Uncle Mame: The Life Of Patrick Dennisby Eric Myers
Under his pseudonyms of Patrick Dennis and Virginia Rowans, Edward Everett (Pat) Tanner III was the author of sixteen novelsmost of them best sellersincluding the now-classic Little Me and Auntie Mame. Tanner made millions, became the toast of Manhattan society, and had his works adapted into wildly successful plays, musicals, TV shows,/i>/i>
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Under his pseudonyms of Patrick Dennis and Virginia Rowans, Edward Everett (Pat) Tanner III was the author of sixteen novelsmost of them best sellersincluding the now-classic Little Me and Auntie Mame. Tanner made millions, became the toast of Manhattan society, and had his works adapted into wildly successful plays, musicals, TV shows, and films. But he also spent every cent he made, worked incognito as a butler to the wealthy, and constructed a persona so elaborate that not even his wife and children ever quite knew the real Pat. Based on extensive interviews with coworkers, friends, and relatives, Uncle Mame is a revealing, intimate portrait of the man who brought camp to the American mainstream and even in his lowest moments personifiedeven in his lowest moments the glamour and wit he captured on the page.
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Chicago's leafy, peaceful, upper-middle-class suburb of Evanston, Illinois, forms the backdrop for the opening scene of the novel Love and Mrs. Sargent by Virginia Rowans. In 1961, when the book was published, Ms. Rowans had already written three other novels. Her alter ego, Patrick Dennis, had written four, including the runaway bestseller Auntie Mame. Neither Ms. Rowans nor Mr. Dennis ever actually existed, but together they formed the pseudonymous literary persona of Evanston's own Edward Everett Tanner III, known to his friends simply as Pat.
Evanston today looks much the way it did when Pat Tanner was growing up there in the 1920s and 1930s. Its compact downtown borders the southern edge of Northwestern University, which still retains its Gothic-spired, halls-of-Ivy design. The broad, shady streets of the residential districts are lined with two-story Victorians, low-slung Prairie School bungalows, and opulent mansions built by trade barons at the end of the last century. The town exudes a quiet, comfortable feeling that inspires nostalgia: it's a bit like the setting of a Booth Tarkington novel, or an MGM backlot set for an Andy Hardy movie.
The entire east side of the 1500 block of Asbury Avenue, between Lake and Davis Streets, was unfortunately demolished in the early 1960s by the Methodist Church for a low-rise office complex, but the west side of the street has changed little over the past eighty years. At 1574 Asbury Avenue, a vaguely Prairie-style two-story house still stands, although it has recently suffered anignominious frosting of gray stucco. There is no plaque on the house to mark it as the childhood home of the author of Auntie Mame.
This comfortable, upper-middle-class residence had a picture window fronting the street and a large solarium in the rear. On the side was a garage, a late-1920s addition, with space for two cars. Inside the house, everything was smartly upholstered in black sateen with brilliant turquoise welting, the result of a stylishness that always came naturally to Pat's mother, Florence. Although she had been born and raised in the much smaller town of Ottawa, Illinois, sixty miles southwest of Chicago, Florence Thacker had always been known for vast quantities of chic and charm that made her a hit in Chicago social circles. "She could charm the birds right off the trees," Pat often said of her.
Florence was one of three women in the house at 1574 Asbury Avenue. There were also Pat's sister, Barbara, born ten years before him, and his grandmother, Samantha Thacker, Florence's mother, who doted on him. Another lady known for her charm, Samantha was already a bit senile by the time Pat was born, and she got progressively dottier. Young Pat quickly learned how to take full advantage of Grandma's increasing memory loss. One day when she took ten-year-old Pat and a group of his friends into the Loop for a matinee, Pat convinced her upon exiting that they had not yet gone inside and seen the show. He then steered her and his pals straight into the Rivoli burlesque house next door, where they all happily spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying a lengthy anatomy lesson. Grandma never knew the difference.
The women in Pat's house adored him, and his sister, Barbara, became his best friend. But Edward Everett Tanner Jr. was clearly displeased by his son. He had been hoping for something quite different. Imposing, athletic, and decidedly masculine, Edward Tanner wanted a son in his own image and never ceased to remind Pat of that fact.
Born into a prominent family in Buffalohis uncle Alonzo Tanner had been Grover Cleveland's law partnerEdward Tanner II grew up in a household with close ties to the nascent Christian Science movement. His mother, Mary Williams Tanner, was one of the best friends of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. Pat would often mention what a frequent guest Mary Baker Eddy had been in Mary Tanner's homeespecially whenever Eddy was hiding out while recuperating from clandestine medical treatments. "I think that might have contributed to Pat's contempt for religion," Pat's widow, Louise, once said with a note of dryness. Mary Williams Tanner eventually succumbed to cancer when she refused all medical care. Pat described his paternal grandmother as an individual "whose only redeeming feature was that she was a Democrat."
Once grown-up, Edward left Buffalo and worked his way into the Midwest. In Ottawa, Illinois, he met Florence Thacker at a dance at the boat club. Although a farming community, Ottawa had a rigid class system, and the local boat club was the equivalent of a yacht club anywhere else. Florence had a young daughter, Barbara, by a marriage that had ended in a divorcea rarity in that time and place. However, this did not deter Edward from proposing to Florence and accepting young Barbara as his own daughter. Edward would prove a better father to Barbara than to Pathe did not carry the same expectations for herand Barbara adored her new daddy. As far as she was concerned, Edward would always be her real father.
The family moved to Evanston, and Edward became a successful Chicago commodities dealer. He dealt in futures and commodities and maintained a seat on the Board of Trade until the Great Depression tightened its grip in 1932. During World War I, he had distinguished himself as a pilot and a flying instructor. Well into adulthood, he kept up his athletic pursuits; he excelled in many sports and was a duck hunter and champion swimmer. In most ways, he was the antithesis of the dreamy, artistic kid he considered himself stuck with for a son. Pat was decidedly not the kind of boy who liked to go out and toss the football around.
Evanston, a bastion of Presbyterianism, had a strict social structure, and the Tanners placed fairly close to the upper crust. Staunch Republicans, they proudly hosted a fund-raiser for Alf Landon when he was running for president. Pat's childhood friends remember Florence as a somewhat society-minded but genuine person, while their image of his father is of a cold, distant, and vaguely threatening man. When it came to parties and the social circuit, however, Ed and Florence Tanner knew how to bring out the flashiest, most entertaining aspects of their personalities. They made a dazzling couple, brimming with charm and wit. Always a popular pair of guests, they knew how to keep a party moving.
The Tanners' sense of humor was always evident in the Christmas cards they chose to send. After the 1929 stock market crash, they mailed out their season's greetings on canceled stock certificates. By the time Pat was in his teens, he was designing the Tanner family Christmas cards in full color and writing the Tanner-specific greetings in pithy doggerel. (Pat never liked having religious holidays shoved down his throat. When a high school friend sent him a card reading "Let's put the CHRIST back in Christmas," Pat did up his own card in reply: "Let's put the NO back in Noel!")
Pat always liked to say that he was born in the same bed in the same room in the same Chicago hospital as writer-actress Cornelia Otis Skinner (Our Hearts Were Young and Gay), but in a different year. Skinner was born some twenty years before Pat, who was born May 18, 1921. (Pat became friendly with Ms. Skinner later on, and she was a frequent dinner-party guest of Pat and Louise's years later in New York City. According to Louise, "Pat always thought she was a terrific camp.") Although he was named Edward Everett Tanner III, Pat received his nickname before he was born. When Florence's petite waistline expanded alarmingly with what was obviously going to be a huge and actively kicking baby, Ed Tanner started calling the unborn child Pat after the Irish heavyweight boxer Pat Sweeney. Sweeney was an enormous bruiser, a dirty fighter who was known for kicking his opponents. When Pat Tanner finally entered the world, he weighed in at a full eleven pounds.
From the very beginning, Pat seemed fascinated with the adults who surrounded him and was constantly observing situations and eavesdropping on gossipy conversations that would eventually find their way into his books. "And did you know she's having an affair with her doorman?" Florence would be whispering to a neighbor while five-year-old Pat would be petting the dog and taking it all in. Before long he was learning how to shock, épater les bourgeois, a pastime with which he would amuse himself all his life. As early as his grade-school years, he had a favorite morning ritual: He would sit in the picture window at the front of his house reading Ballyhoo, the 1920s equivalent to Playboy. Once he was certain that all of his classmates had taken shocked notice of him on their way to Dewey Elementary School, he'd finally leave the house and be in his classroom at 9 A.M. sharp with a sly grin on his face.
Meanwhile, Pat was developing a fascination for all things theatrical. His best childhood buddy was Gordon Muchow, a boy of the same age who lived around the corner. Gordon was also stagestruck, and he and Pat used to dress up in costumes whenever they could and stage backyard extravaganzas. Soon Pat put up a theater in his basement, replete with primitive lighting and sheets for curtains, and he and Gordon would put on skits that Pat wrote. Other kids in the neighborhood always got recruited for the casts. On one occasion Pat and Gordon collaborated on a play that they called The Prince Who Found Happiness. Pat directed and Gordon was the star. For the two of them, it was quite a production, and they wanted to perform it for a bigger audience. When Health Day came around at Dewey Elementary School, it was the perfect opportunity to stage the show there. Pat made the simple addition of one final line for the King: "And now, we will all go have a feast of green vegetables!" And that, of course, made the production an appropriate entertainment for Health Day.
It wasn't the only time that Pat and Gordon performed at school. When they were both ten, they did an Apache dance, with Gordon dressed as a French streetwalker and the much taller Pat as a maquereau tossing him around the Dewey Elementary School auditorium. Saturday afternoons, the two friends would often go down to the library to read the theater magazines. Sooner or later, Gordon would usually run off to play baseball with the rest of the neighborhood boys, but Pat always declined. "I kind of felt sorry that he didn't get involved in that more," says Gordon, "but it didn't bother him at all. I'd be with him, and the other guys would say, 'Come on, we're getting up a game,' and I'd go over, and he'd go off by himself and do something on his own." According to Gordon, Pat's lack of interest in athletics never caused him to be bullied or ostracized. He was well liked and accepted by everyone. "But," Gordon points out, "when he walked, he kind of rose up on his toes, and some of the guys would kid him about that. He walked that way, and I walked sort of like a duckyou know, flat-footed. I imagine the two of us walking down the street looked kind of funny."
The two boys liked nothing better than the chance to dress up in costumes and act out various characters. In a 1931 snapshot the two ten-year-olds are pursuing their favorite activity: Gordon Muchow is wearing a cowboy outfit and imitating Tom Mix, while Pat, who towers over him, is garbed in an evening gown, posing as a pigeon-breasted society dowager in supreme Margaret Dumont style.
Gordon had a clubhouse in his backyard where he used to build model airplanes and play Ping-Pong. When Pat would come over, he wouldn't join in with the model-airplane building or at Ping-Pong, but he kept Gordon and the other neighborhood kids amused with a constant stream of stand-up comedy and movie-star impersonations. "I think he always had a great empathy with women; a great understanding and a great interest in women," says Gordon. "This sensitivity to the female viewpoint was almost everywhere, in almost everything that he did in those skits of ours. And he was awfully good at it. He would repeat a performance that he'd just seen in a movie or a play. My dad loved him. He'd come over to the house, and my dad would always encourage him to put on these skits for us. I remember that Pat was always impressed by the female parts. He'd imitate the way an actress entered a nightclub, for example. The one that really sticks in my mind was an imitation of a telephone operator at a switchboard. That came from a movie. It was one of my dad's favorites; he'd always ask for it." Twenty-five years later, it would turn into a memorable moment in both the novel and the play of Auntie Mame.
Pat and Gordon often went to see the theater productions of the summer school of nearby Northwestern University. Northwestern was then and remains one of the most prestigious theater schools in the country. For both boys, that was a formative experience; they felt lucky to have such good theater so close to their front door. By the time they were eleven, Pat and Gordon were taking the el into the Loop and spending the day seeing one movie after another, an endless parade of early talkies in magical movie palaces like the Oriental and the United Artists and the Chicago.
As the Busby Berkeley era of movie musicals took hold, a tap-dancing vogue swept the country. Everyone, especially stagestruck children, wanted to take tap-dancing lessons. One out-of-work dancer, hit hard by the Depression, began giving tap lessons after school to the students at Dewey Elementary for a quarter apiece, and Pat and Gordon signed right up. Not every child had a quarter to spare, but the teacher would usually let everyone stick around and take lessons anyway. Sometimes Pat would even come up with a quarter for a kid who couldn't afford it. "Pat had more money than I did," says Muchow, "and he was very generous with it. We liked malted milks and things like that, and if I didn't have the money, he'd always buy one for me. He got a bikeoh, a wonderful bicycle. And when we entered seventh grade, it was a new school a couple of miles away. He used to give me a ride to school every morning, with me sitting on the handlebars of his bike. He was always very, very nice. To everybody."
Often when Pat came to visit Gordon, Gordon's sister Phyllis would be doing household chores such as washing the dishes or scrubbing floors. Before long, Pat had nicknamed her Cindy, for Cinderella. He enjoyed chatting with Phyllis and going over her movie-star scrapbooks with her. "We always adored him because he was so much fun and so smart; very up-to-the-minute on everything," Phyllis says, laughing, today. "He even gave me tips on how to wear my eyeliner!"
Dispensing beauty advice was the kind of behavior that caused some of Pat's adult neighbors to refer to him as effeminate. His young friends, however, weren't as quick to label him. Instead, they tended to think of him as grown-up, sophisticated, and artistic. They perceived him as one of their own, if perhaps a bit of an oddball. And a bit of a schoolmarm: even as a boy, he insisted on using somewhat florid English and didn't hesitate to correct anyone who trifled with the language. "You don't loan things, you lend them. Loan is a noun, not a verb."
"Every single day, as long as I knew him, it was a play," says David Peterson, who was a close friend of Pat's from kindergarten days. "He woke up in the morning and said, 'This is what we'll be today.' He loved to surprise people, shock people, create a situation for himself that others could join. A neat guy. He was the personification of Mame. Delightful, carefree, didn't hurt anybody, but didn't want to be run-of-the-mill either. He loved doing the oddball kind of thing. There were about ten of us who started kindergarten together and remained friends through high school. We had a wonderful, wonderful, fun childhood."
Pat indeed made sure he had plenty of good times outside the house. What happened inside was something he rarely discussed. "He didn't speak of his family often," explains Peterson. "He never discussed his problems with his father. His life was too much make-believe, and that was too serious."
Painfully, cruelly serious. The older Pat got, and the more pronounced his interests and personality became, the less Ed liked him. Ed started calling his son a "pansy."
Pat's childhood friends remember his mother with great fondness as charming, sophisticated, and friendly. A volunteer librarian at Dewey Elementary School, Florence got to know many of them. Gordon Muchow particularly liked her. "She let us have the run of the house," he says. "We could do whatever we wanted; if we needed more sheets for curtains for the basement theater, she'd let us have them." (Another friend, however, remembers Pat's father blowing up at Pat when he asked for ten dollars' worth of lighting equipment for the theater.)
"My grandmother Florence did a lot for people," says Patrick's niece Susan, now Sister Joanna Hastings of the Dominican Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary in Milwaukee. "She always welcomed new neighbors by taking food over to their homes the day they moved in, so they wouldn't have to cook. She even did that when they moved to the Gold Coast. And she was a hospital volunteer. During the First World War she drove an ambulance for a Chicago hospital, and she liked it so much that the hospital kept her on as a volunteer nurse. She continued to do that during the Second World War, and after. When I had my tonsils out, there she was at my bedside, working at the hospital in her gray uniform."
The Tanners weathered the first few years of the Great Depression fairly well, but by 1932, Ed had a huge cash flow problem. He had generously lent large sums of money to friends and colleagues who had been much harder hit by the Depression than he. Few of his friends were able to repay him, and he eventually spent all of his operating capital bailing them out. To repay his own debts and break even, he was forced to sell his seat on the Chicago Board of Trade. The Tanners' flashy lifestylewhich included a sixteen-cylinder Cadillac with chauffeurhad to change.
Ed was able to keep the house, but expenses had to be reined in. He found work in property appraisals, but his reduced circumstances started taking an emotional toll. Ed and Florence had always been party people who enjoyed a good drinkRoaring Twenties types out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novelbut in 1932 Ed began drinking heavily, a habit that would continue the rest of his life. It could not have been easy on the rest of the family. Fortunately, Pat had allies in his mother and his older sister. Barbara had been an only child for the first ten years of her life and was thrilled when Pat was born. She adored Pat from the moment he came into the world, and as Pat grew older, he would always refer to his sister as his best friend. Pat looked up to Barbara; she was one of the few people whose word meant something to him. But by 1935, Barbara had married and moved out, leaving Pat and Florence to deal with Ed's drinking bouts alone.
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Eric Myers is the coauthor of two previous books and has written for the New York Times, Variety, Opera News, and Time Out, among many other publications. A film publicist and literary editor, he lives in New York City.
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