on October 26, 2000
If any popular author deserves a biography, Patrick Dennis is that author. Very little has been reported in print about Patrick Dennis, and today he runs a very real danger of being forgotten or undiscovered by a generation of young people. As I am a "young person," and rabid fan of the writings of Mr. Dennis, I can attest to the enormous influence his books have had on my outlook. Once convinced to read his works, my friends and peers inevitably fall in love with his madcap characters and storytelling.
Most well known for his outrageus and extraordinarily popular creation, "Auntie Mame," "Patrick Dennis," (actually one of many pseudonyms) used his many "light comic novels" to introduce both a hilarious camp aesthetic into mainstream pop culture, and perhaps more importantly, an underlying philosophy of tolerance and celebration of differences.
Author Eric Myers dives right into the world of "Pat," and while he wastes no time in chronicling the eyebrow-raising behavior of young Pat, it might be slightly shocking for those unschooled in the style of Patrick Dennis. Have no worry -- the book builds in momentum, ever expanding on Pat's experiences in a world of lovable free spirits, searing society shenanigans, and snobbish blowhard conservatives, all stock characters of the Dennis style.
Eric Myers paints a vivid picture of time and place, recreating an urbane society where someone with Pat's obvious flamboyant tendencies can be labeled as simply "fun and exotic." But Pat was a real person, not just one of his creations, and there is a real inner human struggle to be explored, as well.
Thankfully, Myers peppers the heavily researched book with a generous amount of rare writings from Pat (including a marvelous grab-bag Appendices), and includes many entertaining quotes from friends and family. The book is appropiately structured like a Patrick Dennis story, this time, Pat himself serving as the teacher of the value of being one's self, no matter how difficult that may seem.
The only criticism I have of the book (and I didn't allow it to effect my star rating) is the extremely tacky design of the book jacket. Without doubt, the most ardent fans of Mr. Dennis are extremely aesthetically sensitive, so there's no excuse for the second-rate-dinner-theater-playbill-knockoff of a cover. Wisely, the publishers printed the book in standard issue Patrick Dennis "light comic novel" size, so it will fit nicely next to your copy of Auntie Mame.
Patrick Dennis has taught many people not to "judge a book by its cover" (so to speak) and that lesson applies well here. Eric Myers has crafted a very funny, exhaustive, affectionate portrait of one of pop culture's most influential authors. If Auntie Mame has played a special role in your life, check out the book that finally puts to rest the long debated origins of who the REAL Auntie Mame was.
Some of the best-loved and best-remembered reads of my early adolescence were the books of Patrick Dennis. "Auntie Mame" left a nearly indelible impression, while its sequel, and the novels "The Joyous Season," "Tony," and "Little Me" were as eagerly devoured if not quite as unforgettable. On the recommendation of a friend I picked up a copy of "Uncle Mame" certain that I was going to be wildly entertained, but alas it was not so.
I don't really know why this book didn't capture my imagination, though I do know that throughout, Dennis (nee Edward Everett Tanner III, aka, Pat Tanner) remains a somewhat shadowy figure, aloof and unapproachable. Myers never closes the gap between Tanner and his readers or indeed, between Tanner and himself. I had the impression that for all the delving into Tanner's life, particularly the facts of his sexuality, Myers is no more familiar with the subject of his book than is the reader. I don't necessarily blame the author; it's clear he's done his legwork on this book, interviewing those friends and family members who survived Tanner. It's just that the information as presented casts no revealing light on the man. We're told over and over again that Pat Tanner is a charming, gracious man, but see little evidence of it. We're told of his process of self-discovery, in re. his sexuality (And I give points to Myers for the way he handles it, unfolding the facts slowly rather than making it a primary issue from page one.) but I never got a real feel for either his conflict or the blunt reality of his homosexuality.
Oddly, the book comes alive when Myers is discussing the other people in Tanner's life. In particular, his crazy aunt Marian lends herself to some very vivid narrative. Marian always claimed she was the original inspiration for Mame Dennis, though Pat always denied this absolutely. Either way, she's an unforgettable character, and Myers is at his best when writing about her misadventures. Also fascinating is the material about two of Pat's best friends, Cris Alexander and Shaun O'Brian. Cris in particular comes across as a vivid, creative, funny man, and I found myself wishing that the book had been about him and his partner, O'Brian, rather than Tanner.
To be fair, I think Meyers was constrained by Tanner's personality. He seems a creature of opposites. Over and over, it's said that he was a kind, generous, gentleman, but his own words are cool (even cold), sardonic and frequently waspish, and paint a very different picture. His children adored him, we are told, but in the same chapter we learn that he ruled them with an iron will, often shamed them into good behavior, and preferred to teach them to play bridge or mix martinis for his guests, than to do parent-type things with them. We're told that he and his wife, Louise, loved one another deeply, but see scant evidence that they were more than just buddies who produced two children together before she and Pat separated when he felt the need to be more honest about his sexuality. We're told that he was generous to a fault to crazy aunt Marian, but his letters to her are cold and self-justifying, explaining that he has very little money himself (hardly true; he lived extremely well) and can't spare any more for her. And certainly while there was no reason for him to continue to support her, the tone he takes with her made me uncomfortable in light of all the praise that had been sung on his sweet nature. Over and over, we're told one thing and shown another.
In the end, Tanner comes across as a sad, eccentric man who was easy to like but hard to know. I suspect that the force of his personality is not something that can be captured in print. I would recommend this book with reservations. If you're a huge fan of Tanner's work or interested in post-war New York, this might be just the book for you.
Eric Myers does a terrific job of capturing the soul and spirit of Edward Tanner (aka Virginia Rowans, aka Patrick Dennis). Myers' deft biographical skills show how Tanner saved his venom for the page and, alas, for himself, leaving behind family and friends who clearly loved him and love him still, nearly a quarter of a century after his death. The author also encapsulates the best parts of Tanner's sixteen novels and makes a strong case for Tanner's skill as a chronicler of mid-twentieth-century America, as he skewered the pompous and championed the unique. There's much more to Patrick Dennis than his most popular book, Auntie Mame, and I hope that this first biography will bring at least the best of his other novels--The Joyous Season, Genius, Little Me--back into print.
The title "Uncle Mame," the biography of comic author Patrick Dennis, can be taken two ways. It is not only a pun on Dennis' bestselling book "Auntie Mame" but also a sly allusion to this American comic genius's conflicted sexuality and how it formed the subtext of (and perhaps directly impacted) his career and personal life.
Dennis grew up in Evanston, Illinois in the 1920s and 1930s with a Puritanical taskmaster of a father, a more understanding mother, and the conservative upper-middle-class lifestyle so commonly associated with Evanston. He comes across as one of those intuitive geniuses who just couldn't help creating--and stirring up as much fun as possible in that staid suburb. (The section on his gang's conga line alone is worth the price of the book!)
As a boy and youth, Dennis loved the theater and pretty soon was writing, designing sets for and frequently directing homemade plays in which he developed a subtle, yet penetrating satirical wit. (One of his shock-the-bourgeoisie confections made a young boy unwittingly mention from the stage someone named "Master Bates"). His generosity is legendary: while helping out the thespians at Evanston Township High School, and whipping up amateur theatricals of his own, he nonetheless found time to help the Boy Scouts stage skits and comedy bits--even after he dropped out of the Scouts.
There can be no doubt about Dennis' integrity and bravery. He served with distinction in an ambulance corps during World War II and was frequently exposed to more danger than even a line soldier might expect. During this period he discovered the joy of light comic novels like "Barefoot Boy with Cheek" and realized that his pervasive persiflage might well be put to use in writing his own comic novels.
Postwar, Dennis set out on the accepted route to becoming a published author--he edited for a Manhattan book publisher and developed a coterie of similar literary friends who would love and support him all his life. But Dennis was a compulsive envelope-pusher and risk-taker; he chose to switch jobs to a conservative think tank where he was a standout in job efficiency, took a stand-up attitude toward his employers--and continued to exhibit the pervasive, outrageous behavior.
During this period Dennis married, had children, and nested in Manhattan with a reasonable standard of living. He wrote and wrote, with increasing proficiency, until "Auntie Mame" hit in the mid-1950s and tossed him into the American celebrity machine. Dennis' extravagance and daring was well reflected in his expensively decorated apartment, his love of fine food--and, some would say, his staunchly remaining part of his children's life even after he and his wife broke up. But Dennis' behavior went from amusing to outrageous to exasperating and finally borderline-pathological. To liven up a boring board meeting, it wasn't unusual for Dennis to excuse himself--and return to the table stark naked. Cute among theater people, but it's a wonder Dennis didn't get fired by his conservative employer.
Dennis continued to write well into the 1960s but he never topped the explosive popularity of "Auntie Mame," which was made into a movie starring Rosalind Russell, and was the inspiration for the immensely successful Broadway musical "Mame" (and in 1974 limped its way to the screen with a too-old Lucille Ball playing the title role). Partly to escape New York's hurly and partly (one suspects) to get a handle on his alcoholism and unpredictable behavior, Dennis settled in Mexico City for a number of years but continued to write and drink. The guy was just automatically witty--in one letter to his son he complains that his landlord, Mr. LeCoq, is a priq. Such tossed-off literary humor abounds in this book.
In the Sixties, a more issue-oriented society and the impact of television as a time-passer eventually spelled doom for the kind of American light comic novels that were Dennis' mainstay. He took that distinctive genre to its peak but unfortunately lived to see his comic and satiric gifts become passe. Well into middle age, he had his first homosexual relations and in his typical warts-and-all manner did nothing to hide it (but felt guilty nonetheless).
Patrick Dennis was a cultural treasure, but frequently an unhappy and misunderstood one. It is interesting to ask whether Dennis was a heart a manic/depressive with a taste for outrage--or was his creativity largely due to a sublimated homosexuality? Myers sympathetically gets into the man's mind as much as possible and lets us make our own decisions. If Dennis had been born 30 years later into a more permissive society, would he have become an "out and proud" gay man or would he be put on Zoloft to counter his depressions and limit his euphoric outbursts (or maybe both?). It's difficult to answer these questions even hypothetically when speaking of such a complicated creature as Mame's creator, but we feel for him nonetheless.
My only criticism of this book--a mild one--is that sometimes Myers' description of Dennis' outre behavior gets repetitive. At the same time, I respect Myers' ability to show Patrick Dennis warts-and-all and not sink into the bathos of tossing automatic accolades. Anyone intrigued by the makeup of the man who created Auntie Mame and other comic diversions should read the well-researched, comprehensive and sympathetically told "UNCLE MAME."
UPDATE (July 2009): Happily, a trade paperback version of this book is now available. Sadly, it does not adopt the "Playbill"-style cover of the hardcover original. Either way, I still recommend UNCLE MAME.
on December 4, 2000
For anyone who adores the quintessential pied-piper/mentor/guardian-of-all-eccentric, Mame Dennis, this biography of her creator is a joy. Edward Tanner (aka Patrick Dennis, among other pseudonyms) was a lively, witty, sad and self-destructive "character." Like so many writers (Wilde comes to mind here) he put most of his genius in living. What he could spare for his readers seems nothing in comparison to his life. But under all of that bubble and hauteur was a homosexual man who was deeply unhappy with his lot and his need to masquerade. Eric Myers has done a fine job in trying to unravel the complexities of a man who, in the words of young Patrick's nanny, Nora Muldoon, "was odd, a loving man, but odd."
on January 17, 2001
At long last, a biography of the brilliantly comic writer Patrick Dennis, and a spendidly enjoyable and merry read it is. Ever since an enlightened high school drama teacher introduced me to the wonderful romps in Dennis's novels, I've wanted to know what made this gifted, funny, observant and dead-on writer tick. The biography "Uncle Mame" is that insight. It shines a light on Dennis--as a private person, as a public figure, as an artist and for me, best of all, as a social observer. The biography makes sense of this surprisingly undocumented writer. "Uncle Mame" evokes all the frothy fun of a Patrick Dennis novel and also, poignantly conveys the personal journeyed travelled by a public person. Normally in biographies, I skip the boring childhood/adolescent and young adulthood chapters, because too often, the biographer doesn't make the leap from who the child was, to who the child became. In "Uncle Mame", I found all of this background information not only interesting (and often screamingly funny) but relevant to what would become Patrick Dennis's take on life and his approach to observing the social customs and practices of his era. The book gives not only keen insight into Dennis as a writer, but also, to the underly social context of the times. The book also fills in many, many blanks, focusing on the unsung heros and heroines, friends and colleagues who contributed in various ways to Dennis' novels and it was hugely satisfying to at last find how their lives had intersected with Dennis' and the collaborative process underlying a novel. "Uncle Mame" thankfully does not shy away from stepping up to the plate to paint a candid and thoroughly three-dimensional portrait of a complex, brilliant man who whilst entertaining millions, faced personal troubles and doubts, had some battles, and through whom, left a wonderful chronicle of a by-gone era and his take on it. I can only hope the author will take on some other unheralded but hugely deserving subjects and give those of us who have been waiting, the overdue biographies of perhaps Kay Thompson, Roz Russell, Kay Kendall or Eleanor Parker.
on May 17, 2005
Kudos to the author for tackling a very difficult subject and bringing him beautifully to life.
I read this book because I always wanted an Auntie Mame, and wanted to know about the life of the man who conceived her. His life and wit was every bit as colorful as his best known creation.
Edward Tanner's life was full of contradictions. He was a success who's father always considered him a failure. He was a gay man who loved having a family, including wife and children. He was a success who was afraid of the day he would become old hat, and saw that day arrive.
I was mostly interested in how he lost all his millions (he spent lavishly until it was gone), and went on to become a successful butler. I was especially fascinated by his brief stint as a butler to the Kroc family.
The best parts of this book are the inclusion of letters to his children and friends.
on April 22, 2004
What a life!! Mr. Edward Everett Tanner (a.k.a. "Pat"...Patrick Dennis...Virginia Rowans) did EVERYthing, wasn't afraid of ANYthing. From the experiences of his deep and lifelong commitment to friends, to wife and children, sprang all of the side-splitting laughter he has left us---"Auntie Mame", though definitely his chef-d'ouvre, is nonetheless only a small part of the body of his extensive work.
Too bad it took him the better part of his life to come out to himself---maybe it would have made a difference in his literary output, since so much of his comedy was tied to then-clandestine camp. But who knows or cares? Any man who can find humor even in the penury of his last years is a creative genius on any level.
You'll laugh often, and out loud, and get some great lines for cocktail conversation!!
on January 14, 2001
It's amazing that Patrick Dennis has had to wait till now to get the biography he deserves -- but he's gotten it in UNCLE MAME. What I especially loved about Eric Myers' book was his obvious love for his subject, but a love that never goes gooey or adulatory. He puts Dennis on his proper Comic Pantheon pedestal and then abundantly shows why he belongs there now and forever. Auntie Mame is an archetypal creation who speaks to all of our needs for excitement, perspective, and an astonishing ultimate emotional honesty. Her creator pulled her from inside himself, and Myers shows how and why that happened. Mix this with an amazing and previously untold story about a unique American life -- and it's quite a book, that belongs on the shelf right next to AUNTIE MAME, LITTLE ME, GENIUS and the other Dennis masterworks. It is not for fans of Lucille Ball.
on March 4, 2014
Anyone who loved the book and the movie entitled "Auntie Mame" may wish to read this book. It explains the brilliance of its author and develops for the reader a respect (in many ways) for him and to discover for himself, evidently painfully, who he was. He had a rough time.
Only someone with so much empathy and identity with the female brain could have had such understanding and splendid wit.
Another book you might want to look for is "The Moon's a Balloon," written by David Niven. He did not have an identity problem but what a shock to learn about his schooling and how wonderful also about his wit.
Back to Uncle Mame. The author did a great job and this book is timeless, and while totally fiction, placed in a time in America that actually occurred.
When Patrick Dennis wrote his book, attitudes were very different and people were not aware of identity problems. The only people who noticed were those who had perhaps a problem personally.
We have come such a very long way. My thoughts are that nobody.....nobody should judge someone else and look down on a person who leads a decent life no matter what that personal lifestyle. If that person can love someone and be loved back, what greater joy in this life. What is the worst thing for a human being? Loneliness. nancy morse