Introducing a new series, Anti-Heroines, in which we pay homage to ladies we love, both real and fictional.
If you’ve been reading this site over its month long history, perhaps you’ve wondered whose elegant arm that is in our sort-of-masthead. Okay, you probably haven’t wondered anything of the sort, but I’m going to tell you anyway: that arm belongs to one of my favourite fictional heroines ever, Auntie Mame, the glorious star of the eponymous 1955 novel written by Edward Tanner under the pseudonym Patrick Dennis, beloved by everyone from Camille Paglia (who called the book “an American Alice in Wonderland” and “one of the most important books in my life”) to Dennis’s friend and my fave vintage film star Rosalind Russell (who played Mame in the film adaptation).
Why do I love Mame? Well, for one, she’s the OTT heroine of a camp classic, and as I’ve previously indicated, I do love me some OTT camp classics. But there’s more to Mame than that. As Paul Rudnick says in his introduction, “she’s a classic leftie activist in emeralds and Dior”, who adopts and discards different roles and personae to suit her many moods.
And she is kind. We meet her when her young nephew, Patrick Dennis, arrives to live with her shortly after the death of his widower father (the book is presented as a memoir, and although Dennis, or Tanner, did have an eccentric aunt called Marion, he was brought up by both his parents). Mame’s glamorous apartment is a boho delight, and when Patrick arrives there she’s in the middle of a party. He’s initially terrified, both of the guests (who use incomprehensible-to-him words like “batik” and “Freud” and “Lysistrata”) and of the sophisticated goddess who is their hostess, but then she turns to look at him properly.
“But darling”, she said dramatically, “I’m your Auntie Mame!”She put her arms around me and kissed me, and I knew I was safe.
The bohemian black sheep of an impeccably WASPy family, Mame is funny, fabulous and fiercely protective of her nephew, even though he’s more than a little embarrassed by some of her outrageous antics. Mame takes delight in taunting bigoted conservatives – she wages a perpetual war with Patrick’s trustee Babcock and his family. In one of the book’s most satisfying episodes, she sincerely tries to be a perfect WASP when meeting Patrick’s intended in-laws in their idyllic country retreat, but when they prove themselves to be horrible smug anti-semites who are enraged by the news that a Jewish couple might buy the house next door, she subtly opens Patrick’s eyes to their awfulness and, as she and Patrick escape, we discover that she’s buying the aforementioned house next door and giving it to a home for Jewish refugees.
Mame’s life isn’t perfect – she’s not always lucky in love, and her financial fortunes rise and fall – but she refuses to be beaten, and whenever she makes a fool of herself for love, she always realises the error of her ways and emerges triumphant. In fact, the eternally optimistic Mame is an inspiration to us all, and if you haven’t read Auntie Mame or its equally entertaining sequel Around the World With Auntie Mame, go and get both of these brilliant, funny, subversive books on Amazon immediately. Just don’t blame me if you start using a cigarette holder and calling everyone “darling!” afterwards…