Patrick Dennis, a pseudonym for writer Edward Everett Tanner, gives the straight and narrow an alternative role model with his witty 1955 bestseller, Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade. When young Patrick arrives at Beekman Place, the door opens to his aunt's unconventional bohemian life in the glitzy New York of the Jazz Age, and, by example, to a different way of being. A party is in progress: "They all used funny words, like 'batik' and 'Freud' and 'inferiority complex' and 'abstraction.'"
Patrick soon grows accustomed to his aunt's nocturnal habits (where 9 a.m. is "the middle of the night"), her glamorous theater friends, her preference for Bauhaus decor, and the experimental schools, psychotherapy, and all matter of fads and crazes (all of which Mame tries). Beekman Place is no place to be square.
Busted for placing Patrick in an experimental school (where all children were stripped of their clothes and expected to make their own fun), Mame loses her grip over her nephew when his furious trustee places him in a boarding school. Worse, she loses her wealth in the crash of 1929. Forced to leave her posh apartment for a carriage house in undesirable Murray Hill, she tries to support herself through jobs for which she is intellectually but not practically equipped.
Mame runs through brief "careers" in literary publishing (loses a valuable manuscript), interior decoration (defies the client's orders for French Louis XV and delivers instead "Bolshevik barbarism"), entrepreneurship (her own moderne store on E. 54th is a hit, but she forgets to mail in insurance forms after it burns down), a saleswoman at Henri Bendel (10 west 57th, but since 1990 at 712 Fifth Ave.) a speakeasy operator, a personal shopper at the Algonquin (59 W. 44th St.), and then, in a hilarious ill-fated turn, an actress in one of Vera Charles' plays.
Finally, Mame takes a Christmas retail position in the toy department at Macy's, selling roller skates. Not easily trainable, she remembers only how to write up sales slips as C.O.D.'s. Those who know the story will recall that she's fired when she lets a customer help her make out the necessary cash sales slip. The customer, happily, is her future wealthy Southern husband, one Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, of Georgia.
Sweeping her off her feet, Burnside moves Mame to ten rooms at the St. Regis Hotel (2 E. 55th St.) and encourages her to resume her old spending ways. On their first anniversary, he buys her "a big old mansion" on Washington Square (for me, a noticeable and impossible slip in an otherwise good make-believe). In the movie version, the two travel to Europe where Burnside dies after falling off a mountain in the Alps. In the original book, though, the day of their housewarming party on Washington Square, Burnside dies after being kicked in the head by a horse in Central Park. Alas. Mame becomes a very wealthy widow.
Mame's New York is the classic New York of Depression-era fantasy – the room service, hatboxes, dressing gowns, perfume, after-theater dinners, gloved doormen and bellhops, glamorous show-biz friends, witty repartee and liquor. The fantasy regenerates in postwar 1950s New York, the time of the book's publication (think, too, of Capote's Holly Golightly).
Visiting the places of Auntie Mame – the classic hotels (Algonquin, St. Regis, the Plaza), the legendary department stores (Macy's, Henri Bendel, etc.), and the nightlife (21 Club at 21 W. 52nd St., etc.) would make a fine walk, don't you think?
Auntie Mame would never take such a walk herself, by the way. Mame owns a Rolls-Royce.
Image: New York, New York, Macy's department store at Herald Square. September 1942. Marjory Collins, photographer. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USW3-007681-D DLC (b&w film neg.).
See related posts:
Classic New York: A Walk, and a Map
The Classic New York of Mame Dennis: A Coda, on Bank Street
Classic New York: 59th and Fifth: A Slideshow
Classic New York: The Algonquin
Classic New York: Times Square
Classic New York: A Visit to Macy's, in April
Classic New York: Henri Bendel
Classic New York: The King Cole Bar at the St. Regis
A Walk in Turtle Bay: Beekman Place, the U.N., Tudor City, and E. 42nd St.
The Liberation Theology of Mame Dennis
Grand Central Theatre, and A New Walk Begins