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Auntie Mame's Secret: The 'Loco' In Her Parentis

Jul 30, 2008 (All Things Considered)

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Mame Dennis — irrepressible, adoring, easily distracted, utterly down-to-earth — is the guardian any sensible child would love to have.

In Auntie Mame, published in 1955, her sheltered, just-orphaned 10-year-old nephew, Patrick, comes to live with her on the eve of the Great Depression — and is somewhat startled at what he finds.

Her Beekman Place apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side is filled with partygoers sipping bathtub gin, nibbling caviar, chatting up Broadway stars and Indian mystics. "Life is a banquet," goes Mame's watch cry, and when she's around, every moment of that banquet holds a surprise.

Mame believes in trying things, thumbing your nose at convention, taking roads less traveled because they're bound to be more interesting — and even if that were all she stood for, she'd probably still be everyone's favorite aunt.

But novelist Patrick Dennis gave her a spine to go with that worldview. Writing about her in the Eisenhower era, he made her a commonsensical "auntidote" to widely held '50s prejudices about race, anti-Semitism and all things foreign.

Those were prejudices embodied in Auntie Mame by a bland society girl that the grown-up Patrick decides to marry and follow to her little bastion of privilege in Connecticut. Mame, informed that the neighborhood is "restricted," mutters just loud enough for Patrick to hear: "I'll get a blood test."

A Broad-Minded Heroine For A Buttoned-Down Era

In the button-down world of 1955, the McCarthy hearings were making things foreign and nonconformist sound positively Un-American, so it was by no means a given that Mame's liberal ideas would be embraced by the public.

Edward Everett Tanner III, who wrote under the pseudonym Patrick Dennis (which made many people think the story was autobiographical), had his manuscript turned down by 19 publishers before Vanguard Press decided to take a chance on it.

It turned out to be a good investment: Auntie Mame spent two years on The New York Times bestseller list, sold millions of copies, and inspired both a Broadway play and a hit movie starring Rosalind Russell.

Mame Dennis had become an unlikely touchstone in postwar America by not knuckling under to cultural small-mindedness. She called it "Babbitry," after Sinclair Lewis's conformist philistine George F. Babbit — and she condemned it in no uncertain terms.

I was in high school when I first encountered Mame Dennis in the musical Mame. And though composer Jerry Herman had left the "Auntie" off his title, I had an aunt of my own in tow — my Aunt Vivian, who I don't think would have allowed me to call her my "auntie." The tickets were a gift, and I didn't know anything about the show when we went.

So there I was, at my first musical on Broadway, with my aunt sitting beside me, watching a seriously cool aunt telling a nephew just a few years younger than me how to live life to the fullest: "Open a new window," she sang, "open a new door/ travel a new highway that's never been tried before."

Angela Lansbury was glamorous, the kid looked happy, the music was catchy. What can I say? I was an innocent, and my eyes were wide.

In Every Generation, New Windows to Open

It would be misleading to say that I realized I wanted to be a critic that night, but seeds were planted. Aunt Viv and I talked about the show for hours afterward — not just about the performances, but about the ideas. Though it was the 1960s, Babbitry had not been banished. Still hasn't been really; it just goes by different names these days.

Aunt Viv treated me like the adult I hadn't quite become yet, just as Mame had treated Patrick. And she left no doubt as to where she stood on opening windows to let in ideas and experience.

Her own life had been constrained by the Great Depression and by family circumstances. She was not as lucky as Mame — no millionaire to marry — but she ended up shepherding nearly a dozen nephews through adolescence, and that must have kept her young.

Vivian Mondello died earlier this summer, just a few weeks shy of her 99th birthday. And as I was thinking about the influence she had on my life — and about doing this piece about Auntie Mame — I saw parallels going forward, too.

I'm just about the age now that Aunt Vivian was then. And I sometimes take a nephew to shows — who is, it occurs to me, about the age I was then.

And we talk about the ideas behind the shows, because he's bright and inquisitive, and I take huge delight in that.

I've become Aunt Viv, if not Auntie Mame — still trying to open windows and keep the Babbits at bay.

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