N: Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.

Bob Mondello has the story of Mame Dennis, otherwise known as Auntie Mame.

BOB MONDELLO: Beekman Place, Manhattan's Upper East Side, 1928. A party is in full swing with bathtub gin, Broadway legends and even an Indian mystic, when an orphaned little boy meets his only living relative one day earlier than she expected him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AUNTIE MAME")

: (As Auntie Mame) What am I going to call you, dear?

: (As Patrick Dennis) Pat, Patrick Dennis.

: (As Mame) Oh, I know the Dennis part, darling, and from now on you must call me Auntie Mame. Well, well, well, well, well now. Would you like a mar - no, is it your bedtime, dear? No, no, it can't be. No, no, the powder room, you'd like to use the powder room. No, no, food, food, that's it. You must be famished. Now, you come right along with me.

MONDELLO: Mame Dennis, irrepressible, adoring, easily distracted and utterly down to Earth, is the guardian that any sensible child would love to have. Life is a banquet with Mame, and every moment of that banquet holds a surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AUNTIE MAME")

: (As Mame) Before the sukiyaki, a little hors d'oeuvres?

: Can I try some of that jam?

: Jam?

: (As Patrick) That blackberry jam.

: (As Mame) Oh, of course, darling. Actually, it's sort of a fish-berry jam. It's called caviar.

MONDELLO: Mame is all about trying things, thumbing your nose at convention, taking roads less traveled because they're bound to be more interesting, and if that were all she stood for, she'd probably still be everybody's favorite aunt.

But novelist Patrick Dennis gave her a spine to go with that worldview. Writing about her in the Eisenhower era, he made her a commonsensical antidote to widely held '50s prejudices about race, anti-Semitism and all things foreign. Prejudices embodied by a bland society girl that a grown-up Patrick decides to marry and follow to her little bastion of privilege in Connecticut.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AUNTIE MAME")

U: (As character) Oh, it's right above Darien. Oh, you will love it. It's awfully pretty, and it's terribly handy to the city, and of course it's completely restricted.

: (As Mame) I'll get a blood test.

: (As Patrick Dennis) Well, we'd better hurry, honey. We want to catch the Italian picture at the plaza.

U: (As character) Oh, awful foreign movies...

MONDELLO: In the button-down world of 1955, the McCarthy hearings were making things foreign and nonconformist sound un-American, so it was not a given that Mame's liberal ideas would be embraced by the public. Edward Everett Tanner III, who wrote under the pseudonym Patrick Dennis, which made many people think this story was autobiographical, had his manuscript turned down by 19 publishers before Vanguard Press decided to take a chance with it.

It turned out to be a good investment. "Auntie Mame" spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list, sold millions of copies and inspired both a Broadway play and a hit movie starring Rosalind Russell. Mame Dennis had become an unlikely touchstone in post-war America, all by not knuckling under to cultural small-mindedness. She called it Babbittry, after Sinclair Lewis's conformist philistine George F. Babbitt, and she condemned it in no uncertain terms.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AUNTIE MAME")

U: (As character) All my plans for Patrick have just gone to...

: (As Mame) Your plans? I mean, really, you're shouting orders for everyone. Patrick won't allow you to settle him down in some dry-veined restricted community, make him Aryan from Darien and marry him off to a girl with braces on her brains.

MONDELLO: I was in high school when I first encountered Mame Dennis in the musical "Mame," and though composer Jerry Herman had left the Auntie off his title, I had an aunt of my own in tow, my Aunt Vivian, who I don't think would have allowed me to call her my auntie.

I didn't know anything about the show when we went. The tickets were a present from Aunt Viv and my folks, so there I was at my first musical on Broadway with my aunt sitting beside me watching a seriously cool aunt telling a nephew just a few years younger than me how to live life to the fullest.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MAME")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPEN A NEW WINDOW")

U: (Singing) Open a new window. Open a new door. Travel a new highway that's never been tried before, before you thought you're a dull fellow, punching the same clock, watching the same tightrope as everyone on the block.

MONDELLO: She was glamorous, the kid looked happy, the music was catchy. What can I say. I was an innocent; my eyes were wide.

It would be misleading to say that I realized I wanted to be a critic that night, but seeds were planted. Aunt Viv and I talked about that show for hours afterwards, not just about the performances but about the ideas.

Though it was the 1960s, Babbittry had not been banished, still hasn't been, really. It just goes by different names these days. Aunt Viv treated me like the adult I hadn't quite become yet, just as Mame had treated Patrick, and she left no doubt as to where she stood on opening windows to let in ideas and experience.

Her own life had been constrained by the Great Depression and by family circumstances. She was not as lucky as Mame, no millionaire to marry, but she ended up shepherding nearly a dozen nephews through adolescence, and that must have kept her young.

Vivian Mondello died early this summer, just a few weeks shy of her 99th birthday, and as I was thinking about the influence she had on my life and about doing this piece about Auntie Mame, I saw parallels going forwards too.

I'm just about the age now that she was then, and I sometimes take a nephew to shows who is about the age I was then, and we talk about the ideas behind the shows because he's bright and inquisitive, and I take huge delight in that. I've become Aunt Viv, if not Auntie Mame, still trying to open windows and keep the Babbitts at bay. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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