Mame, Jerry Herman’s 1966 musical version of Auntie Mame, opens 10/16 at Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace , with veteran actress Barbara Robertson as the socialite who takes her orphaned nephew under her wing. Wacky, wonderful Mame Dennis Burnside may inhabit Depression-era Manhattan, but her roots are right here in Chicago. She first saw life as the heroine of a 1955 novel by Chicago-born, North Shore-bred Edward Everett Tanner III, a 1938 graduate of Evanston Township High School. The following year his bestseller became a Broadway hit starring Rosalind Russell, whose performance was immortalized in a 1958 movie adaptation.
Because Tanner–writing as “Patrick Dennis”–framed his novel as a memoir, many people have asked whether there really was an Auntie Mame. He did have an eccentric aunt who lived in Greenwich Village, but she was hardly the glamorous globe-trotter of his imagination. The real Auntie Mame, he liked to say, was himself. Mame’s free-thinking sophistication and constant assaults on bourgeois babbittry were his expressions of disdain for his conservative upbringing as the son of a Chicago stockbroker.
Tanner was a gay wit whose talent for creating flamboyant female characters reflected his own campy sensibility. In addition to Auntie Mame and its sequel Around the World With Auntie Mame, he wrote Little Me, the 1961 “autobiography” of self-styled movie star Belle Poitrine. Illustrated with hilariously off-kilter photos by actor Cris Alexander, it’s perhaps the funniest book ever written about show business and celebrity.
But Tanner–who married and fathered two children–was so deeply conflicted about his homosexuality that he suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide in 1962. His literary career ran out of steam, and he separated from (but never divorced) his wife. In the early 1970s he quit writing and left New York, winding up back in Chicago, where he worked as–of all things–a butler in the Lake Shore Drive apartment of McDonald’s magnate Ray Kroc and his philanthropist wife Joan. When Tanner developed pancreatic cancer, he returned to his wife, who nursed him till his death in 1976 at the age of 55.
In 2001, Eric Myers published a biography of Dennis, Uncle Mame, which I reviewed in the Reader.