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Patrick Dennis

Patrick Dennis

Patrick Dennis was one of several pseudonyms of Edward Everett Tanner III (b. Evanston, IL, 18 May 1921; d. New York, NY, 6 November 1976), author of sixteen satirical novels and originator of Broadway characters Mame Dennis (Auntie Mame, 1956, and Mame, 1966) and Belle Poitrine (Little Me, 1962). The inventor of deathless personalities with names like Agnes Gooch, Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, Lindsay Woolsey, and Val du Val, Dennis/Tanner was one of the best selling American writers of the mid-twentieth century, the first ever to have three books at once (Auntie Mame, Guestward, Ho!, and The Loving Couple), on the New York Times bestseller list. He fell into obscurity with the societal changes of the late 1960s, spent out the millions he had made, died without obituary notice, and is badly in need of resurrection.

While Edward Everett Tanner III was still in his mother’s womb, obviously a strapping and energetic baby, his father nicknamed him “Pat” after the Irish heavyweight pugilist Pat Sweeney. Tanner II, a Chicago commodities dealer who had been a champion swimmer and a pilot in World War I, had counted on having an athletic, sport-loving son and was gravely disappointed. Pat Tanner as a boy was artistic, articulate, and irrepressibly theatrical, the valued focus of a large circle of friends. He spent as much time as he could at the movies, or seeing productions at the nearby Northwestern University School of Drama; he built a theater in his own basement and dressed himself and his companions in elaborate costumes. He and his father never got along well.

His upper-crust family had suffered financially in the Depression, but by the time Pat graduated from Evanston Township High School in 1938, their situation was improving. His older sister Barbara had married and moved out three years earlier, and when his maternal grandmother died in 1939, the Evanston house had become too large for the three who were left. The Tanners, including Pat, moved to palatial quarters on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. He never went to college; a month of classes at the Art Institute convinced him he was not cut out for it. He took a job as a stockboy in a hardware store and stuck with it for a year, but it nearly killed him: a family servant narrowly prevented him from shooting himself.

He found a better job at Columbia Educational Books, a far more congenial establishment where he rose rapidly to become manager of the textbook section. An employee of his during this period later wrote of Pat Tanner: “What struck everyone first … about Pat was his unfailing, almost nonstop wit. But he also impressed me at least as much as one of the kindest, most genuinely courteous of persons. Paradoxical, perhaps, because he was ever alert to the ridiculous in all of us … Yet, for all his enjoyment of exposing the ridiculous, he seemed to do so in a spirit of affection. One felt that he always included himself in his spirit of parody and caricature.” The same might have been said of him at any of the multiple stages of his later life.

After Pearl Harbor, Pat Tanner – seemingly ignored by the Draft Board – and two of his Evanston buddies joined up with the American Field Service as ambulance drivers. Their first assignments with the British Eighth Army in Egypt’s Western Desert and the Greek Army in Lebanon were not much more onerous than a holiday at a spa. Later in Italy, however, they saw plenty of combat and destruction – Pat even received two superficial wounds –, but his whimsical, gentlemanly persona persisted. A transfer to France in 1944 brought changes and boredom, and he appeared to retreat more and more into fantasy, was ultimately hospitalized with a nervous breakdown, and sent home. (He was given a Purple Heart posthumously in 1989.)

Now 24, Pat made his way to New York City and got a job writing copy at an advertising agency. The discipline at the office was fairly lax: everyone drank a lot at lunch and used their desk time for their own projects. Pat had enough leeway to ghostwrite a few books and articles, make a lot of friends, give a lot of dinner-parties, and grow a full beard.

At one of those parties he met Louise Stickney, a fugitive from the New York Social Register and fellow writer and wit, and on December 30, 1948, he married her. He continued to write advertising copy until 1951, when the Council on Foreign Relations hired him to direct promotions for their monthly magazine. Now working in a much stuffier environment, he took to dressing in elegant tailored suits and pin-striped shirts, carrying a tightly furled umbrella and sporting a blue Homburg clapped squarely on his shaved head.

Now with the realization that his talent was worthy of better than ghostwriting other people’s memoirs, Pat Tanner turned out, in rapid succession, his first two satirical novels, Oh, What a Lovely Wedding, and House Party. For his nom de plume he chose Virginia Rounds, the brand of his favorite cigarette, but his publisher thought it much too obvious and changed it to Virginia Rowans. Neither book sold widely, though both were enthusiastically received by critics nationwide, especially the second; House Party was later the prototype for a television sitcom that became The Phyllis Diller Show.

Eric Myers, Tanner’s biographer (Uncle Mame, St. Martin’s Press, 2000), writes of these books, and of Tanner’s work in general, “A sure sense of plot was never one of Pat’s attributes as a writer; his greatest strength was the creation of characters. Although nearly all of his books come with a large cast, the best of them feature a central figure who dominates the action … Pat had a gift for creating characters who, while exaggerated for comic effect, stopped short of being completely cartoonish.” All of these personalities, one suspects, had been latent residents of Pat’s imagination ever since the play-acting of his early childhood.

Pat’s third book, Auntie Mame, was born in 1954, at about the same time as Pat and Louise’s first child, Michael. Because the “novel” was presented as a series of short stories (told from the point of view of Mame’s nephew, the author, Patrick Dennis), it was nearly impossible to sell to a publisher; Tanner’s agent was turned down by nineteen of them before she found Julian Muller, a neophyte at Vanguard Press. It was difficult for him, too, to persuade his colleagues to accept the book. They refused to spend anything on its promotion; Muller and Tanner had to think up cheap wacky ways to get the attention of booksellers. At last they succeeded in spades: the first edition of Auntie Mame was on the bestseller list for over two years, ultimately selling more than two million copies in five different languages. At the zenith of its popularity, it was selling more than a thousand copies a day.

Auntie Mame the play, with Rosalind Russell in the starring role, arrived on Broadway in October 1956 and ran for fifteen months. Russell then went to Hollywood to make the screen version – the highest grossing movie of 1958 –, leaving the Broadway role to, successively, Greer Garson, Beatrice Lillie, Constance Bennett, Sylvia Sidney, and Eve Arden.

Auntie Mame made Pat Tanner a millionaire, enabled him to quit his job and to renovate an East 91st Street town house to accommodate Louise’s gigantic antique French tapestries, and carved his number-two pseudonym in stone. It also saddled him with a never-ending cavalcade of older women, including his own Aunt Marion, who would claim to be his model for the beloved character. But from all the clues he ever dropped, his model was himself. His next two books, Guestward Ho! and The Loving Couple, joined Mame on the bestseller list, and Patrick began to spend money just as quickly as it came in.

After three more books (The Pink Hotel, Around the World with Auntie Mame, and Virginia Rowans’s Love and Mrs. Sargent), Patrick Dennis collaborated with longtime friend, actor and photographer Cris Alexander (“Chip” in On the Town in 1944), on Little Me (1961), a “phony autobiography of a rotten movie star,” Belle Poitrine (think Zsa Zsa Gabor) – “as told to Patrick Dennis.” Alexander’s photographs, many of them staged in the Tanners’ magnificent digs, all elaborately costumed and posed by their madcap friends, luridly illustrated Belle’s all-too-transparent narrative. The book went directly to the bestseller list.

Of Little Me and its cultural impact, Eric Myers writes, “Pat … pushed the camp element to the forefront in Little Me. In many ways, Little Me virtually defines camp. Its pretentious narrative tone, its fascination with Hollywood glamour and outrageous, self-invented personalities, and its daring, go-for-broke humor brought camp out of the closet and into the face of an unsuspecting America.”

Little Me followed Auntie Mame to Broadway (at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, November 1962, for a run of 257 performances), but Neil Simon’s stage adaptation ignored the satirical punch of the book: where Belle’s own varnished version of her ruthless climb to fame had been the focal point, comedian Sid Caesar now provided vaudeville entertainment by taking on the roles of seven (the hats on the album cover) of her eight successive lovers, and she was relegated to the background.

Mexico City, where Pat and Louise had been spending winter vacations for some years, was the setting for Genius (1962), a biting satire on the city’s Anglo-American ex-pat community and the bombastic, overbearing, unscrupulous film director Leander Starr at its center. Otto Preminger bought the film rights to this unusually realistic (for Patrick Dennis) comedy, but the film was never made; probably Starr and Preminger himself were too similar for comfort.

At about this time Pat met and fell in love with a theatrical costume designer named Guy Kent. It was a turning point; though he remained devoted to his wife and children, his struggle with homosexuality had come to a head and he buckled under the strain. He attempted suicide and was hospitalized; he spent eight months in what he called “the loony bin,” Bloomingdale’s near White Plains. While undergoing decidedly ineffective treatment, including shock, he managed to write another mock autobiography, First Lady (1964), to be illustrated, like Little Me, with Cris Alexander’s photographs. The butt of the satire this time was American politics: Martha Dinwiddie Butterfield is the oblivious wife of a robber baron who occupies the U. S. presidency for thirty days at the turn of the twentieth century.

For reasons their friends could not understand – possibly Pat’s feelings of guilt over what he had put his family through –, Pat and Louise separated, though they remained close friends, and both left the 91st Street townhouse for more modest quarters. Without her moderating influence, Pat took to drinking more, behaving ever more outrageously, and developing a penchant for taking all his clothes off in public places. Eventually he escaped the pressures of New York and moved to Mexico City.

In his first year in Mexico, he turned out another novel, Tony (1966), like Auntie Mame a series of episodes following one central character surrounded by “bizarrely memorable supporting players” (Myers), and narrated by Patrick Dennis. The central character in this case was too unsavory for the taste of the critics, and the book did not do well.

In the space of six years in Mexico, during which he lavishly decorated two apartments, attempted to build a mansion in Cuernavaca, supported his aging parents back in Chicago, kept servants who ripped him off, dined always in the best restaurants and threw the most elaborate parties, he succeeded in spending all his money. He made a few feeble attempts at earning a living in radio and television but lost interest; he wrote three more books (How Firm a Foundation 1968, Paradise 1971, 3-D 1972) but they did not sell. As he had foreseen, his style and his works were out of fashion, and soon all his books went out of print.

In serious straits, he left Mexico and went to Houston with friends to manage a sculpture gallery, but that too failed. At last he hit upon an astonishing but, in the end, entirely satisfactory solution: he hired out as a butler. “I’m embarking on what is probably the best career that I will ever have,” he told Louise and their friends in New York, and enjoined them never to make his choice or whereabouts known. He took a new pseudonym, Edwards, shaved his beard, and sold everything he owned except Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Emily Post’s Etiquette, and a crossword dictionary. His third employer was Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s. None of his employers ever suspected he was the famous Patrick Dennis, creator of Auntie Mame.

After fourteen years of separation, Pat and Louise decided to live together again. Their children Michael and Betsy had flown the nest, and Pat was no longer so agonized with guilt about his sexuality. In May of 1976, around his 55th birthday, he left the Krocs and returned to New York. But he was not well; it was some time before an accurate diagnosis could be made, and he died of pancreatic cancer within six months.

NOTE: The writer of this article wishes to thank Eric Myers for permission to quote from his insightful and brilliantly entertaining biography of Patrick Dennis, Uncle Mame.

– Lucy E. Cross

Photo courtesy of Photofest