explained all the words she thought I ought to know and then made me put them into sentences which I practiced with Ito, while he did his Japanese flower arrangements and giggled.
Once Patrick is incarcerated in conventional school, his visits to Auntie Mame are restricted to occasional weekends and the holidays. No matter, though, as the two are already bound by a strong and abiding love which will see them through the most outrageous of Mame’s excesses and the rapid ups and downs of her changing fortunes and continual reinventions of herself.
Mame’s fortune is decimated by the Stock Market Crash of October 29, 1929, and she hits the lowest point, financially speaking, of her life, ending up selling roller skates (ineptly) in Macy’s department store, before being rescued at the 11th hour by a wealthy Deep Southern white knight, Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, who sweeps her of her feet and sets her up for the rest of her life, leaving her a seriously large fortune when he dies rather tragically only a few years into the marriage.
Mame sincerely mourns Beau, but continues on her merry way charming and being charmed, and enjoying the attentions both platonic and amorous of a huge range of people, including at one point one of Patrick’s college friends – Mame refuses to let a little thing like age difference stand in the way of her relationships of any sort.
Patrick drifts in and out of Mame’s circle, observing and pithily commenting on her friends and latest fads, which range from the oriental stylings of their first meeting to the Southern belle of the Beau years, to literary pseudo-Irish tweed and brogues, to war-time Friend of England sponsoring some truly horrible Cockney refugee children in a Colonial mansion which they promptly completely destroy.
Patrick falls in and out of numerous relationships on his own, from gold-digging waitress Bubbles, to über-snobbish fiance Gloria Upson, to a poverty-stricken but determinedly aristocratic trio of blue-blooded and stunningly beautiful sisters. He finally finds true love, marries and produces a son of his own, only to have Mame swish in sari-bedecked and trailing a pet swami during her Indian reincarnation period, to carry her latest “little love” off to the orient, thus bringing our tale full circle.
Undeniably funny – though I never did ”laugh out loud” as many reviewers report themselves doing – this satirical tale is as full of barbs as a porcupine is of quills. The author uses his humorous platform to trot out his very decided views on the state of middle class American mores, while amusing us with his bitchy delivery – there’s a decidedly contemporary feel to a lot of the humour, despite the book being well into its sixth decade by now.
“Risque” is a word not often used today, but it applies in full force to Auntie Mame – the book and the character. Inhibitions – pshaw! If it feels good and doesn’t harm anyone, go for it! is the credo Mame lives by, and Patrick slips into that attitude easily, though prudishness occasionally rears its head in his case. The innuendo throughout is frequently gloriously bawdy, though there are a few groaningly bad double entendres, as when Patrick reports on his first social occasion at Auntie Mame’s, as an still-innocent ten-year-old. (Needed information: Norah is Patrick’s Irish nurse, and Ito is Mame’s Japanese houseman; Prohibition is in full swing.)
One lady with red hair said that she spent an hour a day on the Couch with her doctor and that he charged her twenty-five dollars every time she came. Norah led me to another part of the room.
The little Japanese man gave Norah a glass and said it was right off the boat and Norah said she wasn’t used to spirits – even though she was always telling me about seeing ghosts and haunts – but this time she’d take a drop of the creature. She seemed to be feeling very happy all of a sudden. And in a little while she asked Ito to give her another Nip.
Oh. My. Goodness. That was pretty dire, Mr. Dennis/Tanner. Had to read this bit twice to make sure I’d seen it correctly. Groan. How many desperately bad puns did the author cram into these few sentences? I think I counted six.
Luckily most of the jibes aren’t quite so deeply awful, but in the interests of full disclosure the prospective reader should be warned of these types of things!
To sum up, I do ultimately enjoy this gloriously campy period piece. Yes, it’s chock full of period-typical stereotypes and attitudes towards women and “foreigners”, but that doesn’t bother me one whit in this one – it’s an innocently era-correct sort of prejudice, and there’s enough social awareness going on of the greater evils in the world of the time to excuse the bits which would be politically incorrect if written today.
It’s a refreshingly easy read, too, as I think I mentioned earlier, and has a very American type of blatantly outrageous humour which appeals in its own way as much as the typically lower key, straight-faced British literary wit does. You do need to pay a certain amount of attention while reading to catch all the nuances, but Auntie Mame romps along at such a good pace that drowsing off in her company is not a danger at all.
(And I’m glad to report that I didn’t use the term “madcap” once in this review. Ha! Points for me!)