In late 1950s America it’s likely that most people would know who Mame was. This novel was a long-lasting best seller and spawned a highly successful play and film version both starring Rosalind Russell who went some way in the years following to adopting the persona of Mame herself. Many readers believed Mame Dennis was a real-life person, reinforced by the author placing himself (well, his nom-de-plume) in a leading role in the book. For a while even the publishing world was fooled by a pre-publication stunt involving correspondence from Auntie Mame threatening legal action to bookshop owners who sold the book.
The whole thing is fiction. Mame is the larger-than-life guardian for her orphaned nephew Patrick who is thrust into her New York lifestyle as a boy in the mid 1920s, arriving with his Irish nanny just as a party was in full swing and falls into this new style of upbringing very different from the one he had with his dour, conservative father. Mame is a woman of the times, favours radical naked education and is unwilling to compromise with the legal stuffed shirts who administers the young Patrick’s trust fund. In a series of what were initially short stories we move through Patrick’s upbringing to adulthood with the disasters wreaked upon him by his eccentric aunt never too far away.
It reads like a slightly more edgy, camper American Wodehouse. It is often laugh out loud funny and the humour is generally sustained throughout. The author ensures we root for Mame. She is eccentric but never objectionable. He leaves this trait to the more conservative characters in the novel who provide a few moments which will have the modern reader squirming.
My knowledge of this came from the 1958 Rosalind Russell movie which turns up very infrequently on television. One time it did I was recovering from a dental operation which had gone wrong and it certainly lifted low spirits. It is also well known from the Broadway musical which dropped the auntie from its title and became another movie in 1974 starring Lucille Ball, which did okay in its day, despite feeling anachronistic for the mid-70s but is now rarely shown. I haven’t seen it but I can sing the title song!
I was reminded that I had bought this attractive looking Penguin reprint paperback and had it sitting on my shelves by Christopher Fowler’s “Book Of Forgotten Authors” which so far has introduced me to Margery Allingham, Georgette Heyer and Edmund Crispin. Like his most famous character author Patrick Dennis was no stranger to eccentricity. Born Edward Everett Tanner III his later works included photo illustrations of himself and his friends alongside the text and sold well but he ended up “killing” Patrick Dennis and becoming a butler for the owner of MacDonalds burger joints. Matteo Codignola puts together some of the pieces known about the author’s life in an illuminating afterword but it is his fictional creation Auntie Mame who is very much the star of the show here.
Auntie Mame was first published in 1955. I read the 2010 Penguin Classics paperback edition.