At the time I set out on the recent Mame walk (see related posts following), I was trying to decide between Mame Dennis and Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, for the walk's theme. While exploring the places Auntie Mame worked following the stock market crash of 1929, I realized that both Mame and Lily share one thing in common, a crisis of social status. Mame's story of finding herself ill-equipped to fulfill the basic job requirements in the Depression echoes Bart's similar lack of preparedness at the turn of the century. But with her spirit of adventure, Mame knows how to play roles to survive and get along. Lily Bart, on the other hand, can not see her way out of the constrictions of social class and status. Doors opened for Lily, but she did not enter. Mame, as we know, opened all the new windows and doors.
In the late 1920s Patrick Dennis' aunt, Marion Tanner, the purported role model for the character, bought a handsome house on Bank Street in Greenwich Village and lived there until the 1960s. The "real" Mame did not inhabit Beekman Place, but the Village, an appropriate neighborhood for a woman with her taste in ideas and friends. According to several books and memoirs, among them, Richard Jordan's But Darling, I'm Your Auntie Mame and Eric Myers' Uncle Mame: The Life of Patrick Dennis, Marion Tanner was indeed an eccentric wealthy woman of keen intellect, but not quite the caricature that the nephew created.
Patrick Dennis lived his own colorful life, marrying and becoming a father of two children, all the while grappling with issues of bisexuality, and later launching a career as a butler, including a stint for McDonald's founder, Ray Kroc. According to one story, Patrick was once asked about the inspirational source of Mame, and he pointed to himself. At some point he and his aunt had a falling out, and the politics of the family grew complicated. Stricken with pancreatic cancer, Patrick died in 1976 at the age of 55.
While walking along Bank Street last week, I met a woman who knew Marion Tanner. She said Tanner was one of the most brilliant women she had ever known, but "with a giant screw loose." In the 1960s, Tanner turned her house at 72 Bank Street into several apartments for renters, but in time, she let artists, and later ill people, drug addicts, and other unfortunate souls stay there. She eventually lost the house through non-payment of taxes. "Mame" lived the remainder of her years at a retirement home on Hudson St. She died in 1985 at the age of 94.
The woman I met chastised me a bit for asking questions, saying that this was "an old story." But, sometimes the old stories are never told. In the end, what remains is the moral of the fictional story, and the one worth repeating -
"Live, live, live!"
"Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!"
Image: Bank Street, West Village, New York, New York. April 2008.
See related posts:
Classic New York: A Walk, and a Map
Classic New York: 59th and Fifth: A Slideshow
Classic New York: The Algonquin
Classic New York: Times Square
Classic New York: A Visit to Macy's, in April
Classic New York: Henri Bendel
Classic New York: The King Cole Bar at the St. Regis
The Classic New York of Mame Dennis
A Walk in Turtle Bay: Beekman Place, the U.N., Tudor City, and E. 42nd St.
The Liberation Theology of Mame Dennis
Grand Central Theatre, and A New Walk Begins
Coming next: The walk, and a map.