The Liberation Theology of Mame Dennis

I can't remember the year I first saw the 1958 movie Auntie Mame, starring Rosalind Russell, but the persona of the wildly eccentric aunt made an enormous impression on me. Curled up on the floor in a Dallas suburban home and watching Mame open new doors for her orphan nephew, I graduated from the Dorothy Gale School of No Place Like Home to a budding sophisticate. I wanted Auntie Mame to take me, too, to new places and to teach me how to live life large.

A year or so ago here in New York, I attended a Sunday morning service at a large Episcopal church on Fifth Avenue, and the visiting priest (a woman, by the way) took as her sermon topic the Christ-like example of Mame Dennis. No kidding. The priest extolled the virtues of Auntie Mame's large spirit, anti-bigotry and generosity, and told us we would do well to follow in her righteous path. At the end of the sermon, I could have passed out from happiness.

My high school in Dallas put on a production of the musical version. I think I was in the chorus, not having aspirations to try out for the leads. I can't sing, at least at any kind of Broadway level. Nevertheless, the part of Vera Charles, an actress and Mame's bosom buddy, was typecast with a 17-year-old classmate who already seemed graduated beyond her years to a boozy, hard-talking sophisticate. She was none of these things, but she had the right husky voice. All of us knew she had to play Vera. Agnes Gooch, Mame's homely secretary, was played by a brilliant character actress who later enjoyed a career in New York experimental theater.

All grown up now, I'm reading Patrick Dennis' book, Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade, published in 1955, and enjoying the witty charm of the author. The book was republished in a new trade paperback edition on September 11, 2001 (Amazon). For obvious reasons, attentions of the city and world were elsewhere on that day.

I plan to walk us through the New York of Mame Dennis, layering an older vanishing Manhattan with the newer one taking its place. In the course of the walk I will pass on what I've learned about the "real" Mame, if indeed there was one. As a tease, I end with this intriguing item:

From Time Magazine Obit. November 11, 1985
DIED. Marion Tanner, ninetyish, quirky, colorful, real-life model for the heroine of the Broadway musical Mame, which was based on the 1955 novel Auntie Mame, written by her nephew Edward Everett Tanner III under the pen name Patrick Dennis; of pneumonia precipitated by a stroke; in a New York City nursing home. For more than three decades she ran a salon for struggling artists, writers, self-styled radicals and, later, drifters. In 1964, unable to meet mortgage payments, she was evicted from her house, prompting a deputy sheriff on the case to remark, "She is an amazing woman . . . In an earlier time, she might have been a saint."

Image: Beekman Place. Patrick and Norah, his Irish nanny, arrive in New York at Grand Central Terminal and then take a taxi to 3 Beekman Place, the residence of his Auntie Mame.

See related posts:
Classic New York: A Walk, and a Map
The Classic New York of Mame Dennis: A Coda, on Bank Street
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.
Grand Central Theatre, and A New Walk Begins


littleBIGchris said...

Thanks for this post, i found it (naturally) doing a search of 3 Beekman Place. Like you, I was exposed to "Auntie Mame" at a young and eager age but somehow when I got to NYC at 19, the memory of this street had gotten tucked away into all my new experiences. Then a few years ago I took directions down wrong to a party I was supposed to attend and wound up at Beekman Towers -- suddenly the film and the famous address came flooding back. Ended up skipping my party and having drinks on the gorgeous rooftop @ the towers. :)

Peetie said...

In the 1950s, I (a young boy at the time) lived at 68 Bank Street, two doors down from Marion Tanner's townhouse at 72 Bank Street. While I never met Miss Tanner, I did get to know one of the unusual families she harbored. We were quite good friends with them.