August 12, 2009

Summer Reading: Uncle Mame

I've been working on my third novel this year and, when writing fiction, I find it difficult and maybe even dangerous to read other novels. I always feel there's a chance that another writer's voice might start affecting my own, especially if I really enjoy their work. So I've been on a fiction diet, reading only magazines and non-fiction for the summer.. a rarity for me.

Recently, I finished a wonderful biography with a story that almost read like a novel. It's called "Uncle Mame" by Eric Myers (St. Martin's Press) and it's all about the author the '50s classic "Auntie Mame". I'd always assumed that Mame Dennis was a fairly real person and that the novel was a veiled and maybe somewhat exaggerated roman a clef written by her adoring nephew. Well, as the title of the bio suggests, the character of Mame Dennis was inspired by a real person...the author himself, Patrick Dennis. That name was a pseudonym and the man behind the Mame is Edward Everett Tanner III. It's just the sort of name you'd expect to find behind the grand dame of literary fabulousness, right?

He was raised outside of Chicago by his real parents but was a very eccentric kid, having figured out his nom de pleur in high school.
During WWII, Tanner served as an ambulance driver in North Africa & Itlay and it's from his letters home, heavily excerpted in the book, that one gets the sense Mame was based on no one other than himself. Tanner had a wild imagination, a madcap sense of fun and ridiculous ability to camp it up, all of which helped keep him and his comrades sane during the darker days of the war. After the war ended, he settled in Manhattan and got married but led a bohemian life, with boozy parties and bisexual dalliances. His capacity for drinking was legendary but it didn't affect his output as a writer, which was extraordinary. By 1956, he had three best sellers on the NY Times list, a feat that has not been repeated since. Over roughly 20 years as an author, Tanner published 16 books.

The best part of Tanner's life story, though, comes towards the end. Frustrated by changing cultural tastes in the late 60's, he saw his books were falling out of favor and he gave up writing for a new career as a butler. That's right, the author of "Auntie Mame" served as a high class Jeeves for the well to-do in Miami beach and even his hometown Chicago. In fact, he was the head butler for Ray Kroc, the owner of McDonalds.

With details like this, it's clear Tanner was a fascinating, larger than life figure who had a remarkable life. However, his life was also continually troubled by his attraction to men. He struggled with this for years, sneaking off to bathhouses and having a couple love affairs which ended poorly. He attempted suicide more than once. But one thing that seemed to keep him going was his family. He had a deep love for his children, not unlike Auntie Mame's devotion to the fictional Patrick....another case of art imitating life.

As it turns out, Tanner actually did have an Aunt who lived in Greenwich Village and claimed that she was the basis for Mame. However, though formerly well-off, she spent her later years in a rat-trap apartment on W. 11th Street. Dennis cared about her welfare but was also embarrassed by her behaviour, trying at one point to pay her off so that she would stop going around claiming she was his inspiration. The story of his real Aunt reads like a lost chapter of his most famous novel, as you can surely Imagine Mame being horrified by such a poor relation and doing everything she could to distance herself from her.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Eric Myer's bio which is truly more like a novel than I expected. If you know the story of Auntie Mame and are fond of this iconic American character, you will love reading "Uncle Mame". If all this is news to you,I still think you'll be fascinated by this window into a brilliant writer's life who lived his life like it was a banquet (to quote one of Mame's famous lines). Eric's book is a breezy but informative read which will surely get you reading "Auntie Mame", either for the first time or the fiftieth.