Invisible Ink No 247: Patrick Dennis


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The Independent Culture

Changing fashion killed off Patrick Dennis; he left writing to become a butler, working for the founder of McDonald’s, and he never admitted to having once been a publishing phenomenon.

Like much else about him, Dennis’s name was an invention, along with another nom-de-plume, Virginia Rowans. He was actually Edward Everett Tanner III, born in Chicago, in 1921, and nicknamed Pat as a child, after the Irish heavyweight boxer Pat Sweeney.

He began writing at the age of 32, when married with two children, but Oh What A Wonderful Wedding! and House Party didn’t make much of a splash. So, he penned a sparkling new novel, and first suffered rejections from 15 publishers before someone accepted it.

Auntie Mame was a smash that lasted 112 weeks on the bestseller list, was filmed with Rosalind Russell, turned into a stage musical by Jerry Herman, and filmed again in that form with Lucille Ball. The story of an introverted boy, Patrick, sent to live with an eccentric bohemian relative, has touches of Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt, but is lighter in tone. Mame shows Patrick how to live life to the fullest, but the boy is taken away from her and grows up to become a small-minded snob. Until, that is, his aunt steps in once more and reminds him how to enjoy life, largely by wrecking his forthcoming marriage to a ghastly fiancée.

Dennis’s next two books were also hits, with the result that he became the first writer to have three books on the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously. He created two odd faux-memoirs, filled with staged photographs, the risqué Little Me, the story of Belle Poitrine, a kid from the other side of the tracks who ends up on the Titanic, and First Lady, about a girl who accidentally becomes the president’s wife. Two further novels ended up as television sitcoms. Dennis belatedly came out on the Greenwich Village gay scene, and as the disillusioned 1970s arrived, his delightfully caustic comic fables became an irrelevance. Despite his liberal credentials – Mame sets up a home for unmarried mothers next door to the racist, anti-Semitic parents of her nephew’s girlfriend – his character’s creed, that “life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death”, didn’t sit well in the age of Watergate.

The wheel turns, though. Little Me reappeared in a very funny stage version and the books finally came back into fashion. It seems Auntie Mame had the last laugh.