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April 26, 2009

1000 Words: Patrick Dennis

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --


Another installment in my occasional series of looks at underknown cultural phenomena. Today: Patrick Dennis, an American author of comic novels.

For starters, let me pump up that description: Calling Patrick Dennis "an author of comic novels" is like describing "Gone With the Wind" as "a Civil War romance." It may be accurate but it doesn't go nearly far enough.

Because in the 1950s and for much of the '60s, Patrick Dennis was huge. HUGE. At a time when writing, reading, and books really counted for something in our national life, Dennis was a star. Many of his 16 novels became bestsellers -- at one point he became the first person ever to have three books on the NYTimes bestseller list at the same time. He made millions of dollars. He was the toast of Manhattan high life. Not only were a number of his books adapted for the stage and screen, several of his characters became iconic. His madcap life-force creation Auntie Mame, for instance, was for many years as familiar a figure in America popular culture as Elvis Presley and Lucille Ball.

Dennis was a larger-than-life figure himself -- an irreverent, live-it-all-out cutup whose nonwriting life, once he hit the bigtime, consisted largely of parties, balls, dinners, and sexual adventures, all of them enacted to the accompaniment of oceans of booze.

You never knew quite what Pat Dennis was going to get up to next, to put it mildly. "I always start writing with a clean piece of paper and a dirty mind," he once said, and judging from his biography he might have been talking about how he approached every new day too.

Despite all this, Patrick Dennis has these days been largely forgotten. If you ask a Greatest Generation person about Patrick Dennis and / or Auntie Mame, you'll likely evoke happy memories. But where his rep among younger people goes... Well, try Googling the name "Patrick Dennis." You'll turn up a helpful Wikipedia entry but very little else.

He was so big once and he's so neglected now that it's a little peculiar. It's as though Frank Sinatra, say, had disappeared entirely down the memory hole.

Until recently I knew little about Patrick Dennis myself. I knew of, but hadn't seen, the movie of "Auntie Mame." And I retained a memory of Camille Paglia declaring Auntie Mame a genuinely great creation. Here's Camille:

"Auntie Mame" is the American "Alice in Wonderland." It is also, incidentally, one of the most important books in my life. Its witty Wildean phrases ring in my mind, and its flamboyant characters still enamor me. Like Tennessee Williams, Patrick Dennis caught the boldness, vitality, and iridescent theatricality of modern American personality. In Mame's mercurial metamorphoses we see American optimism and self-invention writ large.

Anyway: For no reason that I can recall, I found myself curious. Over the last few months I've read a couple of Dennis' novels, as well as a biography of him.

So how does Patrick Dennis' work in fact stand up? Does he deserve remembering or forgetting?

But first, let's indulge a little storytelling and biography. For most of the facts in this blogposting I'm relying on Eric Myers' biography of Dennis. It's a first-class popular biography, by the way: intelligent, sympathetic, appreciative, and nicely-scaled.

Bear with me and you'll be glad you did. Pat Dennis led quite a life.


Everett (Pat) Tanner III was born in 1921 in Evanston, Illinois, a WASPy upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago. Though he remained fond of his older sister his entire life, his parents were hard-drinking presences he never felt any warmth towards. His father especially was a problem. A macho drunk and a bully, Pat's dad was flat-out abusive towards his bright, sensitive, and imaginative son.

By 12, Dennis had already developed -- apparently both as a form of self-protection and as a way of winning the attention he craved -- a flamboyantly entertaining persona. This is, to put it mildly, a common psychological pattern among theater people.

And the theater was indeed what appealed to him. He wrote, staged, and designed shows for the neighbors, then for school groups. Although not at all a conventional kid, he was nonetheless a winner, dazzling local girls with his wit and brains and -- so far as the guyz went -- managing to entertain and win over even the athletes.

Yes, your gaydar should be going off loud and clear, because little Pat Everett was indeed gay. In fact, the behaviors, interests, and personality traits that Eric Myers describes scream "Gay! Gay! Gay!" to me. But no one in Evanston seems to have picked up on Pat's homosexuality. Was it the times? The Midwest? But perhaps the people Myers found and talked to about their memories of Pat didn't care to share their hunches where an old friend was concerned.

Pat served in WWII, mostly in Italy; his military buddies remembered Pat as courageous, generous -- and very entertaining.

Settling in Manhattan after the war, he was a classic case of the boy raised repressed-in-the-sticks who goes a little wild in the big city. But it was, by present-day standards, a refined and genteel kind of wild. Pat held down jobs and performed admirably in them. He attended parties, networked with other young, talented, and ambitious people, and found the time and discipline to do his own work, sometimes using the pseudonym "Patrick Dennis," sometimes "Virginia Rowans."

Despite his homosexual inclinations, Pat also married and raised kids. From right off the bat, though, it was a pretty unconventional marriage. His wife resembled him in many ways. A writer as well as a cutup from a proper family, Louise was independent-minded and acerbically witty.

Louise doesn't seem to have wanted to talk to Eric Myers much about the sexual arrangements she and Pat settled on, but as far as the reader can tell Pat began screwing around on her with men fairly early on.

Was that OK with Louise? Judging from some of the photos in Myers' book, maybe it was. Louise was a good-looking woman in handsome sort of way. Could she have been a lesbian? Or perhaps she was one of those arty, educated women John O'Hara once memorably described as (roughly) "not lesbian, but not interested in sex with men either." (Here's a terrific and informative Chip McGrath piece about John O'Hara.) Whatever the explanation, the kids that Louise and Pat had found their dad entertaining and lovable.


Pat and Louise in 1959

Photo by Frank Dobo

Given our post-'60s tendency to associate artiness with rebelliousness, it comes as a surprise how un-bohemian the family was. They settled not in the Village but on the Upper East Side, not far from embassies and the Metropolitan Museum. Patrick Dennis and Louise may have loved throwing darts at the country-club set they started out among, and they were nothing if not outrageous and irreverent. But their tiff with respectability went only so far.

Pat found employment at oddball publishers populated by classic Manhattan eccentrics, and then at some kind of Council on Foreign Relations-ish place, where he could breeze through his assigned week's tasks in a a couple of days, drink heavily at lunch, and spend the rest of his work hours crafting his own books.

Eric Myers supplies some valuable social history here: a fast and vivid portrait of New York City in the days when it was still possible for someone with art ambitions to find -- and get by on -- a single, not-too-demanding job. There was something of this New York still around when I came to the city in the late '70s. The all-consuming focus on careers came later.

Before the 1980s, few people in the arts thought of themselves as having careers in today's sense. They were more likely to think of themselves as putting one over on life, and as doing what they could to get away with it. Today's media drones may dream about doing their own independent artwork, as Pat and his friends were able to do. But, day to day, they're usually too exhausted to bring many of their own projects to fruition.

By the time "Auntie Mame" came out in 1955, Pat had already published two novels of his own and had ghosted a couple of other books. "Auntie Mame" was turned down by 19 publishers; then, when it was finally published, it triumphed, spending over two years on the bestseller list. It was turned into a stage play whose Broadway production ran almost forever, and eventually into a successful movie.

"Auntie Mame" brought Patrick Dennis millions of dollars, as well as the kind of instant-recognition-style fame that guarantees an eager audience for years to come. Pat was only 34 years old.

(It's interesting to learn from Eric Myers that Dennis didn't hang out with a true camp crowd until after "Auntie Mame" had become a hit. In other words, he'd found his way to his camp persona and to his camp writing style almost entirely uncoached.)

As a writer Patrick Dennis was a phenomenon. Characters, stories, and pages flew out of him in gusts of inspiration and bravado. He wrote his novels in a matter of a few months each.

His plotting was often a little out of control. Never much of a reviser, he had little idea how to write anything but first drafts. He delivered more than one manuscript to his publishers with a note attached telling his editors to tie up the loose ends and to write the final chapters for him.

Still, what first drafts he created. He was a showman -- a kind of comic Orson Welles in print. He was such an impresario by nature that he made numerous attempts to write plays and musicals. None of them made it to Broadway. But he never lost his love of putting on shows. He promoted "Little Me" by doing a cabaret act, and wrote and staged amateur theatricals whenever he encountered the chance.

As for a dark side: There certainly was one. Despite his devil-may-care persona, Dennis was prone to torments and depressions. Was it because Daddy didn't respect him? Or because of unresolved conflicts over the homosexuality? Hard to tell. But the alcohol certainly didn't help. Though the booze-consumption seems to have been unneurotic -- largely a matter of lovin' life and living large -- it can't have done much to moderate the mood swings that Pat was prone to.

While on a high he'd write a bestseller and party. The crashes, though were ugly and sad. He attempted suicide a number of times. One of them landed him in the loony bin. Emerging a changed man, Pat developed a crush on a lout. Despite Louise's tolerance of his gay adventures, Pat now felt a need to declare himself. He left the marriage and set off in pursuit of his new love-object.

The affair quickly went south -- the guy was indeed an undeserving cad. Lost and uncertain, and hoping to live high while spending a little less money, Pat moved to Mexico.

There he carried on as the famous gay author he was. But if he hoped that his new openness would ease his way psychologically and emotionally, he had no such luck.

The money continued to pour in, but Pat also continued to spend more than he earned. As the boozing and partying rolled on, Pat's behavior became wilder and more erratic. He'd always been prone to getting carried away in social settings, but now he was embarrassing himself on a regular basis. His personality was coming apart.

And then, to cap it all, his fiction fell out of fashion. It was the late '60s, and nobody was in the mood for stylish light confections any longer. As a writer, Pat had hit it big in his mid-30s; by 50, he was through. He'd had his moment, it was over, and he knew it. So -- showing his typical flair -- he simply gave up writing.

The concrete problem now was that the money had run out. All of it, in fact. Patrick Dennis needed a job, and in the worst way. He wrote a show for Mexican TV -- it went nowhere. He moved to Houston to act as a partner in an art gallery. The gallery flopped.

Then he made one of the stranger career changes in literary history: He became a professional butler.

Strange, yes, but maybe also not-so-strange. Pat knew the world of money and society very, very well. Who better than he to run a rich family's household?

In fact, during the years that he devoted to being a professional butler, Pat was successful and content. Living in a plain, austere fashion now seemed to suit him. He was like the libertine who finally finds peace in a monastery.

Punchline to this particular storyline: His final butlering position was with the Kroc family -- the Kroc family of McDonald's fame. That's right, one of America's best-known novelists spent a year working as a butler for the man who made McDonald's. No one was ever the wiser. The press never got wind of what had become of Patrick Dennis. Dennis did a fine job. The Krocs liked him, and he liked them.

By his mid-50s, Pat was tired of being a butler. He'd played the role to the hilt, and -- true performer that he was -- was now ready for a new role. He struck up his relationship with Louise again, and moved back in with her, feeling hopeful about making yet another fresh start.

Something was physically wrong, though. It turned out to be pancreatic cancer. There was nothing to be done, and Louise nursed him through his rapid final illness. He died in 1976, at 55.

(A personal note; Patrick Dennis was born within months of my Greatest Generation mom. He died the same year she did. I'm within months of both their death-ages as I type these words. Freaky.)


The dapper author in the mid 1960s
Photo by Cris Alexander

How important a culturefigure was Patrick Dennis, really? Rest assured that I'm not about to let my limited experience with his work keep me from passing pompous and eternal judgment.

Some of his impressive achievements:

  • He played a major role in introducing camp attitudes and entertainment values to the American mainstream.

  • In Auntie Mame, and in "Little Me"'s protagonist Belle Poitrine, Pat created two iconic characters. It's hard to match Dennis as a creator of larger-than-life, free-spirited characters, in fact. Come on, who from the collected oeuvre of, say, Richard Yates leaps out at you in anything like the way that Auntie Mame does?

  • Patrick Dennis was prescient in his view of celebrity, ego, and the media. As The Wife said about "Little Me," Patrick Dennis may have invented the mockumentary form. "Little Me" is a really startling parodic novel. It takes the form of a showbiz memoir by Belle Poitrine, a made-up movie star. The book is quite a performance not just in terms of the writing and the voice but so far as visuals and layout go too. More than 150 photos of Belle and her adventures pepper the text; they were staged, shot and laid out by the actor and photographer Cris Alexander. If you think that being cynical and witty about celebrity and fame is remarkable, and if you think that mockumentaries represent an important development in pop culture, well, then, for both of these we owe a lot to Patrick Dennis.

  • John Updike, John Cheever, and Richard Yates may be famous for nailing mid-century America, and especially the upper-middle-class Northeast. But -- though his style is dizzy and satirical where they were solemn and literary -- Patrick Dennis was as acute as any of them. That's merely my judgment, of course, but what the heck: If a young friend expressed interest in this era, I'd tell him to read Patrick Dennis (and John O'Hara) before Updike, Cheever, and Yates. He'd get as vivid a picture as he would from the LitBoys, and he'd probably have a much better reading time of it.

  • Patrick Dennis created a shelf-full of perceptive and amusing social satires. This is an achievement of major value in its own right, no?

  • "Auntie Mame" and "Little Me" are -- without making a big avant-garde deal of it -- amazingly innovative novels. "Auntie Mame" is more a collection of episodic adventures than a unified, one-narrative-line thing. It's more like a season of TV shows than it is like a single feature film -- and, as lovers of episodic TV know, that's a terrific way to follow the adventures of a group of characters. "Little Me," on the other hand, plays as many parodic games as Nabokov's "Pale Fire" does, though it does so in popular-entertainment rather than high-art terms. (Not a diss of "Pale Fire," btw -- I've read it and enjoyed it.)

Mainly, though, Patrick Dennis delivered a lot of daring, giddy, and stylish pleasure to millions of readers. For proof of this, as well as for a glimpse of how happy his books could make fans, check out the Amazon Reader Reviews of Dennis' "The Joyous Season." How often do you see people enthusing like that about lit-world product?

Is "The Joyous Season" the equal of Tolstoy? Certainly not -- but why must we judge everything by comparison to "War and Peace," to Michelangelo, or to the late quartets of Beethoven? Can't we make room for champagne and pastries on our culture-tabletops too? Besides, c'mon, get real: Cheever's no match for Tolstoy either.

I confess that I'm puzzled about why we allow ourselves to value fizzy pleasure in some of the arts and not in others. Fragonard and Boucher aren't without their admirers, for example; some would say that Cary Grant was one of the great creations of the 20th century; the crowds that follow the work of great chefs would laugh in your face if you told them to stop enjoying their passion. Yet where, books, book-authors, and readers go ...

A more general musing: Here's a hunch about why Americans often have trouble recognizing what's best in American culture, and why we often overpraise pretentious claptrap instead: We're culturally insecure. Many Americans are prone to attending to culture events less out of an urge to enhance our pleasure-lives than out of a desire to improve ourselves. As a result, we overlook and undervalue much of the popular entertainment that we're often great at: westerns, film noir, jazz ...

Meanwhile, the Brits -- more secure, if not downright smug, in their sense of entitlement to "culture" -- have relatively little trouble recognizing Oscar Wilde, Agatha Christie, Noel Coward, P.G. Wodehouse, and E.F. Benson as remarkable producers of high quality cultural goods.


All that said, let me take a moment to slip in a couple of small misgivings about the two Patrick Dennis books that I read.

First: They're a little genteel. But why wouldn't they be? These days, when it comes to camp pleasures, we expect gaudiness, intensity, and filth, and we wonder why they're missing when they aren't present.

This is of course an unfair reaction, because Patrick Dennis was anything but an underground comic hurling abuse at the establishment. He was more like the cutup at a social club. So long as it allowed him to misbehave -- and, even better, rewarded him for his mischief -- the club was fine. Readers who can discern what's really happening in the life of "Little Me"'s Belle Poitrine, for example, won't miss the hints of lesbianism, prostitution, desperation, and blowjobs. But those who prefer to overlook the grotty details can, and will, be amused by the book anyway.

Second: Dennis' books are also, by today's standards, a little wordy. Enjoying them means reading pretty darned fast. But that may be a function of the times as well. We have less patience with words today than people did in the '50s. And was Patrick Dennis any more wordy than, say, Updike or Bellow?


These very minor quibbles aside, it's clear to me that Patrick Dennis was a giant. Camille Paglia and the many gays who have worked to keep his memory somewhat alive were right. Light entertainment and inspired silliness may have been Pat Dennis' thing, but he was nonetheless a dazzling, larger-than-life culture-producin' force of nature.

And a bit of a freak of nature too. Judging from passages from his letters that Myers includes, naughty playacting poured out of Patrick Dennis most hours of most days. He pretty much couldn't help it, let alone stop it.

If all this is as true as I think it is, how then to explain the fact that Patrick Dennis has vanished so completely from the popular-culture map? I see a number of factors at work.

  • He was a writer, which means that his reputation has depended to a large extent on books people. In the more popular arts -- movies, music, theater -- critics, historians, and intellectuals have more respect for popular taste than books people often do. See here and here for my observations about the diffs between movie people and book people.

  • He wrote frothy entertainments. Book readers are prone to undervaluing pure pleasure.

  • His books were almost all social satires. We like it when witty Brits -- Waugh, Thackeray -- write social satires. But when Americans do it, we're sometimes less sure what to make of it.

  • As an artist and a person, Patrick Dennis was a life-of-the-party, extroverted audience-pleaser -- a performer and an entertainer. Where books-and-writing goes, the taste-making crowd prefers critique, intellectuality, and complexity. Partly that's just their own weird taste-set; partly they love the way this combo gives them control over the general discussion. After all, a writer who creates difficult books needs a priestly intellectual caste to explain why we should value them. A writer who creates books that are straightforwardly enjoyable, on the other hand, allows us to trust our own taste. Enjoying his work, we have no need for the intellectual set at all.

  • He was more of a fantasist, a tale-teller, and a dreamer-up of fabulous characters than he was a sentence-writer, a symbolism-slinger, or an intricate-construction virtuoso. There's nothing of the cerebral puzzle about a Patrick Dennis book, in other words.

Speaking of social satires ... Why has the reputation of Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" held up, while the rep of Patrick Dennis' books hasn't?

Perhaps Wolfe is just better than Dennis. I don't think so myself. Brilliant and amusing though Wolfe is as a social chronicler, as a fiction writer he struggles to bring his characters to life. Dennis' characters, of course, fairly leap off the page. Perhaps Dennis' light-and-fluffy tone dooms him to insignificance in the eyes of the professorial / critical class, who meanwhile find themselves impressed by Wolfe's more aggressive and barbed attack. Could be -- seems plausible to me.

But here's what I think is a better guess: Wolfe has established and maintained a rep because he went to the trouble of fighting for himself in New-York-intellectual terms. He won the bastards over and forced them respect him. Dennis by contrast never waged that kind of battle. He could be wryly funny about the fate of humor and humorists, god knows. But, by and large, he spent his writing time avoiding polemics and dashing off a lot of brilliant entertainment.

Hey, some other questions that the Patrick Dennis thing may leave us wondering about:

  • Why don't we value light entertainment more than we do?

  • Why don't we value pleasure more than we do?

  • If it's OK to think of Boucher, Fragonard, Fred Astaire, and Cary Grant as immortals, why not delightful writers too?



* Some of the other installments in my "1000 Words" series: The Scottish Enlightenment. Was "Carmila" the first vampire novel? The ups and downs of Piero della Francesca's reputation. Joseph Pujol, the Paris music-hall performer known as The Fartiste.

* Back here I wrote about some other writers whose work makes me very, very happy.

* As far as I'm concerned, Francis Iles' psychological suspense novel "Before the Fact" isn't just a smashing genre yarn, it's one of the most brilliant on-the-page fiction-performances of the 20th century.

* Buy "Auntie Mame." Buy "Little Me." (FWIW, I liked "Little Me" better than "Auntie Mame.") Buy Eric Myers' excellent bio of Patrick Dennis.

* Buy a DVD of the movie of "Auntie Mame." Starring Rosalind Russell, directed by Morton DaCosta, and with a script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, it's a flamboyant classic in its own right.


* Eric Myers once was and may still be the boyfriend of camp diva / playwright Charles Busch, who I'm a big fan of. Busch wrote a hilarious introduction to the current edition of "Little Me," and has performed the role of Belle Poitrine onstage.

* Morton DaCosta only directed two other movies, one of which was "The Music Man." I think "The Music Man" is genius. Squaresville and cornpone as can be, sure -- but also genius.

* "Auntie Mame" screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green were also responsible for the script for "Singin' in the Rain," a film that is felt by many to be the greatest movie musical of all time.

Near the end of his bio, Eric Myers quotes Noel Coward on light entertainment:

Despair is the new religion, the new mode. It is in the books we read, the music we hear, and far too often in the plays we see. Nowadays, a light comedy whose sole purpose is to amuse is dismissed as trivial and insignificant. Since when has laughter been so insignificant?

I'm honored to second that sentiment.

The photos in this posting are scans from Eric Myers' biography.



PS: If Eric Myers happens across this blogposting ... Eric, I hope you'll get in touch with me at michaelblowhard at that gmail place. I'd like to interview you about Patrick Dennis, and about your book.

posted by Michael at April 26, 2009


Wow, I'm so glad to run into this. I've been a big Mame and Patrick Dennis fan for years and it's always struck me as a huge injustice that so few people have heard of him. Never got around to the bio, though. Think I'll pick it up. Good for Eric Myers to have done it and I'm sure that a theater person would get a life like that!

Posted by: Janine on April 26, 2009 6:27 PM

At the risk of getting into really speculative territory, perhaps dying at age 55 is part of the reason why Dennis is so forgotten. Had he died young, right after completing his main works, he might have benefited from a James Dean-style "gone too soon" mystique, while if he'd lived a normal life span he might have rediscovered his Muse and written some more well-regarded works. As it happened, he sort of fell in the middle.

Posted by: Peter on April 26, 2009 6:27 PM

What a great, thoughtful appreciation of Dennis- well done, Michael. And you ask some very good questions, as to why "light" entertainments aren't valued as much as darker, "serious" literature.

One idea: because among the literary intelligentsia, there are far more depressive, lugubrious writers than those who can produce sparkling, airy wit- Dennis perhaps made it seem too easy, and for him perhaps it was. But as you said, he was a delightful freak. Sophisticated comedy of the best sort is not easy to write, but it has to look easy. His commercial success, at a time when macho writers like Mailer were held to be the real deal, was probably held against him as the 60's progressed, perhaps. Esquire, the New Journalism, Wolfe- the emergence of writing based in "reality" seemed to match the era, and Dennis was passè, frivolous- as if fun were forbidden, "Don't you know there's a war on?" Lol, tis pity.

I appreciate Dennis's subtlety when it comes to camp, like in "Little Me" (which is hilarious). It needn't be filthy, he was something of a gentleman. But his best works are camp and humor with heart, as corny as that sounds. He has a real love and affection for his characters, and watching Rosalind Russell as Mame, she exudes that love. There's an immense generosity of spirit there, and that comes from Dennis I think.

Reading the bio "Uncle Mame", I was touched at his loving relationship with his children, despite his complicated life and troubles. When he said, "Mame is me", I believe it. Extraordinary person, by all accounts.

I almost cringe to propose this, because the genre is so generally mediocre and overdone, but the way "chick lit" novels are presented and marketed seems the closest thing to the idea of Dennis's novels- meaning they are meant to be light, stylish humorous, cosmopolitan entertainments. But of course, most are simply dreadful. Just thinking aloud.


Posted by: Baroness on April 26, 2009 7:11 PM

Fascinating stuff about a fascinating character. Nice to see too, Michael, what strikes me as a fresh burst of energy in the last few weeks. Some meaty and provocative stuff. Welcome back!

As for the indifference to light entertainment today and the fashionability of despair, that's because today's "serious" readers have not experienced one-tenth of the suffering, one-tenth of the real despair, of past generations. Only spoiled, cosseted, shallow, insular, materialistic, self-centered, empty, trivial quasi-people would seek out despair in their reading. People who have a hard time in life want and need "light" entertainment, not as the lit-fic bluenoses say, for "escape", but precisely for a sense of a world in which happiness, pleasure and even justice (!) can be attained.

I was talking with a friend the other day about Fragonard, whom you mention in the post. My friend said that Fragonard's paintings often seem to depict a pre-lapsarian world, one in which humanity had not fallen, a world in which genuine unalloyed happiness was possible. Of course, the bluenoses don't like Fragonard for precisely that reason.

They dislike light entertainment, not because they prefer despair, but because they've never experienced despair. Their lives are so devoid of meaning or challenge that they think themselves brave and even ruthless for reading about defeat and death and anomie and angst and accidie, all safely contained between the covers of books, and rendered reassuring, even smug, by beautifully polished but emotionally dead sentences.

Posted by: PatrickH on April 26, 2009 7:37 PM


Ouch. I like rather dark-toned things, though I prefer darkly comic to plain bleakness. Still, there's always room for lightness, which I get from musical theatre. I saw Mame a few years ago in my local community theatre. Quite a good show. I'll pick up the novel...

Posted by: Spike Gomes on April 26, 2009 10:54 PM

He was more like the cutup at a social club. So long as it allowed him to misbehave -- and perhaps rewarded him for his mischief -- the club was fine.

I think the same could be said for Cole Porter.

Dennis' books are also, by today's standards, a little wordy.

Do you mean that quantitatively or qualitatively? And what's with the 4,254 words in the post?

We have less patience with words today than people did in the '50s. And was Patrick Dennis any more wordy than, say, Updike or Bellow?

Or Stephen King... I swear, some of the novels available in supermarkets about 20 years ago should have been sold by weight. All the pop writers wanted to be Tolstoy!
By that standard, the '80s were a lot 'wordier' than the '50s.

My stepdad has a first edition of Little Me. What can I say? I've read all the pictures, and few of the words.

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on April 27, 2009 2:21 AM

The 60s wiped out that notion of "light" entertainment. We've gotten ourselves into some deep water since. Very nice article.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 27, 2009 9:07 AM

Belle Poitrine

Haha. That kind of comedy, eh?

Posted by: Taeyoung on April 27, 2009 12:52 PM

Great appreciation Michael, and your cultural observations seem spot-on to me.

Posted by: Steve W on April 27, 2009 1:51 PM

Fascinating piece, Michael. I wish I could write that sort of thing once in a while, but realistically I don't have it in me. What I see is akin to an introductory chapter of an MA thesis stripped of all the references and footnotes -- something many of us would struggle for weeks over. You make it look sooo easy!

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 27, 2009 2:27 PM

On the subject of light entertainment, I've become obsessed with Bach in the last few years. Of course, the general picture of Bach is about as far from "light" as you can get. He's as crusty an icon of Greatness as anybody.

Yet I found that once you get past the famous massive works that he wrote tons of works that were nothing but light entertainment. They were meant to delight people, simple as that.

One form created by the Bach family was the Quodlibet, which was made of melody quotations from popular tunes, played instrumentally. The words that went with the tunes weren't sung but when put together would make a joke or pun, often sexual. What a blast!

Bach said "music is for the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul". The glory God is heavy stuff, but entertaining people was considered an absolutely worthy goal for art, and one that he put as much of himself into as anything. If this attitude still existed in the classical world it wouldn't be so marginalized.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on April 27, 2009 5:25 PM

Thank you, Michael, for a wonderful posting. And I love the discussion here and the comments. The observations you're all making are so great because I'm saying, yes, yes, that's what I've been thinking!

So I'm hoping I'll be indulged in a little rant.

I love light comic novels. I don't think I'm alone, either.

So recently when I read articles about how people aren't reading novels anymore, and the publishing business is depressed, I just want to scream at the book biz -- "why don't you publish some novels people would like to read?"

But maybe the answer is that it's harder for book people to edit humorous books and novels. Maybe it's easier for them to work on the serioso dysfunctional family tomes. Because I often think that comedy is something that takes a special talent to edit. Comedy is always something that's uncontrollable and because of that it often threatens people who are in control -- i.e., editors.

Anyway, thank you for letting me sound off and thank you Michael for a thought provoking, yet entertainingly light posting!

Posted by: Annie on April 27, 2009 7:33 PM

1. Bought dog-eared copy of Auntie Mame in high school in the eighties.
2. Laughed out loud at all of it.
3. Never liked the movie adaptation.
4. Somehow fits into my Elinor Lipman (see Fay Weldon's review of EL in Washington Post) post noodling around in my head which I haven't posted - she's down to earth and warm and funny, and somehow warm and funny type of wiseness is not as respected in the US art community? Why not?
5. In highschool, left dog eared copy on chair in library and kids picked it up and made fun of it's old fashioned and racy cover, and I was too embarrassed to admit it was my book.
6. I was always a bit old-fashioned......pop culture these days is excruciating for me, as I do not approve of the sleeze and whatnot.

Posted by: onparkstreet on April 27, 2009 8:13 PM

I agree with you re: Tom Wolfe, great social chronicler, 'meh' novelist. It was always puzzling to me how someone could create vibrant fictitious inner worlds which he then ascribed to real people but be so relatively unsuccessful making it up whole cloth. You'd have thought he'd have had enough practice. Also, I keep wondering why he doesn't just write a real person for 300 pages - he does that so much more vividly - and then change the name and maybe some descriptors.

So, I'm not sure Wolfe is going to fare that much better than Mr. Dennis at least in that I suspect that Wolfe's novels won't last long term. His essays and criticism, yes. '

I don't think I can improve on your observations about why light literature isn't so highly valued. Only one thought: for most of us, life is hard work in one way or another, at least some of the time. Our victories and, thus, our long-lasting pleasures tend to be hard won. Maybe that makes for a bit of the Calvinist/Puritan in all of us. "Easy come, easy go."


Posted by: Judith Sears on April 27, 2009 8:48 PM

I'm old enough to remember when Patrick Dennis was a big name, and I too was surprised at how obscure he's seemed to become. If I remember correctly, a year or two ago I tried searching for a library copy, or Strand [used] bookstore copy, of "Little Me" and was surprised to discover how hard it was to find it, or even to find out information about it. (As it turned out, I did track one down, but when I looked through it, I didn't find it to my liking -- which is what I thought when I first looked through it in the 1960s. I didn't think I have the patience to read through it. But, the pictures are funny. By the way, I think "Little Me" has some fake photos of Garbo -- which is really the writer Betty Comden done up, quite convincingly so it seems to me, as Garbo.)

Another indicator of the stature of Auntie Mame in the 1950s and early 1960s: when I saw the movie "Auntie Mame" (in the early 1960s?) it was presented for the first (?) time on TV as, I believe, some kind of prime time "special" (a "Hallmark [Greeting Cards] Hall of Fame Presentation"?) -- which meant that it was an uncut, multi-hour prime time broadcast with few (or no?) commercial interruptions. (Another film that I believe I remember from this series was "The Good Earth.")

- - - - - -

It seems to me that Tin Pan Alley / Broadway popular music is another example of an area of middle-brow culture that was once highly thought of at one time (and widely popular too) but is now less highly regarded. An example: In 1999, there were a lot of articles about the history of different fields during the 20th Century, and I believe Time Magazine had a long article about the history of American popular music. What was interesting to me was that the article had surprisingly little to say about Tin Pan Alley / Broadway / Hollywood popular music -- even for the decades of the 1920s, 1930, 1940s, etc. -- but focused instead, so it seemed to me, more on what was happening, even during those decades (when Tin Pan Alley et al. was "king"), on what was happening in country, blues, jazz, etc.

- - - - -

It's funny that you should write this essay about a forgotten big literary name of the 1950s, as I recently thought of you in connection with another forgotten big literary name (also from the Midwest) from the 1950s: William Inge.

I recently read his four big plays: "Come Back, Little Sheba," "Picnic," "Bus Stop," and "Dark at the Top of the Stairs" and really liked them. In the 1950s, Inge was really big. He had four successful Broadway plays in a row (the above four) and was considered one of the big three American playwrights (the other two being Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller). All four of the plays were made into major motion pictures and two of them, both directed by another big name of the 1950s, Joshua Logan, seemed to be really big (cultural phenomenon) hits: "Picnic" starring William Holden, Kim Novack, Rosalind Russell, and "Bus Stop," starring Marilyn Munroe. (And "Come Back, Little Sheba" won an Oscar for Shirley Booth, and "Dark at the Top of the Stairs," starring Robert Preston, played Radio City Music Hall, a prestige venue of the time.)

Also, he was the screenwriter of another big film of the era, "Splendor in the Grass"

So given your interest in "middle-brow" culture and the Mid-West (although you're from upstate NY) / NYC literary nexus (correct word?) I was wondering if you had any thoughts about Inge or his plays/movies.

- - - - - - -

Also, since you seem to be interested in NYC arts scenes (especially, if I remember correctly, those that are on the cutting edge of their time), I was wondering if you've read Suze Rotolo's, "Freewheelin' Time"), about the folk / rock (and art) scene of Greenwich Village in the late 1950s / early 1960s. Suze Rotolo, as many know, was Bob Dylan's girlfriend during the early years of his career and rise to fame.

As someone interested in the history of this scene, mostly as it pertains to the history of Greenwich Village, I found the book to be very interesting.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 27, 2009 11:22 PM

No one mentioned the Jerry Herman musical, which features the song "We Need a Little Christmas". Patrick Dennis just happened to inspire the last Christmas standard ever written.

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on April 28, 2009 2:53 AM

It seems to me that Tin Pan Alley / Broadway popular music is another example of an area of middle-brow culture that was once highly thought of at one time (and widely popular too) but is now less highly regarded. --Benjamin

Less highly regarded by whom? The decline in popularity of those songs has nothing to do with their inherent quality, and much to do with the general collapse of taste across the culture.

Don't forget, too, that J.S. Bach (cf. Todd, above) was forgotten for a long time after his death, and was revived, for good, in the 19th century.

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on April 28, 2009 3:01 AM

I've often wondered how it is that young boys who are gay learn the mannerisms that we associate with being gay. Still more, I wonder *why* they do so. After all, any clever actor can imitate elderly domineering amusing Aunt Gertrude, but why would a little boy even want to do so, and why would she make such an indelible mark on his personality?

When I was 10 I knew a boy at school of around my own age who seemed to have emerged from the womb as a full-blown queen, although no one noticed this at the time because we weren't very gay-conscious. He got away with being completely outrageous: he drew fashion sketches with his female friends; did mock-faints when people wore clashing colours; and uttered his savage jokes in a high-pitched drawl. Yet he was always popular with both sexes. Even the jocks accepted him, when he reached high school, probably because he had such a devastatingly sharp tongue that no one wanted to get on his bad side.

I've read that Nathan Lane has a similar personality and similar effect on his acquaintances.

Posted by: aliasclio on April 28, 2009 10:24 AM

I remember the TV and Broadway productions of "Mame" when I was young - when I came across the original author's name, I remember thinking "Who?" No recognition at all. I really didn't know much more about him now, so I'm glad for the post.

Your hunch about improvement through culture has a good chance of being right, I think. Too many cultural products are presented as being good for you, rather than as something to enjoy. Many people are surprised when they find that they like, right off the bat, something that's labeled as high culture (such as has happened, at various times, with, say "Nessum Dorma", pop songs that take melody lines from Bach, and so on).

An analogy with food occurs to me: consider haute cuisine (or avant-garde food in general) as a rough equivalent to literary fiction. Not all of it is immediately enjoyable, and some of it involves tastes that may or may not even be worth acquiring, depending on the person. (I have no liking for foie gras, for example, and no intention of working on that). But a chef working with "haute" ingredients (truffles, exotic herbs, infusions, foams, and so on) will always be taken as being in a different category than one who doesn't.

Meanwhile, there are tremendously enjoyable dishes that are put in the "downmarket" category, like the light entertainment you write about. Well-made fried chicken, or good barbecue. Fried catfish. Peruvian rotisserie chicken. Mexican carnitas or tacos al pastor. A good bratwurst, a New Orleans muffeletta, a quality hamburger. These are all very worthwhile things, but they will not put you into the rank of the elite chefs of the world.

Calvin Trillin talks about this, when he mentions small- and medium-sized cities that suffer from "rube-ophobia". When a visitor asks what the best restaurant in town is, people feel strange saying that the best food is the barbecue or the roast beef sandwiches, so they recommend the lousy expensive French restaurant near the high-end hotel.

Now, I like some fancy food. Every time I've eaten Jean-George Vongerichten's creations, I've been happy about it. But fancy for the sheer sake of being fancy - no thanks. And being from around Memphis originally, I have great respect for good barbecue and catfish. Bad haute cuisine stinks, and so does bad barbecue.

Different subject, the (eventual) place of Tom Wolfe. His fictional characters are less real than you'd think they would be. I can believe in Sherman McCoy (and especially Larry Kramer) in "Bonfire". Charlie Croker sort of fades in and out of reality in "A Man in Full", but Charlotte Simmons hardly seems real for a moment.

But I don't think that Wolfe made the literary establishment respect him. His fiction, at any rate, has always attracted scorn from the big guys, as Wolfe himself has been happy to relate. And his attacks on high-end architecture and art theory ("From Bauhaus to Our House" and "The Painted Word") made people in both fields turn unhinged shades of purple. Maybe the difference is that Wolfe was willing to pay attention to the things that they hold dear, if only to attack them. Someone like Dennis doesn't seem to know (or more likely, care) that they exist.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on April 28, 2009 1:51 PM

Speaking of forgotten authors, what do you think of Frank Yerby's work? He sold tens of millions of books over half a century. I think a lot of his stuff holds up well, yet not a single novel of his is now in print (or at least, not in English). He wasn't queer, and didn't care to be known as a "black" writer (indeed, he eschewed overtly political and "race" writing for decades). Perhaps his detachment from contemporary politics doomed his literary estate to neglect? Or perhaps his intense intellectual bent, which furnished his historical fiction with such accurate backgrounds (and drove him to the opposite of Christian apologetics), alienates modern publishers and critics?

Posted by: Mark Seecof on April 28, 2009 6:56 PM

Many thanks to the Michael for this essay about one of the Manolo's all-time favorite writers, and for this discussion of the forgotten importance of light comedy. (The Noel Coward quote is one the Manolo is certain to borrow for his own purposes.)

Recently, the Manolo has been contemplating the death of verbal wit.

To the large extent Dennis fell out of fashion (and will likely remain out of fashion) because the culture is no longer able to process verbal wit.

Witticisms that once would have brought down the house, no longer make people laugh, because we no longer have the background and training to appreciate them. Simply put, people are not reading that which must be read, and the consequences are...Judd Aptow and Family Guy. (To cite two egregious examples of what now passes for wit.)

Visual wit, we can handle. Verbal wit, not so much.

Posted by: Manolo the Shoeblogger on April 29, 2009 9:01 AM

I knew of Patrick Dennis (he's from my home town). Didn't know about the butlering.

Why has he faded? I think light comedy usually fades out, unless sustained by parallel brilliance. Gilbert and Sullivan: without the music, gone. Wodehouse: his use of language.

Humor is often very dependent on context, and the context fades. People don't know the references and don't get the jokes.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on April 29, 2009 5:54 PM


I recommend that you read Dennis's novel "How Firm a Foundation," and report back to us on it. Although I read the book nearly 30 years ago, it seems to me that Dennis therein skewers a lot of the same things that you enjoy skewering. HFAF doesn't occupy the same sphere as Auntie Mame, yet it's entertaining enough.

Posted by: NPT on April 30, 2009 5:49 AM

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