New York: Vanguard Press, 1955
Reprinted as Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade (New York: Broadway Books, 2001)
Mame Dennis: Well, now, uh, read me all the words you don’t understand.
Patrick Dennis: Libido, inferiority complex, stinko, blotto, free love, bathtub gin, monkey glands, Karl Marx . . . is he one of the Marx Brothers?
Despite having summered on Fire Island, until recently I’d never read, or seen, Auntie Mame. I’m still not sure if I have, since I don’t seem to have seen the same movie or read the same book as everyone else.
A few months back, TCM gave me the chance to view the 1958 film, which I decided to watch as part of my delight in slipping into the smooth, delightful world of 1950 Hollywood technicolor super-reality. And just last weekend, they provided the 1974 film of the musical, which appealed to my love of bad film (being, reputedly, the movie so awful that it killed the Hollywood musical).
So, everybody else already knows the story, right? Wikpedia must think so, since they fobbed me off with this:
Auntie Mame is a 1955 novel by Patrick Dennis chronicling the madcap adventures of a boy, Patrick, growing up as the ward of the sister of his dead father.
Well, I’ll never get away with that as a proper book report. IMDb, do your stuff!
An orphan goes to live with his free-spirited aunt. Conflict ensues when the executor of his father’s estate objects to the aunt’s lifestyle.
Sounds like a Lifetime movie. Let’s turn to Amazon:
This hilarious story of an orphaned ten-year-old boy sent to live with his aunt is as delicious a read in the twenty-first century as it was in the 1950s.
It’s almost as if they — or They — don’t really want to bring up the messy topic of what exactly happens.
I did find this on Amazon:
Auntie Mame is the American Alice in Wonderland. It is also, incidentally, one of the most important books in my life. Its witty Wildean phrases ring in my mind, and its flamboyant characters still enamor me. Like Tennessee Williams, Patrick Dennis caught the boldness, vitality, and iridescent theatricality of modern American personality. In Mame’s mercurial metamorphoses we see American optimism and self-invention writ large. — Camille Paglia, author of Sexual Personae
Uh-oh. Having been blurbed as “the Camille Paglia of the alt-right,” this gives me pause.
So, when TCM programmed Auntie Mame a while back I settled in for what I assumed would be a warm, two hour or so bath in classic Hollywood entertainment, with perhaps a slightly astringent barb of camp here and there. A “gay romp,” as it were.
What I got was two hours of hardcore Commie subversion.
I won’t bother with any talk about acting, singing, songwriting, or any of that artsy guff, as all these versions have been reviewed to death. Nor can I be bothered to straighten out what obviously must be very different takes on the basic story: novel, play, filmed play, musical, filmed musical, so I will, as the Structuralists would say, treat the material synchronically, all of a piece, as one big Cultural Artifact or meme, and merely point out some particularly irritating parts.
Our first clue, to start with the book, is the publisher: Vanguard Books. We recently mentioned them in connection with another book/movie of the ‘50s, End as a Man, a.k.a. The Strange One. (Good titles for Mame, too). Here’s what we uncovered then:
Wikipedia also tells us that . . . “Vanguard was established with a $100,000 grant from the left wing American Fund for Public Service, better known as the Garland Fund. Throughout the 1920s, Vanguard Press issued an array of books on radical topics, including studies of the Soviet Union, socialist theory, and politically oriented fiction by a range of writers [including] the first books of Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Marshall McLuhan, Joyce Carol Oates and Dr. Seuss.” A verifiable echo-chamber, with a few Shabbos goyim thrown in for cover. So you know what to expect.
And “what to expect” is just what we get with Mame: sort of a domestic — in both senses — version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Mame Dennis is enormously wealthy, presumably family money, as her brother is a Chicago stockbroker whose untimely death leads his son, Patrick, to her door; which door is on Beekman Place, than which, then as now, there is no better address in Manhattan.
The “story arc” as we would say today seems to involve three major crises (or “plot points” in the language of How to Write a Screenplay). Although the whole book comprises the narrative of Patrick’s “education,” the theme is epitomized and driven home in the first crisis, when Mame choses a school for Patrick. Remember “conflict ensues when the executor of his father’s estate objects to the aunt’s lifestyle”? One imagines, from the book/film’s reputation, that we’ll have some comical confrontation over sending Patrick to some stuffy, “traditional” by the rote boy’s school while Mame surreptitiously sends him to a “progressive” school where boys and girls “learn by doing” rather than by drill; a Montessori or Waldorf school.
What we get is this:
Dwight Babcock: I dropped by the Bixby School. And what do I find? I find he isn’t even registered there, he never has been. So I’ve been hunting through every low, crockpot school in this town, and I finally found him in the lowest of them all.
Auntie Mame: Mr. Page is a progressive educator . . .
Dwight Babcock: There they were, a schoolroom full of them: boys, girls, teachers, romping around stark naked, bare as the day they were born.
Auntie Mame: I assure you that the children under Mr. Page’s care were engaged in normal, healthful, broadening pursuits.
Dwight Babcock: Broadening? You show them what you were doing when I broke into that place. Go ahead, show them.
Patrick Dennis: We just playing Fish Families.
Dwight Babcock: Fish Families!
Patrick Dennis: It’s part of “constructive play.”
Dwight Babcock: Now, listen to this.
Auntie Mame: Show me now darling, show me.
Patrick Dennis: Well, we do it right after yogurt time. Mrs. Page and all the girls crouch down on the floor under the sun lamps. And they pretend to be lady fishes, depositing their eggs in the sand. Then Mr. Page and all the boys do what gentlemen fish do.
Auntie Mame: [pause] What could be more wholesome or natural?
Now, while I suppose something like this was part of the Bolshevik/Bohemian agenda in the very early days (before Stalin stamped down on all the nonsense), and while pedophilia does seem to still be on the agenda today, this sounds more like some more recent hippie sex cult than “progressive education.”
More to the point, why do audiences — even in the supposedly “uptight” ’50s — accept this as good, clear fun? After all, the audiences for all these versions are much larger than the relatively small group of camp enthusiasts, so the vast bulk must be placid bourgeoisie “getting a chuckle out of having their noses tweaked” or some such thing.
Wiped out in the 1929 crash, Mame needs a sugar daddy and finds one in the form of Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside who, like all Southerners, is a clueless but rich White guy with a huge mansion and plantation. Because they’re all like that, after all.
As you can imagine, this is all just an excuse to display all the Southern stereotypes at hand, a kind of Masque of the Southern Cliché. It’s really just padding, but ironically it’s the only part most people remember or even know, since it has the Big Song in it.
Poor Beauregard is killed off (a skiing accident in some Teutonic land; how droll!) and we get back to the plot of Mame screwing up people’s lives. Next up is her frumpy, sexually repressed (“Date? I’ve never had one”) secretary, Miss Gooch. Mame persuades her to live a little (this is the recurrent theme, “Life is a banquet, and most poor sons of bitches are starving!”) and she, of course, immediately becomes pregnant; it’s a jump cut, so it’s funny!
Another life thrown into chaos, another disadvantaged child born. It’s funny and progressive!
Blah, blah, more stuff, finally we swing back to the main storyline. Patrick, having grown up and presumably been forced to attempt bad old regular schools, announces he’s found a girl, and plans to marry her! Didn’t see that one coming. She, and her parents, are rich, white, and live in Connecticut; so of course, they’re dumb, uncultured and, oh, yes, racist.
Mame to the rescue, lest they succeed in their evil plans to
Auntie Mame: “. . . to make him an Aryan . . . from Darien?”
Mrs. Upson: “In FACT, this room used to be an old SLAVE kitchen. Oh, there you are, Bertha!”
Mrs. Upson then endears herself to future alt-Rightist by observing that Bertha is a rare treasure; since all that bother about civil rights, “They’re getting so snobby lately”
Then comes the real dealbreaker: antisemitism!
Gloria Upson: And, of course, it’s completely restricted.
Auntie Mame: I’ll get a blood test.
Auntie Mame: Exclusively what and restricted to whom?
It’s fascinating the Dennis should latch onto this one detail, and make it the sine qua non of the unspeakable bigot. As Paul Kersey has argued, the Stalingrad of White America was not Obama, or affirmative action, or “civil rights,” or even Brown v. Board of Education. It was another, earlier Supreme Court decision, little noticed at the time and largely forgotten decision. Kersey writes that
The NAACP and their wealthy and influential allies won a landmark victory in the summer of 1948. The unanimous Supreme Court ruling Shelley v. Kraemer stated that restrictive covenants violated both the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866.
Who cares? Here’s why:
When America was free, communities enforced so-called “restrictive covenants.” These allowed white neighborhoods to maintain the population balance of their communities — in the same way that immigration enforcement once maintained the existing national population.
And as a result,
In America today, it is almost unheard of for a family to pass down a house from generation to generation. This alone tells us a great deal about the dispossession of the historic American nation, and the loss of confidence that Americans have in the future. Today, home ownership in America is a terrible risk, rather than a guarantee of security. The work of a lifetime can be undone in a moment, as the destruction of a home’s value is only one Section 8 development away.
Or, in Mame’s case, a crazy, vindictive old leftist broad setting up a home for unwed mothers to spite you.
Having served their purpose, the pregnant women disappear and no more is heard from or about them. Oh, if only the helpless stooges of other liberal schemes — school integration? Affirmative action? Urban renewal? — could so charitably and mercifully disappear!
In fact, in some way or ways too trivial or tedious for the audience to be let in on (i.e., Hollywood Magic), a wipe of the screen later all is well, Patrick is wed to his suburban dream, and enough time has passed for them to have a child who is, implausibly but of course, already in the custody of . . . Child protective services at last? No, Mame.
In fact, she’s up to her old tricks, nagging and passive-aggressiving until the parents relinquish control of the child and let Mame take him on a trip to . . . Russia.
That’s what they call it, and I did a double take and had to do some thinking (which Hollywood never wants you to do). A quick estimate, based on ages and clothes, would make this the late ’40s early ’50s. What they call “Russia” is, to spell it out, actually called The Soviet Union, ruled by Khrushchev; even if this is supposed to be the musical’s year of 1974, it’s the Soviet Union under Brezhnev.
How is Mame travelling to “Russia” and with a last minute addition of a small child? Weren’t there all kinds of restrictions on both sides, didn’t people have a devil of a time going back and forth? And why would audiences in the ’50s and ’60s be expected to look with favor on this?
I can only imagine that Mame is, exactly what she appeared to be: a Soviet agent, now being repatriated after a lifetime of work undermining American society.
As the plane takes off, Patrick sighs in that “gosh, don’t you just love her to pieces” way that the audience is expected to share, and delivers one last inexplicable line: “Why, she’s the pied piper!”
Right, the Pied Piper. That would make her a charming woman leading children to their death and doom. It’s the feel-good movie of our age!
Now, I don’t want to sound like one of those humorless folks that reduce movies to politics. The ’58 film delivers its promised warm Technicolor bath, and Rosalind Russell and Peggy Cass are great.  And everyone agrees the ’74 film is abominable on its own merits (or demerits).
I’m sure I’m not the first person to note these oddities — people occasionally say things like “not everyone would go along with Mame today, yuk yuk, nudge nuge” — but I think I am the first to note all of them, and make a big deal about it.
Ending the movie musical by spiriting Patrick off to Mother Russia is appropriate. Mame is a kind of museum of Bolshevik subversion and culture-distortion. Some has been abandoned and confined to the archives like a daffy relative (like Mame herself) such as the nude sex ed classes. Others, as Paul Kersey noted about restrictive covenants, has only grown in impact and effloresced like a lingering, chronic disease.
I shall be told that this is philistinism; Mame is to be enjoyed for its language, and its portrait of eccentricity and individualism, etc. Fair enough on both counts, although a little “eccentricity” goes a long way, in societal terms, and its arguable whether Americans decline has come from too little “individualism” or too much.
One can only wonder, though, what the books “reputation” or “interpretation” would be were Mame, like Miss Brodie, on the Wrong Side. What is Patrick was sent to some Wandervogel camp? Miss Gooch impregnated as part of the Lebensborn program (“You don’t need a boyfriend, Miss Gooch. Just live! And help the Fatherland too!). The concerns of some old Junkers brushed aside as land is obtained for a political internment camp. So droll, and a good lesson for them! And at the end, the long promised trip to Berlin to see the Führer!
Oh yes, a camp classic indeed!
1. I once had a quarter-share in a shack in Kismet, where the dirt poor go until they become rich enough for the Pines or Cherry Grove. Supposedly, Genesis P-Orridge was there on alternate weekend, though I never saw him. What I did find was an old ‘60s paperback of Genius, Dennis’ 1962 novel based on the vagabond life of Orson Welles. I remember that it was amusing beach reading, but did not provide any incentive to pursue the rest of his oeuvre.
2. “A Gay Romp with Eva and Adolph” is the subtitle of the fictional “Springtime for Hitler.”
3. I will only point out, as something I haven’t seen mentioned, that Mame’s “We Need Another Christmas” is Sweet Charity’s “I Love to Cry at Weddings” with different lyrics. Go ahead, try it.
4. The musical, starring Angela Lansbury, was never filmed, so I would guess no living person remains who saw it live and in person.
5. “The novel was adapted for the stage by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Running from October 31, 1956, to June 28, 1958, at the Broadhurst Theatre, the original Broadway production starred Rosalind Russell in the title role. In December 1958, a film of the same title based on the play was released by Warner Brothers with Russell, Shimoda, and Cass reprising their roles. Russell was nominated for an Academy Award and won a Golden Globe for her portrayal. The film was the highest grossing U.S. film of the following year. In 1966, a musical version, titled Mame, starring Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur, opened on Broadway. It was a triumph in New York and then toured the country with great success. In 1974, the musical was made into a film of the same title starring Lucille Ball, Bea Arthur (reprising her stage role), and Robert Preston. This film was a failure at the box office—despite breaking attendance records during its Radio City Music Hall run—and critics generally panned it for Ball’s singing ability and thought she was not up to the part (she was 62 years old).” Wikipedia, Auntie Mame.
6. “The Nightboy Cometh: Reflections — In a Jaundiced Eye — on Calder Willingham’s End as a Man & Jack Garfein’s The Strange One,” here.
7. With a name like “Vanguard” what else? Odd that the National Alliance publishing arm was called Vanguard Books.
8. See “The Fraud of Miss Jean Brodie” in my collection Green Nazis From Space! (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2016).
9. In his 1985 Esquire article on “Good Buildings,” Tom Wolfe provided a handy list; 1 Beekman Place is, well, number 1. See Christopher Tennant, The Official Filthy Rich Handbook (New York: Workman [!] Publishing, 2008).
10. See The Simpson’s take on Waldorf education here. Normally one expects a hamfisted mockery, but who knew they were fans of Rudolph Steiner?
11. What Steve Sailer might call “World War P.” See Greg Johnson’s “The Coming Pedophile Rape Epidemic,” here. Again, the reputation of Mame is still “good for children”; see “Auntie Mame’s Secret: The Loco in Her Parentis” by Bob Mondello, NPR, June 30, 2008, here. “Mame Dennis — irrepressible, adoring, easily distracted, utterly down-to-earth — is the guardian any sensible child would love to have.” Only a writer for NPR would consider a wealthy nutjob like Mame as “down-to-earth.”
12. “Fish Families” brings to mind the Children of God cult, where young girls were trained by leader Dave Berg (of course) in “Flirty Fishing.” Christ’s injunction to “become fishers of men” has spawned a number of such memes; unless, dear God, Mame was the direct inspiration!
13. By contrast, when Divine eats dog shit in Pink Flamingoes, we are not supposed to approve; Mame, however, is always a role model, especially as the Ideal Parent. On the other hand, “As Confederate Monuments Come Down in 65% Black Baltimore, Push to Build Statue to Poop Eating Drag Queen Gains Traction.”
14. As an aside, it’s interesting that the modern, sophisticated, liberated Woman is indistinguishable from a brainless flapper (in fact, I’ve seen Mame misidentified in reviews as “a Roaring Twenties flapper”). Mame presumably has family money at the start, like most parlor pinks, and knowing nothing about making or saving money (so vulgar, after all) she not only loses it but can’t handle a real job. The “progressive” is simply a mutant form of the upper-class parasite, which is why real Communists purge them as soon as they consolidate their power.
15. That any Southerner, to say nothing of a patrician, would bear the name “Burnside” is either a weak joke or a sign that Dennis, not surprisingly, knows nothing about his subject. I suspect that he, and his audience, take after Norman Podhoretz, who told Gore Vidal that the Civil War meant no more to him than the War of the Roses.
16. A friend called when I was watching the musical and when I mentioned it she, a big musical fan, asked “What songs are in it?” I said, well, “Mame” and she said, “I know, but what songs are in it?”
17. I suppose this eventually becomes the counter-intuitive “Life is a Cabaret” song in Cabaret.
18. Again, we note how “progressive” thought mimics “reactionary”: sex immediately results in pregnancy: “I lived. I gotta find out what to do now!”
19. I haven’t dwelt on the obvious psycho-sexual undercurrents of the story, and its popularity. Mame is obvious the Bad Mother who ensures that her boy never abandons her for the temptations of work, marriage, adulthood, etc. Auntie Mame has long been a gateway not to homosexuality as such, but to the blandishments of what would soon be dubbed the “gay” identity. It’s a world of superficial brilliance (“camp”) but no real cultural achievement (that would take too much work; Warhol’s genius was to find a way to remove the work requirement) and, since cultural and leisure require lots of unearned income, entirely at ease with and supportive of The Establishment; like all of the New Left’s “identity politics”. Burroughs wrote about them nearly twenty years before, in Junky: “By accident I met some rich homosexuals, of the international queer set who cruise around the world, bumping into each other in queer joints from New York to Cairo. I saw away of life, vocabulary, references, a whole symbol set as the sociologists say. But these people were jerks for the most part and, after an initial period of fascination, I cooled off on the setup.” We discussed this before in “Sour Cream: Michael Nelson’s A Room in Chelsea Square” (reprinted in Green Nazis in Space!). Pace Paglia, works like Patrick’s and Nelson’s represent the decline of Wildean “wit” into “camp.” Distinguishing “homosexual” from “gay” was, of course, the gravamen of the title essay of The Homo and the Negro (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2012).
20. Although Darien was a “sundown town,” I don’t think they ever had slaves. Was the kitchen moved up from the South for its picturesque charm? “Darien used to be a sundown town – a town which forbade African Americans to remain overnight via unwritten rules.” – Wikipedia, here.
21. Is this one of those “Wildean” quips that thrilled Paglia? More likely, this: Mame Dennis: [to Patrick who has unleashed sunlight on a very hung-over Mame] “Child, how can you see with all that light?” Another line has unintended relevance: “He’s from the Knickerbocker bank! They’re so conservative that they don’t pay any interest at all!!”
22. “Laura Z. Hobson’s bestselling 1947 novel Gentleman’s Agreement was set in Darien to highlight American anti-Semitism via an unwritten covenant that prohibited real estate sales to Jews. Gregory Peck starred in the film version, directed by Elia Kazan, which won the Academy Award for best picture.” – Wikipedia, here.
23. “Eric Holder, Freedom of Association, and the Forgotten Case for Restrictive Covenants;” Vdare, August 13, 2013, online here.
24. I recall that the confirmation hearings for Chief Justice Rehnquist, liberals tried to use a restrictive covenant in an old, form mortgage of his as evidence of his “racism.”
25. Before all you libertards get hot and bothered, Kersey points out that “It is critical to note that those arguing in favor of restrictive covenants did not argue on the basis of race. They argued on the basis of the right of property owners to protect their investments…. Far from being an example of state-sponsored segregation, “restrictive covenants” were the free market in action.” So there.
26. Along the way, she “gets back” like a spoiled child at her future inlaws for their loathesome “White people” food (tuna fish and peanut butter) by serving them “baked monkey,” which Patrick says he has all the time. Um, meat-eating, animal rights, and child abuse, anyone? Moreover, the food of the old money crowd is famously bland if not eccentric. Hey, I thought she loved eccentricity? No, only her own. See Paul Fussell’s Class. If Mame finds it odd and surprising, that just establishes her as a parvenu and a snob.
27. Before everyone writes in, I wrote this after viewing the musical. Further research turned up a synopsis of Auntie Mame at TCM, where the character is supposed to be “Pegeen,” a maid hired to replace Gooch. The musical skips this last minute subplot and gives us the aforementioned jump cut, and an actress hardly distinguishable from Patrick’s old flame. Patrick’s marriage is entirely off-screen and if they didn’t care about his wife, neither do I.
28. It’s impossible for someone of my generation to take Forrest Tucker seriously as a romantic lead, after starring in The Crawling Eye (the very first movie to be MST3k’d!) and TV’s F Troop.
29. On the other hand, in some ways the Movement has gotten ahead of Mame (as in normalizing pedophilia). Fans hold earnest discussions as to the propriety of the Southern scenes (“There was a whole thread going on All That Chat about the Southern part of Mame and if we could now still do it.”) and whether laughing at the “racist” Upsons is, well, racist (“When the Upson’s maid shows up with the hors d’ouvres and Mrs. Upson is like “They’re getting so snobby lately”, I laugh EVERY time and feel like a jackass about it.”), rather like those who want to ban Twain’s anti-racist books because they use “that” word.
30. In the same way, the “gay” identity of promiscuous sex had to be revamped, post AIDS, into the new “all we want is marriage and children” version, which, like the Virgin Birth or war with EastAsia, has “always” been true.
31. Although, as observers back to Tocqueville noted, Americans are the most conformist people on Earth, that conformist urge is rooted precisely in the Puritan moral individualism that makes slavish conformity the safest choice when traditional social structures are unavailable (as well as, as Kevin MacDonald has pointed out, making moral one-upmanship, of precisely Mame’s sort, a weapon available to our enemies seeking to divide us and render us incapable of group action); its the “social security” if you will that makes “class-ridden” England the home of true eccentrics.