Wednesday, January 09, 2013

What a FEAST!

 "Life's a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are STARVING to death!" is Auntie Mame's most famous quote and her credo. Auntie Mame (one of my all time favorite films) is based on a bestselling book by Patrick Dennis, pseudonym Edward Everett "Pat" Tanner III. I just finished reading his biography, a very good one, UNCLE MAME.

Tanner was fun-loving and vastly entertaining (both in person and in print) married to a wonderful companion, Louise, and had two children. He essentially sheperded camp humor to the mainstream and was the first author to have 3 books on the bestseller list - at the same time.

Yet with the advent of 60s counterculture, what he did best - incisively skewer the snobbery of high society - quite suddenly was quaint and fell out of fashion. He attempted to become an arts dealer, and then - as he was a snob in his own right - found a final career as a butler. He excelled in this role, and ultimately butlered for Ray Kroc, owner of McDonalds, who never knew his clever and reliable servant was actually the famous former millionaire author of Auntie Mame.

Tanner did have an eccentric aunt, but she was no Rosalind Russell and she took in all manner of indigents into her Greenwich Village apartment.  While claiming to be the "real" Auntie Mame, she extracted money from her nephew and gave it to needy artists and drunks she let live with her in the townhouse. Tanner denies that this relation, who became a thorn in his side, was ever the inspiration for Mame Dennis, but even his own son disagrees...

I just finished reading the sequel Around The World With Auntie Mame. 
Her grown nephew Patrick's son has yet to return from a trip with Auntie Mame - to (ostensibly) calm his wife, he tells about all his round-the-world adventures with Mame in the 30s and the shenanigans they got up to with her own firebrand of joie de vivre. While delightful, I wonder what's to be gleaned from reading a comic novel. Apart from a few laughs, it hasn't much to say about much, but then again maybe it's the value of a few laughs we too often overlook.

I'm now onto reading his LITTLE ME, the 1961 phenomenon that ushered camp to the masses and set the stage for the mockumentaries we watch today. With "The intimate memoirs of that Great Star of Stage, Screen and Television BELLE POITRINE... as told to Patrick Dennis", Little Me lampooned the self-important star autobiographies of the day.

For starters, the "star" in question is Belle Poitrine, which translates in French to "Pretty Bosom"....
He had a riot of a time writing this totally ridiculous biography of a totally unself-aware and egotistical Z-grade star, who chews her way through several husbands in her ambitious quest for fame. Tanner had a wild time collaborating on this project with his friends, and creating original photographs to accompany the story.
Apparently Belle finds God in SouthHampton.
They also document Belle's fall from grace... into the sewers of despair...

Tanner had met by this time, the actor Cris Alexander (photographer for Little Me) and his partner the NY ballet dancer Shaun O'Brien, and this is one result of their super camp sensibility, in a world where they had to make their own fun. In the late 1990s, Alexander described it as, "a period when imagination emerged as a real accessory in getting along. I took camp as a playfullness, and also as a retort to smugness, and to the straight people that were a bore..."

Anyone reading just a few lines of any Patrick Dennis can quickly identify the humor as acidly gay, but back in the 50s they didn't see in those terms, so when Pat Tanner came to the conclusion about his own sexuality- falling in with the burgeoning gay scene and ultimately, in love with a man, the overwhelming sense of guilt for what he was doing to his family sent him into a spiral that landed him locked in the loony bin and from which he never fully recovered. Through it all, he remained married to his wife. More interestingly, her to him!

I can't imagine what it must have been like for the wife, for the kids - to have to keep such a secret (he did tell them). But of all the people I've met who have parents who came out later in life, they are always grateful they did come out late - otherwise they wouldn't have existed - and are happy their parents finally embraced their true nature. Still, I can't help feeling sorry for the man, his predicament, to find yourself at the wrong banquet. There was, after all, an alternative.

His collaborators - Cris Alexander and Shaun O'Brien - were together then and for 60 more years. What changes they saw as the times changed. When New York legalized gay marriage in 2011, they went and married. They lived upstate in a Victorian and, according to the NY Times, hosted an ice cream party every day at 4:30. It was only last year then, when O'Brien died of natural causes. Two weeks later, 92 year old Cris Alexander died of a broken heart. 


Anonymous said...

Many years ago I read a play called The First Lady by a Patrick Dennis. I wonder if it the same author.
Do you know?

Jesse Archer said...

Yes I believe that he wrote that with a co-author (he never did that again) and it wasn't so successful... as I recall.

samael7 said...

(Apologies in advance for the length.)

If I didn't know better, Jesse, I'd swear you wrote this blog specifically for me sometimes. Between invoking my nostalgia for Australia, to musical theater and old movies, and now you tell me that Auntie Mame is one of your favorite films. (I don't even have to specify that OF COURSE we're not talking about the Lucille Ball abomination. Side question - Tilda Swinton as Mame: excitement or dread?)

I haven't read Little Me yet (but will), but I have read the Mame books. With regard to the Around the World he's also doing what he does best: skewering the upper classes.

I got the sense, while reading it, that a lot of his jabs and digs were harder to get for us later readers, because so much of the world as it was then disappeared after World War II. A lot of the humor takes place in the tension between Old Europe/New Europe, the wealthy elite and the nouveau riche, imperialism and serfdom, and of course Fascism and Communism.

What complicates the story further is the fact that though the story is set in the interwar era, Tanner wrote the book in the McCarthy era. I can VERY easily imagine Tanner being absolutely revolted by the Senator and his little closeted fascist, Roy Cohn. And sure enough, the book had the chunks in the Soviet commune censored out early on.

(And probably not so much for the fact that it merely mentioned communism, given that Tanner shows what a spectacularly buffonish con it is, but more for the fact that it brings up America's own poor record of inequality and bigotry in the characters of the black couple, who'd sought the commune as a place where they might truly be considered equal, but wound up being the only ones who knew how to get anything practical done.)

And of course it sends up the world-parade of shysters, climbers, leeches, lotharios, the general hangers-on and the easily-led, as if pointing out that people are people and bastards are bastards, no matter where you are.

(I wonder, too, especially given his marriage and conflicting sexuality, if there's some more poignant air of disenchantment with marital affairs that pervades the framing story between Patrick and Pegeen. They seem quite fed up with one another, although that may be because they haven't seen their son in two years and are starting to crack. Or if he harbord some feelings of imprisonment in his marriage.)

Jesse Archer said...

Lucille WHO?

Of course - Bea Arthur was an incredible Vera in that debacle!

Very interesting points re: Around the World.

I believe you're right in the whole antiquated notion of noveau riche, social strata, imperialism and I found it a bit annoying that Mame herself was so into clawing her way into that inner circle...

I read the original version which, would you believe (yes, you would) censored the chapter in Russia as it was published during the insidious McCarthy era. America, the free! Alas, I didn't get to read that chapter but love your analysis.

Pegeen was such a stick in the mud. You kept half-expecting her to say, "that's NOT top-drawer!" didn't you? But I'm not sure if it mirrors his own marriage. He did go loony and leave his wife (coming back to her only to die...) In his bio, Louise appears a game companion and participated in all the high camp hilarity - she's even a character in "Little Me". She was a most compliant, if scorned, wife!

Check out Little Me. It's a riot and surprisingly current in humor.


Jesse Archer said...

PS. Tilda Swinton is doing MAME? Actually not a bad choice, but she'll have to put on makeup for once.

You know who would've been the BEST?
Tallulah Bankhead. Well, Ros Russell is the best, but you know she would have kept her claws so tight around those rights... and Tallulah would have been a most formidable rival in the role!