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Uncle Mame: The Life of Patrick Dennis by…

Uncle Mame: The Life of Patrick Dennis

by Eric Myers

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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. ( )
  TracyRowan | May 7, 2009 |
The book is interesting, though not especially well-written. Die-hard Patrick Dennis fans will want to read it. ( )
  peonygoat | Oct 3, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0306811006, Paperback)

Under his pseudonyms of Patrick Dennis and Virginia Rowans, Edward Everett (Pat) Tanner III was the author of sixteen novels—most of them best sellers—including 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 personified—even in his lowest moments— the glamour and wit he captured on the page.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:44:51 -0400)

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