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Dennis, Anyone?

An Evanston-bred author never achieved the renown of his alter ego, Auntie Mame.

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By Albert Williams

As the Manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards, and looks into the Fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him.

--William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

You won't find Evanston-bred author Patrick Dennis in the same reference books as humorists P.G. Wodehouse, Ronald Firbank, and Dorothy Parker. While he's an object of almost cultish admiration in some quarters, many people today remember him dimly if at all. Some will recall that he wrote the 1955 novel Auntie Mame; others will think of him as a character in the movie of the same title--Mame's clean-cut, straight-arrow young nephew, played by Roger Smith opposite Rosalind Russell's Mame. Some people think Auntie Mame was a memoir; some even confuse it with Graham Greene's Travels With My Aunt.

In his new biography Uncle Mame, journalist Eric Myers aims to brush aside such misconceptions and reclaim Dennis from the obscurity into which he sank after the failure of his last book, 3-D, published in 1972, four years before his death. Dennis--born Edward Everett Tanner III in 1921--merits recognition as one of 20th-century literature's most talented and intriguing comic writers. This would be true even if Auntie Mame had been his only claim to fame; screwball socialite and bohemian butterfly Mame Dennis Burnside ranks as one of American fiction's most memorable adventuresses, right up there with Scarlett O'Hara, Lorelei Lee, Holly Golightly, and Myra Breckinridge. But Dennis wrote 15 other novels; in 1958 he became the first author to have three books on the New York Times best-seller list simultaneously.

His work is not of consistently high quality. He was facile rather than disciplined or dedicated; some of his writing now seems careless, dated, and intermittently amusing at best. But his better efforts--including Guestward Ho!, The Loving Couple, Around the World With Auntie Mame, Genius, and The Joyous Season--are still quite entertaining. And Little Me and Tony are first-rate pieces of dark comedy that in their own brash, breezy, distinctly American way invite comparison to the scalpel-sharp satires of Evelyn Waugh.

Myers worked mostly from interviews with Dennis's friends and family, including his widow, writer Louise Stickney (who died last May at the age of 78), and his children, Michael and Betsy. Myers also had access to some wonderfully funny letters written by Dennis to his sister and others, military records (Dennis was an ambulance driver during World War II), and press clippings, including some from the archives of Evanston Township High School's student newspaper, the Evanstonian, to which Dennis contributed humor pieces and theater reviews.

The portrait Myers paints is of a troubled, deeply divided man--a suicidal, binge-drinking manic-depressive and guilt-ridden homosexual who struggled well into middle age with his sexual identity and his unresolved conflicts with his parents, especially the father after whom he was named (his mother nicknamed him Pat). The house where the Tanners lived, at 1574 Asbury Avenue, looks a perfect setting for a comfortable, happy suburban upbringing, with its fenced-in backyard and pleasant, leafy surroundings. It's just a few minutes' walk to Evanston High, which Dennis attended from 1934 to 1938 and where he gained popularity by participating in amateur theatricals in the school's third-floor social hall (today known as the Upstairs Theatre). It's also a short jaunt to the Davis el station, where the stagestruck Dennis would board the train for the Loop to see movies and stage shows at the Chicago and Oriental theaters.

But the artistic inclinations that made Dennis well liked by some of his schoolmates didn't impress his father. Stockbroker Edward Tanner Jr. was a macho former athlete, die-hard Republican, and boorish drunk who, Myers reports, cheated on his wife and called his son a "pansy." Tanner represented everything Dennis came to hate, and he provided plenty of fodder for Dennis's satire of social-climbing bourgeois bigots, characters who crop up again and again in Dennis's books. In Auntie Mame--the novel that introduced "Patrick Dennis" as author and character--young Patrick is the son of a widowed businessman who barely speaks to the boy except to tell him, "Pipe down, kid, the old man's hung." No tears are shed when dad drops dead of a heart attack in the steam room of the Chicago Athletic Club; if there's ever been a more obvious case of an authorial exercise in wish fulfillment, I haven't come across it. When Patrick is sent off to live with his kooky aunt in New York, he becomes the center of a test of wills between Mame and the stuffy banker Mr. Babcock, executor of Mr. Dennis's will. Whether intentionally or not, Dennis's use of the name "Babcock" linked Babbittry and masculinity.

Dennis had a special gift for barbed description and waspish repartee that came across as simultaneously frothy and cutting. Dennis's best novels are written in the first person (his high school friends recall him improvising batty monologues) and have a breathless, gossipy feel, like a story told by a witty raconteur in a bar or a beauty parlor. ("I write fast or not at all," Dennis said, which explains both the energy of his best work and the erratic quality of much of his output.) Myers cites Paul Rudnick and Camille Paglia as writers Dennis influenced; I would add to that list Armistead Maupin, David Sedaris, and the creators of the British TV series Absolutely Fabulous, whose leading characters are posthippie incarnations of Auntie Mame and her bosom buddy, actress Vera Charles.

Myers dubs Dennis "the first American writer to popularize High Camp, and to introduce that elusive esthetic into mainstream fiction," adding that Dennis's "comic sensibility straddled the gay and straight worlds." In fact, he was torn between them. Though his novels often display a playful, sophisticated attitude toward unorthodox lifestyles, he sought to suppress his own gay identity. He genuinely loved his family yet was compelled to seek anonymous sexual encounters in bathhouses. Myers attributes Dennis's closeted behavior to a fear of embarrassing his wife and kids and of compromising his celebrity. I think his problem was more basic: he couldn't bring himself to admit his father was right--he was a "pansy."

Today Dennis would very likely be diagnosed with bipolar disorder; certainly he suffered from low self-esteem and a sense of worthlessness. He tried to hide his unhappiness behind a facade of flamboyant eccentricity. Having learned in adolescence that outrageous role-playing could provide a temporary refuge from his feelings of inadequacy, he became known as a wit, a bon vivant, a brilliant host--a Manager of the Performance that was his life, to use the phrase from his favorite novel, Vanity Fair.

But that solution can only have contributed to his sense of himself as a poseur. As Myers documents, the more successful Denis became, the more his personal life unraveled. Ironically, Dennis's emotional torment holds the key to his special gifts as a humorist. Yet Myers's analyses of Dennis's books are oddly sketchy. He dubs Dennis "one of the last and best practitioners of the light comic novel," but there are plenty of dark tones in Dennis's humor, and they stem from more than his acerbically accurate satiric reporting (which Myers rather too grandly proclaims "the most engaging twentieth-century social history ever compiled"). The facts of Dennis's life explain a running theme in his best works that Myers only hints at: the desperate drive of an unhappy, insecure person to reinvent himself.

In his 1998 book But Darling, I'm Your Auntie Mame!, Richard Tyler Jordan chronicles the evolution of Auntie Mame from her debut in Dennis's novel to her theatrical and cinematic incarnations. Most of the book is devoted to behind-the-scenes dish about, among many other things, Rosalind Russell's wish that no one replace (and thus possibly upstage) her in the 1956 original Broadway run of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's play, and the ill-fated campaign Judy Garland waged to star in Jerry Herman's 1966 Broadway musical, Mame. Near the end, Jordan subjects Mame to a brief psychological analysis: "[She] had a unique and unconventional persona, which appears to be a psychological defense designed to cover a multitude of personal insecurities." This was certainly true of Dennis, who, Jordan writes, told friends: "'Anybody who knows me knows who Auntie Mame really is...' Then he pointed to himself." (Neither Myers nor Jordan mentions it, but in Dennis's day "auntie" was slang for homosexual.)

While some believed the model for Mame was Dennis's real-life aunt, a Greenwich Village eccentric named Marion Tanner, the character was primarily a projection of Dennis's own self-image, for better and worse. Fans of the movie and musical know Mame as stylish, independent, irreverent, larger-than-life. But in Dennis's book she's also vain, frivolous, libidinous, and a bit of a bitch. (In one of the novel's funniest, raciest episodes, Mame has a fling with one of Patrick's college chums, a boy half her age; you won't find anything like that in the movie or play.) Providing a counterweight to her outrageous behavior is the narrator Patrick, whose attitude toward his screwball relative is ironic, skeptical, and a little disapproving. This, too, is a side of Dennis's personality--self-critical, and keenly aware that Mame's behavior is largely an act. The core of the novel is Mame and Patrick's deepening love and understanding--a projection of Dennis's wish to accept and love himself.

In Tony, the conflict between the charismatic madcap and the commonsense commentator becomes more pronounced. Two men--Tony Vandenburg and the unnamed narrator, who's essentially the same character as Patrick in Auntie Mame--meet as boys at an east-coast boarding school in the mid-1930s and find their paths crossing over the next 30 years. Tony is charming, suave, and well versed in social niceties; he's also a pathological liar and a bisexual gigolo who inevitably leaves scandal and sorrow in his wake. One of Tony's conquests is a gay man, Tatham Purdom, who commits suicide when Tony dumps him; another is a famous writer, Maggie Faye, whose reputation is ruined when she's named corespondent in a divorce action by Tony's wife.

Dennis's juggling of perverse humor and bitter anger in Tony is fascinating. Myers provides the novel's autobiographical context: Tony is modeled on Guy Kent, a costume designer Dennis met at a bathhouse and fell in love with. The affair crystallized the mounting pressures Dennis was feeling about his sexuality and his fear of success, prompting him to attempt suicide in 1962, at the height of his fame; afterward he was committed to a mental institution for eight months. Upon his release he decided to separate from his wife and live with Guy in Morocco--but Guy married a wealthy widow, leaving Dennis adrift. Tony was in part Dennis's literary revenge--the title character comes to a bad end in Tangier.

But Tony is also a surrogate for Dennis himself. He's the fraud Dennis always believed himself to be, covering up an unhappy childhood with exaggerated airs. When the novel's narrator meets Tony at school, Tony claims to be from a wealthy Chicago family who live in a sprawling apartment building at the northwest corner of Belmont and Lake Shore Drive. The building, which no longer stands, was in fact the home the Tanner family moved to in 1938, after Dennis graduated from high school. Tony, it turns out, doesn't live in the building at all but rather in a dumpy flat around the corner; his social pretension is Dennis's way of expressing alienation from his parents and his longing for their acceptance. As in Auntie Mame, the conflict in Tony is between the pretentious, self-deluded, yet undeniably charismatic title character and the aloof yet fascinated narrator; both represent different facets of Dennis's personality, as do the suicidal Tatham and fallen celebrity Maggie.

In his funniest book, the camp classic Little Me, Dennis combines the role of the narrator and the subject in one outlandish character: busty blond Belle Poitrine (the French name vulgarly translates as "nice tits"), self-styled star of stage, screen, and high society. In this brilliant parody of celebrity memoirs, Belle describes in hilariously affected trashy tones how "Fate" (she always capitalizes the word) took her from provincial "Venezuela, Illinois" (where her mother was a prostitute), to Chicago (where she goes to work in a bordello run by one Mrs. Palmer Potter) to New York, London, and Hollywood. Her fatuous prose is complemented by a collection of absurd photos (shot by Broadway actor Cris Alexander) depicting Belle as loving mother, dutiful wife, and screen siren. (Among the models for the carefully staged photos was Dennis himself, who camped it up as Belle's effete British husband Cedric, Earl of Baughdie.)

Reading between the lines of Belle's self-serving account, we see that she screwed her way to what meager success she attained despite her utter lack of talent or taste, marrying several times and enriching herself every time a husband died. Much of the novel's comedy derives from Belle's deluded sense of her own importance and blithe ignorance of everyone else's total contempt for her. Describing the response to her starring role as Mother Cabrini in a film called Sainted Lady, she writes, "Only George Santayana seemed to understand and appreciate the film when he wrote: 'Miss Poitrine has perpetrated the most eloquent argument for the Protestant faith yet unleashed by Hollywood.' But it was small consolation."

Belle is a monster and an idiot--but she's strangely likable too, in large part because she believes her own fantasy completely. Like Mame and Tony, she's utterly self-invented, a character in whom Dennis saw himself.

It's not well known that Dennis hailed from Evanston; he did little to promote awareness of his roots, and after World War II he moved to New York City. For him Evanston was linked with dismal memories: he called his hometown a "urinal" in a letter to his sister, who married and remained there. In Uncle Mame, Myers quotes Isabelle Holland, author of The Man Without a Face, as saying, "Pat...wanted nothing to do with that Presbyterian Midwest background. He repudiated it all." Social climbing, a frequent target in Dennis's books, is nevertheless a metaphor for his own desire to escape his background and the unhappiness associated with it.

Dennis quit writing in 1972. His books, considered saucy and spicy in the mid-50s to early 60s, were no longer selling well; they'd come to seem tame compared to the work of writers like Terry Southern, Gore Vidal, and Philip Roth. Having squandered much of the money he made from Auntie Mame on extravagant living, Dennis moved to Mexico, where he could live cheaply--and as an openly gay man. There he sank into a life of drunken dissipation, bouncing from job to job and house to house. Eventually he returned to the United States to run an art gallery in Houston; when that venture fizzled, he made perhaps the oddest career switch of any best-selling author: at the age of 52 he became a butler.

In some ways it was the perfect occupation, for Dennis had long been a careful observer of the ways of the rich. As a butler, Dennis could live in lavish surroundings without having to worry about money. The job gave him structure, which he desperately needed after so many years of instability, and getting paid to arrange his employers' households and to dictate social protocol made him truly the Manager of the Performance. It was the ultimate role for a man who'd spent his life playacting. He got rid of all the clutter in his life, including his library--even his own books, Myers reports. All he kept were a crossword puzzle dictionary, a copy of Emily Post's Etiquette, and Vanity Fair. He also took a new pseudonym--in part so he could use best-selling author "Patrick Dennis" as one of his references.

What Myers fails to note is the significance of the name Dennis chose for his butler persona: Edwards. Edward Tanner Jr. having died in 1969, Dennis could finally adopt the name bequeathed to him by the father for whom he had such conflicted feelings.

Dennis's new and final career brought him back to Chicago, seemingly validating the theme of his novels: you can never escape your roots. Here he presided over the Lake Shore Drive apartment of McDonald's magnate Ray Kroc and his philanthropist wife Joan. His position with the Krocs didn't last long: Dennis sought a reconciliation with his wife after their 14-year separation, and she welcomed him back. Returning to New York, he found out what he might have suspected from his alarming weight loss of the previous few months: he was dying of pancreatic cancer, the disease that had killed his father.

After Dennis's death at the age of 55, Michael Tanner eulogized his father as a man who "managed to strike a balance between a reckless imagination and an impeccable sense of correctness." That was a loving son's generous assessment. In fact, most of Dennis's life had been marked by an imbalance between those qualities, bringing him pain but giving his writing a distinctive edge.

"There are only two things essential to camp: a secret within the personality which one ironically wishes to conceal and to exploit, and a peculiar way of seeing things, affected by spiritual isolation, but strong enough to impose itself on others through acts or creations," writes Philip Core in Camp: The Lie That Tells the Truth. Simultaneously expressing and disguising their author's conflicted personality, Patrick Dennis's novels--the legacy of one of America's most underrated and influential comic writers--gain a new richness through an understanding of his life.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Chris Alexander/courtesy Evanston Township High School Central Library/Bruce Powell.

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