Monday, 9 December 2013

Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade by Patrick Dennis

published  1955     Set from the 1920s onwards.

From regular guest blogger Colm Redmond






[Patrick Dennis is orphaned at age ten and goes to live with his late father's sister, Mame. In this extract he is 18, about to graduate from his prep school, and is in a Jeeves & Wooster-style scrape to do with a girl. Mame is staying in a hotel nearby and Patrick knocks on her door, accompanied by a teacher, relying on Mame to vouch for him.]


Auntie Mame was not exactly prepared to play the role of my respectable guardian. She was wearing shorts, a halter, and a lot of Lydia van Rensselaer Essence of Youth. Her hair was tied up in a red ribbon, and she was on the floor doing something which looked obscene but was really only an exercise to firm the seat and thighs. There was a half-finished bottle of champagne at her side and the room was littered with yellow-backed French novels, a lot of fashion magazines, and six volumes of Gibbon. But even an aunt who looked "fast" was better than none at the moment.

"Auntie Mame," I said, "this is..."


"How dare you come to my room, sir?" Auntie Mame said coldly, staring straight through me. "I must ask you to leave at once or I'll be forced to call the management."



observations: It was harder to decide which passages to leave out than to find interesting bits about clothes in this wonderful book. There are endless descriptions of Mame's fabulous outfits, and other women old and young, and plenty more of men's clothes. And many enticing references to labels and items that were big in their day - Melachrino cigarettes, various motor cars and so on. Presumably "Essence Of Youth" is a fragrance, but no one famous ever seems to have had the name Lydia van Rensselaer. Maybe this was a sly dig at someone who was well known to pretend to be younger than she was (like Mame herself.) 

[Note from the original Clothes in Books: This may well be a dig at an actual person, but the perfume sounds like a version of Estee Lauder's Youth Dew.]

It's hard to say who had the most exciting life: Mame, her nephew Patrick, or either of their real-life counterparts. Among many gripping facts about the real people is that the author's aunt, Marion Tanner, made a small fortune by going on a TV game show and answering questions about her fictionalised version, Mame. Patrick Dennis (the main character and author of this book) is just one of the hugely-successful pen names of Edward Everett Tanner III, who once had three books in the New York Times Bestseller List at once - apparently a unique achievement. (Two were as Patrick Dennis, one as Virginia Rowans; apparently a pun on Tanner's favourite cigarettes, Virginia Rounds, so presumably that's a clue as to how you pronounce Rowans.)

It is not hard to guess that this was originally a set of short stories. But the main character is older in each successive one and other characters recur as well as his aunt - it's hard to see why people should be sniffy about this being truly a "novel". The framing device (pasted on by the author, from an editor's idea) is no less valid than the structure of, say, any Dickens novel whose "plot" is a person's life and times.

The pic is of Jane Fonda, long before the exercise videos, but nevertheless possibly doing some manner of "exercise to firm the seat and thighs."

Any number of Louise Brooks or Colleen Moore pics could do for Auntie Mame, who when we first meet her inspires an excellent description of what seems obviously a Brooks-style cut (although Rosalind Russell's hair is different in this scene in Auntie Mame):
A regular Japanese doll of a woman had strolled into the foyer. Her hair was bobbed very short with straight bangs above her slanting brows; a long robe of embroidered golden silk floated out behind her. Her feet were thrust into tiny gold slippers twinkling with jewels, and jade and ivory bracelets clattered on her arms. She had the longest fingernails I'd ever seen, each lacquered a delicate green. An almost endless bamboo cigarette holder hung languidly from her bright red mouth.



Although Selena Gomez has the wrong hair in this amazing pic, and the outfit only vaguely matches that description, I feel as though Mame looked a lot like this, in repose. Selena has either a tiny hand or a huge wine glass. 

Thanks to Trish Winter for the brilliant suggestion.

For more from the guest blogger, click on Colm Redmond below.

7 comments:

  1. Moira - Thanks for hosting Colm.

    Colm - I'll admit I've not read this. But the musical/play based on it is fantastic. Honestly, I want to be Mame when I get to that point in my life. What a powerful and unique personality.

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    1. I can quite see it Margot, and will look forward to that manifestation of your personality....

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    2. I haven't seen either of the films, but having looked through scores of stills from the Rosalind Russell [ie non-musical] one I certainly want to see it.

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  2. I thought the second photo was Koo Stark. Not a book to tempt me though.

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    1. Perhaps Selena is the new Koo. Or something.

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  3. This is a book to tempt me, but where one would find time to stick such a book in among all my other plans for 2014, I don't know. I have not seen either film, but I would definitely go for the Rosalind Russell version. Book sounds more appealing though.

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    1. The book IS very funny, and definitely go for the Rosalind Russell film rather than the later one - I'm sure you and your husband would enjoy it!

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