Patrick Dennis' bestselling novel Auntie Mame was a huge success in the mid-1950s, selling over 2,000,000 copies and holding a place on the bestseller lists for 112 weeks. Many elements contributed to the novel's contemporary and still continuing success. First of all, Auntie Mame is a whacky spin-off of the popular "orphan" genre. Secondly, the novel brings together a fascination with different cultures and a taste of a uniquely American lifestyle, addressing popular issues of its own day through the lens of the changing past. Dennis uses both a child's and a cynic's perspective to describe and comment upon the goings-on of the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. His colorful characters are used to liven up the story as well as to satirize contemporary situations. Most importantly, this novel tells a story that begs to be converted into other forms of media. This novel teaches us that many different elements can combine to create an outstandingly popular bestseller.
Auntie Mame is the tale of an recently orphaned child who is taken in by a relative he has never met before, a genre which has proven popular for well over a century, in well-known books like David Copperfield, Pollyanna, The Secret Garden, and Anne of Green Gables. However, the author adds quite a twist to the old tale, and this novel is very different from the traditional orphan stories. Written in the first person, the novel begins as Patrick Dennis is reading a story, told "about somebody whom a famous writer - [he] forget[s] which one - considers to be the Most Unforgettable Character he's ever met" (Auntie Mame, 4). The Unforgettable Character he reads about is described as:
"a sweet little New England spinster who live[s] in a sweet little white clapboard house and opens her sweet little green door one morning expecting to find the Hartford Courant. Instead she [finds] a sweet little wicker basket, with a sweet little baby boy inside. The rest of the article [goes] on to tell how that Unforgettable Character took the baby in and raised it as her own" (Auntie Mame, 4).
For Dennis, this description reminds him of his own upbringing, and he sets up the novel as a series of "certain parallels" between this Unforgettable Character and his own Auntie Mame, who raised him from the age of ten (Auntie Mame , 4). However, from the beginning Dennis states that nobody could "know what the word character meant unless he had met my Auntie Mame" (Auntie Mame , 4). Throughout the novel, Auntie Mame offers quite a contrast to this "New England spinster" (who reminds one especially of the character Aunt Polly, from the 1913 bestseller Pollyanna, although Aunt Polly's "sweetness" is debatable). One soon realizes that the only thing Auntie Mame really has in common with this Unforgettable Character (or grim old Aunt Polly) is her complete lack of experience with children. Each chapter of the novel begins with a sweet episode of the Unforgettable Character's life, which is quickly contrasted by the wild goings-on of Mame.
When Patrick appears on Mame's doorstep, as a boy of ten, chaperoned by his nursemaid Norah, the two are little prepared for the unconventional welcome they are about to receive. Mame is in residence at the illustrious Beekman Place in New York City, and Patrick and Norah step into a vestibule decorated in an Asian style, with black walls, a scarlet door, and "a weird pagan god with two heads and eight arms sitting on a teakwood stand." A Japanese houseman opens the door, and declares that Mame "no want little boy today," but invites them into the foyer, painted bright orange and decorated with lanterns and screens, while he runs off giggling to fetch "Madame," who is "having affair now." Remembering the "Oriental fleshpots" of the movies, Patrick and Norah start to fear for their safety when "a regular Japanese doll of a woman," appears (Auntie Mame, 11-12). Dennis recalls that:
"her hair was bobbed very short with straight bangs above her slanting brows; a long robe of embroidered golden silk floated out behind her?and jade and ivory bracelets clattered on her arms?An almost endless bamboo cigarette holder hung languidly from her bright red mouth. Somehow, she looked vaguely familiar" (Auntie Mame, 13)
Mistaking Norah for a new cook, the woman declares that she can go right to work, although she didn't know Norah was "bringing a child as well?No matter," she quips, "he looks like a nice boy. If he misbehaves, we can always toss him in the river" (Auntie Mame, 13). Laughing, she sweeps out of the room, leaving Patrick and Norah to grow even more frightened as they catch glimpses of the guests and listen to (and misunderstand) the strange conversations going on at a rather roaring party of the late 1920s. Soon enough however, the geisha bustles back in and the misconception is cleared up, at which point she stops mid-sentence and announces dramatically, "but darling, I'm your Auntie Mame!" Even after such a harrowing welcome, Dennis recalls that as soon as Mame "threw her arms around [him] and kissed [him], [he] knew [he] was safe" (Auntie Mame, 13-15). This first scene is quite the antithesis of that of the Unforgettable Character, and Dennis establishes from this strange beginning that Auntie Mame is a very unorthodox woman, with a very unorthodox lifestyle. However, he also establishes that she is a caring woman, and a woman who can be blindly trusted by those she loves. In this way Dennis successfully provides the warm feeling one usually receives from the classic orphan story, but he does so in an unusually fun and exciting way.
Auntie Mame also fits into the genre of childhood stories. It is told as the remembrances of an adult, as he looks back on the passage of his youth from a ten-year-old boy into an adolescent and an adult. Like other bestsellers such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Peyton Place, and Portnoy's Complaint the story is narrated by an adult, but is often told through the experiences of a naïve child. Auntie Mame moves with a rather fast crowd, and exposes Patrick to a world that few adults, and certainly even fewer children, ever had privy to. Patrick often does not understand the implications of what is going on around him - at first he does not even understand the vocabulary used. In order to begin Patrick's education, Auntie Mame tells Patrick:
"every time I say a word, or you hear a word, that you don't understand, you write it down and I'll tell you what it means. Then you memorize it and soon you'll have a decent vocabulary" (Auntie Mame, 22).
Young Patrick learns to "circulate" at his Auntie Mame's big parties (where, despite prohibition, alcohol - "right off the boat" - is in abundance), and take notes on his vocabulary pad. He recalls that his lists featured "such random terms as: Bastille Day, Lesbian, Hotsy-Totsy Club, gang war, Id, daiquiri,?, relativity, free love, Oedipus complex,?, stinko,?, narcissistic, Biarritz, psychoneurotic, Shonberg, and nymphomaniac." Auntie Mame "explained all the words she thought [he] ought to know;" some other words she told him to "scratch out and forget about" (Auntie Mame, 24). Such remembrances of Dennis' childhood provide a window into the popular issues of the day (in this case, the late 1920s), and usually provide a good laugh as well.
Little is said of the orphaned adoptee of the Unforgettable Character, but it is certain that Auntie Mame's nephew, is rather unlike that other famous orphan, Pollyanna. Patrick embodies little of Pollyanna's perpetually glad spirit; from quite a young age he displays a remarkable cynicism, directed at both his beloved Auntie Mame, as well as their common foes. Pollyanna inspired many readers of all ages in its own time, but in subsequent years, and especially today, older readers seem to feel rather irritated with Pollyanna's irrepressible optimism. Patrick's wry character provides a pleasing change from the overly glad Pollyanna-type orphan. His cynicism increases as he moves through adolescence and into adulthood, and indeed tempers his recounting of these tales. He uses this cynicism well as a writer, toning it down and refining it into a satirical comment upon many aspects of American society.
Many of Dennis' characters are stereotypical, such as the Irish maid, the conservative broker and his toady son, the Southern gentleman who briefly becomes Mame's husband, and the three graceful New England sirens that Patrick courts as an adult. However, all of the characters are very cleverly described, and Dennis adds very clever details to spice up the stereotyped characters and also to create memorable new characters. Auntie Mane, is of course, his most colorful character. From the first, Mame is completely unconventional, in her beliefs, and in her character. Rather than occupying one central role, she is constantly recasting herself into new personae to fit the changing times and situations. After her stint as a Japanese geisha, Mame changes into a prim outfit to meet with Patrick's conservative trustee. When the depression hits hard, she stoically attempts to work at a number of various occupations, until she is whisked away by Beauregard to become the Southern Belle, (and thereafter enjoy a lasting wealth). She goes on to play the roles of a tweedy authoress, a midwife, and many more, always changing her duds and deeds to fit the task at hand.
Much like the character of Auntie Mame in the novel, the novel itself was easily adaptable, and capable of changing its form. This series of zany anecdotes, occupying various settings of both time and place, and calling for a remarkable variety of costumes and accents, seems almost made for other media. In October of 1955, just 10 months after the book's publication, a Broadway adaptation, written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee and starring Rosalind Russell, made its way onto the stage. It continued to run for more than a year after the novel left the bestseller lists (April, 1957), and ended in June of 1958. After this, the irrepressible story of "Auntie Mame" could not be contained for long; six months later, it was released by Warner Brothers as a major motion picture, again starring Rosalind Russell. A paperback edition of the novel had been released in 1956, with a new cover depicting a rather sly-looking Mame lounging on a bed with a grinning young man. (I am unsure if the man is supposed to be nephew Patrick, or perhaps a suitor - at any rate, this slightly tawdry cover undoubtedly helped to sell the novel to the masses, perhaps more so than the sophisticated gloved hand that was already associated with Mame's established bestsellerdom.) In 1958, a second Auntie Mame novel was published, Around the World with Auntie Mame, which, although not as successful as the original, was still hugely popular and became a bestseller as well. The play was later rewritten as a musical, "Mame," which was also highly successful, and was itself transformed into a motion picture. Each motion picture has been more recently remade, and put on videocassette, and the play and musical are still performed in many theaters. The novel and its sequel are still both in print.
Every form of Auntie Mame's story helped to boost the popularity of the others. When the "Auntie Mame" hit Broadway, Vanguard boosted advertising for the novel, and began referring to Mame as the "Queen of Broadway" in its advertisements (Publishers' Weekly, Oct. 1, 1956). Undoubtedly, Vanguard's strong advertising campaign, coupled with the translation of Auntie Mame into other media, greatly increased its contemporary success as a bestseller. When it released its paperback edition, Popular Library's advertisements called attention to both the novel's continuing success as a bestselling hardcover, and also to its production as a Broadway play. Even after almost two years on the list, the combination of all of these forms kept Auntie Mame popular and sales high. The later successes of the musical and movie versions of "Auntie Mame," as well as its translation into other languages, have no doubt continued to support and augment the success of the story's other forms through the years. Auntie Mame's ready and successful conversion into various popular forms is one of the reasons that the novel, as well as its sequel, movies, and plays, are still popular today.
Dennis, Patrick. Auntie Mame. Vanguard Press, NY: 1955.
Publishers' Weekly, Oct. 1, 1956